Sunday, September 21, 2008

What Have We Learned From Wilmington?

Things seem to have settled down in Wilmington, and the area's transition to digital-only reception (again, with the exception of the PBS affiliate and one of the two area low-power stations) is being deemed a success by both Multichannel News and TV Week. And it does look as though most of the problems I've been reporting on have been solved, since I'm not seeing anything in the local Wilmington media about people getting together to complain. People who were having problems operating their converters have probably figured them out by now, and the smaller number (estimated by FCC Chairman Kevin Martin at five percent nationwide) who had reception problems are likely looking into better antennas, switching to cable/satellite or doing without a station or two.

But before we breath a sign of relief and go on as though everything is completely on track for the national transition come February, it would be useful to consider again the fact that Wilmington was something of a special case (both in the amount of government/industry handholding provided and in the good-for-reception flatness of the area), and to realize that those problems that did arise there could well be worse in many areas nationwide.

That said, here are four things I think we should remember going forward.

1) If you saturate a market long enough and intensely enough, people do get the message. Very few of the calls that poured into hotlines in Wilmington were from people who hadn't heard about the transition, instead they were from people who had taken the recommended actions but did not get the results they had expected.

2) One-minute tests are useless, and five-minute tests aren't much better. Wilmington's one-minute shutoff on August 19th resulted in zero hotline calls, and the five-minute followup on September 2nd got about 10. The real thing resulted in 1200 calls (over a two-day period) to the FCC alone, and jammed local call centers and TV station switchboards as well. Advance tests are a good idea, but they need to be much longer.

3) People should know that digital is here today. I've seen a number of spots that are worded in such a way that you would think that digital broadcasting would begin on transition day. Spots should point out the benefits of obtaining converters now.

4) This is the hard part - people have to be told that they will need to do more than just plug the new boxes in. Most of the calls that came in were because of things that might seem very simple and obvious to tech-savvy types (such as scanning to locate signals) but were not so obvious to the tech-averse. And as noted before, that's not the only thing people might have to do - many will have to do some fiddling with their existing antennas (shades of the 50s!) and some will actually need to replace said antennas with more advanced (or rooftop) models. Given that many people who depend on over-the-air reception do so for budgetary reasons, this is an unfortunate fact that they need to be made aware of well in advance.

I know that PSAs need to be simple and concise in order to get through to people, but this information has to be in there in some fashion. Perhaps the networks should get together and schedule a national prime-time DTV infomercial a couple of months ahead of time (I'm picking this time because of the approximately six weeks that coupons have been taking to arrive - people will need to know at that point that time is running out).

One more little bit of news to close this story out. One of the on-site bloggers that I had referenced on September 8th DeeNice at the Digital Dynamo site was interviewed on that day by Wilmington ABC affiliate WWAY - here's the video.

I will be keeping my ears open for awhile, just in case some of those who have continuing problems with their reception decide to do something more than simply adapt to the inevitable, though that doesn't seem that likely at the moment. But now it's past the 17th again, so it's time to start work on my next monthly national update, "Five Months and Counting". I'm late starting, but I still expect to get it out by the end of the month. Look for it!

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