It's Showtime in Wilmington
Wilmington, N.C.-- At high noon today, this town will be the first in the country to permanently switch off decades-old analog TV signals in favor of digital programming.
Wilmington is a guinea pig, making the transition to digital TV nearly five months ahead of schedule so the Federal Communications Commission can detect and kinks in the process. I've been in town since Thursday night -- talking to residents and commercial TV station officials making the switch -- and it seems today's experiment should go fairly smoothly.
After all, FCC staffers have been in the area for the past four months to assist stations with any technical difficulties. They've visited blueberry festivals, small-town coffee shops and farmers markets to make sure everyone gets the message that the local TV landscape is about to change forever.
Some locals may not have completely understood. I stopped by a Circuit City last night and asked if there had been a rush on converter boxes on the day before "The Big Switch," as local stations here have called it. Assistant manager Justin Wojtowicz said it was actually pretty quiet on Sunday, after a busy week. "They've been flying off the shelves pretty much all week, but we probably only sold four or five today," he said.
Does he expect sales to pick up when the procrastinators realize their TV screens are dark at 12:01 p.m. today? "I think we'll see some people when they start to panic," he said.
It's actually tough to find people here who will be affected by the switch: 93 percent of households here subscribe to cable or TV service. A dozen calls to local nursing homes and retirement communities revealed that even those who typically rely most on over-the-air signals -- senior citizens -- have nothing to worry about.
I drove through a small neighborhood off the main drag in town and saw some folks standing on a front porch. I apologized for asking such a random question, but will their TV reception be affected come noon today?
"Well that's what I'm trying to find out," said Dollie McMillan. "I don't really know."
I pulled over, prepared to assess her TV situation to clear up the confusion. But her porch companion beat me to it.
"You have cable, don't you?" asked Eddie Nixon. "You don't have to worry about a thing."
Eddie's got it all figured out: if you have cable or satellite service, the digital switch won't affect you. If you have a digital TV, you're in the clear. But if you have an old TV with rabbit ear antennas or use a rooftop antenna to grab TV signals, you need one of those "converter box things."
Eddie has satellite service, so he doesn't have to worry. But he was confused at first, and bought two converter boxes anyway, just to be safe. After all, with a government-subsidized coupon, they only cost him $12 each at Sam's Club.
So, now that he knows he doesn't need them, will he return them?
"For 12 bucks? At Sam's Club? That's not worth it," he said. He is planning to give them to his elderly neighbor, who probably hasn't yet realized she needs one.
What Eddie's most interested in seeing is all the "suits" from Washington descend on tiny Wilmington -- known for being the quaint setting for "Dawson's Creek" and a number of other TV shows and movies -- to witness the stations pull the analog plug.
"It ought to be kinda funny," he said.
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