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It's Showtime in Wilmington

Kim Hart

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.

By Kim Hart  |  September 8, 2008; 9:00 AM ET  | Category:  Kim Hart
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Please email us to report offensive comments.

So, Ms. Hart, are you going to be standing on the "beaches" in your rain slicker, braced against the wind, giving us all a "blow-by-blow" description of the carnage and destruction wrought by the change-over?


Posted by: DLD | September 8, 2008 11:51 AM

For those Wilminton residents who DON'T see the light at 12:01 today, Consumer Reports has just upgraded their ratings on some of the available converter boxes at:

While cable and satellite program providers will continue to serve the great majority of homes as the primary signal source, missing HD local reception, compression issues, higher costs, billing add-ons, service outages, contact difficulties, in-home service waits and no shows have left many of these subscribers looking to OTA antennas as a good, alternative and Off-Air viewers happy with their free programming.

But TV reception starts with the right antenna and Off-Air TV is FREE.

Viewers should certainly try their old antenna first. It’s true that any of these older antennas will pick up some signals, maybe all the broadcast signals a viewer wants to receive, depending on their location. If they’re getting all the OTA channels they want, than they’re good to go.

While Antennas can’t tell the difference between analog and digital signals, there are definitely certain models which have higher DTV batting averages than others. Not all antennas are equally suited for DTV. A percentage of viewers will require something a little more tailored for DTV reception.

With one of the newer and smaller OTA antennas, with greatly improved performance, power and aesthetics, viewers may also be able to receive out-of-town channels, carrying blacked out sports programs not available locally, several additional sub-channels or network broadcasts. And for those with an HDTV, almost completely uncompressed HD broadcasts (unlike cable or satellite).

OTA viewers can go to to see quickly what stations are available to them, the distance, and compass heading to help in choosing and aiming their antenna. And if they decide to buy a newer antenna, they should buy it from a source that will completely refund their purchase price, no questions asked, if it doesn’t do the job.

Posted by: antennaguy | September 8, 2008 12:03 PM

Is look like a lot technical difficulties but if the block will work is very welcome.

Posted by: webandrank | September 8, 2008 8:38 PM

****detect and kinks in the process.****

The irony. LOL

Two other good antenna-pointing sites: tvfool dot com and antennaweb dot org.

Posted by: SA | September 8, 2008 11:02 PM

I live in Fairfax, VA, and just switched over to digital TV. Using the online antenna selection tool provided at, I bought an antenna with twice the range I needed, and put it in my attic (mounting an antenna inside an attic reduces its range by half.) Following the aiming instructions on the website, I pointed the antenna at the largest cluster of towers, and ran a cable down to my DTVPal converter box (sold by DirectTV.)

The picture quality is excellent. The DTVPal converter box is a breeze to use, and it includes a 7-day on-screen program guide, a very important feature.

I couldn't be happier with my new setup. I'm a huge fan of public broadcasting. In the old analog days, I could get just three stations, channels 26, 32, and 56. Now each of these stations have multiple sub-channels, plus I get channels 11 and 22 from Baltimore, with their sub-channels. Wonderful!

Posted by: Davide Marney | September 9, 2008 3:38 AM

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