Digital TV Switchover Begins Monday in Wilmington, N.C.

With the flick of an eight-foot switch at midday Monday, this Southern city became the first market in the U.S. to make the change to digital-only broadcasting.

The switch wasn't really connected to anything, but it did serve as a centerpiece for a downtown ceremony at 12 noon EDT marking the moment that commercial broadcasters voluntarily turned off their old-fashioned, inefficient analog signals.

Wilmington volunteered to be a canary in a digital coal mine — a test market for the national conversion to digital broadcasting.

The rest of the nation's full-power television stations won't be converting until Feb. 17, 2009, a date set by Congress.

"This switch is the biggest change in television since it went from black and white to color back in the 1950s," Federal Communications Commission Chairman Kevin Martin told the ceremony at historic Thalian Hall in downtown Wilmington.

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Wilmington, tucked between the Cape Fear River and the Atlantic Ocean, is the 135th largest television market in the U.S. with about 180,000 television households, according to The Nielsen Co.

In February, Nielsen estimated there were more than 13 million households in the U.S. with television sets that can only receive analog broadcasts. Only about 8 percent of households in Wilmington are in that category, fewer than the national average.

Viewers who receive programming through an antenna and do not own newer-model digital TV sets by the time of the changeover must buy a converter box.

The government is providing two $40 coupons per household to help defray the cost. Viewers who subscribe to a cable or satellite service won't be affected.

The National Telecommunications and Information Administration oversees the government coupon program.

Acting agency chief Meredith Baker said Monday that more than 69,000 coupons have been requested from more than 37,500 households in the Wilmington market with about 47 percent coming from homes that rely on over-the-air broadcasts.

More than 28,000 coupons have been redeemed to date, she said.

Wilmington has been barraged with public service advertising about the change.

"In a normal hour of television, you could see 12 commercials," said Larry Pakowski, who was working in a Wilmington Radio Shack store Sunday night.

Sales of the store's $59.99 converter boxes have been brisk, he said.

"I can't give you a specific number, but I can tell you traffic has been pretty steady," he said.

Following the ceremony, questions immediately turned to what will constitute a successful test.

Viewers who are not equipped to receive digital signals will see a screen crawl, informing them of the fact. The crawl includes a toll-free number. The volume of calls may be an early indicator.

But maybe not, Martin said.

"If nobody calls, it doesn't mean there wasn't a problem," he said. "And if a thousand people call it doesn't mean this wasn't a success. Because success is ultimately going to be measured by what we've learned and can put in place to do next February."

Commissioner Michael Copps, who came up with the idea to do a test run, praised Wilmington for volunteering, but said he wished other communities with different kinds of terrain and population patterns had "stepped up to the plate."

All four of the city's network affiliates as well as the Trinity Broadcasting Network have gone digital only. The local public television station is broadcasting both a digital and analog signal.

Monday's ceremony was attended by broadcasters and Wilmington Mayor Bill Saffo.

The reason for the change is efficiency. Digital signals use up a smaller portion of the publicly owned airwaves, freeing up more space for commercial and public safety uses. A recent auction of the television airwaves raised more than $19 billion for the U.S Treasury.

Given the amount of publicity, the flatness of the terrain, the high number of coupon requests and the relatively low number of viewers who rely on over-the-air broadcasting, the Wilmington test is unlikely to signify the start of any train wreck.

But that still may not relieve the anxiety among members of Congress, who will be on the receiving end of their constituents wrath if things go wrong in February.

But there may be still be some reason for worry, even here.

At a Wal-Mart Supercenter the night before the changeover, in the electronics department, a clock counted down the hours until the changeover.

Beside it hung this sign: "Attention customers. We are out of converter boxes at this time until further notice. Sorry for the inconvenience."