Despite storms, FCC says Wilmington DTV switch still on for Sept 8

Sept 5 UPDATE: Federal Communications Commission officials will decide no later than 2 p.m. ET Sunday whether to postpone the early digital television market transition test planned for Monday in Wilmington, N.C.

by John Eggerton, Broadcasting & Cable

At press time, a Federal Communications Commission spokesman said the FCC still expects the Wilmington, N.C., early analog plug-pull to go off as planned Monday, Sept. 8.

Commission staffers have been monitoring the forecasts for tropical storms Hanna and Josephine and Hurricane Ike, all of which are in the Atlantic.

Hanna is projected to possibly hit on or near Wilmington Friday night or Saturday morning.

But while the green light for Wilmington was on Thursday night, the FCC could still decide to postpone the switch. Chairman Kevin Martin would make the call, the spokesman said, in coordination with broadcasters and public-safety officials.

Five stations in the Wilmington market agreed to pull the plug on analog early to help the FCC gauge the impact of the wider analog turnoff in February 2009.


At press time, the Federal Communications Commission was making tentative plans for a symbolic Wilmington, N.C., switch-throwing event -- by native North Carolinian and FCC chairman Kevin Martin.

But it was also keeping a weather-eye out for tropical storm Hanna and hurricanes Ike and Josephine lined up in the Atlantic. That’s in case the early analog cutoff by Wilmington TV stations scheduled for Sept. 8 has to be postponed.

Wilmington is located in New Hanover County and, according to an e-mail from the county's public information officer, New Hanover's emergency-management director was scheduled to hold a briefing at 2 p.m. Thursday to "ask local officials to consider protective actions" regarding Hanna. Wilmington was put under a hurricane watch as of 8 a.m. Thursday.

Five TV stations in Wilmington, including the Big Four affiliates, are switching to DTV-only broadcasting early to help the FCC gauge the impact of the national switch to digital Feb. 17, 2009.

Hanna is now a tropical storm, and it is expected to top out at a category-1 hurricane (currently 65-mile-per-hour winds, according to the National Hurricane Center), with Wilmington in the target area of predicted landfall.

But if the storm passed through Saturday at its current projected strength, the analog-cutoff might not necessarily be postponed, according to a general manager of one of the stations making the switch.

But the FCC is also monitoring Hurricane Ike, a dangerous category-4 hurricane (140-mph winds) that could also threaten the East Coast by the middle of next week. With folks having to make plans for the Monday event, a call on whether to delay the Sept. 8 switch could come as soon as Thursday.

The National Hurricane Center said it was not clear where Ike was heading but called it an extremely dangerous storm. Broadcasters will not pull the plug on analog if lives are at risk, Gary McNair, GM of WECT-TV Wilmington, told B&C Wednesday.

As of press time, the tentative plans, according to FCC spokesman Clyde Ensslin, were to have Martin throw the symbolic "switch" at noon Monday during an event at the Thalian Hall Center for the Performing Arts in Wilmington. Martin told B&C he hoped to be able to throw that switch.

Also expected to be in attendance were FCC Commissioner Michael Copps; NTIA Acting Assistant Secretary Meredith Baker (NTIA oversees DTV converter box program); Wilmington Mayor Bill Saffo, NAB President David Rehr, and WECT TV VP and GM Gary McNair.

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