The test run in Wilmington, N.C., for a nationwide switch to digital television broadcasts provoked a flurry of calls to local stations Monday and drove some people to subscribe to cable service.
The coastal community of 180,000 households is hosting the only wide-scale test of the transition to digital from analog signals before Feb. 17 of next year, when major stations across the U.S. stop broadcasts in analog to 114.5 million homes with TVs.
Most households have cable or satellite TV services that will ensure they still get a picture. The 9 percent of homes that rely on antennas will need to get digital TVs, subscribe to a pay service or attach a device that converts the digital signal.
"Our phone lines were lit up for an hour straight between noon and 1," said Thomas Postema, general manager of WSFX, the Wilmington affiliate of News Corp.'s Fox network. Callers seemed largely to have bought converter boxes and needed advice on how to connect them.
Beginning at noon, Wilmington's major TV stations' analog broadcasts showed only a message telling people they need to act to receive a signal and directing them to a toll-free number at the FCC.
Local stations and the office of Time Warner Cable Inc. received 81 telephone calls about the transition between noon and 4:50 p.m., according to Eric Townsend, director of the Elon University News Bureau. Connie Book, an associate professor at Elon's School of Communications who is studying the transition, is logging the calls with her students.
Retailer RadioShack Corp. ran a newspaper ad Sunday saying it would help people choose "the right solution" for managing the switch, be it a converter, a digital set or a subscription to Dish Network Corp.'s satellite service. Dish rival DirecTV Group Inc. offered Wilmington residents next-day installation. Time Warner Cable advertised a $7.95-a-month introductory subscription.
"We've seen a nice little lift from people who haven't had cable before," said Kim Cannon, Time Warner's general manager in Wilmington. The switch may have brought in more than 500 new customers, said Melissa Buscher, a Time Warner spokeswoman based in Raleigh, North Carolina.
Broadcasters, federal officials, politicians and civic leaders joined in publicity efforts throughout the five-county resort and farming region in and around Wilmington after the test was announced May 8.
"This switch is the biggest change for television since it went from black and white to color," Federal Communications Commission Chairman Kevin Martin said Monday at a ceremony in Wilmington marking the switch. He said the FCC is "committed to making sure no American in Wilmington or anywhere is left in the dark."
The change to digital was mandated by Congress to raise money by auctioning analog airwaves and to make way for mobile Web devices and better radios for emergency workers.
About 9 percent of U.S. households solely use antennas, Nielsen estimated in July. The National Association of Broadcasters puts the number at 19.6 million.
A poll conducted for the association last month in the Wilmington market found that 23 percent of respondents couldn't name Sept. 8 as the transition date, Shermaze Ingram, a spokeswoman for the NAB, said in an interview. Two-thirds of area households watch TV stations based outside Wilmington whose announcements tout the February date, she said.
Some households using converters have complained that indoor rabbit-ear antennas don't pick up every channel. Others say the digital picture breaks up or the sound drops out. Volstad has suggested that an outside antenna is best.