Hurricane could delay North Carolina's DTV transition

The first US market to officially cease analog television broadcasting is Wilmington, North Carolina, but an approaching tropical storm could force all local stations to continue use of their analog frequencies for emergency alert.

Though the rest of the country has until February 2009 to cease analog broadcast operations, broadcasters in Wilmington, North Carolina decided they would test their "big switch" on September 8. There is no significance to that date, as WWAY ABC 3 General Manager Andy Combs told us this afternoon. Broadcasters just arbitrarily chose a date because they were all prepared.

It just so happened that they chose a date during hurricane season.

Tropical Storm Hannah, which caused flooding in the Caribbean today, is expected to hit the East Coast of the US as a full-fledged hurricane in roughly three days. Because of this, Wilmington affiliates met with the Federal Communications Commission, the National Association of Broadcasters, and the North Carolina Association of Broadcasters to discuss a contingency plan for the ceremonious disconnection.

The original schedule calls for all local affiliates to cease programming on their analog stations on September 8 and broadcast only in digital. This is not to say they would be fully "switched off" however; their analog signals are to be kept running for 30 days with a sort of "last call" slate displaying information for viewers wanting to receive the digital signal.

For the next few days, however, the inaugural all-digital city is waiting and watching the skies, to decide whether to continue with the plan.

"We can always cancel the test. But we will determine that later - if necessary," Gary McNair, VP and General Manager of WECT NBC 6 told BetaNews this afternoon. Wilmington's affiliates seem to not be at all concerned about the status of the ceremonial disconnect.

Andy Combs of WWAY told us that his station has been broadcasting a digital signal alongside its analog for six years already, and that he's confident in his audience and in his competitors that the transition will be smooth. "We may all be competitors," he said, "but we've got a common goal, [Wilmington stations] came together on this one."

"I'm ready," Combs said candidly, " and if a storm is setting off the coast...I'm still ready."

Pennsylvania is scheduled to perform a similar test switch in mid-November, but will leave analog signals open for 90 days. Information on regional analog shutdowns can be found on dtv.gov.

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