Elon team documents historical television transition

A team of students led by communications professor Connie Book traveled to Wilmington, N.C., on Sept. 8 to document what happened when the first American media market made the historic switch from analog to digital television.


School of Communications Associate Dean Connie Book is interviewed by an NPR reporter.
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Students were situated at the different network affiliates, where they spent 10 hours helping local television stations respond to callers after the noon conversion. They were the only people documenting the switch in town, and they compiled demographic information from about 170 local consumers.

“This afternoon I answered a lot of calls and was able to help a fair number of people in the Wilmington area,” senior Olivia Hubert-Allen said. “It felt really good to give people their television back. It seems silly, but it is just so meaningful for some people who have television.”

A majority of the callers complained about weak signals and simply needed to reprogram or adjust their converter boxes or digital television receivers. Others discovered that they needed to get a new antenna to receive certain stations’ signals. But almost all knew about the transition and were prepared for it.

“The good news in these calls is that people were aware of the transition,” said Book, the associate dean of the School of Communications. “TV stations need to be prepared as they make the switch for calls like these where viewers need someone to walk them through the correct installation steps for their converter boxes and tuning to a digital frequency.”

Student Britt Clark speaks with a Time-Warner Cable call center representative.

There are about 180,000 TV households in Wilmington, the nation’s 135th largest TV market. The rest of the country will make the conversion to digital television on Feb. 17, 2009.

The 11 students attended a news conference in the historic Thalian Hall in downtown Wilmington, where the chairman of the Federal Communications Commission,  network executives and other industry leaders had gathered for the transition. At noon, officials threw a symbolic 8-foot “switch” that occupied the room, a moment captured by dozens of media outlets including networks from Japan.

The transition was dubbed the biggest change in broadcast technology since the introduction of color television programming.

“The information we took away is going to predict what’s going to happen in the rest of the country,” senior Lauren Limerick said. “If we can offer this information as a guide to other community leaders, then they can have a better idea of how to prepare.

“I think we all understand the magnitude of it and we’re honored to take part in something so historic, but I think many people overlooked the sheer magnitude of this historic event. People are going to look back in February to Wilmington, and Elon is going to be the one providing the information.”

The students’ work was covered by several national media outlets, including the Associated Press, the Washington Post, NPR and Bloomberg News. For more information about the coverage, visit http://www.wilmingtondtvtest.wordpress.com.

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