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All-digital TV arrives on Tuesday

Television stations have been installing equipment and reworking towers and translators for nearly a decade in anticipation of the leap into digital broadcasting.

For much of the past two years, Rogue Valley broadcasters have spread the word in every feasible way that change is coming. Viewers relying on over-the-air broadcasts will need a converter box in order to receive signals starting Tuesday when the majority of Medford's television stations flip the switch. Stations making the switch have been bombarding viewers with on-screen reminders.

"Now the hammering gets worse," said Brad Fay, director of content services at Southern Oregon Public Television. "The FCC required stations filing to switch early to run a crawl (across the screen) five minutes an hour. It's just annoying."

"We had a beautiful show on Abraham Lincoln (Thursday night) and a woman called a minute ago to say how distracting it is. We've been getting a lot of calls about it and I'm surprised there haven't been more."

He said the FCC requires the crawler frequency to increase to 10 minutes an hour on Sunday and Monday.

Even though President Barack Obama signed into law a bill delaying the mandated change-over date until June 12, most full-power stations in Southern Oregon will stay the course and switch to digital Tuesday. According to a Federal Communications Commission Web site, Medford stations KDRV (ABC), KMVU (FOX), KOBI (NBC), KSYS (PBS), along with KBLN (3 Angels) in Grants Pass, KDKF (ABC) and KOTI (NBC) in Klamath Falls will convert to digital. KTVL (CBS) and KFTS (PBS) will maintain their analog signals until June 12.

"Going to color was a pretty significant advancement, but the old black sets continued to function," said Roger Harris, controller and vice president of cable operations at California Oregon Broadcasting Inc. in Medford. "In order for older sets to function now, they'll need an external tuner; that in itself is different."

Given the somewhat revolutionary phase, the industry spared no expense in getting the word out.

"We've been educating people well over 14 months, aggressively encouraging them to get prepared," Harris said. "DTV Answers (an FCC outreach) was tremendous, we've down town halls, library meetings, adult continuing education and hosted community meetings."

As hard as it is to believe, there are still procrastinators and electronic hermits who haven't got the message.

"I think everybody knows, I just don't think everybody is prepared for whatever reason," Harris said.

COBI gathered both its corporate and local engineering staff last Thursday and asked viewers in its 55,000-square-mile footprint to call in with questions between 5 p.m. and 7 p.m.

"We got 150 calls in two hours," said Karl Sargent, engineering chief at California Oregon Broadcasting Inc. "We've been getting 120 calls a week about it. The common thread was people wanted to know where they get the box and how to order coupons, which is surprising to me since we've been advertising how to get the box for over a year."

Other viewers had their boxes, but weren't sure where to pick up the digital signals.

With KTVL not making the switch and a handful of low-power channels not having to make the digital change for at least two more years, there will still be a few analog viewing options locally after Tuesday.

Also, because of mountainous terrain in the region that is hard to reach in winter, some of the translators will continue to send analog signals. For example, KOBI's UHF Channel 32 on Mt. Baldy will be available for some time.

"Because of the terrain, it will involve almost case-by-case research," Harris said.

The Feb. 17 date was set because it was squarely between Super Bowl Sunday and March Madness, two of television's advertising bonanzas.

"What the FCC failed to take into consideration was that a lot of stations have their equipment on top of snowy mountains," Fay said. "The Redding station made its digital switch last August because they can't even get to their tower in winter."

The FCC claims there are 167,340 television-viewing households in the Medford-Klamath Falls direct marketing area. Nearly 90 percent of those households receive their TV signals via cable or satellite. Of the less than 11 percent who pick up their signals with rabbit ears, the FCC in early January said one in six had taken steps to get a digital converter box.

"So you're talking 10,000 households in those six counties and the number is dwindling every day," Fay said.

Nonetheless, a few thousand procrastinators can still create a phone jam or two.

"There will be a last-minute scramble that will develop precipitously," Fay said. "I've been telling my crew not to worry, because it's a shared burden. The first people to notice will be about 4 o'clock — about Oprah time. Then it will start building because people going to commercial stations to watch local or national news will find snow."

Reach reporter Greg Stiles at 776-4463 or e-mail business@mailtribune.com.