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Local TV stations make the switch to digital age

Rick Carrara uncoupled a 3-inch, wire-filled pipe hooked to a King Mountain antenna, reconnected it to a digital receptacle and flipped the switch.

In the space of three minutes Tuesday, Carrara culminated 10 years worth of work to send KDRV television — and its over-the-air viewers — into the digital age. The hardest part of the day for Carrara, as it turned out, was coaxing an obstinate Sno-Cat up the mountain, adding an hour to what should have been a two-hour trip.

With the exception of CBS affiliate KTVL, Medford's major network stations joined hundreds of stations across the country and turned off their primary analog signals Tuesday.

"If you do the lead-up work right, the actual switch is smooth," Carrara said. "I was pleased to hear the response from the guys on the coast that everything was working."

The local stations were among 421 stations the FCC said were terminating their analog signals Tuesday. Another 220 stations previously shut off their analog signals, pushing the total to 641 stations — or 36 percent of the country — by the original date.

Some local stations have beamed digital signals for years. KDRV began sending digital signals in October 2002, but it wasn't until 2006 that the Federal Communications Commission required high-power stations to produce those signals. A decade ago, the FCC set Feb. 17 as the changeover date for all high-power stations, meaning anyone without cable and satellite connections, a digital tuner or a digital converter box was headed for viewer oblivion.

Congress put the brakes on the changeover at the 11th hour, pushing the date back to June 12, but many stations said they were prepared to make the move and pushed ahead.

KTVL said it would wait until the June date to make its change.

KDRV General Manager Renard Maiuri said his staff was prepared for an onslaught of complaints. Late in the afternoon the telephone lines were relatively quiet, but by the time network news started, the calls were pouring in.

"We do our best to explain what's happening, find out the problem and send them to the best place available for help," KDRV receptionist DeeDee Rhodes said.

Difficulty in scanning channels into the digital converter was a common complaint, Maiuri said. "If they're behind a mountain, they may have to search more for a signal."

Next to the big screen monitor in the KDRV lobby, an older Hitachi set with rabbit ears was hooked up to a digital converter box so that station employees could check the reception for themselves.

"When you are watching an analog signal if it grows weaker, you start see a ghostly image or snow," said creative services director Geoffrey Riley. "If the digital signal falls off, it's gone — boom."

Although KDRV's broadcast footprint remains the same, Carrara said the stronger digital signal boosted the number of households that could receive an over-the-air signal to 345,000 from 315,000 in Southern Oregon and Northern California.

While roughly 90 percent of the area's households receive their television via cable and satellite dishes, there were plenty of viewers trying to find the new signal locations.

At NBC affiliate KOBI, General Manager Bob Wise said the most common problem for viewers occurred during scanning, in which the converters are run through a process to lock in on the available stations.

"We've been pretty busy, actually," Wise said. "We've had phone calls primarily from people confirming how to set up their box. It's a new environment; once people get used to it they will find it's very simple. We're committed to working with them through the process."

For viewers needing help, the DTV help line is 1-888-225-5322. The FCC has a DTV reception map at http://www.dtv.gov/fixreception.html to help viewers figure out what kind of reception they should expect.

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