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Go Figure

Sterling Davis approaches an interview like an engineering problem. He pauses to ponder each question, suggests refining the parameters, then forges ahead to an answer in a logical, direct progression.

On the record, at least, he’s not big on intangibles. Ask him if he’s ready to be honored with one of Broadcasting & Cable’s Technology Leadership Awards at NAB 2006, and he chuckles and says, “I guess. I don’t know how to get used to that sort of thing.”

As VP of engineering for Cox Broadcasting, since 1998, he has plenty to think about. He is responsible for the technical aspects of 15 television stations and 79 radio stations. The first priority: the Feb. 17, 2009, analog-to-digital changeover for TV.

“I think, from the broadcaster engineering side, we are making pretty good progress,” Davis says. “There’s a lot of planning and budgeting going on. So I think, from a Cox point of view, we should be ready for the transition.”

Indeed, Cox stations have been broadcasting on digital for some time.

“In the early days of digital transmission,” Davis says, “if a transmitter went down and you were out for three days, nobody noticed or cared. Now that’s changing.”

The changeover, he says, “just means that we have to pay a lot of attention to making sure that we’re on the air 100% of the time—no glitches, no pops and no squeaks. ”

Cox TV President Andy Fisher says Davis “understands that the real test of innovative technology for a television-station company is not whether it’s cool but whether, day in and day out, it can improve the viewer experience and be operated easily.”

Davis is active on the board of directors of the Advanced Television Systems Committee (ATSC) and involed in digital radio standardization with the National Radio Systems Committee (NRSC). He has also chaired the Association for Maximum Service Television (MSTV) Engineering Committee and has a clear idea of what’s going right—and what has yet to be worked out—with the changeover.

“The most surprising thing so far has been the ability to come up with a new channel-assignment plan in most markets as smoothly as it’s gone so far,” said Davis, who worked on the plan through MSTV.

“He moves smoothly across a wide spectrum,” Fisher says. “That is the test: being able to brainstorm the future even as you translate the potentials into real-life language and deeds.”

Of course, there’s still work to be done.

“People who are going to be moving their digital channel onto someone’s analog channel, how is that going to work in zero time?” Davis says. “It’s going to be little bit different in each market, but how that’s going to be addressed from regulatory and legislative points of view—a lot of this stuff is sort of impossible to do.”

Cox has only one market where that’s an issue. KTVU San Francisco broadcasts on channel 2 and in digital on channel 56 until the 2009 deadline. “We’re going to be on neither channel the next morning,” Davis says, adding dryly that working out his station’s new digital home is going to be “very exciting.

“It’s like building a house in a day—and then moving it down the block,” he says.

Davis is also occupied with the 2 gigahertz (GHz) band acquired in Cox’s partnership with Sprint Nextel, as well as moving local stations’ electronic-newsgathering operations from analog to digital by Sept. 30, 2007.

“The deadline’s still there, and nobody’s done anything yet, so it’s going to be a pell-mell, last-minute thing and just throw it all together, it looks like to me,” Davis says. “Then the whole market has to make the transition together on the same day, so that’s going to be a lot of fun.”