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Raycom Completes Digital Switch

Raycom Media's 44 stations have all now completed the digital transition, after the station group turned off analog signals in the early morning hours.

"The transition had gone pretty well," says Raycom CTO Dave Folsom. "We've had a couple wrinkles, but nothing serious."

Raycom's initial plan was to cease analog operations at all of its stations by 6 a.m., giving the bulk of Friday to handle calls from viewers. It was also switching channels at 17 stations, including 12 stations that were reverting to their analog VHF assignments.

Only two stations had problems, one of which was unrelated to the DTV transition. WSFA in Montgomery, Ala. had minor damage to its transmitter after a power interruption caused by the local power provider, which kept it off air from 2 a.m., when it was originally scheduled to go dark in order to switch its transmission line from the analog to the digital transmitter, until 7 a.m. this morning.

"It was just a dumb coincidence, it could have happened at any time," says Folsom.

Meanwhile, WLOX in Biloxi, Miss. had a balky DTV transmitter and was off-air for about 90 minutes before it was fixed. That station was still up by the original goal of 6 a.m.

Raycom stations had a "big wave" of viewer calls this morning that died down by mid-morning, says Folsom, who expects them to pick up around 5 p.m. when viewers return from work.

"The stations fall into two buckets," says Folsom. "For the ones that didn't change channels, we had a small amount of activity in terms of phone calls. We got a larger number of phone calls at the 17 stations that did change channels. Although there are some reception questions, they were relatively small. But we had a vast amount of questions about rescanning and how to set up converter boxes. The rescanning question is huge."

Folsom notes that rescanning can be a tough subject to address, as each converter box and TV set handles channel-scanning differently. The procedure can also take up to 15 minutes for some digital TVs.

"Each call is different from box to box, and TV set to TV set," says Folsom.

Folsom has heard some encouraging anecdotes about DTV reception of the stations that have switched from UHF to VHF channels. WSFA in Montgomery, which switched to VHF, has received reports of excellent reception as far away as Ozark, Ala., some 75 miles away. And Folsom got a call from the GM at WBTV in Charlotte who said that a viewer in Kansas City, Mo. emailed him to say that she was now receiving WBTV, even though it's a whopping 1,000 miles away.

Folsom, who hasn't technically vetted that viewer's claims yet, says such freakishly long-distance reception is possible due to unique atmospheric conditions prevalent in the spring and fall. He notes that Raycom staffers in Montgomery have also been able to pick up the signal of WBRC in Birmingham, Ala., which is 100 miles away, though he expects that won't be a long-term situation.

While Folsom is still concerned about VHF reception in steel-framed buildings and says that the rescanning issue needs to be pounded into viewers' heads, he thinks that broadcasters could be in for more pleasant surprises about how well DTV works now that analog signals have gone away.

"You have to remember that you have 1800 TV stations going off-air today, and the noise floor is dropping," says Folsom. "All of the digital receivers in the country have 1800 less TV stations interfering with them. [To put it simply], when the noise floor drops, the ability to receive the signal that is left over is better. So a lot of stations that have been more marginal before now may get better. The density of signals has now dropped by half, and that's significant."