I'm no expert on all this, my info is more anecdotal or what I've managed to data on, it certainly isn't lab tested...so take it all with a grain of salt.
As for Windows Media Center I have tried to use it with a tuner dongle but never had much success. I may revisit it with a better USB tuner later on. It would be very handy in positioning antennas!!!
The ideal thing would be for all the stations to located on one big hill "somewhere"that would make to much sense to idiots designing citys, such as was done in one place in California (can't remember the city)..
Well, to give them some credit, the transmitters need to be located on some of the highest ground in there listening area. There are companies today that search out landowners who have the higher elevation property in an area they wish to install cellphone towers (and other digital towers). Inside the perimeter of Montgomery not so many hills like that, I don't think. Up towards Wetumpka you get into some hills though. I know that WMCF is over (I think) in close proximity to the Shakespeare Theater but that doesn't seem like much higher ground and it is not a tall antenna...I feel that they had limited funding and had to take a lower tower and put it in an area that would reach the highest population. Interestingly for WMCF the population of Montgomery has grown and expanded in their direction.
WSFA used to be on Mount Carmel, a tall hill several miles NNE of Highland Home. In the 70's WSFA built the "Tall Tower" in Ramer and the transmitter was moved there...basically NE of Highland Home. Those two locations are some of the taller spots around. I figure they were taking into consideration what they calculating as being the distances they could transmit and the populations/areas they could service...higher is (with a few exceptions) always better. I haven't studied WAKA's tower, but I would imagine they sought high-ground, also. So, a city wants level ground but a transmitting station is better on ground higher than the surrounding area...LOS (Line of Sight) is what they depend on, anything moving into the 1-Edge, 2-Edge, or beyond reception I would consider gravy for their business.
Your Spectrum splitter should work ok...I think.
Like I mentioned, I wouldn't have any un-used ports on it. I'd give it a shot and if it doesn't work or doesn't seem to work well then pick up one of the splitters that is not "Power Pass" or "DC Pass". You might want to pick up one of the splitters from Lowes to have with you while you're working on your antennas...you would have it to swap out with the Spectrum and if it performs significantly better then leave it in place...if the Spectrum works just as well then return the new one to Lowes. That way you won't be sitting there while your working on it saying "I wonder if I need to try a different splitter....".
Amplifying... Just remember that if you get a good signal at the antenna feedpoint then a poor signal or lack of signal at your television is on you due to bad connections, losses due to connectors and cable lengths, etc.,. So, to over come some of those barriers you would won't the amplifier closest to the feedpoint so that you amplify the best signal possible...not the poor one at the other end of the coax cable. Sometimes just the act of unscrewing and re-screwing connectors can make an improvement...it freshens the connection up a bit if you have some oxidation or corrosion causing problems.
Btw, in case you get interested in a pre-amp here is a link that gives a lot of information on how they work...explains things better than me.<grin> In my opinion, it's good to know how something works before plucking money down for it. Denny's Pre-Amp Info
Using your laptop at the antenna will be a great diagnostic tool for you! How many televisions do you feed a signal to?
I hear you on finding good help. I've own a 2003 Jeep Wrangler. Bought it new on my birthday in December of 2002. I've had a mechanic put a wrench to it only two times over the past 17 years. The first time to replace the brake pads on the front. I attempted to swap them but didn't have a clamp to open the piston up with so the disc would clear the caliper. I got the jeep back, drove it home and smoke was boiling from the right-front hub!!! Naturally I got the "this happens sometimes" story. What really happened is they didn't use a clamp and simply pried on the piston and scarred the cylinder in the caliper. I had to buy a new caliper, blah, blah, blah. Not happy. The second time I let a mechanic work on it was to replace the sparkplugs. My A/C started working sporadically. I figured it was a vacuum line and after hunting and hunting someone I found the crack in the small line. It was easier to move it out of the way of the plugs than to work beside it, I guess, and when they bent it out of the way it cracked. A half-penny's worth of electrical tape wrapped around the crack fixed it. Yeah, good help's hard to find, it seems. The bad thing is trying to find *anybody* to do a job. Ah well, my jeep rant's over....
The diagonal orientation of your bowtie probably doesn't make much difference. By time the signal gets to you it's probably bounced around a good bit and may not be oriented in the way it left the transmitter's antenna. The actual direction it is pointed is important, though. That doesn't necessarily mean that's it on a direct bearing to the transmitting station but that it's aimed in the direction that gets you the best signal. That direction could be not the one you figure it is due to a reflected signal or ???. I always recommend for someone to "fish" for a signal. Move the antenna around, to the left and right, back and forth, up and down. Sometimes only a few feet one way or the other can make a big difference. With your laptop you might want to use a longer piece of coax cable to "fish" with...set your laptop down and watch the signal strength as you move it around in the attic. Find the sweet spot.
If you don't have a reflector on one side of your bowties then it is bi-directional, receiving equally from the front and back. A metal screen, array of bars, etc., on one side will all but kill reception from that direction and slightly enhance reception from the un-screened direction by reducing backside interference. There's pros and cons to having a screen and not having a screen. Being able to actually receive good signals from both directions is a good thing. But, if you have a main station (or stations) that you want to receive and there's a pesky, non-desired station from the opposite direction then a screen will help block the pesky station from creating interference for the desired ones. Pre-built/consumer bowtie antennas pretty much all come with a screen which makes them directional antennas, but people who have stations in opposite directions often remove the screens to create a bi-directional antenna.
Channel Master and Antennas Direct both build pretty good 8-bays. I'm using an Antennas Direct DB8e...it's a nice antenna, but can be pricey...shop around. I actually found mine on Craigslist...actually made the transaction in the parking lot of the Shakespeare Theater.<grin> The old model of the Channel Master was a mainstay in OTA reception for years. They changes it a few years ago and I don't think it has as robust of a build as it once had. Having said that, since you will be installing in an attic you don't need to be very worried about an antenna surviving the elements (wind, rain, sun, etc)...just the attic heat.
I just looked and it looks like the 8-bay Channel Master is running around $140(?). The Antennas Direct DB8e is running around $120(?). Looking on eBay I see some generic 8-bays for around $75. I have no idea of the quality of the eBay antennas but being as your location is a protected one you don't have to worry about it withstanding a storm or whatever. But, you do want it to go together without much hassle and not break while assembling. I'm not sure what to recommend on that. Depends on how much money you intend to invest. The CM or AD will be there from now on...I personally would go for the AD if choosing between those two. Also, due to the repack some manufacturers are modifying there models to more closely be designed for the new frequency range.
One thing you will be needing is something that works for VHF. WSFA is already in hi-VHF range...some UHF antennas can handle that "ok". But, WSFA will be dropping even lower in frequency to channel 8. This will make it harder to receive it on a UHF-designed antenna. The VHF-Kit that I linked to is pretty good, I use it now for my WSFA reception, though I think I may be a tad closer to the tower than you. It is a basic dipole antenna, which can be built fairly easily. Being in an attic you could build a simple one out of wire, but I would recommend thicker elements...maybe even elements from an old discarded tv antenna. The thicker the element the more "bandwidth" it will have (good thing). The nice thing about the VHF-Kit is that it has an antenna combiner built into it...that is rather handy.
Theoretically, the bowtie antenna should be mounted with the bowties horizontal so that the radio signal "wave" hits them properly. But, distance and obstacles, especially in an urban setting can cause the signal to get distorted. Objects within the attic affect reception, too. Again, "fishing" for the best signal is worthwhile but I hadn't thought about bowtie horizontal/vertical orientation. You might find the best signal spot for the antenna with the bowties horizontal and then try moving it from the horizontal to the vertical and see how your signal meter responds. Looking back at your question...just to clarify, I would mount the antenna perpendicular to the ground...a slight tilt up or down may help a tad. But, I would not have it parallel with the ground.
Channel 8/WAKA, has been and, from what I can tell, will always be in the UHF band. It dropped from digital channel 42 to 25.
Try 20/WCOV again. I managed to get it last night, though weakly. It is in your backyard so you should be able to get it easily, even at it's reduced power. My Tivo is showing some conflicting channels right now between 22/WBMM and 20/WCOV. I'm not sure how Tivo is going to work that out but I do feel that that issue is a Tivo-issue, not WCOV or WBMM. But, I could be wrong.<g>
Hang in there, the repack wasn't expected to go too smoothly...and that thought was correct.