With a show of hands, all but a few public TV station chiefs attending an APTS Capitol Hill Day meeting Feb. 24  said the lobbying group should keep developing its “digital-only broadcasting,” or DOB, strategy. [APTS went public with the plan in a press release March 18.]
Instead of continuing to use analog TV channels for the next decade or more, the strategy goes, public TV would make a concerted effort to speed viewers’ move to digital over-the-air broadcasting, cable or satellite reception. The government, pleased to earn billions from early auctions of the channels, would give public TV special assistance in exchange.
Public TV would not only save transmitter power bills but could also win mandated cable carriage and an endowed trust fund from Congress, APTS President John Lawson told station execs.
“If we’re ever going to play the spectrum card, we have to start playing it now,” he said. “We’ve never had an asset like this to put on the table.” Public TV has temporary leverage over 21 percent of TV spectrum, he said. Its reward would come from giving up the channels ahead of schedule.
Getting to DOB would take years, with many hurdles, amounting to an unprecedented test of public TV’s cohesion and confidence in its leadership. At the same time, APTS is asking PBS to require member stations to help support the lobbying group.
APTS leaders say about 20 percent of public TV stations are riding free on the association’s lobbying work. They estimate APTS could gain $525,000 a year in new payments from stations that are not now members, expanding its budget by about 13 percent. (APTS downsized an earlier estimate of $650,000 new revenue, according to Chief Operating Officer Mark Erstling.)
The bid for dues-linkage amounts to a referendum on station support for APTS and the increasingly assertive strategies developed by Lawson in his three years as its head.
APTS was basking in a recent success of Lawson’s multi-pot strategy for federal aid to DTV conversion: Just days before Capitol Hill Day, the U.S. Department of Agriculture announced $15 million in conversion aid to 16 rural public TV licensees.
With help from the strategy, total federal aid to pubcasting has grown by nearly a quarter, from $430 million in fiscal 2001 to $530 million in fiscal 2004, Lawson said.
But Lawson also has been shot down on occasion, notably last year when many stations rejected an APTS proposal that citizen supporters of public TV create a political action committee to gain access to legislators by making campaign donations.
“No regrets, no apologies,” Lawson said during the APTS meetings, referring to the PAC idea.
Dennis Haarsager of KWSU in Pullman, Wash., was one of the few station reps to question the DOB strategy in the meetings [Haarsager’s commentary in Current, Feb. 23, 2004].
But most of his counterparts want APTS to pursue the DOB idea. In an online consultation last month, APTS said 7 percent of station reps were sold on the plan; 42 percent said it “makes a lot of sense”; and 43 percent were still not convinced but wanted APTS to develop the plan. Just 8 percent predicted it wouldn’t work.
Lawson said public TV would “leave no viewer behind” with a useless analog TV set. “Let me assure you, we’re not turning off grandma’s TV,” he said. “We need to help grandma go digital. Public TV would need to have mandated cable carriage for its channels. It would also work with other broadcasters to promote packages of new over-the-air TV channels and make sure over-the-air viewers have affordable or free set-top DTV receivers.
While APTS considers an early end to analog TV, it has begun negotiations with the National Cable & Telecommunications Association to expand another means of home delivery–cable carriage for public TV’s digital channels.
Lawson said he began talking with NCTA President Robert Sachs last summer about the post-conversion world. With no must-carry law to force carriage of DTV signals, cable operators are resisting carriage of smaller public TV stations with duplicative programming in multistation markets and are even taking a hard line against channels that air the same programs at different hours, Lawson told Current.
Cable operators are also unwilling to promise carriage of some digital multicasting channels–a key part of some stations’ digital strategy.
Lawson is encouraged that stations may be willing to cut back on duplicated programming. “The response from stations has really challenged some of the old assumptions that have paralyzed cable negotiations in the past,” he said. However, overlapping stations tell APTS that they would need exemptions for children’s and educational programs they are obligated to carry.
A deal with NCTA is not imminent, Lawson said. “No deal is better than a bad deal.”
In the meantime, APTS is asking the FCC to intervene with must-carry rules, and PBS is negotiating with individual cable companies.
Cox Communications, the fourth-largest system owner, is the most promising prospect among cable companies now in talks, said Jennifer Browning, PBS’s senior director, digital cable and DBS strategies. Most cable operators are interested in high-definition programming and not in multicasting, she told Current. PBS is also talking with Adelphia, Charter and CableOne, she said.
The question of linking APTS support with PBS membership is in the hands of a PBS Board task force deputized to examine the proposal. Task force chairman John Swope and other task force members declined to assess reactions to the proposal. The panel has requested additional information for a meeting later this month.
APTS has heard few, if any, objections to the dues-linkage plan, said Erstling. Even the head of the largest holdout, Al Jerome of KCET, says he supports the idea of linking PBS and APTS membership and once proposed a similar setup. It would solve the problem of stations “not paying their fair share,” Jerome said. KCET had financial reasons for not being an APTS member, he said.
Lawson and Nashville pubcaster Steve Bass, then chairman of APTS, laid out the proposal to the PBS Board’s Member Services Committee in January. APTS proposed that PBS require its member stations to be dues-paying APTS members or pay a surcharge equal to APTS dues, which would go toward APTS. PBS and APTS would remain separate, but the PBS Board would appoint two new members to the APTS Board.
Thirty-four stations, mostly in medium-size and small cities, are not APTS members. Nine are in California — including KCET in Los Angeles — and five in Texas [listed at right, above].
The proposal to link APTS and PBS membership “is conceptually not that different from what NPR does,” Lawson said. NPR provides both programs and lobbying services to its member stations. Radio stations get preferential access to NPR programs — first right of refusal in a market — if they pay membership dues, which help support NPR’s government relations efforts.
Because all public TV stations benefit from APTS’s lobbying but not all pay dues, APTS ends up wasting time on a game called “Tax me if you can,” said Bass, who campaigned for dues linkage as he ended his term as APTS chairman last month. Because stations will have a little extra money on hand now that CPB is discontinuing its TV Future Fund, he noted, “if ever there’s a time to do this, now’s the time,” Bass said.
Like the stations, APTS has been losing ground financially in the slow economy, Erstling said. Its dues-paying membership is down from a peak of 152 licensees to about 140, and its staff is down from a peak of 24 to 16 full-time and two part-time.
Originally published in Current, March 22, 2004
The Association of Public Television Stations went public with its digital-only strategy last week, inviting other interests to join a coalition to bring it about.
APTS put out its release just before the annual convention of the Cellular Telecommunications & Internet Association. APTS said it’s considering a concerted effort to relinquish analog channels, moving to digital channels and cable earlier than expected and freeing up almost 80 MHz of premium-quality spectrum for cell phone and public-safety uses. In exchange, APTS would ask Congress to support a trust fund that would supplement CPB aid to public TV.
The government could sell that freed-up TV spectrum at a high price. APTS President John Lawson noted that two cell phone companies are valuing a 10 MHz chunk of spectrum at $3.5 billion to $7.2 billion.
APTS posted the release and a media briefing paper at www.apts.org/html/pressroom/pressroom.html.
Copyright 2004 American University