PBS Digital Future Initiative

Panel gets more specific about new services

By Jeremy Egner

James Barksdale

Barksdale speaks at meeting of the Digital Future Initiative, which he co-chaired.

A well-connected panel of business leaders, broadcasters and policy wonks last week got specific about what public broadcasting could do in the future to use its digital signals for the greatest public benefit — and to justify the increased funding that would make it possible.

The Digital Future Initiative panel, convened by PBS President Pat Mitchell a year ago, released its report Dec. 15 [2005], presenting the findings at a Washington summit for invited reps from foundations and other VIPs. The panel seeks support for its own second phase of studies as well as for major expansions of what pubcasting already does.

“If we can get a proposal that our community of producers, stations and all of us buy into—that defines at least part of the way we go into this digital future, and how to fund it …,” Mitchell told Current in February, “I believe we can change the future of this enterprise once and for all.”

Hundt, co-chair of the Digital Future Initiative, speaks at its December 2004 meeting. (Photo: Current.)

Co-chaired by Democratic former FCC Chairman Reed Hundt and Republican James Barksdale, a former Netscape Communications president and literacy advocate, the panel [listed on this page] has spent much of the past year consulting with members of Congress as well as station reps and others in public broadcasting.

The resulting 125-page report most strongly emphasizes expanded services in early childhood education. When the panel first met last year, Barksdale and Hundt wrote in their foreword to the report, “we quickly decided that tackling the nation’s literacy and learning crisis should remain the single most important mission for public service media.”

The panel also proposes interactive multimedia initiatives focusing on special-needs education and workforce training; national and regional public affairs; health and wellness issues; and emergency preparedness.

It suggests a national Public Service Web Engine be created that would form a cyber-backbone connecting the various new initiatives as well as the vast digital archives of pubcaster content available on demand.

While the specific program initiatives outlined are designed primarily for public TV, public radio should play at least a supplementary role, according to the panel. For example, the expanded digital public affairs programming should include blocks of equivalent radio content on NPR and its member stations, the report says.

The MacArthur Foundation paid for the first phase of the DFI project with a $118,000 grant to PBS last year, and the Ford Foundation funded last week’s summit as part of the project’s second phase.

As for the big question — who’s going to pay for all this? — the panel defers to further studies: “We call for an active Phase Two by leaders from the local stations, PBS, National Public Radio and third parties to develop detailed programs, budgets and accountability metrics that implement these recommendations,” the report says.

Over the next six months, panel working groups will develop specific plans for putting DFI recommendations into action, says project director Michael Calabrese, v.p. at the New America Foundation, a progressive think tank.

It remains to be seen, however, if the DFI will have a lasting impact or if it will go the way of many pubcasting proposals before it and become “shelfware.”

That term was coined by Dennis Haarsager, g.m. of KWSU/KTNW-TV and Northwest Public Radio. Pubcasters “have a history of doing reports and forgetting about them. I’ve written a few of those myself,” he says.

Due to the pedigree of the report’s panelists, “the DFI might have a better than 50-50 chance of being more productive than past reports,” he adds. “I hope it is and will do everything I can to make it successful.”

Haarsager consulted with the panel about on-demand services built into its proposed web engine, which would resemble the Open Media Network [Current, May 2005 article] developed by Silicon Valley philanthropist Mike Homer and an ad hoc group of pubcasters during the past year.

The panel had been moving toward issuing its final report this past spring, but that was delayed when former CPB Board Chairman Kenneth Tomlinson’s doings began to grab headlines.

The lengthy paper that finally emerged last week is designed, in its words, to “address two urgent national challenges: lifelong education (from our youngest toddlers to our oldest citizens) and community engagement.” Several specific initiatives:

  • Ready to Learn: the Early Childhood 360 Initiative would provide print, video and interactive tutorials, training guides and multimedia teaching and educational resources for parents and teachers to supplement Ready to Learn programs, as well as tools to track their kids’ learning progress. All resources would be available on demand via the Internet and aligned with national and local curricula, and pubcasters in regions with low broadband penetration would be asked to provide DVDs containing the materials to parents and educators. The goal is to completely surround media-hungry kids with educational content, creating “the kind of encompassing program we mean when we use the term ‘360,’” the report says. In DFI’s next phase, the panel will outline plans to develop additional learning skills content via a “major national dialogue” among academic experts, research clearinghouses, national learning organizations, the video games industry and “community leaders recruited by PBS stations.”
  • A national online learning library of online games, workshops and job-skills training tools would help home-schooled and learning-disabled students and adults in need of workforce training. It would also benefit traditional students, educators and parents.
  • An interactive, multiplatform Digital Public Square would combine PBS’s proposed national Public Square public affairs digital channel [separate article], with enhanced local civic coverage by state channels such as those already operating in Minnesota, South Carolina and Alaska. Stations could supplement PBS’s programs with coverage of both local issues and local angles on national issues, building a “digital civic forum in every state,” accessible through podcasts and streaming as well as broadcasts, the report says. The service would feature audience-driven components such as online forums and video blogs.
  • A digital health information service would include a digital broadcast channel featuring health and wellness docs and web-based information on diseases and treatment options, much of it supplied via partnerships with medical organizations such as the American Medical Association and government agencies such as the Food and Drug Administration. The panel cited as regional examples for the national health service Kentucky ETV, which created an online “healthy lifestyle outreach toolkit” in conjunction with a health series, and Penn State Public Broadcasting in central Pennsylvania, which sent health educators to meet with community groups and students as outreach for its Creating Health series.
  • A national emergency communications network would bring pubcasters together with national and local public safety agencies to create and disseminate emergency preparedness information. The service would expand efforts promoted by APTS and its partner stations to create a new Digital Emergency Alert System connected via PBS satellites [2004 article], as well as other collaborative projects pubcasters have undertaken with local hospitals and first-responders.
  • The searchable Public Service Web Engine would give people access to local and national pubcast programming on demand. The portal “should provide a set of common management and distribution services—the Internet equivalent of the current interconnection PBS runs for its station members,” the report says.

Of course, these and other ideas will only fatten the price tag for the digital TV transition, which has already cost $1 billion for new infrastructure and will take an additional $700 million over the next five years, according to the DFI report.

In addition, the costs for the proposed programming and outreach initiatives “could quickly climb to at least $250 million per year above current public media expenditures in these areas,” the report says. And that doesn’t include untold millions necessary to digitize archived content and secure rights clearances.

The report doesn’t endorse any specific mechanisms to raise these funds, though it does call for them to be pooled and dispensed by a private, independent Digital Future Endowment managed by the NPR and PBS foundations.

To seed the endowment, the report mentions such methods as spectrum auction proceeds, spectrum fees on commercial broadcasters, and fees on digital TVs, digital video recorders and video games. Calabrese, whose organization has made spectrum policy one of its chief issues, has for several years maintained that commercial broadcasters should be required to pay to use the public’s electromagnetic spectrum.

The report also said stations should be able to profit from its new multicasting capability by leasing ancillary channels, or blocks of time, to other nonprofits. FCC rules currently forbid noncommercial stations from selling airtime for free, over-the-air programming services.

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