Q&A with John Lawson

APTS preps proposals for ‘American Archive,’ copyright legislation

Interview by Jeremy Egner and Steve Behrens

Current Q&AWhile the Association of Public Television Stations and its member stations’ activists will be busy enough fighting off the cutback of more than $140 million just proposed by the White House (separate story), the group is working on a slate of new longer-range proposals to take to Congress. ¶ Notably, public TV will seek additional funding for an American Archive project that would preserve and catalog programs and clear rights for long-term public access, APTS President John Lawson said in an interview. ¶ APTS will also ask for changes in copyright law to ease clearance and expand rights for educational uses, he said. ¶ Lawson spoke with Current editors in APTS’ offices in downtown Washington.

Current: By Feb. 18, 2009, Congress has decreed, TV broadcasters must turn off their analog transmitters. Is the public TV system as a whole where it needs to be for the digital transition?

Lawson: On the infrastructure side, we’re in pretty good shape. Our stations got started early on the conversion process, raising money in the late ’90s. Where money from state governments left off around 2001, we were able to convince the federal government to provide targeted funding. So, through state, private and federal sources, our stations have raised $1.2 billion for the digital conversion. For transmission, most of them will be ready, though some have rechannelization issues or have been held up by Canadian and Mexican border issues.

I think public television is well positioned for the transition in terms of our technical infrastructure. The real equipment question is on the consumer side, and that’s especially important to public TV.

There are about 22 million households that rely exclusively on over-the-air broadcasts. Those over-the-air viewers don’t have as many choices and tend not to watch as much television in general, but when they do they tend to watch public television. They skew toward low income, but a big segment are not poor and not Luddites. They simply don’t feel they need cable or satellite.

On funding issues, what’s at the top of the APTS agenda?

Our appropriations agenda is shifting. It’s moving from funding infrastructure conversion and pivoting to funding for content.

We’re going to ask Congress to extend the special CPB line item for public broadcasting’s digital conversion and move toward using that money for digital content.

With our station partners, CPB and PBS, we are developing a proposal to preserve an American Archive of programming —digitizing, cataloguing and clearing rights for programming content so the American public will have much greater access to it.

This archive would go back to the big programs of the past?

Yes, and it would have enormous implications for education. Most of our content is literally locked up in vaults, on videotape, which is deteriorating over time. So just the physical act of preserving content is important. Beyond that, you have to meta-tag it so people can find what they’re looking for and access it on different platforms.

This builds on a couple of prior projects: CPB’s digital rights task force and the collaboration among WNET, WGBH and the Library of Congress to pioneer best practices for digitizing video.

Would the project also put money into new productions worth archiving?

At this point, the concept does not include that, but it could support meta-tagging them during production. We do not have a fully fleshed-out plan for the American Archive. But we think the concept resonates with potential partners like libraries, museums and universities, and with Congress.

What would the project cost?

This is an open-ended process, but our immediate goal is to repurpose approximately $30 million a year that is now going to CPB for digital conversion. Right now most of that goes to infrastructure and a small percentage to digital content grants. We’d like to see those proportions reversed.

One piece of infrastructure is still lacking at some stations: equipment for high-def production. Should federal money go into that, or is it better to find that money through local fundraising and state legislation?

This plan assumes the survival of PTFP at the Department of Commerce, our normal year-to-year equipment funding program. We hope the replacement of cameras, editing equipment and switchers becomes part of the routine process through PTFP.

Is there more to public TV’s request for digital content funding?

The American Archive would be the centerpiece of our legislative proposal around CPB. We’re also asking Congress to grow the regular CPB appropriation. It’s now around $400 million for fiscal ’09. We and CPB are asking for $440 million for 2010, which would make up for inflation.

There is one line item we’re not requesting money for this year: I’m happy to report that Congress has completed our requested $122 million funding for NGIS [PBS’s Next Generation Interconnection System]. The continuing resolution for the federal budget gets us to $121 million total, and Congress will add the final million from the CPB digital line item.

But public radio is now seeking $27 million next year—and a total of $73 million over 3 years—to upgrade its satellite system. Do you foresee any tension between competing interests?

No, because I think public radio is very interested in the American Archive concept. The Archive would provide funding for radio as well as television projects. Funding for the Archive would come from a line item completely separate from the interconnection upgrade.

Beyond this American Archive proposal, does public TV have a case to lay out for Congress that says, “Look, this will be different from what we’ve been doing. You’re not just giving more money to the same stuff”?

We have multicast channels—World and Create and our first Spanish-language channel, V-me. Many are offering kids’ services and coverage of state legislatures. In effect, we’re saying, “We are rolling out a new generation of content and services for the American public, and we need you to be our partner to fund it.”

What became of the Digital Future Initiative that PBS was sponsoring when Pat Mitchell was president? They had sketched out some particular expanded services, like health programming, that would give some focus to spending. Did the initiative just peter out?

All I can say is some of the ideas that they advanced were very sound and fit into a broader digital content agenda. The initiative did some useful work, and we’re drawing from that.

How is public TV going to get this content to viewers? What are the remaining hurdles on the distribution side?

We have to take our media to people where they are. So I’m encouraged by the work Paula Kerger is doing at PBS to clear rights to content and forge distribution arrangements for a wide range of platforms, including the Internet, video on demand and podcasting.

We have to go beyond the demographic we’ve served particularly well for years—the so-called Silent Generation of Americans who were children during World War II, the generation before the baby boomers.

Is there a good model for this sort of media?

We’ve all been pleasantly surprised by the rate at which our programming is accessed through iPods and websites like YouTube. Is our traditional base getting hip to technology? Or is it younger people who are just finding our content? It’s probably a bit of both.

A major new initiative for us is in copyright reform. We have been asked by our major producing stations and others to examine legislative changes to copyright law that would make it easier for us to clear rights to content and give the public greater access to it.

This includes, of course, expanded rights for educational use. The educational use exemption in the copyright law dates to 1976 and it speaks to A/V. Obviously the schools are not using a lot of 16mm projectors anymore.

Would you seek a mandatory license that would set a price, ideally a fair one, similar to the license that public broadcasters now have for broadcasts of music?

That’s one possibility. The development of a policy is just starting, and our stations plan to hold discussions with the guilds and the current rights holders.

When would you move forward with a bill?

This year, I think. It looks like the Democrats will move a big copyright bill. It will most likely have provisions that Hollywood and the recording industry like. But we’re pretty sure there will be some public-interest provisions as well. So we think it’s a window for public broadcasting to come forward with a reasonable proposal.

Will this cover only classroom use or will it include podcasts and other general-audience platforms?

We’ve come to the conclusion that it has to go beyond just classroom use. Content that is downloaded on a student’s computer is available for re-distribution anywhere, so it has to be broader than that.

The poster child was Eyes on the Prize, which was re-broadcast last year. Broadcast rights had expired and home video rights had never been cleared. Rights reform would greatly reduce the cost and simplify the process of clearing rights.

If we can step back to DTV …  what do we know about what will happen in February 2009?

The date is doubly significant for public television. We turn off analog broadcasting at the same time that major provisions of our NCTA [National Cable & Telecommunications Association] carriage agreement kick in. Multicasts that are not carried now will be carried after that date. So stations should be planning how to use more cable shelf space than we’ve ever had.

Under the NCTA agreement, before the transition, cable has to carry at least the digital multicasting of one station on each cable system. After the transition, cable is committed to carry up to four multicast streams from every station, subject to duplication limitations.

What has APTS done to get carriage on satellite TV services?

We are in discussion with DirecTV, though nothing concrete has come out so far. We’re learning their position on bandwidth limits and they’re beginning to understand our service model and our new content offerings.

It’s clear to us that we can’t replicate the NCTA deal, because satellite TV does not have the bandwidth that cable does.

There are so many possible multicast channels to carry . . . Would satellite operators consider carrying public TV multicast channels that can’t be squeezed into the standard bandwidth of a single channel?

That could be part of a creative solution, but that brings up great sensitivity with local stations. DirecTV would love to have national feeds for channels that cover the continent, and stations want carriage on spot beams, which focus on single metropolitan areas.

Some hybrid solution will probably be necessary to bring the full range of public television services to the public. DBS operators say they don’t have the capacity to carry all the multicast streams that cable has pledged to carry. But there are other ways to get channels into the receivers they’re installing in homes, including over-the-air DTV. One of the best over-the-air receivers is built into their boxes. My DirecTV box at home also has 70 hours of hard-disk storage capacity. It creates many options for the broadcaster to get content into that box. I believe DirecTV is negotiating in good faith with us.

Is there a solution in sight?

I cannot predict when or if we will reach an agreement. In the meantime, we will ask Congress to mandate DBS carriage of our signals. It’s the same situation as with the NCTA deal. We bring to bear as much pressure as possible through the FCC and Congress—and stand ready to negotiate an agreement.

What about viewers who don’t use cable or satellite? How can public TV—and broadcasters in general—frame the transition as a value-added proposition instead of a tremendous hassle?

That’s a great question. Your question is the answer — the campaign cannot just spread the word: “Your TV is going to go dark.” We have to show consumers enhanced value. That’s relatively easy for public television because we are adding new and different multicast channels. Commercial broadcasters have not kept pace with us in multicasting.

But they’re making a different bet, which is that HD will be the selling point for digital that wows people. Meanwhile, most public TV is still standard-definition — reportedly even a lot of PBS’s HD Channel.

Stations are in discussion with PBS about making the prime-time feed identical with the HD feed. I think that’ll be worked out. Public television has always been a pioneer in HD production and broadcast. I think our commitment will only grow.

If public TV uses a lot of its bitstream for HD, will cable have additional room for some of these national and local multicast channels that are being developed?

Yes. The NCTA agreement is a floor, not a ceiling on carriage. Stations can negotiate for more channels. One option is that the station could provide HD to cable systems by fiber optics line and put multicasts on the over-the-air channel. Technically, it could certainly be done, but there are some rights and business issues.

Wouldn’t that be OK with politicians, because they tend to regard HD as a “nice” thing instead of a service everyone should get?

Well, it would seem to be a betrayal to some members of Congress who still believe broadcasters were given digital spectrum to do HD.

We have yet to understand the best uses for the over-the-air signal. The conventional wisdom is that over-the-air broadcasting is a dinosaur and is going away.

And the conventional wisdom further says that turning off analog will create such confusion that a lot of people with old analog sets will say, “The TV is going to go dark. It’s time we signed up for cable or satellite.”

It doesn’t have to be that way. We are part of two coalitions—we are leading one, and the NAB is leading the other—that will engage in a broad consumer awareness campaign. Our message will be broadcaster-centric: We want to bring back over-the-air TV, make it cool again. We have to reposition it as “Not your grandfather’s TV.

I’m impressed about what broadcasters have done in the United Kingdom. They have actually brought back free over-the-air TV — adding channels, branding it as Freeview and promoting it. For a one-time investment in a set-top box, British consumers get 30 video channels, plus better picture quality and 10 audio channels. The public response has been extremely positive.

APTS is proposing to lead one of those awareness campaigns with $5 million that Congress set aside for public education in the DTV transition bill. What would that campaign look like? What role would stations play?

We see it as a classic public television outreach campaign. Our coalition includes a growing range of partners — for example, the Leadership Council on Civil Rights and its 200 member organizations. I can see televised town-hall meetings, long-form programming from our stations, speakers’ bureaus and viral marketing. As an ad buy, $5 million would be almost trivial, but it would fund the largest outreach campaign in the history of public television.

But would it be enough to reach the nearly 22 million households who depend on over-the-air TV reception?

Not by itself. There has to be a major marketing campaign around the government’s offer of coupons to help consumers buy over-the-air converter boxes. Congress set aside $1.5 billion overall, and most will go into the coupons.

Would commercial broadcasters also contribute free air time for PSAs?

Yes. I think TV stations in general in their own interest will commit sizeable chunks of air time for this public education. NAB has raised a lot of money from member stations, has hired a PR firm and is doing research. And they gave us a seat at the table to help plan and execute that campaign. In turn, they are supporting our efforts to compete for that $5 million.

Is there a cheap and easy plug-and-play device for over-the-air DTV?

I think a number of manufacturers will play. They now cost between $150 and $200. I haven’t heard anyone commit to sell a box for $40, so the coupon would not cover the entire cost. But the manufacturers will certainly get the price below $100.

There’s a trade-off between low cost and reliability. You don’t want consumers to bring home a box that doesn’t work. They will not only complain to the retailer but to their Congressman. Yet it’s got to be inexpensive.

Is there a chance that viewers will be so unprepared for the analog turnoff — and so unimpressed by DTV — that the switchover will have to be postponed? John Kneuer, the NTIA administrator, said there is no Plan B. Have you heard anything to the contrary?

The train wreck scenario is quite plausible, particularly if consumer education isn’t done right. However, there are powerful economic and political interests lined up to make sure that hard turnoff date sticks. The government is counting on about $10 billion in revenue from spectrum auctions of the analog channels. The Democrats need to book that revenue just as much as the Republicans did, without raising taxes.

Secondly, the analog switchoff frees up channels for public safety needs that are pledged for that purpose. So it would be hard for Congress to overturn the February 2009 deadline. However, if things are not going well, I could see the deadline becoming an issue in the 2008 election. Perhaps a candidate could try to use the issue and get the date pushed back. But I think public broadcasters, for planning purposes, have to assume that the hard date will stick.

What are other top legislative priorities for public TV?

Top of the list, also, is the reauthorization of the No Child Left Behind Act, which Congress will begin moving this year. This could be a major legislative vehicle for us.

Public television can build on programs that are already in the law — such as Ready to Learn, Ready to Teach, Star Schools. Congress is also planning reauthorizations of the Higher Education Act and the Workforce Investment Act.

We can expand Ready to Learn support for programming in content areas such as math and science, as well as the reinvention of outreach. It’s now focused on reading. There’s a role for caregiver training. In the classroom, we think we can build upon TeacherLine and station-based services to provide more media resources for teachers and students, to improve teacher quality and accelerate student achievement.

If you could only have one policy victory this legislative session, what would it be?

At the core of our agenda is preserving and expanding funding for CPB. That is the tide that lifts all boats in our system. We need to launch the American Archive and start station CSGs growing again.

Going from $400 million, where CPB’s appropriation is stalled for four years, to $440 million would be a big jump. Is it realistic to expect that?

Yes, we think we can make a strong case for $440 million. We know what we’ll get if we don’t ask for it. We’d probably get level funding.

CPB has received appropriations annually, but Congress hasn’t passed an authorization bill since 1992.

CPB reauthorization is not one of our priorities this year. Our focus is on appropriations and education legislation this year. Next year, we would be able to give CPB reauthorization more attention, and Congress could.

They have a backlog of legislation on their agenda, and we just don’t see this as a priority for them right now. And we’re not trying to make it a priority.

In Feb. 12 issue of Current, the Denver station executive Wick Rowland posits that Congress at large doesn’t really care that much about public broadcasting and many members tolerate public broadcasting only because its existence permits more deregulation of commercial media. In your darkest hours, do you suspect there’s some truth in that view?

No. My motto in life is to be neither naïve nor cynical. I am not cynical about Congress and their support of public broadcasting because I saw the two-to-one vote in our favor to preserve our funding two years ago.

Our public broadcasting caucus is expanding. I see a lot of support in Congress for public television. I think what has renewed that support is the backlash against media consolidation. Even those who may not particularly care for public broadcasting like the fact that we’re locally controlled. We’re the last locally controlled media. So I think there is genuine support in the Congress of the United States for public broadcasting.

RELATED STORIES

Foundations laid out some $850,000 to renew rights for public access to the famed civil rights series Eyes on the Prize.

Bush administration proposes cutting total of more than $140 million from several federal budget lines.

Public nearly clueless about legislated turnoff of analog TV within two years, according to APTS survey.

RELATED LINKS

Association of Public Television Stations (APTS).

APTS urges that satellite TV companies be required to carry pubTV’s local digital signals, as cable systems will do.

The American Archive proposal, Lawson says, is an outgrowth of the Preserving Digital Public Television project funded by the Library of Congress and involving WNET, WGBH and New York University. It’s planning and setting standards for a repository for public TV programs.

Local Television: A Guide to Saving Our Heritage, a PDF presentation by the Association of Moving Image Archivists.

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