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Multicasting breaks down 24-hour limit on a day

When they go into full operation as digital broadcasters, what will public TV stations do with their new multichannel capacity? Researchers for America’s Public Television Stations (APTS) have a handle on stations’ current plans, based on information compiled in the APTS Digital Transition Clearinghouse (www.apts.org). The writers are Aaron Heffron, APTS senior planning and research analyst, and Daniel Odenwald, writer/editor for the clearinghouse.

Published in Current, March 26, 2001
Commentary by Aaron Heffron and Daniel Odenwald

The FCC’s recent decision about cable carriage of DTV stations could undermine much of the great planning that public TV stations have done for their transition to digital. In January 2001, the FCC ruled that cable operators need carry only one of the multiple streams that are multicast over a digital signal.

The switch from analog to digital broadcasting will give public broadcasters what many of them wished for—more than 24 hours in a day. Instead of transmitting one program at a time, as they do with analog TV, they will be able to transmit four or more standard-definition TV programs simultaneously. In addition, they will be able to datacast additional text, graphics, audio and visual information along with these program streams.

Virtually every public TV station plans to multicast diverse streams of educational programming during daytime hours and then most will switch to a single stream of high-definition programming in primetime.

The commission’s ruling, if it remains as is, would compromise public television stations’ plans to provide a wide range of multicast educational services to their communities. The nearly 70 percent of American households that rely on cable for their primary television service would be unable to receive the additional educational multicast services. Lack of carriage on cable systems serving almost 180 million people would in turn discourage the development of those services. The situation would also limit public television’s presence in the community, jeopardize its connection and service to its members, and circumscribe potential alliances with community organizations and local governments that could expand public TV’s services as well as its funding resources.

Digital by the numbers

While uncertainty over the digital transition abounds, public television is certain about one thing: digital means education. Since December 1999, APTS has gathered information from more than 80 percent of public television licensees for the APTS Digital Transition Clearinghouse, an online resource funded by CPB and built for public television to share ideas and plans for the digital transition.

APTS research shows that public television has committed itself to using the expanded programming capacity to serve the public’s educational needs.

As of February, 28 public television stations are broadcasting digital signals in areas containing 37 percent of U.S. households. Several stations already have begun multicasting into their communities, providing viewers with multiple streams of noncommercial, nonviolent educational programming. Because few homes have over-the-air digital receivers so far, digital cable is the most immediate way for the public to access these signals.

Multicasting is critical to the digital plans of most stations, particularly for educational services, APTS research has found:

Channels pledged in Florida and New York

Florida and New York, for example, plan to offer statewide educational services to meet the needs of their student-aged viewers.

The Florida Knowledge Network: Florida’s public television stations have promised the state legislature that, in return for financial aid for the digital transition, the stations will devote a multicasting stream to the Florida Knowledge Network.

This statewide network will serve as a teacher-training resource, while linking Florida’s classrooms with direct access to the highest-quality programming, electronic field trips and distance learning.

Originating from the Florida State Department of Education and school systems in 17 counties, the network will tailor programming schedules and curricula for local use. Programming may include instruction on the GED, math, science, English, art, music and foreign language.

The Empire Channel: New York’s public television stations also are promising to dedicate one of their multicast streams to an educational service. Developed with the state Department of Education, the Empire Channel will feature teacher training, educational standards and Regents review, and vocational, instruction and public affairs programming.

The channel would support such state initiatives as meeting New York’s scholastic standards, expanding GED on TV and other lifelong-learning programs, and developing job skills for the transition from welfare to work.

Both the Florida Knowledge Network and the Empire Channel demonstrate how digital broadcasting will allow stations in markets across a state to collaborate cost-effectively on statewide channels and to offer services that are impractical today.

Filling infrastructure gaps

Across the nation, public television stations are planning multicast services to help fill in technological infrastructure gaps, particularly in rural and remote areas—some beyond the reach of fiber-optic lines and DSL-enabled phone lines.

For example, KAET in Phoenix, Ariz., will partner with KUAT in Tucson to dedicate one or two multicasting channels to feeding math, science, geography and other educational programming to 300 schools throughout the geographically diverse state. The stations today can feed such programming only between the hours of midnight and 4 a.m.

These feeds will consist primarily of short, 15-minute clips that relate directly to course materials. Managed by the stations and funded by the state Department of Education and Arizona State University, these channels will also carry teacher-training materials, curriculum guides, instructional materials, and planning booklets that can be downloaded to classroom computers.

In Albuquerque, N.M., KNME is considering leasing part of its digital spectrum to the New Mexico Department of Education to facilitate the delivery of educational materials to the state’s K-12 schools. The station will position itself as the state’s virtual classroom, providing curricular support and teacher training opportunities for viewers separated by hundreds of miles. This arrangement would allow the Department of Education to help with the costs of digital conversion. KNME will also use its datacasting capacities to help rural schools with Internet service. Ultimately, the station could serve as an Internet provider of sorts for rural public schools.

Serving under-served audiences

Several public television stations are also developing multicasting plans to benefit people who traditionally get less than their share of programming from current television line-ups.

For example, KBDI in Denver plans to launch a Latino Initiative Channel. This channel would feature programming for Denver’s Spanish-speaking and bilingual community and will emphasize news, public affairs and cultural events. Potential partners include local community service organizations, schools, commercial Spanish-language broadcasters and public service agencies.

In New York City, WNYE (which launched its digital signal in February) plans to multicast a foreign languages channel. Designed primarily for international residents living in the city, this channel will feature programming in at least 12 different languages, including Japanese, Chinese, Italian, Greek, Polish and Eastern European languages--some with English subtitles. The channel will focus primarily on public affairs, complete with local news, international news and cultural programming from various countries around the world.

To meet the needs of aging viewers, WHYY in Philadelphia plans to create a Home Companion Service. Although designed to appeal to all members of the senior community, it will be directed primarily toward the homebound, whose activities and contact with the outside world are limited.

Primarily video-based, the Home Companion Service will also feature some Internet support and audio components. Initially, the Home Companion Service will be regional in scope, but WHYY eventually expects to develop programming for national distribution.

Also in Philadelphia, WYBE plans to launch World TV, an international multicast channel designed to enrich the station’s mix of ethnic language programming for Philadelphia’s diverse communities—Greek, Russian, German, Korean, Caribbean and others. The station already serves more than ten communities and languages, and World TV will fill the demand for even more.

Meeting local needs

"Local" is a key word in public television’s digital plans. In the age of media consolidation, public TV stations remain the only locally owned, locally operated television services in many communities. Several are picking up on the opportunity with homegrown programming.

For example, Vermont Public Television plans a Vermont Public Service Channel, which would provide regular coverage of the state legislature, important legislative committee hearings and other statehouse-related programs, as well as local government town meetings and debates. Other programs might include health and medical updates and call-in shows with legislators and other elected officials. Additional programming might include call-in programs with the Vermont congressional delegation, travel and tourism information, and other local news and public affairs programming.

Twin Cities Public Television in St. Paul/Minneapolis plans to participate in a statewide Special Services Channel. The state itself would originate programming, including live feeds from the state House and Senate for a Minnesota variation on

C-SPAN. The channel would also feature programs from the Minnesota Department of Education for schoolchildren, the Department of Natural Resources for staff training, and the Department of Administration, which serves the state’s telecommunications needs. In addition, the Special Services Channel would carry existing high-quality web pages produced by local institutions, which would be broadcast to the entire community for maximum impact.

KEET in Eureka, Calif., plans to partner with local nonprofits, arts organizations and social service agencies to develop and broadcast programming for a North Coast Channel. Programming would include documentaries and history specials specific to the region, as well as programs produced in collaboration with hospitals, arts councils, employment agencies, and chambers of commerce. These partnerships would yield shows focusing on health care, arts performances, employment opportunities and highlights of tourist attractions.

As these examples indicate, the capabilities of broadcast technology finally are catching up with the mission. The tremendous potential of the digital environment—as a means of enhancing the delivery of educational services to our nation’s communities—is a crucial part of the plans of many in the public television industry. Beyond education, multicasting will enable more services to be delivered, more partnerships formed, and more programming made available.

Public television wants to deliver additional services and programming. The question is: will everyone be able to see it?

. To Current's home page
. Earlier news: For several years, multicasting has been a key selling point for stations seeking state aid for digital conversion.
. Related story: APTS adopts DTV funding strategy: pledging a multicast channel for education.
. Outside link: APTS.

Web page posted March 29, 2001
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