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North Carolina, New Mexico voters okay bonds for DTV

Originally published in Current, Nov. 13, 2000
By Karen Everhart Bedford

Large majorities of voters in North Carolina and New Mexico approved education bond issues that will finance digital conversion of public TV licensees in those states.

Earlier news
Maine voters approved DTV bonds in 1999.

In the North Carolina referendum, 73 percent of voters supported a $3.1 billion bond issue for higher education, which will provide $65.9 million to fully convert the University of North Carolina Center for Public Television—a state network with 11 transmitters. The network will convert its master control and production facilities and acquire a digital remote truck and a satellite uplink, according to Steve Volstad, communications director. The North Carolina bond also funded the expansion and renovation of the state's university system and community colleges.

UNC-TV received $1 million from the state legislature in 1998 to develop its digital conversion plan, but this is the first infusion of cash to put those plans into action. "We've gone from the bottom to the top overnight," says Volstad. If the network secures a grant from the Public Telecommunications Facilities Program, it will return the same amount to the state, he says.

The higher education bond in New Mexico passed with a 62 percent majority and included partial funding for the state's three public TV stations to begin their digital conversion. The $58.2 million bond issue will largely finance capital improvements for the state's K-12 and higher education system, including $7.2 million to fund digital conversion of the three stations, each licensed to a different state university.

KNME in Albuquerque, KRWG in Las Cruces and KENW in Portales will split the bond funds, along with a multiyear PTFP outlay expected to total $8.2 million. This year, PTFP gave the stations $1.2 million of that sum.

"We're hoping PTFP will fund the remainder," said Ron Salak, g.m. of KRWG. The agency can fund only one year at a time.

The New Mexico stations still must secure aid for a digital interconnection system and to convert some 50 translators that deliver public TV service to rural areas. They also plan a capital campaign to raise monies for digital production equipment. Estimated costs of their full DTV conversion total $35 million, says Mark Stanislawski, associate g.m. of KNME.

In North Carolina, a statewide business group launched a $4 million education campaign in support of the higher ed bond. "A very active consensus developed around it. It was viewed as a critical part of preparing the state to be competitive in the future," said Volstad. There was no organized opposition to the bonds, and the state treasurer says the spending can be financed without a tax increase. "There was no downside in the minds of most voters, at least 73 percent of them."

DTV funding wins 65% approval in Maine referendum

Originally published in Current, Nov. 15, 1999

Maine voters approved Nov. 2 [1999] a $9.4 million bond issue, to be repaid by state taxpayers, for the digital conversion of the state's five-transmitter nonprofit public TV network, Maine Public Broadcasting.

The referendum was passed with the votes of 65 percent of the turnout, winning in every county and in every demographic group, said Rob Gardiner, MPB president. Three months ago, few Maine voters knew much about digital TV and only 29 percent favored the bond issue, according to polls taken for MPB.

It was the first time a public TV station had taken its DTV funding question to the voters—a necessity in Maine, where bonds must be approved by both the legislature and the voters.

MPB's consultant, Bowdoin College Prof. Chris Potholm, advised the pubcasters, "You need a good strong message, and you need it on commercial TV." So the network spent nearly $200,000 on airtime, polling and consultants, including $130,665 on airtime, said spokeswoman Rhonda Morin. MPB bought enough airtime to deliver 20 advertising impressions to 96 percent of viewers in three markets, Gardiner said.

The ads carried a strong and simple message: "It was about our survival," Gardiner told Current. An MPB flyer was headed, "Vote Yes on 5—Keep Maine's PBS Alive!", and it said a defeat of the bond issue would mean that MPB couldn't go digital, as the FCC requires, and MPB "will be forced to shut down." MPB also used its own airtime for the first time to urge support of a referendum. And Gardiner said he got to know "every Rotarian, Kiwanian and chamber of commerce member in the state."

Though there were no state or congressional elections on the ballot, turnout was bolstered by referenda on medical marijuana (approved) and partial-birth abortions (not banned), Morin said. Four other bond issues on the ballot were passed.

Pubcasters have now raised $317 million for the DTV transition, including state, individual and foundation giving and federal PTFP grants, said Betsy Gerdeman of PBS Development. The system estimated transition costs at $1.7 billion.

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. Earlier news: How should UNC-TV cover the news about a bond issue that would benefit it and its licensee?

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