At this station, datacasting gets top priority
It provides mobile, flexible public service—and it’s got revenue
Many years ago, in a paradigm far, far away, television stations served consumers directly. Rooftop antennas sprouted as people clamored to receive the signals of the handful of TV stations in each community.
It’s a different world today. Eighty-five percent of all homes now receive television from either cable or satellite services. Consumers have opted for the greater choices that cable and satellite provide rather than broadcasters’ free but limited offerings. Cable operators aggressively roll out digital services such as video on demand, which may further reduce the number of “broadcast-only” homes.
With the few antennas remaining on rooftops, there is one inescapable conclusion: It’s not likely a significant number of consumers will go back to antennas to receive HD or multicast channels from public television or anyone else for that matter. Powerful middlemen control access to a customer base we once served directly.
Our focus on HD and multicasting threatens to turn a huge asset—the universal reach of our broadcast transmitters— into expensive means of feeding programming to cable headends or satellite uplinks. This significantly undervalues the investment in digital transmission we’ve been forced to make and raises the question, Why do we need broadcast spectrum at all?
But there is one business model that will allow public television to serve users directly, take advantage of broadcasting’s direct reach to receivers and digital technology’s enormous flexibility, and avoid middlemen altogether: datacasting.
The technology is no secret, but it’s still undervalued. In surveys by APTS, many stations express interest in exploring datacasting services. But most of those stations rank it behind high-definition TV and multicasting in their DTV plans.
We at Nashville Public Television see datacasting as our highest priority—so high that we’re reserving the bulk of our bandwidth for such services rather than providing full-time HD and multicast services. In fact, we’re currently offering only a single SD channel, rather than the more typical array of HD and multicast services offered by most public television stations, and will continue in this mode for the foreseeable future.
In terms of our local digital service plans, we see datacasting as our best hope to develop mission-consistent, revenue-generating services. While there may be opportunities for revenues in the consumer market at some point in the future, we see the biggest near-term opportunities in the provision of datacasting services to government and education sectors.
From this perspective, datacasting represents a return to our roots as an educational resource. Many public TV stations were put on the air to distribute educational programming to classrooms and gave little thought initially to general-audience programming. Now comes a technology that lets them download video and other teaching materials, among other public-service goods, without competing with general-audience programs for timeslots.
In Nashville, there’s an important fiscal element in the priority. Five years ago, NPT separated from the Nashville school system, and the city government encouraged us to seek greater programming and funding independence. But an ongoing, service-based relationship with local schools and government is important to our ongoing financial health.
What kind of datacasting?
Datacasting is something of a generic term. It covers the data-transmission services PBS National Datacast has been providing to commercial customers for years on the analog TV signal’s vertical blanking interval. And it describes Disney’s new MovieBeam movie-distribution service, also brokered through PBS National Datacast, which uses analog spectrum in some markets. But with these services, stations merely pass-through the content. They rent their spectrum to a third party without developing content or applying their own local expertise to serve a customer base.
When I talk of datacasting, I mean:
For the end user, the services received are distinctly different from television, first and foremost, because they go to a computer, not a TV set. Users can play high-quality video streams that often cannot be delivered reliably on the Internet. They can download files of all types. At NPT, we’re downloading video files, PowerPoint and Flash applications, PDF files and web pages. We’ve even downloaded medical diagnostic information for Vanderbilt University Medical Center.
For the public broadcaster, planning for datacast services requires new and different thinking. In the analog world, we had to decide only what programs to put on and when. Now we can select from a much greater array of variables—the speed of downloads, the quality of video streams, the categories of users who receive the services. In the analog world, every user (viewer) got the exact same program at the same time, but in digital datacasting this is no longer required. This opens up many interesting opportunities for public television.
In Tennessee, we see many opportunities for datacasting. The six separately licensed stations in the state are working together to establish a statewide datacasting network. In Nashville, we’re demonstrating a service for the Nashville metropolitan government called Metrocast. It’s a broad-based service to provide closed-circuit training for emergency first responders and homeland security, as well as to deliver rich-media content to schools.
A good fit all around
Our introduction of this service has opened the eyes of key government leaders—local, state and federal. Our project is strongly endorsed by Tennessee’s director of homeland security, Nashville’s deputy mayor and the heads of the police, fire and emergency management departments. It’s getting bipartisan attention in Washington thanks to support from Tennessee’s two senators, Majority Leader Bill Frist and Sen. Lamar Alexander, among others.
Public officials now see datacasting as an essential service that only public television will provide and that fits our mission of education. While any television station could provide datacasting services, public broadcasters have a significant marketplace advantage for several reasons:
-- Our expertise and orientation suit the public-interest nature of these services better than commercial TV’s advertiser-driven skills set.
-- While fees for these services could rise to a significant level of our revenue, they are likely not to be high enough to satisfy commercial broadcasters’ very high return-on-investment requirements.
-- Many public broadcasters cover geographic areas missed by commercial stations. In Tennessee, for example, three of the seven transmitters cover areas that are not covered by any other television broadcaster.
NPT has been working on a business plan for datacasting for nearly two years. The real push in this direction came not from management but from board members. With their enthusiastic support, we engaged consultants and went to work. We hope we’re on the verge of tapping into a significant ongoing revenue stream that can support both our datacasting and programming missions.
Preparation and patience
We’ve already learned a lot, and here’s what we’d suggest to other stations:
If your station isn’t already developing a business plan for datacasting, get going. Public television needs both new revenues and a new public service mandate to thrive. In my view, datacasting has the best chance of providing both.
Steve Bass has been president of Nashville public TV station
WNPT (formerly WDCN) since 1998, through its transition from public-school
unit to independent nonprofit. He is past chairman of the Association of Public
Television Stations and a public broadcasting veteran of more than 20 years
who has worked at PBS, WGBH in Boston, WGBY in Springfield, Mass., and WHA
in Madison, Wis. He was an executive producer of last month’s American
Masters bio, “Hank Williams: Honky Tonk Blues."
Web page posted Aug. 13, 2004
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