CURRENT ONLINE

"I believe high-definition television is terrific," says Richer.
"But even if you don't share my vision,
you have to understand it's going to happen anyway.
The driving force has to do with
spectrum and money."

ATV: crucial to public TV both techically and fiscally

Originally published in Current, Nov. 20, 1995

By Steve Behrens

For public TV as well as other telecasters, it's the end of a long exercise in technopolitics and lab work, as their high-definition future begins to come into focus.

Both commercial and noncommercial colleagues hope to see new revenue from the multiple program streams that digital Advanced Television (ATV) can pack into a single 6 MHz channel, but none have higher hopes than the pubcasters who are counting on ATV for a substantial part of their future funding as well as a means to broadcast vivid, wide-screen pictures.

The standard-setting work largely concludes [Nov. 28, 1995] as the FCC's Advisory Committee on Advanced Television Service gives the commission its painstakingly negotiated technical standard for ATV transmission--the expected basis of an official FCC ruling next spring.

Also meeting in Washington at the same time will be public TV leaders at their annual Fall Planning Meeting, where ATV will be a major topic. On Nov. 28, after the ATV advisory committee makes its final recommendations to the FCC, pubcasters will join players from the standards-setting process for a reception honoring advisory committee Chairman Richard Wiley and featuring an over-the-air HDTV broadcast from an antenna at PBS headquarters.

In the meantime, communications lawyers are ready to file comments on the FCC's latest proposal of rules for implementing ATV. The papers were due at the commission Nov. 15, but lawyers uncharacteristically found their work done ahead of time since the FCC closed down last week along with most of Washington's agencies.

ATV issues will also be center stage at next month's Public Television International ATV Workshop in Seattle. Some 250 participants are expected for the workshop convened by Seattle's KCTS and PBS, Dec. 7-9.

Spectrum as revenue source

Lobbyists for public TV and radio didn't aim to rely so heavily on ATV as the prospective angel for the field, but it was one of the last remaining options after congressional leaders rejected earlier proposals:

As a result, the goal for public TV lobbyists since summer has been to get Congress's permission to gather up public TV's own excess spectrum resources and use them to build up the trust fund. Action on the proposal, however, is delayed while Congress deals with the budget crisis and the massive cable/telco rewrite still pending in conference committee.

America's Public Television Stations and PBS detailed their proposal in joint comments in the FCC rulemaking due last week. Like most of the TV industry's plans, it assumes that Congress will let the FCC go ahead with its longtime plan to give every existing TV station an additional 6 MHz channel for temporary use during the nation's transition to digital TV transmission and TV sets.

Under the pubcasting plan, however, the FCC would assign all of the new ATV channels to a new Public Broadcasting Investment Fund instead of giving them to individual licensees. The "trust fund" also would obtain unused noncommercial channels and the ATV channels that go with them.

The fund in turn would provide one ATV channel for noncommercial service in every broadcast area, to be operated either by the single pubcaster there--or jointly by two or more. The fund could "lease or auction'' any remaining channels to generate subsidies for public TV and public radio, including the costs of converting both TV and radio to digital transmission.

At the same time, all stations could continue to put out regular NTSC television signals on their old channels. And, under the proposal, Congress would continue federal appropriations to public broadcasting until the spectrum proceeds built up the fund's principle to $4 billion.

The proposal also suggests an important additional revenue source down the line. When the TV industry and viewers have converted to digital service--in 15 years or sooner--the fund would be permitted to hold onto the old channels long used for NTSC broadcasting, which could then produce revenue. The FCC has been expecting to take them back when the transition is done.

Also at that point, APTS and PBS propose, each of the public TV stations that had been sharing an ATV channel in a market would get its own separate channel again.

The APTS/PBS filing also comments on other parts of the commission's ATV scenario. According to a near-final draft, APTS/PBS will ask for loosening of financial requirements of stations to receive ATV licenses and for a "less demanding'' timetable for putting the ATV channels on air. The FCC now proposes to give stations six years from the adoption of ATV rules, which is now expected in spring 1996.

APTS/PBS argues against rules restricting stations' options in the ATV world. They say that the FCC doesn't need to require simulcasting of the regular and ATV transmitters because that will be dictated by "sound business judgment.'' Their filing also argues against proposed FCC rules that would require a minimum amount of HDTV broadcasting, saying that broadcasters will air high-def programs in response to viewer demand.

Staying ahead of the pocket-phone guys

Mark Richer, PBS v.p. of engineering and computer services and chair of the FCC advisory committee's working group that has overseen ATV system testing, says he sensed a "sea change'' in broadcasters attitudes toward ATV in the spring of 1995 at the National Association of Broadcasters convention. There was less talk about exploiting the ATV channels for their multichannel potential--an objective that opponents can easily blast as a sweetheart deal for existing broadcasters--and more about the eventual transition to HDTV, the FCC's original objective.

Burnie Clark, president of KCTS in Seattle and a persistent advocate for HDTV, agrees that political calculation has discouraged broadcasters' feeding frenzy for digital multiple channels. "My sense is they were awakened to the fact that they probably will not get spectrum from Congress if they go in that direction,'' Clark says.

"It's finally dawned on broadcasters that they don't want to be a 33-and-a-third longplay record in a CD world,'' says Richer.

"I have a vision about advanced television,'' he says. "I think it's great for broadcasters, and I believe high-definition television is terrific ... but even if you don't share my vision, you have to understand it's going to happen anyway. The driving force has to do with spectrum and money.''

The spectrum now occupied by broadcasters and the additional channels proposed for their digital transition are worth billions to the pocket phone companies. Some in government want to speed up TV's digital transition so that the FCC can move broadcasters out of their present channels, auction off an unbroken band of spectral real estate to the highest bidder and use the proceeds to reduce the federal deficit.

If broadcasters don't jump to digital transmission, the telecom industry will get the ATV channels and foreclose the possibility of a graceful transition, Richer suggests.

"HDTV started in a big way in this country to protect this part of the spectrum from being given away to other concerns,'' says Richer. "That was the driving force. But now it's gone further. You're going to lose all the spectrum unless you show that you want to [go digital],'' he adds. "It's not a question of, 'Can you make more money than you're making today?' It's, 'Do you want to stay in business?' That's the reality of the spectrum. And I also think broadcasters are starting to go, 'Hey, digital's cool, I want to do it.' ''

Of course, Congress could put the ATV channels up for auction before the FCC gives them away, as anti-broadcaster interests have urged. But Clark doesn't expect Congress to derail the FCC's ATV transition plans. Richer seems only a "slim possibility'' that Congress will choose to auction the channels.

"If they go to auction, they would be most likely to go to the telephone people,'' says Clark. "We'd never get it back.''

Clark sounds optimistic about the trust-fund proposal. "It seems to be meeting with pretty uniform support'' in Congress, he says. "In individual meetings with congressional leaders, there is an understanding of the need to capitalize the stations,'' says Clark. "Congress had to help us to get the satellite in place.'' Pubcasters likewise will need assistance to buy digital transmitters.

APTS President David Brugger says he's hearing positive congressional reactions to the trust fund idea, but sees no consensus yet on how it would be funded. Spectrum remains an option in both houses, he says.

If Congress goes along with the pubcasters' proposal, Clark and Richer say they want to stop short of one option in it. They oppose auctioning any excess ATV spectrum, though the new APTS/PBS filing does mention the option.

"My own view,'' says Clark, "is that we desperately need to take a look at whether it makes any sense to sell some of our spectrum, or whether it makes abundant sense to lease it and call it back'' when public TV is ready to use more of it for HDTV. "I don't see it would make any sense to give away that resource in the long term.''

Agenda in Seattle

Two more rulemakings and many hard decisions remain before the ATV transition is fully mapped out, especially for pubcasters. Some of those issues will fill the agenda of next month's workshop in Seattle, the fourth organized by public TV's most HDTV-conscious station, KCTS. Sessions will look at: ATV and politics, regulatory initiatives underway in the U.S., parallel ATV developments and regulation in Europe and Japan, consumer acceptance, video production in HDTV, and financial models for public TV's digital transition. There will also be HDTV demonstrations and screenings.

Speakers will include Clark, Richer, retired PBS technology chief Howard Miller, CBS high-def advocate Joe Flaherty, CableLabs President Richard Green (formerly of PBS), Advanced Television Test Center President Peter Fannon (formerly of APTS), and reps from Toshiba, NHK and other overseas broadcast groups.

 

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To Current's home page

Current Briefing on digital TV.

Rep. Fields endorses trust fund idea, December 1995.

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