Frenetic DTV experimentation just beginning for CPB

Originally published in Current, Dec. 7, 1998

By Steve Behrens

Katie Carpenter and Peggy O'Brien are swooshing by at 19.4 gigabits per second, surfing the first big wave of techno-optimism about digital TV.

The two CPB vice presidents--the excitable Carpenter, v.p. of programming; the outwardly cooler O'Brien, of education--are giving out grants to develop a second round of enhanced DTV program prototypes. CPB's first round of prototypes, seen on tape in recent public-TV meetings, began testing with focus-group audiences last week in Burbank.

Hundreds more funding proposals arrived in a CPB conference room in Federal Express boxes--not just thick, stapled documents but also computer discs and videotapes showing just how viewers may be able to interact with enhanced DTV programs. To Carpenter, the last-minute proposals made the room look "like Santa's mailbox."

CPB, meanwhile, was planning a New York City office to serve as hub for its DTV work, making fundraising calls on foundations and corporations, and completing "Back to the Future," the report of its strategic programming review, which will be posted on CPB's web site before Christmas.

The report points the way for what CPB calls its DTV 2K3 Project--"2K3" referring to the year 2003, when the FCC wants all public TV stations to have activated their digital channels. More concrete details may be announced at a press conference in January, but interviews and advance snippets of the report indicate that CPB's frenetic phase of DTV experimentation is just beginning.

CPB still officially aims to raise $8 million a year from private sources for the five-year project, while contributing $2 million a year, though Carpenter says she's not sure they'll hit the goal. "We neglected to realize that foundations have very specific, targeted goals," she says. So now she's going to funders with pointed pitches--for instance, to a foundation interested in voter participation, CPB is proposing a prototype project that would develop materials built around the 2000 elections.

Though the report inevitably deals with technology, Carpenter insists in her prologue that the project "is ultimately about content."

"The deciding factors," she writes, "will always be the powerful stories, the development of characters both real and surprising, the pathos, the human and the insights that have historically lent to public broadcasting its distinction and relevance."

As reported earlier, CPB is focusing its efforts on developing:

Carpenter gives lower priority to two other major expected uses of DTV. High-definition is "too costly, at least for now," she says in the report. ("It'll be decades before we can provide universal access with that.") And she disses datacasting via DTV. ("We hope there's better use we can put our expanded bandwidth to than just leasing it out to commercial news, stock quotes and weather services, of which we suspect there are already plenty.")

Project hub in Manhattan

CPB will locate its DTV-2K3 headquarters in midtown New York City, in a "neutral location" near expected project partners among "Silicon Alley" multimedia companies, foundations and universities. There will also be a branch office in San Francisco, handy to Silicon Valley.

DTV-2K3 will have three areas of activity:

In talks with programmers, Carpenter was most interested to hear that a number would like to have bilingual packages for Latinos, including programs in both Spanish and English.

Most of the flash in DTV-2K3 so far has been in the "enhanced DTV" prototypes shown to various audiences this fall. Revisions of those 10 simulations were tried on focus groups in Burbank last week by the research firm ASI Entertainment. The older adults really dug the idea of being able to switch camera angles during a concert, Carpenter reports, while the younger adults wanted to drill down into supplementary material about a Shakespeare play, even if they didn't care to watch the play.

The 10 first round of prototypes are now being converted from simulations to functioning software for testing in January, says Carpenter.

In January and February, CPB will take its show on the road, getting reactions from educators, stations, producers, technologists and others. Carpenter hopes to have focus-group results in time for a Digital Incubator Summit meeting next March, bringing together prototype producers, the project steering group and others involved in CPB projects.

While the first 10 prototypes cost CPB $30,000 each, Carpenter expects to spend just $50,000 total on the next nine; she aims for outside funders to pay more than half the cost. Of the nine, there may be three each in the genres of citizenship, the arts and children's programming; and three each for the platforms of DTV sets, computers and cable set-top boxes.

So far, CPB has a prototyping deal with Columbia University's Center for New Media and is talking with six or seven new-media firms in Silicon Alley, plus major foundations and other potential partners, according to Carpenter.

While commercial TV is focused on enhanced DTV's "point-and-click-and-purchase" opportunities, pubcasters are almost alone in trying to develop enhanced DTV to convey content, she says. Not totally alone, of course: Microsoft is showing off a prototype of "Interactive Baywatch." "When you look at the Microsoft prototypes," Carpenter says, "you'll be happy that we're around."

DTV's tight fit with education

Peggy O'Brien, Carpenter's sidekick through many DTV-2K3 meetings contends in her chapter of the forthcoming CPB report that "the combination of public broadcasting and digital technology is the most powerful one possible."

The combo expands public TV's educational service at a time when education is high among national priorities and when educators know a lot about how the brain learns, O'Brien explains. DTV "brings education right to the front of the picture" in every station's community, she says. Education not only gives stations good uses for their new multicasting streams, but also may help pay the bills for the digital transition, O'Brien acknowledges.

Seeing Great Performances's demo of an interactive play, O'Brien thought how she'd like students to be able to switch between the hero's viewpoint and the villain's, or to see the production from a backstage camera.

She'd love to involve novelist Eudora Welty in an online project related to Mobil Masterpiece Theatre's forthcoming "American Collection." The drama series will include an ALT Films dramatization of Welty's novel, The Ponderheart.

The early stages of the American drama project, which will debut on the Internet before the plays reach PBS, "anticipates what might be possible with digital television," she says. The collaboration with the National Council of Teachers of English aims to teach both the literature of novels and of films, using each to teach the other. In early planning meetings, teachers have suggested creating online "book clubs" for teachers to discuss the books before tackling them in class.



To Current's home page

Earlier news: CPB releases funding guidelines for DTV experiments, August 1998; producers describe early "digital incubator" projects funded by CPB.

Related story: PBS and Intel Corp. experiment on the air with "enhanced DTV" version of a Ken Burns/Lynn Novick documentary, "Frank Lloyd Wright."

Outside link: Guidelines for producers on CPB's web site.


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