Sought: 45% of DTV cost
Fed share would be $771 million for public TV and radio's digital transition
Originally published in Current, Oct. 6, 1997
By Steve Behrens
Public broadcasting has begun seeking $771 million for the transition to digital TV and radio technology. The sum, now being tried out in talks with Clinton Administration and congressional officials, amounts to 45 percent of the projected transition costs of $1.7 billion, according to David Liroff, spokesman for the field's joint Digital Broadcasting Strategic Planning Steering Committee.
"We will have to raise the rest," he added.
Political reality dictated the strategy. "It seemed realistic to assume that public broadcasting was going to have to at least match and maybe a-little-more-than-match what it was asking the federal government to appropriate," explained Liroff, who is WGBH's top digital planner.
If the proposal makes it through Congress, the funds would be appropriated across three years, starting next fiscal year, with the largest amounts "front-loaded" toward the start:
- $386 million in fiscal 1999,
- $231 million in 2000, and
- $154 million in 2001.
The aid would come just in time: the FCC's present timetable requires public TV to start operating its digital stations in 2003.
How the funds would be channeled to stations has not been proposed yet. That issue will require more discussion with both pubcasters and the Administration, according to committee members. Likely options for handling the funds are CPB, which oversaw the satellite replacement projects, and the Public Telecommunications Facilities Program, an ongoing grant-giving office in the Commerce Department.
The vast majority of the costs and proposed aid are for the TV side of pubcasting, which will have to install new transmitters and often new towers to operate separate digital channels alongside their old analog signals.
That $1.7 billion cost estimate also includes $498 million for basic digital production equipment, according to Bruce Jacobs, a steering committee member who chairs the PBS Engineering Committee. Stations would be able to raise more money locally for more extensive digital studios.
Aid for radio, too
Public radio also would be helped with its own digital transition, though the costs will be far lower because technologists still hope to devise a way to simultaneously transmit digital and analog signals on the same frequency, using the same transmitters and towers.
The funding plan--endorsed by NPR as well as CPB, PBS and APTS--foresees costs of $50 million for public radio's changeover to digital transmission and a 45 percent federal subsidy of $22.5 million, according to Don Lockett, NPR's v.p. of engineering and information technologies. The cost per station may run $100,000 to $125,000 for an add-on RF amplifier and IBOC modulator.
Westinghouse/CBS, Lucent Technologies and other firms have joined in a last-chance drive to develop an "in-band, on-channel" (IBOC) system for a viable digital radio transmission system, Lockett said. The project aims to begin testing a prototype next summer and give a proposal to the FCC a year later.
If IBOC doesn't work, radio may face a complex simulcast transition like TV--scrambling for frequencies and paying costs three times greater, Lockett estimated. "Most people don't want to talk about this yet."
Pubcasters have been working for months on the proposal filed Sept. 7 with the Office of Management and Budget--the first step in finding a place in the federal budget for fiscal 1999 a year from now.
They're arguing that the multiple channels made possible through digital compression will finally enable public TV to expand many of its educational services--for preschoolers, grade school and college students and working people who want retraining, services that are high priorities for the Clinton Administration as well.
"There is an opportunity here to demonstrate public-service opportunities, and a genuine eagerness to do that," said Liroff.
The proposal to OMB put more emphasis on potential public services than on technical details because pubcasters know they will "have to fight ... for a piece of a shrinking budget pie," said Ann Burget, CPB's manager of digital broadcast development, who worked as the OMB budget examiner on telecom spending until joining the corporation in February. [Public TV execs brainstormed their DTV service options during sessions at the PBS Annual Meeting in June.]
The pubcasters are seeking to position public TV as a leader in digital TV--using its multichannel capability in the daytime for those educational services and its high-definition capability at night for service to viewers at home.
"The distinction we're making is that unlike the commercial broadcasters ... public broadcasters are embarking on digital broadcasting with enthusiasm," Liroff said.
The digital steering committee is taking this message to officials at OMB, in the White House and in various agencies, who will comment on or influence the budget.
Burget expects the extraordinary digital funding request to be referred up to OMB Director Franklin Raines for decision in October or November. OMB "settles 99.5 percent of the issues," leaving the ones that are sticky and contested. Then White House policymakers, including aides in the vice president's office and the National Economic Council will weigh in, before the president's proposed budget is published next February. Congressional hearings will continue through next summer.
Crowds at PBS conference ponder four scenarios for DTV
Originally published in Current, July 7, 1997
Dallas -- Public TV's first brush with scenario planning, before and during the PBS Annual Meeting in Dallas last month, suggested a number of imperatives for its entry into digital transmission.
No matter which of the four extreme DTV scenarios comes true--or which combination of them--public TV won't be able to play it safe by sticking with the status quo, said David Liroff, a WGBH v.p. who is spokesman for pubcasting's interagency Digital Steering Committee.
The scenarios also suggest that pubcasting will need capital--"almost surely alliances and collaborations both with not-for-profit and probably for-profit organizations," Liroff said.
Taking the high road with high quality--"being true to the material"--will remain an essential distinguishing characteristic of public TV. Branding also will be all the more important, no matter whether there are many media competitors or few, according to Liroff. And the system will need to be adaptive and quick at decision-making.
These initial gleanings came out of two six-hour brainstorming sessions with invited pubcasters June 20--versions of the shorter scenario sessions held with hundreds of conference attendees June 23.
Participants looked for public TV's role in the Digital Era under four distinct scenarios--see chart--that were worked up in earlier discussions with consultants. For the June 23 sessions, ABC newsman Robert Krulwich set up the assumptions, and comedians from Chicago's Neo-Futurist improv troupe entertained the crowd with illustrative skits.
With just an hour for the set-up and an hour for discussion in break-out groups, many participants lacked the time to understand scenario planning, Liroff acknowledged. Some spent the time arguing that the scenarios assigned to them were unlikely to come true rather than mulling over their implications.
In a break-out session about the "Tiffany Networks" scenario, participants started by assuming that public TV would have to ally itself with one of the few surviving giant networks, but were soon speculating that PBS might be one of the survivors.
Many competitors, passive audiences, highly specialized programs
Many competitors, active audiences, lots of two-way bandwidth
Fewer competitors, passive audiences, high production values, homogenous taste
Fewer competitors, active audiences, willing to pay high prices for virtual experiences
Public TV planners defined four scenarios for thinking about the digital future.
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Current Briefing on public TV's digital transition.
Radio also faces a digital transition -- a less certain one, but possibly with lower costs.
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