Pubcasters set out on long search for answers about digital TV
Originally published in Current, April 6, 1998
By Steve Behrens and Karen Everhart Bedford
Several number games were in play during public TV's four days in Washington surrounding the annual APTS Capitol Hill Day. For aid in the digital transition, station leaders were asking Congress for $600 million--less than the $771 million they originally requested from the White House last summer, but more than the $450 million that President Clinton backed.
Congress made no commitments, but gave the case an open-minded hearing.
During the station leaders' Washington visit, lobbyists of a different sort, from Microsoft, were throwing numbers at them: 720 lines and 1080 lines, each referring to a different high-definition DTV format with complex consequences for public TV as well as the computer industry [related story].
Public broadcasters made no commitments, but gave the case an open-minded hearing.
And station managers held their first meeting of the National Forum for Public Television Executives, which also made no commitments, but had what some participants regarded as a good talk about options for using the DTV channels.
It's too early to decide how to use the channels, Forum members agreed, but they want it to be a local decision.
After visiting the Hill, station leaders said their DTV aid requests generally got a sympathetic ear. APTS asked them to support the "two-pot" approach of separate appropriations for DTV aid through CPB and the National Telecommunications and Information Administration (NTIA):
- $375 million for CPB, as endorsed by Clinton, and
- $225 million for NTIA, a big increase over the Administration figure of $75 million.
The funds would be laid out over four years instead of five, to keep ahead of the DTV implementation schedule, APTS said. Much of the NTIA portion would be devoted to the agency's traditional concern: maintaining universal public TV service where stations need extra help, as in rural areas, said APTS Vice President Marilyn Mohrmann-Gillis.
APTS seeks to expand its work
The Hill visits served more than anything just to build awareness of the DTV situation, said APTS President David Brugger. Some aides had not yet heard that viewers and stations alike will have to buy new digital equipment to stay with TV.
It could be a long campaign. To go the distance, APTS has proposed an expansion of its activities and is planning a membership drive to pay for it. With its "DTV Service Plan," APTS would boost its advocacy spending about $600,000 a year, Brugger said. The association doesn't expect to be able to raise dues on existing members, but the APTS Board is going to try to raise most of that amount, $530,000, by signing up the present non-member stations.
Twenty-two percent of licensees now aren't members, said APTS Chairman Jerry Wareham of Cleveland's WVIZ. Warenham told colleagues that he wants it to be "just flat unacceptable not to belong to the association that does such good work."
The largest non-member licensees are South Carolina ETV and Miami's WPBT, according to an APTS document released by a station manager.
Station reps found understanding in congressional offices, where the DTV transition was regarded as an "unfunded federal mandate" that had been imposed on public TV.
Staffers for House Appropriations Committee Chairman Robert Livingston "just nodded their heads" when Louisiana pubcasters detailed the big request, said Randy Feldman, president of WYES, New Orleans. "What the staff told me was, 'We know it's coming, and we have to deal with it.'"
Conservative Sen. Rick Santorum (R-Pa.) said he has quite different views about federal aid for operating support of pubcasting--which he opposed vocally two years ago--and for capital costs, especially when federally mandated, said Jane Coleman, g.m. of WITF, Harrisburg.
Santorum staffers took advantage of DTV demonstrations offered in both a Senate meeting room and the DTV Express truck [earlier article] parked at the foot of the Capitol lawn, said Bill Osborne, v.p. for government affairs at Philadelphia's WHYY. "You can talk about the potential [of DTV], but until they see the simulcasting and the interactivity, until they start touching it themselves, it really doesn't register."
Federal share "totally inadequate"
With the White House willing to pick up little more than a quarter of the field's expected digital transition costs, some station reps were feeling uneasy.
Dale Ouzts, g.m. of WOSU in Columbus, Ohio, pointed out that the feds would pay much less of the DTV cost than the 75 percent they put up for the recent satellite system replacement.
"I feel these numbers are totally inadequate," agreed Jon Cooper, g.m. of KNME, Albuquerque, especially considering that stations will have to maintain their NTSC services. "We've got to have the tenacity to get those numbers up."
If pubcasters make a strong case for the federal investment based on the services they deliver to their communities, they may discover that those numbers have "a lot of flexibility on the upper side," responded CPB President Bob Coonrod.
Others worried about the unresolved details of how the federal DTV investment will be distributed once it is secured. What if a station can't raise the match? How will funds be distributed in overlap markets?
A sole-service station that claims hardship will likely get additional help, said Coonrod, but it will become more difficult in overlap situations. "That's the kind of question we have to work out through in consulation with stations," he added. "The more successful you are at getting the appropriation, the less difficult it will be."
CPB will soon begin seeking nominations to a new digital TV panel that will work out the details of how federal DTV transition funds will be distributed, according to Doug Weiss, director of TV operations. He anticipates that the group will draw members from APTS's Legislative Advisory Group and PBS's New Technologies Working Group, among other groups.
Striking the local match
Some station execs who have begun raising local funds for DTV explained how they're doing it at the APTS Annual Conference. KOCE, Huntington Beach, has convened a panel of business leaders to advise on digital services. The Emerging Media Technology Working Group will hear briefings on DTV's potential and advise the station in turn.
"We're telling them that they are the architects of how our spectrum should be used," said Mel Rogers, president, during an APTS panel March 23. One leading idea at the outset is for the station to launch a business and tourism channel.
In New York, nine stations are requesting $30 million for their digital conversion in a "fairly aggressive" proposal under consideration by the state legislature, according to Norm Silverstein, president of WXXI, Rochester. Largely based on APTS's request for federal aid, the proposal pleased the state education department with plans for educational services, including recommendations from PBS's education task force. The initiative appears to have turned around Gov. George Pataki, who, after years of repeatedly cutting state appropriations for public broadcasting, has proposed a funding increase for the "first year in recent memory."
Rogers and other panelists advised their colleagues to "under-promise and over-deliver" when talking up digital services. "It's a good premise when you're dealing with something this nebulous."
"We've built up expectations pretty high," said Jerry Franklin of Connecticut PTV. His network is drawing up a business plan for a digital arts and culture channel, and the high-dollar donors with an interest in such programs have "sky-high" expectations. "We can't afford to over-promise and under-deliver to that group."
Another tip: don't get too technical. "I urge you not to make the mistake of talking too much about the technology," advised Silverstein. "Talk about services, and people will get interested."
Silverstein said educators saw the potential of downloading educational material when they were shown a demonstration using today's technology: an interactive Barney doll and a computer.
Forum: how to use the channels?
The new National Forum for Public Television Executives, which met March 25 [related story] spent much of its meeting on ways to divide and use the bitstream of DTV channels.
In a vote to gauge their views after the day's discussions, the stations' chief execs declined to be pinned down on DTV plans and asserted local option to make those decisions.
They unanimously rejected proposals that 75-95 percent of the bitstream be used for mission-driven services, or that up to 25 percent be used for revenue generation. The sense was that it's "premature to be talking about upper and lower limits," said Mike Hardgrove, president of KETC in St. Louis, a member of the Forum's newly elected council. "What they're really saying is that the group supported local option as opposed to a restrictive national rule."
In a series of unsurprising votes, the Forum was nearly unanimous in favor of local programming control, maintaining nonprofit status and delivering at least one free, mission-driven channel (which the FCC is requiring, anyway). But 13 of the 61 stations said they'd opt to drop "noncommercial" from their identity if they could.
Forum planners also polled members on new services that would "pose unacceptable risk," to get a consensus on their range of thought, but members said they don't have the right information yet to make such decisions. They discussed and quickly rejected for First Amendment reasons a proposal to put pornography, religion and violence off-limits, Hardgrove recalls.
Several chief execs, including Rob Shuman of Maryland PTV, were eager to discuss ways to sell or lease excess capacity in DTV channels to data transmission companies.
Barry Keating, a Notre Dame economist and author of Business Forecasting, advised Forum members to use the DTV channels creatively and aggressively. "You should be allowed to use the resource you have been given to do whatever you want," he said, though he cautioned against running ads.
APTS Vice President Marilyn Mohrman-Gillis said she expects the FCC to open an inquiry this summer into ways that public TV can use excess capacity in DTV channels. One issue will be whether the FCC will restrict the percentage used for revenue generation. APTS argues that local station boards can be trusted to decide that, but the FCC is "not convinced yet."
Commissioner Powell is a fan
In a speech to APTS delegates, new FCC Commissioner Michael Powell said those who criticize television as a "vast wasteland" should look the "invaluable" programs that PBS offers, which "never will be found regularly on commercial stations."
"The country is in a national tizzy over whether broadcasters contribute adequately (or even undermine) our democratic process," said Powell, son of Gen. Colin Powell. "This is old hat to public TV. Public television has always been at the forefront of the effort to provide free airtime for political candidates, for example."
Powell's praised for public TV for embracing digital technology "as a new tool to further its mission."
"I believe that PTV will not only be viable in the digital era, it will excel. We often overlook the fact that while technology can open up for us a world of information, it has no benefit without people and institutions to harness that information."
He cautioned pubcasters on their ideas of creating new revenue streams with some of their digital capacity. "A commercial interest cannot be allowed to detract from your basic mission."
He offered low-key support for spectrum fees, the perennial public TV funding option that hasn't blossomed. The idea is "probably worthy of more consideration."
Ralph Reed's advice: create fear
Ralph Reed, a political consultant and former head of the Christian Coalition, was easily the biggest name and strangest fit among the political action experts who spoke to APTS members. He said he'd never imagined in his old job that he'd be talking politics with a room full of pubcasters, but noted that he's a "long-time viewer of public TV."
Reed predicted that the coming election will strengthen Republicans' hold on Congress, which has become "as permanent as something can be in American politics."
He said the process of gaining political influence has shifted from "an inside to an outside game." Committee chairmen are now held to term limits, the budget process is open to more scrutiny, and parties are less able to discipline their legislators. Political strength comes through "the ability to mobilize a constituency to exert pressure on the system."
To be effective politically, a group must show that they have "real, warm bodies" organized in a political leader's district. "The only thing politicians understand is fear and pain. If you can't create fear and inflict pain, they're not going to take you seriously."
Reed encouraged station executives to reach out to the conservative Christians in their communities. "If you never talk to somebody, you probably don't understand them." PBS can do more to "show the religious community that it is balanced," Reed commented. But he praised With God on Our Side, a 1996 series on the religious right, as an "extraordinary product." He also mentioned Reagan, the latest presidential bio from American Experience.
"There are some things where the religious conservative community and APTS will agree to disagree, but it doesn't have to be hopelessly adversarial or embittered."
To Current's home page
Current Briefing on public TV and the digital transition.
Earlier news: PBS and Harris Corp. prepare DTV Express truck for nationwide publicity tour about DTV.
Related story: Microsoft urges public TV to favor 720p HDTV standard; pubcasters are noncommital.
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