DTV fundraising underway in state capitals
Originally published in Current, June 8, 1998
By Steve Behrens
Some public TV operations are off to a fast start in the hunt for state funds to help them convert to digital transmission, though appropriations are in hand in only a handful of states.
"Everyone's taking a can-do attitude," says Rob Gardiner, president of Maine Public Broadcasting Corp., which is getting a first installment of $2 million toward a requested total of $12 million for conversion.
In Iowa, Alabama and other locales with strong traditions of state funding, officials are looking for the states to put up half of conversion costs--to be supplemented by mixes of federal and private-sector fundraising.
Conversion expenses are already beginning to mount, starting with expensive engineering studies and leading to outlays of around $2 million per transmitter.
Finding the money is especially urgent for the 14 (or so) public TV stations that want to go digital next year, or even this year. Separate surveys by PBS and APTS turned up about that number with 1998 or 1999 goals. Most are aiming closer to the FCC's deadline for public TV stations, 2003.
An APTS survey, with about 80 percent of public TV stations responding, found 14 aim to turn on their DTV transmitters in 1999, 13 in 2000, 9 in 2001, 19 in 2002 and 54 in 2003, says Sheva Farkas, senior research associate at the lobbying organization.
PBS separately found about 15 stations with plans to go digital in 1998 or 1999, says B. Morse of the network's digital planning office.
State aid has been requested, proposed by governors or passed by legislators in a number of states, according to an informal survey by Pete Ford, director of engineering at the New Jersey Network. So far, according to Ronnie Weyl, director of communications, NJN has testified twice in the state legislature about the benefits of DTV without citing cost estimates, which are not only uncertain so far, but also "frightening."
Pubcasters in other states reported varying results:
Mississippi: Part of Mississippi's infrastructure will go digital fairly soon. The state is opening bids for a digital microwave system to replace the old analog system that interconnects the Mississippi ETV's eight stations. The cost, to be covered by state bonds, was estimated initially at $6.8 million, says Herb Jolly, director of engineering.
The project, which could be built within a year, will give the network a two-way capacity of 155 megabits/second, equalling more than seven DTV channels. The circuits will handle programming and data for state agencies as well as public TV and radio.
New York: The state's nine stations, mostly independent nonprofits, are working with the state education department toward a $30 million proposal for the state budget, says Norm Silverstein, president of Rochester's WXXI and new chair of the Association of Public Broadcasting Stations of New York.
Connecticut: Gov. John Rowland (R) has proposed spending $10 million (of a total project cost of $23 million) over the next five years for DTV conversion of the nonprofit Connecticut PTV network, says Anita Ford Saunders, v.p. of corporate communications. That would be $2 million a year.
Saunders said the governor's support grows out of longterm relationships between the network and state agencies--for example, training daycare providers, promoting library usage, and working with the humanities council.
Pennsylvania: The state's FY99 budget, enacted in May, provides $3 million toward DTV conversion of the nonprofit PTV operators in the state, and the Pennsylvania Public Television Network Commission will seek additional aid to bring the total to $16.6 million, about a third of the estimated total cost, says commission General Manager H. Sheldon Parker, Jr.
The total would provide each of the eight stations with $1.5 million and would allot $4.6 million for conversion of state network facilities in Hershey.
State officials were receptive to plans for educational multicasting, Parker said, and it helped to have demonstrations by Sony, which has a flat-panel video display factory near Pittsburgh.
Iowa: The state legislature appropriated $2.15 million for initial upgrades plus a planning study for DTV conversion.
Iowa PTV estimates that conversion costs for its eight-transmitter network will reach $24 million (including $8 million for network headquarters), says Donald Saveraid, director of engineering, but later estimates may turn out even higher. Iowa PTV is looking for half of conversion costs from the state legislature, a quarter from federal aid and the rest from fundraising, he says.
Saveraid aims to begin putting DTV transmitters on the air early in 2000, probably starting with sites in Council Bluffs and Iowa City. To put antennas as high as possible, he plans to stack the analog and DTV devices at the top of towers where possible. In Sioux City and Des Moines, the state will join commercial broadcasters as part-owners of 2,000-foot towers holding pairs of antennas for up to four different operators.
Maine: The state appropriated $2 million--the first installment of what Maine Public Broadcasting hopes will be a $12 million subsidy for conversion of the five-transmitter network.
When the nonprofit network was created six years ago, the legislature took responsibility for the transmission side of the operation, to assure reception throughout the rural state, says President Rob Gardiner, so he thinks he has "a strong case" for the state to sell bonds covering the full conversion cost.
If federal aid comes through, he told legislators, the network will draw that much less from the state bonds. The network plans to raise $1.5 million from other sources for DTV origination gear.
Stringent limits on the state's debt load prevented a bond issue this year, but legislators invited the network to seek bond funds next year, Gardiner says. If okayed by the legislature, the bonds would still have to be approved by referendum.
In discussions initiated by Chief Engineer Gil Maxwell, the network and commercial broadcasters are talking about sharing common towers--and cost savings--in both Portland and Bangor. Maxwell is past president of the Maine Association of Broadcasters.
Alabama: The state appropriated $500,000, available in October, for fine-tuning of Alabama PTV's plans, plus some structural strengthening of towers, says Judy Stone, executive director. She expects the project, including nine transmitters and a 2,200-mile microwave system, to cost some $20 million, and she'll ask the state to put up half of that. The FCC's conversion deadline lends necessary urgency to the proposal, she says.
It's hard to raise funds for DTV transition when neither legislators nor private donor prospects have ever seen DTV. In Rochester, WXXI did mock-up demos of DTV for education officials by purchasing a Japanese HDTV set and enlisting an Interactive Barney doll to demonstrate interactivity, says Silverstein. "We're trying to get them as excited about the possibilities as we are," he adds.
Maine Public Broadcasting also laid out about $7,000 for a consumer-grade HDTV set and VCR. "The most powerful tool in explaining high-definition is to have that monitor," says President Rob Gardiner. "I don't think there's any way we would have succeeded [in getting DTV conversion funds] without that little piece of equipment."
With the monitor set up for three days at the state capital, station execs grabbed legislators from the hallways and gave them private screenings. "The impression was instant and wonderful. As soon as the person sees the picture, they get it," says Gardiner. "The key is to show only a couple people at a time. If you're not standing in front of the TV screen, you don't get it."
A more complete demonstration, meanwhile, is criss-crossing the country on 18 wheels: the truck-borne Harris/PBS DTV Express exhibit that's on display at Idaho PTV in Coeur d'Alene this week.
In the first week of its 40-city tour, in Los Angeles, KCET hosted the truck. KCET and each of three other public TV stations in the region held their own receptions. More than 700 people filed through the expandable trailer, including 200 who came to the opening-night reception, despite a rainstorm. "There was real electricity on the lot," recalls Don Youpa, chief operating officer of KCET.
Visible from the truck was the $9.2 million Educational Telecommunications Center, where KCET will base its broadcast operations. The building is largely complete and will be done by September.
Bill Burroughs, KCET's director of engineering, taught a special "DTV 101" course for journalists, and the Harris/PBS staff led their usual seminars for local broadcasters
"I took the business course," says Youpa. "I had been responsible for raising money for our Educational Telecommunications Center. I wish I'd had that presentation a couple of years ago."
There was no time to open the truck for public inspection, but the station did produce a segment on DTV for its weeknightly Life & Times Live.
More than a dozen stations say it's worthwhile, for one reason or another, to turn on their DTV bitstreams in 1998 or 1999.
In Seattle, KCTS will have help going digital next year; it announced last month a $2 million grant from Microsoft Corp. The station has aligned its plans with Microsoft's preference for the 720p picture format, which makes excess bitstream available for interactive data and is compatible with computers. Last month, KCTS taped Microsoft Chairman Bill Gates and Warren Buffett, the second wealthiest American after Gates, for an on-air broadcast discussion of their views.
WGBH plans to join Boston's major commercial stations in going digital by May 1999 (possibly as soon as this November) so that it can stay atop the local CBS station's tower, which is being rebuilt to add capacity, according to David Liroff, chief technology officer. The plan is to minimize wind resistance and weight on the tower by combining analog and digital signals from at least four operators into a single transmission line and antenna.
Mississippi ETV wants to start a DTV transmitter in Jackson this September to test whether sidemounting an antenna on a tower interferes with reception on the other side of the tower. "There's a big chunk of steel in the way," says Herb Jolly, director of engineering. If sidemounting causes interference, there will be even fewer good spots available for DTV on the nation's TV towers.
WLRN, Miami, hopes to build a new, taller, 1,019-foot tower for its TV and FM stations, and could sign on its digital signal in late 1999 or early 2000, says Clarence Mosley, director of engineering. The plan will be set back, however, if the station doesn't get a Public Telecommunications Facilities Program grant for $2 million of the $2.8 million cost. Zoning approval is also required.
To Current's home page
Current Briefing on public TV's digital transition.
Later news: NTIA grant program helps handful of public stations go digital, a few pieces of equipment at a time.
Later news: Stations continue to have varied results in seeking DTV aid from state legislatures, 1999.
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