What value will public TV's funders see in digital transition?

Stations will point to the technology's potential for education

Originally published in Current, Nov. 9, 1998

By Steve Behrens

Kansas City -- Facing estimated DTV conversion costs of $1.7 billion, public TV leaders at the annual NETA Conference, Nov. 1-4, were antsy to get their message across to potential funders--and aware that not every message will sell.

Most were deriding the value of high-definition "pretty pictures" and focusing their message to legislators on the educational value of DTV's interactive and multicasting capabilities.

Congress must be a prime target for the lobbying, said APTS, urging stations to mobilize at crisis levels to support federal DTV aid.

"Don't get paralyzed by this," advised Maynard Orme, president of Oregon Public Broadcasting (OPB), who spoke at the NETA event. "Get busy and plan and act."

So far, 80 percent of stations haven't taken definite steps toward digital conversion, according to an OPB survey. Of 60 stations that responded to the poll, three were on-air, eight had planned equipment purchases or placed orders, 39 had written plans, and 10 had only held meetings, said Jack Galmiche, an OPB consultant. [Several have deals to share new transmitting towers.]

All told, seven public TV stations will be on the air this week for PBS's inaugural HDTV feeds [separate story]. Under present FCC plans, all 300-plus transmitters must begin simulcasting on new digital channels in 2003.

Judy Stone, executive director of Alabama PTV, figured that her network needs to raise $2.5 million a year from the state legislature, starting next fall. "Failure," she said grimly, "is not an option."

A few pubcasters simply have faith that things will work out. "I know that at levels far above me, they have plans," said one middle-management staffer. At which a station manager just threw back her head and laughed.

No guarantees in Congress

CPB President Bob Coonrod, who coined the season's most-used DTV slogan, "The technology has caught up with the mission," returned to NETA to add a phrase: "But the funding hasn't caught up with the technology."

Neither has the lobbying effort, warned Marilyn Mohrman-Gillis, v.p. of America's Public Television Stations (APTS).

"I submit to you that today we face a crisis similar in proportion and in outcome that we faced in 1995," she told conference-goers. "The problem is that we don't see it."

The $15 million appropriated to CPB last month for digital equipment equals about one-tenth of the amount that the system needs to put pass-through DTV transmitters on the air, without any ability to originate programs, she said. "In other words, our stations will be zeroed-out," she said, unless much more aid is given.

And the money "is not in the bag yet," she said. Congress specified that the money won't go to CPB unless a separate set of authorizing committees put through an authorization by Sept. 31. Coonrod noted that Congress hasn't passed a CPB authorization bill since 1992.

"This is where the challenge comes in," said Mohrman-Gillis, pointing out that--even before this month's election--147 members of Congress were not around to watch pubcasting supporters beat back the "zero-out" movement in 1995. "We can no longer assume that we have a supportive Congress," she said.

Supportive or not, Congress doesn't feel the urgency about DTV conversion. Members regard the DTV switchover as "a 2003 problem, not a 1999 problem," Mohrman-Gillis said.

What's the message?

"It's difficult to have the right message for the right audience," said Arkansas ETV Executive Director Susan Howarth at one point.

The average American will be most impressed by the wide-screen, high-def images possible with DTV. "It's all going to be sold to the general public through sports," predicted Bruce Dunn, production manager at WCEU, Daytona Beach, during a producers' session.

But sensual stimulation doesn't count for much in the public-policy world. Howarth said she simply tells Arkansas legislators that the DTV money is needed "to stay on the air." The FCC says DTV channels must be used by 2003 or will be lost.

Others try to elaborate on what DTV can do for schools, colleges and lifelong learning. "The only thing we can sell is education, education, education," said Barbara Landon, v.p. of development at WBRA, Roanoke, during a roundtable discussion.

And there's not much time to make the case for DTV in schools, says Gens Johnson, director of learning services at Idaho PTV. The push for classroom computers is already "closing the niche that [DTV] datacasting ought to fill," she says.

"Computers are seen as educational, television isn't," said speaker Mark Stanislawski, associate g.m. at KNME in Albuquerque. "When I'm talking to educators, I hear them tuning out when I say 'television.'" He'd like to find a new name for DTV that expressed its range of capabilities.

Stanislawski said he'll go to educators with an offer: "We have an opportunity to purpose-build this technology. What would you like?" He sees DTV as the needed standard techno platform and cost-effective "last mile" link to schools.

The three New Mexico stations, which plan to raise funds jointly, need to enlist backers because they have to raise so much money: $25 million, or two-and-a-half times their combined annual operating budgets.

A need for visual aids

Though they have high expectations for DTV's role in education, fundraisers have lacked ways to demonstrate what the technology can do. With many industry standards still being negotiated, there's no equipment or software to show off DTV's interactive and multicasting capabilities.

So station reps were wowed by videotaped simulations that CPB screened during a NETA session Nov. 3. Afterwards, they lined up to ask CPB execs for copies of the demos. Cindy Browne, executive v.p., said CPB is funding "pure speculation, pure R&D," including those simulations, to get producers thinking about how DTV can be used by public TV.

CPB's commissioned simulations--patched together by producers at various levels of slickness--showed how a future Great Performances viewer could opt to follow Shakespeare's text while hearing Zoe Wannamaker declaim the lines, or use a mouse to click on musicians in a jazz band and see pop-up bio notes, for example. Science Odyssey viewers could click on maps of the continents and push them around in an interactive demo of plate tectonics.

"I wish this was on the DTV Express truck," remarked Ginni Fox, executive director of Kentucky ETV. She was referring to the exhibit now half-way through a 40-city tour, sponsored by the Harris Corp. and PBS.

"We've asked them to show this, but they prefer to show their own stuff," said Katie Carpenter, CPB programming v.p.

"Don't expect DTV Express to tell your story," warned David Ferraro, director of production at WHRO, Norfolk, during an earlier session.

"A number of board members saw it with a collective yawn," said Roy Flynn, executive producer of WPTD, Dayton, sparking a session of unanimous complaints from producers who had seen the touring exhibit.

Flynn's main critique was that DTV Express was fine for professional broadcasters but didn't show enough of the high-def panoramas that are most impressive to board members and other lay people. "There's no gee-whiz when you come out of that truck," said another production executive.

Other producers said the exhibit barely mentioned DTV multicasting and educational uses of DTV. KLRN, San Antonio, dropped plans to use DTV Express after several staffers had seen it, said Lew Miller, v.p. of engineering. The exhibit did not give enough attention to the educational value of DTV, so KLRN may put together its own demo and borrow equipment from PBS to show it, he said.

"We heard accolades for the technical side and the workshops for engineers," Mississippi ETV chief Larry Miller told Current, but PBS Express has "fallen short on educational uses and multicasting."

Ed Caleca, PBS senior v.p., said the DTV Express presentation has gone through a third rewrite, and will include more discussion of DTV's multichannel, standard-definition capabilities.

Recruiting "champions" on staff

OPB, one of the first public stations to put a digital signal on-air last year, pursued a formal procedure to involve staffers in planning, keep DTV issues in front of them, and develop them into "champions" for digital. "Eventually, you get to the point where everyone 'owns' digital in your shop."

The Oregon network's planning process tested service ideas against its mission objectives and public image, and examined its competitive position in providing those services, said consultant Jack Galmiche.

"Most of us have done remarkably little," said Allen Weatherly, deputy executive director of Arkansas ETV, in a follow-up session. Roundtable participants said DTV is frightening and expensive, with many unknowns about how it will develop and almost no money to spend on it.

At many stations, HDTV production is a low priority as they focus attention on urgent funding and transmission problems, but several production execs at the NETA meeting said they'll soon start shooting HDTV or at least the wide-screen 16:9 aspect ratio that's expected to represent DTV in the public's eye.

Louisiana PTV will adopt the 16:9 format for its major state history project, for air in 2003, even though the series will be shot with analog Beta tape, said Clay Fourrier, executive producer.

But the University of North Carolina's state network plans to buy digital HDTV field production equipment and an Avid off-line editor to make a portrait of life in the state, Carolina Preserves, according to Bob Royster, director of production. The project, featuring storytellers from all walks of life, is expected to cost around $1 million, including equipment.

"Our philosophy is to embrace HDTV production, because the transition will be here before you know it," Royster said. UNC-TV will seek state funds to build its digital stations next year, but if they're not on the air two years from now, when Carolina Preserves is done, it will get its HDTV premiere on a commercial station, Royster said.

Ron Pisaneschi, director of broadcasting at Idaho PTV, says the network is also interested in beginning to shoot HDTV as soon as possible, to build up an archive of high-def footage that can be downconverted for analog broadcast. Like UNC-TV, Idaho PTV plans to take the footage to an editing facility in another city and buy its own online editing equipment years later.


Shared Denver DTV tower opposed by neighbors

Originally published in Current, Nov. 9, 1998

Public TV stations in the Denver and Salt Lake City areas are planning to put their digital TV antennas on transmission towers shared with commercial stations, though the Denver plans are running into opposition from neighbors.

In Denver, public KRMA and four commercial stations plan to erect a new tower on Lookout Mountain, west of the city, but they face conflict from Canyon Area Residents for the Environment, according to the Denver Post. The issue comes before the Jefferson County commissioners next month.

The residents' group purchased a meter that measures radio frequency radiation and found that existing radiation already exceeds federal standards, the newspaper reported last month.

KRMA wants to move its analog and DTV antennas to the planned structure because it can't put the DTV gear on its old tower, which no longer conforms with county land use plans, according to Bud Rath, KRMA's director of network engineering. If the new tower is built, he says, two older towers including KRMA's will be dismantled and "hot spots" will disappear. If all goes as planned, KRMA aims to put its DTV channel on-air by November 1999, he says.

In Salt Lake, KUED and instructional station KULC, both licensed to the University of Utah, as well as Brigham Young University's KBYU, will put their DTV antennas on a 330-foot tower on 10,000-foot Farnsworth Peak, along with antennas from five commercial stations, it was announced last week. The $7 million project begins construction next spring, aiming for completion in November 1999.

Some commercial stations aim to begin DTV broadcasts at that point. KUED plans to go digital in 2001, says spokeswoman Mary Dickson, but KUED/KULC will need to raise $15 million to cover conversion costs. They're seeking $6 million of that total from the state government.

The peak, where NBC affiliate KLS already has its tower, is named appropriately for Philo Farnsworth, a major inventor of television.



To Current's home page

Earlier news: Seven public TV stations have DTV stations on-air for PBS Digital Week premiere.

Current Briefing on public TV's digital transition.

Outside link: PBS Online's new section about digital TV.


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