A Digital Divide Threatens Public TV

Federal guidelines require all public TV stations to expand from traditional analog to modern digital transmission by May 2003 or face going dark. About one-third of the 347 member stations of the Public Broadcasting System, its officials estimate, are at risk.

KACV-TV is a lonely public broadcasting outpost for culture, civic affairs and education in the Texas Panhandle.

Based in Amarillo, its transmitters and relay stations send television programming to 26,000 square miles of sparsely populated plains dotted with oil fields and cattle ranches.

When its general manager, Joyce Herring, describes the station, you can almost see tumbleweeds rolling past its front door and hear the wind whistling through the steel beams of its old-fashioned TV antenna. “We serve a very, very large geographical area,” she said recently. “There are very many more cows here than there are people.”

Many people within KACV’s reach have full- service cable, with channels like Comedy Central, the E! network and TNT. And they have the big- network affiliates that show popular entertainment programs by night — CBS’s “Survivor” and ABC’s “Who Wants to Be a Millionaire” — and soap operas and talk shows by day.

But when it comes to the less-exciting televised exploration of local affairs like zoning policy and energy, and the illumination of the area’s arts institutions, KACV-TV is the only gusher in the field.

That spout may soon be tapped out. Federal guidelines require all public TV stations to expand from traditional analog to modern digital transmission by May 2003 or face going dark. And Ms. Herring is struggling to raise the $4.5 million the transition will require, with little help from the federal government and none from the state.

Public television stations around the country face similar challenges. About one-third of the 347 member stations of the Public Broadcasting System, its officials estimate, are at risk.

America is accustomed to hard-luck tales from public television. It has heard them since the system’s inception in the late 1960’s, when stations were straining to get up and running. It heard them in the 1980’s, when conservative politicians cut financing significantly. It heard them again in the 1990’s, when Newt Gingrich, the conservative Speaker of the House, vowed to do away with the government’s support for public television altogether. Indeed, dire warnings about public television’s future have become a mantra of the pledge drives at nearly all PBS stations.

But this time, the threat is being taken with greater seriousness. Even as it drafts ambitious plans for its digital future, PBS says it is facing its biggest challenge yet. And money to convert its more isolated stations is just one of many new needs. Even the bigger stations, which are better financed, may have to fight to be seen.

As a whole, the Public Broadcasting System is competing in a more complicated media industry. Even many stations that do make the digital conversion intact will have little negotiating power, compared with the likes of Disney and Viacom. Many stations fear that they could be marginalized with insufficient space on a vastly expanded television dial, drowned out by a flood of commercial cable channels.

And as television enters the age of interactive programming, some PBS officials fear that the system will be vulnerable to commercial forces as it tries to take advantage of the new technology. Public television executives are meeting these tough realities with mixed emotions.

In the mid-1990’s, when the F.C.C. ordered all broadcasters to convert to digital transmission — so the analog spectrum they were using could be sold off — Robert T. Coonrod, the chief executive of the system’s financing arm, the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, welcomed the charge. “Technology has finally caught up with our mission,” he said.

PBS officials spoke dreamily of an age in which people watching “American Masters” could click a button on their remote controls to view additional on-screen information about featured performers, where children watching “Sesame Street” could communicate directly with Big Bird using a remote-control keyboard. They all but salivated over huge increases in bandwidth that would let their stations transmit either one high-definition television programming stream or several standard-quality channels with interactive features.

Now, as such possibilities near reality, “the good news is the bad news,” Mr. Coonrod said.

“There is great opportunity here,” he added, “yet some people could lose service.”

What changed?

For one thing, Mr. Coonrod said, his organization was counting on far more in federal aid for the digital conversion than it has received. The public television system needs nearly $1.7 billion for the upgrade, officials said, but has so far raised less than half of that. It was hoping for $771 million in federal money. So far, it has secured about $60 million. All told, PBS estimates that with federal and state government subsidies and money raised in capital fund campaigns, its stations have accrued $400 million to $500 million for the conversion. As of this month, 28 PBS stations, including WETA in Washington, KQED in San Francisco and KOPB in Portland, Ore., have gone digital.

In seeking federal money, PBS, the Corporation for Public Broadcasting and the stations’ industry group, the Association of America’s Public Television Stations have not made significant inroads with the Republican-controlled Congress, some of whose members say public broadcasting is skewed toward liberal views. Public TV officials consider themselves lucky that the new administration of George W. Bush has proposed maintaining current levels of support in its 2002 budget.

In another promising sign for PBS, Michael K. Powell, the new chairman of the F.C.C., has indicated that the digital conversion deadlines may be unreasonable. But, for now, they are in place.

Some stations are faring better than others. Those in large cities, like WNET in New York and WGBH in Boston, with vast bases of wealthy private and corporate contributors, are well on their way toward the changeover. Smaller stations in smaller markets, where philanthropy is scarce and the population less affluent, face more trouble.

With an annual budget of about $1.4 million to serve 402,000 potential viewers, KACV falls into that category. But Ms. Herring says she is determined to keep the station alive.

Stretching her resources thin, she manages to produce new local programs each month. “The commercial stations do not do a lot of local public affairs,” she said. “But we’ll do an hour with a state senator, or on natural-gas deregulation or redistricting. We’ve always been a meeting ground for all of that.”

Texas is one of only a few states that give no regular support to public television. So Ms. Herring has been aggressively trying to raise funds from local businesses, foundations and individuals. For her annual budget, she relies heavily on companies like United Supermarkets and the John Chandler Ford auto dealership. She is also applying for a federal grant. So far, she has raised $1.8 million and believes that she will eventually come up with the $4.5 million needed for the conversion.

But when and if she does that, there will be other financial concerns. Digital broadcasting will cost her far more in electricity than does analog broadcasting. And between 2003 and 2006, when the government is planning to begin taking back stations’ analog spectrum, she will essentially be paying for the transmission of two stations. That will take money away from local production, she said.

“We believe that we can make the transition; what we are worried about is if we have to decrease services,” she said. “We can’t get cameras and editing machines if we’re paying the electric company two, three times more than we are now.”

She said that raising more money for programs about somewhat dry, provincial issues may prove harder than raising money for the digital conversion itself. “It’s not as easy raising money for third-grade math as it is for Ken Burns’s `Jazz,’ ” she said.

Ms. Herring said she has already slightly scaled down the number of local programs produced. To further trim costs, she has contracted out some production coordination duties to a Dallas CBS affiliate. Ultimately, she said, she may have to rely more heavily on the national feed of programming that PBS sends to all affiliates.

But if her fund-raising efforts fall short of her goal, she could achieve only the capability to digitally transmit the PBS national signal. That is the plight confronting many smaller stations, some of which have even less wherewithal than KCAV, PBS officials said.

KVPT, in Fresno, Calif., has just completed a year in which executives fought to stay within budget partly by cutting back on supplies — using handmade note pads of recycled office paper, for example. As for the digital conversion, said Jerry Lee, the station’s marketing director, “we’re just struggling to meet the bare-bones requirements.”

KCWC-TV in Riverton, Wyo., said it was having similar problems meeting the minimum conversion requirements.

At first glance, some of PBS’s big stations seem to be home free. One of those giants, WNET, Channel 13, has built one of the most advanced digital operations in all of television. It has 30 editing rooms and a fully digital control room — and with a new digital transmitter atop the World Trade Center, it will be transmitting its digital signal, full time, within the next month. The conversion cost $35 million, station executives said.

Even with all those resources, however, WNET still has deep concerns. The station, one of the largest producers of PBS content, has to raise money to produce interactive editions of its programs, said William F. Baker, the WNET president.

“We now have the equipment to take it to the next step, and do what we call convergence — add digital data that enhances content,” he said. “Picture `Great Performances’ transmitted along with the entire score of an opera, or the script. It starts taking more people and money to do all of those improved and enhanced services; they don’t just come out of the air.”

Mr. Baker says he is well aware that such worries are but pleasant daydreams to some of his colleagues in public television. His annual budget of $160 million dwarfs those of most other stations.

But PBS has long-term plans for digital broadcasting that are ambitious enough to put a strain on even the best-endowed stations. Its executives say they have to be, if the system is to remain vital in a world of more channels and services.

Aside from offering high-definition and interactive programming, the system’s member stations have generally agreed to use their digital spectrum to spin out additional channels of PBS programming when possible — especially during hours when high-definition programming is not being shown.

Because digital signals carry bits of information that are far more compressed than those of analog signals, they can transmit much more data. When high-definition programming is not being transmitted, each station’s digital bandwidth can carry several standard-definition television channels with interactive elements.

While acknowledging the competitive pressure, Pat Mitchell, the PBS president and chief executive, said PBS must eventually use the new technology to show as much additional educational and cultural programming as possible.

It will be up to the various member stations to decide what sorts of channels they will create. But at a gathering of the PBS member stations in Washington this month, station managers agreed to each dedicate at least one channel’s worth of bandwidth to formal educational programming, including offerings like interactive, remedial English classes and graduate-course lectures.

Many stations also plan to carry PBS’s full-time children’s channel, PBS Kids — now available to subscribers to satellite television — and local versions of C-Span, the no-frills, national television service that covers the federal government.

Daniel J. Schmidt, chief executive of WTTW-TV in Chicago, said he plans to aggressively program extra digital channels with an abundance of local offerings. His station is building a $17 million digital transmission and production site; nearly all of the money was raised privately. WTTW has a reputation for intense recruiting of underwriters. It shows more local programming than most other PBS stations, including a widely viewed, five-night-a-week local news and public affairs program, “Chicago Tonight,” and a weekly local arts offering, “Artbeat Chicago.” Mr. Schmidt said he was investigating ways to raise far more money for digital production.

PBS is generally hoping to raise more money by offering sponsors interactive banners on its digital television screen. The sponsors would still have to refrain from directly marketing their products, but would receive prolonged exposure for their brands to those who choose to click onto their sites for more company information. WTTW is also hoping to use the technology to collect more money through online pledge drives.

Mr. Schmidt says he is considering leasing some of his new digital spectrum to private companies, which could use it for their own, for-profit purposes. Commercial broadcasters can already do this, but it is not clear if the F.C.C. will let public broadcasters do the same. “What we’re saying is, `Just untie our hands,’ ” he said. “Let us, in an entrepreneurial fashion, find ways to support our noncommercial, certainly nonprofit, quality services for the community.”

The idea is meeting some resistance in public broadcasting. Some executives at member stations believe that PBS stations should not make their spectrum available for profit-making endeavors.

But who will see all these new channels?

Very few people have high- definition TV sets that can receive digital signals. Of the more than 25 million television sets sold last year, less than 3 percent were digital, according to industry estimates.

But even after buying digital sets, households that subscribe to cable television — and most in the United States do — could not receive any extra channels and services unless cable operators agreed to show them. Cable systems effectively knock out antenna reception.

Under a preliminary F.C.C. ruling last month, the cable companies are required to carry only one channel of programming from each of the broadcast stations in their coverage areas. Barring a reversal of that decision by the F.C.C., networks that want their cable companies to carry additional digital channels will have to negotiate.

The broadcasting industry is lobbying against the decision, arguing that cable companies should carry everything that stations can transmit free over the airwaves. If the ruling is not overturned, PBS hopes that it can win a separate F.C.C. regulation guaranteeing that all of its stations’ offerings will be carried. The F.C.C., however, says it cannot provide such relief without legislation.

Without that relief, PBS, like smaller, independent commercial stations, will remain at a competitive disadvantage. The big broadcast networks are owned by companies that also own popular cable channels that cable carriers need in order to sell subscriptions. In negotiations, the Walt Disney Company, for instance, could try to pressure disinclined cable companies to show all of its ABC network’s digital offerings by threatening to withdraw permission to show its popular cable sports network, ESPN — or by threatening to drastically increase prices for that permission.

PBS has no such bargaining power. And where it has not had to negotiate with cable companies before — they are mandated to carry its member stations — it is now promoting itself to them as a programming service with offerings that viewers crave.

“I’m not out there pounding my shoe on the table and saying, `You’ve got to carry us because we’re public television,’ ” said Ed Caleca, PBS’s senior vice president for technology and operations. “I’m not pulling on their heart strings.” Rather, he said, “we’re saying, `We’ve got a track record and we think we’ve got some good product offerings.’ ”

But while PBS was once the sole source of educational television, it now has fierce competitors in networks like Discovery, the Learning Channel and the History Channel. All of them may also want to spin off still more channels. Those networks, some of which are at least partially owned by cable companies, have some built-in advantages in bargaining for placement. And some could develop new commercial revenue sources, using interactive features like pay-per-view programs, and offer stakes to the cable companies.

Though the cable companies’ new digital systems give them room to offer far more channels, most intend to use the much of the extra space for their own offerings — including on-demand movies and high-speed Internet services. They say they cannot give away that space to PBS too easily.

Top-level executives at two major cable companies said that however much they may want to carry everything PBS has to offer, they expect that after they satisfy the big commercial companies, they will have far less bandwidth for their own planned services.

“One of the things about the PBS folks is that they haven’t been very commercially oriented and, ultimately, television is a business, especially from the cable operators’ point of view,” said Larry Gerbrandt, chief operating officer of Paul Kagan Associates, a cable consulting firm. “They have a huge investment in building that digital spectrum.”

He added: “They have to make the case for why cable companies should give up more of their digital spectrum. The question is, what kind of bargaining chips can they create?”

At PBS headquarters in Alexandria, Va., executives are busy trying to develop advanced, interactive programming that will not only better fulfill its educational mission but also make its services more compelling to digital cable carriers.

“We know there is going to be awful lot of competition for this space,” Ms. Mitchell said. “We want to make sure that our content option is so attractive to them that they’ll see it as a real option.”

So far, PBS has been able to strike a deal with AOL Time Warner, which has agreed to carry most digital offerings developed by member stations in its coverage areas.

The PBS technology staff has been working with commercial companies to produce fully interactive shows before other television networks. For example, in a test, PBS and Ken Burns worked with Intel to make Mr. Burns’s program on Frank Lloyd Wright interactive, giving the test viewers a virtual-reality tour of Wright buildings. Similarly, it worked with Martin and Chris Kratt, the producers, to develop a test version of “Zoboomafoo,” a children’s program, that let people stop the action to play related educational games.

But even with interactive television, there could be serious challenges. Will cable companies sometimes charge PBS to use their lines to communicate with viewers? Will they demand part of the proceeds from online fund-raising? Will they have their own commercially oriented interactive features on display during PBS programs?

Cable companies said all of these issues were far from being solved across the industry, because interactive television is still a nascent technology.

But media advocacy groups that closely watch out for PBS’s independence and noncommercial status say the F.C.C. should ultimately step in — forcing cable companies to give PBS a free pass when it comes to interactive programming.

“With this abrupt shift in television that everybody recognizes, PBS finds itself an orphan in a digital storm,” said Jeff Chester, executive director of the Center for Media Education, a consumer advocacy group that focuses on media issues. “The question is whether PBS will ultimately have to make a deal with the devil to move forward and fulfill its mission.”

For her part, even Ms. Herring says she will be able to endure all of this. “I think we’ll figure out a way to survive,” she said. “It just may not be the way we’re doing it now.”


News Service: The New York Times

URL: http://www.nytimes.com/2001/04/15/technology/15PBSS.html?pagewanted=all

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