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Archive for Sunday, October 31, 1999

PBS PREPARES FOR CHALLENGES OF DIGITAL AGE

October 31, 1999

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Two Lawrence-area PBS stations are getting ready to tackle the demands that will be placed on them in the next decade.

Bob Fidler doesn't have to consult the Psychic Network hotline about the future of public television.

The soothsayers in Washington have seen what lies ahead, and it's called digital broadcasting.

"That's all we've talked about for the past three years," said Fidler, director of operations at KTWU-Channel 11, a Topeka-based public television station. "We're concerned about the cost and what to do with it afterward."

A federal mandate states that all of the country's 348 PBS stations must be able to broadcast digitally by May 1, 2003. Only nine PBS stations have that capability now.

All other television stations must be digital-ready by May 1, 2002.

For a medium that lives and dies on the success or failure of its fund-raising efforts, the requirement presents special challenges for public television.

"We call it an unfunded federal mandate," said Cynthia Smith, vice president of content and communications at KCPT-Channel 7 in Kansas City, Mo.

Bill Reed, president and CEO at KCPT, said his station would need to raise more than $10 million from its viewer community to pay for digital equipment, computer management information equipment and station renovations to accommodate the new equipment.

Big funding crunch

The station also hopes to raise $2 million for an endowment that will help pay for national PBS programming.

Similarly, KTWU is facing a fund-raising crunch.

"We've estimated it will cost us $7 million over time to do this," Fidler said, adding that amount would be in addition to regular operating costs. "That's the reason we're looking for private, state and government funding."

It's not that digital won't offer many improvements. It will, Fidler said, "change everything."

A station will be able to split its digital signal and broadcast as several different stations. KTWU is gearing up for children's, public affairs and college educational channels while KCPT has its eye on an educational channel for students from kindergarten through 12th grade, an adult education and GED channel, a "ready-to-learn" channel for young children, and a channel devoted to cultural and fine arts.

"Stations will (broadcast both) the old analog and digital until such a time the FCC determines 85 percent of any signal market is digital-ready; then they must give up the old analog," Fidler said.

TV sets that pick up digital signals cost from $3,000 to $8,000 today but are expected to plummet in price within the next year, Reed said. Consumers also will be able to buy a converter for about $300 that will allow a digital signal to be shown on a computer screen.

Knowing its audience

Television has changed since a string of educational channels united under the PBS flag and transmitted their first signal to American homes Nov. 3, 1969.

At that time, TV owners had just three networks to choose from -- NBC, ABC and CBS. PBS promised to feed viewers a platter of non-network fare and resist commercial pressures. Through the years, "Sesame Street" taught children how to count, documentary filmmaker Ken Burns brought the Civil War into living rooms, and viewers were given front-row seats for Boston Pops concerts and Metropolitan Opera productions.

But today, while PBS is still mandated by federal law to respond to the interests of those residing in specific locales and throughout the country, it also must compete against a growing number of networks, many of which are niche-oriented.

A look through any TV guide tells the story: The Animal Channel. Home and Garden. The History Channel. CNBC. The Discovery Channel. Nickelodeon.

James Ledbetter, author of "Made Possible By " The Death of Public Broadcasting in the United States," says PBS has become too bland to draw a broad audience and too often duplicates cable.

Local programming key

"They should be trying to out-Bravo Bravo," he said recently in an Associated Press interview. "Instead, they're trying to be just like another Bravo."

Ledbetter and other critics say PBS stations should turn to developing strong local programming. And that's exactly what KTWU and KCPT are doing.

"Our flagship program is 'Sunflower Journeys,'" Fidler said, referring to a show that focuses on the people, places, history and environment of Kansas. "It's in its 12th year, and " it consistently is in the top 10 viewed programs. It's something unique; nobody else is doing it."

Over at KCPT, "Kansas City Week in Review," which covers political issues and candidates, is a favorite, Reed said. Two special documentaries are planned for 2000: "Water and Fire: The Story of the Ozarks" and "Over Here," about Kansas City's effort during World War II.

Offering programs that interest local viewers increases audiences. And the more people tune in, the more likely they are to reach into their pocketbooks during fund-raising drives.

Fidler said 25.6 percent of KTWU's budget comes from federal funds while 14.4 percent comes from the state's coffers. That leaves 60 percent that must be generated by local fund-raisers such as pledge drives, celebrity auctions and corporate underwriting.

Lawrence called 'key'

"We consider Douglas County and Lawrence one of our top areas," Fidler said. "The people there have been generous over the years."

Reed said KCPT's local funding comes "one-half from Kansas and one-half from Missouri." Like its Topeka counterpart, the station relies on pledge drives, auctions and corporate underwriting.

"Over the past seven years, our funding has increased," he said. "We went from 32,000 households to 42,000 who contributed. (Contributions) went from $1.7 million to $2.8 million."

Although technically free of commercials, PBS caused some eyebrows to raise this year when it allowed corporations to present brief messages about their contributions. In addition, a manufacturer of indoor playground equipment was given a 15-second spot during "Sesame Street."

Both Reed and Fidler said their stations have no plans of airing commercials.

"We rely on underwriting and some people think they are commercials, but they do not call for action," Fidler said. " " We have no intention of airing commercials because once you cater to commercial concerns you forget about where you came from."

-- Jan Biles' phone message number is 832-7146. Her e-mail address is jbiles@ljworld.com.

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