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The Digital Future of PBS: A Small Independent's View

By Jayasri (Joyce) Hart

The Annual Meeting of the Public Broadcasting Service, held in Miami this past June, was a celebration of recent prosperity and future promise. As pointed out by Chairman of the Board Colin Campbell, PBS had gone from the near loss of federal funding in 1995 to generating millions of dollars from non-federal sources last year for additional programming. At last, PBS seems to be fulfilling its mission of "doing well while doing good."

There was, however, an undercurrent of urgency. Public broadcasting is compet­ing with the commercial networks and cable broadcasters in a race into the digital TV future. Digital and high definition transmissions are already available from some stations, and the deadline for total conversion is 2006.

I was one of 25 independents invited to this year's meeting, to participate in a Multi-cultural Producers' Forum, funded by the Corporation for Public Broadcasting. All of us were documentarians, most working with modest budgets. We were told, right from the start, that we should produce for the coming digital environment, something that we already knew to be capital-intensive.

In the environment for analog transmission, commercial licensees of public airways were required by the Federal Communications Commission to fulfill certain public interest obligations. These were easy to define and police when the only operators were the networks and PBS. But then, along came cable. With the greater efficiency of digital transmission, we've entered a world of virtually unlimited channels, through which we squeeze not only TV signals but other kinds of data. Now a multitude of signals travels together or separately on the "information super highway," driven by a dynamic and well-capitalized industry. In the current negotiations with commercial licensees, the FCC's stance seems to be to let market forces determine the public interest obligations of this industry.

In this climate, the old PBS-a slow, decentralized, publicly-funded agency, dependent upon FCC protection-could not survive. So, PBS is re-inventing itself , behaving more like a business and collaborating with "strategic partners" from the business world.

DTV Funding

PBS has secured a valuable business partner in the software giant Microsoft Corp. John Hollars of PBS Leaming Ventures described the partnership as a "synergy of TV and the Web." Microsoft now shares a mission with PBS—that of education and community outreach—with considerable benefit to itself. And Microsoft has links to the two major companies developing TV-computer convergence for PBS.

WebTV, a division of Microsoft, uses existing modem technology to provide datacasts, including e-mail. With a $250 (high end) set-top box and $25 a month, a TV viewer can have unlimited access. The company also donates sets to teachers and adult learners through local PBS stations.

WaveTop Technology, a product of Wavephore Inc., inserts data (using VBI) into existing analog systems to transmit data to a PC (equipped with $85 TV tuner card) via cable or antenna. Its greatest selling point is that it doesn't tie up phone­ lines and avoids internet bottlenecks. Unlike WebTV, WaveTop is not a Microsoft product, but the free software is bundled with Microsoft's Windows 98 operating system. Thus, Microsoft essen­tially has a nationwide data broadcasting service to develop uses for its own Windows 98 open broadcast architecture.

In Seattle, Microsoft gave local PBS station KCTS a $2 million grant. KCTS programmed an on-air discussion between Microsoft Chairman Bill Gates and Warren Buffett, another success story from the business world.

Clearly, this is a win-win situation. Public broadcasting stays competitive in the DTV world with the help of private capital, and in return, private capital gains some influence in the areas of public taste and opinion.

DTV Choices

At present, PBS stations can use their bandwidth for DTV transmission in the following ways: use the entire spectrum to transmit one channel of highest definition picture and sound (1080i); divide the spectrum to transmit multiple channels of lower definition picture and sound (480p); or, transmit one channel of relatively high definition picture and sound (720p) pl us one or more channels of data.

David Liroff, Chief Technology Officer for WGBH Boston, reported testing all the picture standards—1080i and 480p, 480i, 720p, 720i, at various frame rates (24, 30, 60). Most PBS stations have chosen a combination of transmission standards. They will use their entire spectrum for one channel of high definition broadcasts in primetime, but for daytime educational and instructional programming, they will simultaneously broadcast up to four channels at a lower definition. In Seattle, the plans of KCTS echo Microsoft's preference for the 720p picture format, which makes excess bit­ stream available for interactive data and is compatible with computers.

Film and Video, covering this year's National Association of Broadcasters' conference, reported that "ABC and Fox will broadcast a limited schedule of Hi Def in 720p, while NBC and CBS have opted to go with 1080i, at least for primetime, with other dayparts at 480p, setting the stage for multimedia opportunities... The cable operators were happily digging in at 480p, seeing DTV as a way to increase the number of channels." The emerging rule of thumb for DTV broad­casters seems to be: "Use what's good enough for your goals."

For producers, David Liroff's advice is to exceed immediate goals and to "capture material at the highest level of definition possible to future-proof productions" by making them playable on the widest variety of standards. He recommends Super 16 film, shot in widescreen to accommodate HDTV aspect ratio. It works well for archiving material and insuring its "stock footage" value. However, if I need to experiment within a lean documentary budget, as many of us do, a digital video format or Betascam SP will remain my medium of choice.

What can small indies do for PBS?

In the multi-channel, multi-use, multi-niche universe of DTV that was described at the PBS meeting, there should remain a need for small producers. However, I see one danger: the localism that was fundamental to the mission of PBS (reflected in its decentralized structure) is threatened by its current need for capital.

Converting to digital hardware is expensive for all PBS stations and prohibitively so for smaller ones. When the stakes are as high as they are here, "risk management practices tend to err on the conservative side," write ITVS Executive Director James Yee in a recent Buzzwords, "which can compromise anything that is not a solidly accepted revenue-generating model." Underwriters may lose interest in smaller audiences, and stations may abandon riskier projects. Producers, trying to please larger and larger audiences, may lose their focus, something that could be particularly true at the grassroots level where budgets are small.

It's important for us producers to continue serving small audiences, weaving them into the social fabric. Left out, they migrate to cable or feel alienated from the media, lost to public broadcasting.

PBS will profit from producers who can define an audience of sufficient size and can stay focused on that audience's needs. At one of the Professional Development sessions, during the PBS meeting, I saw this philosophy being successfully applied by three PBS stations: KETC St. Louis; KNME Albuquerque; and KTCA St. Paul/Minneapolis. Local shows at these stations focus on delivering content about small communities directly to those communities, and without breaking the budget. In the process, they're bending the parameters of existing program formats, while creating new formats ready for DTV multi-channeling.

At another session, Chuck McConnell of NETA offered an example of a producer airing her "how to" show on Public Access for no money. She was targeting a loyal audience who purchased the materials that accompanied the program: now, here was someone ready for WebTV.


JAYASRO M. HART's Roots in the Sand premiered earlier this year at the San Francisco International Asian American Film Festival.