With reports from:
Rhode Island
South Carolina
Washington state
Charlotte, N.C.

States and county assist stations with digital TV transition

Adapted from Current, June 21 and July 5, 1999

Public TV stations have raised $162.6 million from state and local governments for their digital transition, by last week's tally, according to Thomas Crockett, who is tracking the funding scene at America's Public Television Stations (APTS). State-owned networks have nailed down more than half the state aid approved so far.

A PBS survey counted $175 million in state aid for the DTV conversion, as of June 2, PBS Chief Operating Officer Bob Ottenhoff announced at the PBS Annual Meeting. That was the largest part of a total $228.7 million that stations raised for digital, he said. In addition to the state money, stations raised $19 million from individuals, $21 million from foundations, $6 million from corporations and $7 million from federal and other sources.

The successes don't cover the whole map, however, and seldom cover all transition costs. APTS and PBS have estimated the total cost of the transition will be $1.7 billion.

State legislatures approved major digital conversion aid in Alabama, Illinois, Rhode Island, South Carolina and Washington state. And the parent county government of WTVI in Charlotte, N.C., last month gave the station what is probably the first full financing of digital transition for a public TV station.

Alabama: The legislature approved $2 million as the first installment of a requested $10 million over four years, said Judy Stone, executive director of Alabama PTV, who skipped the PBS Annual Meeting to attend to the legislation at home. The state's $10 million would cover about half of the cost of converting the nine-transmitter network.

The network is aiming to raise $5 million from private sources and $5 million from federal grants, Stone said. Her latest expectation is that federal aid will be so limited that the network is likely to receive only one-third of project costs from the federal Public Telecommunications Facilities Program.

To inform its planning and fundraising, the network has arranged for the University of Alabama Institute for Communication Research to do focus groups and a mail survey about Alabamans' program needs and desires, Stone said.

Illinois: The state legislature has approved DTV aid of $22 million, or one-third of the cost estimated by the stations in the state, according to Ellis Bromberg, station manager of WILL, Springfield/Urbana. The funds will be paid out over three years. WILL, for instance, will receive $2.4 million, starting in the coming fiscal year.

Bromberg also noted that the legislature gave the stations an 8 percent boost of their operating aid from the state, which now totals $4.63 million for both radio and TV.

Nebraska: The state network expects to clear $44 million from the sale of bonds for a replacement satellite transponder and digital conversion, said Pete Ford, assistant g.m. and director of engineering. Gov. Mike Johanns signed legislation May 18 approving $12 million in the state's biennial budget.

This was part of what the Lincoln Journal-Star called "the leanest state budget of the last decade." The funding will let Nebraska ETV replace satellite capacity that will go out of service early in 2000. And it will let Nebraska ETV put three digital transmitters on the year in 2001, three in 2002 and the last three in 2003, Ford said. In the case of the areas now served by far-reaching VHF signals, where the FCC allotted UHF channels for digital, the network will save money by broadcasting the power-guzzling UHF transmitters at less than full power, Ford told Current. When the transition is complete, the network aims to return to its power-efficient VHF signals.

But the reduced-power signals will still be adequate to reach population centers, schools and colleges, Ford said.

Rhode Island: The state-owned station in Providence, WSBE, won approval in June for state funding of 85 percent of its digital TV conversion costs, including production equipment.

The station will receive $4.6 million over four years, said President Susan Farmer. Its plan assumes that it will also receive some $750,000 in federal aid, she said.

Gov. Lincoln Almond (R) had completely rejected WSBE's request for DTV aid, but Farmer found bipartisan support in the Democrat-controlled legislature. The previous governor, a Democrat, had slashed WSBE's operating aid, she observed. "As it got to be more difficult dealing with governors," she said, "I spent more time with legislators."

South Carolina: On May 20, the legislature approved $10 million as the first installment for South Carolina ETV's digital conversion, said Reba Campbell, v.p. of governent and community relations.

There were no promises of the remaining $20 in SCETV's request, but Campbell says she gets favorable vibrations from legislative leaders, who know the network is seeking $10 million a year for three years. If the state follows through, that will leave $11 million of its $41 million total for the state to raise from private and federal sources. SCETV aims to put its first digital transmitter on the air, in Columbia, during the next fiscal year, five more in fiscal 2001 and the last five in fiscal 2002.

When four committee chairs from the legislature became "somewhat of a captive audience" to see the DTV Express demo last October, they were impressed by the educational opportunities in DTV, Campbell said. However, she added, "the message that seemed to resonate the most is that it's [an FCC] mandate--we've got to support ETV in keeping its licenses."

Washington: The legislature last month okayed $350,000 for digital transition planning to be split among the five licensees, according to Debbie Emond, station manager of KBTC, Tacoma. The planning work will lead to revised requests next year, she predicted, but said the legislators made no promises of further funding. The stations are seeking $12 million, or half of their estimated cost for digital transmission and master-control facilities.

Charlotte, N.C.: Mecklenberg County commissioners in late May approved funding of up to $10 million over two years for WTVI, the public TV station in Charlotte, the Southeast's financial capital.

The aid will fully cover WTVI's digital transition costs, making it the first station to achieve full funding of its transition, said Frank Porter, an attorney and chairman of the WTVI board. (General Manager Hal Bouton was out of town and not available for comment.)

"From the progressive moderates to the very fiscally conservative people on that county commission, they unanimously agreed this was the appropriate thing and a wise use of our tax dollars," said Porter. If the station gets federal aid for the transition, it will ask the county for less, Porter said.

What the county commission did, officially, was to approve "certificates of opportunity," effective July 1, meaning that it will borrow the funds at the lowest interest rate available and pay off the debt, Porter said.



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Earlier news: Legislatures help with "unfunded mandate" for DTV, April 1999, with reports from Arkansas, California, Florida, Georgia, Idaho, Michigan, Nebraska, Ohio and Utah.


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