If any part of the broadcast plant ever merited the label “necessary evil,” a top nominee would be the tower. Expensive to maintain, fraught with potential hazards, bound by an ever-growing web of regulations, unloved by neighbors and often located inconveniently far away, a pubcaster’s tower still serves as the essential link between its program service and its audience. In the early years of public TV and radio — before streaming and podcasting and cable and over-the-top video delivery — pubcasters and their audiences depended completely on the reach of the signals their towers could deliver. When broadcasting was a new and developing communications medium, those towers were much easier to build. As long as they weren’t in an airport flight path, the NIMBY factor was rarely a concern as public TV and FM stations spread across the country from the 1950s into the 1970s.
The first television broadcast in China was transmitted in 1958. The first time that Ling Ling Sun watched a television program was 20 years later, when she was 18. Now she is engineering manager for television broadcast services at WOSU in Columbus, Ohio, and was recently appointed vice chair of the PBS Engineering Technology Advisory Committee.
The U.S. Department of Agriculture announced $3.2 million in grants to 10 pubTV operators serving rural areas, assisting with equipment upgrades that will replace aging equipment, strengthen broadcast signals, or build capacity for digital production. The USDA grants are earmarked for digital conversion and were awarded as part of a larger package of federal aid to 24 projects improving broadband access, telecommunications infrastructure and public TV’s digital broadcasts. Each of the pubTV operators have already converted their primary transmitters to digital. In some cases, the grants will help pay for upgrades of older, analog equipment, enhance their master control operations or strengthen their digital signals. Since the elimination of the Public Telecommunications Facilities Program, which backed technical upgrades of both public TV and radio stations until Congress zeroed it out in 2011, the USDA funds have become increasingly important for rural pubTV stations.
Advisory Committee on Public Interest Obligations of Digital Television Broadcasters
Final Report, Dec. 18, 1998
a.k.a. PIAC or the Gore Commission
See PDF of full report; sections of the report posted in HTML by the Benton Foundation; and the list of commission members. Executive Summary
As this Nation’s 1,600 television stations begin to convert to a digital television format, it is appropriate to reexamine the long-standing social compact between broadcasters and the American people. The quality of governance, intelligence of political discourse, diversity of free expression, vitality of local communities, opportunities for education and instruction, and many other dimensions of American life will be affected profoundly by how digital television evolves. This Advisory Committees recommendations on how public interest obligations of television broadcasters ought to change in the new digital television era represent a new stage in the ongoing evolution of the public interest standard: a needed reassessment in light of dramatic changes in communications technology, market structures, and the needs of a democratic society.
Published online only. Next print edition includes many of these items.
Kutzner chairs team to look
beyond today’s DTV standard
Jim Kutzner, PBS chief engineer, is chairing a team of the Advanced Television Systems Committee that will think ahead about the country’s next-generation broadcast TV system — “probably five years out” from today, he says. Ideally, the next system would be compatible with broadcasters’ and viewers’ present hardware, Kutzner told Current, but advances in modulation and compression technology are coming so fast that much improved technology will be within sight within a few years. The Next-Generation Broadcast Television Team, nicknamed PT-2, “will explore potential technologies to be used to define a future terrestrial broadcast digital television standard,” ATSC said in a release May 21 after its annual meeting in Arlington, Va. Two separate ATSC committees will examine options for two capabilities that could be added much earlier to the present ATSC-developed DTV standard:
The 3D TV Team (PT-1), chaired by Craig Todd, chief technology officer of Dolby Laboratories, will report on benefits and limitations of a standard for broadcasting three-dimensional TV.
ByJim ent,</em> April 2010 through February 2011Kutzner, Mark Schubin, Dave MacCarn, Bruce Jacobs, G. John Garrett and Chris Fournelle |
PBS convened and CPB supported the PBS Quality Group’s evangelism for DTV quality in 2010 and 2011. The group, including tech specialists from stations, series producers and PBS, and consultants, held a series of workshops around the country, and members prepared these articles. Here are PDFs of the pieces published in Current. 1. Maintaining quality
You can’t always ‘fix it in post.’
Broadcasters, including nine pubTV stations and more than 50 network affiliates, will launch mobile DTV in 22 markets later this year, proponents announced at the Consumer Electronics Show last month. Viewers will pick up the signals on devices such as cell phones, laptops and in-vehicle TVs.
As if they march under the banner, “Leave no grandma behind,” commercial and public stations, city by city, have begun a series of “soft shutdowns” of analog transmitters that’s likely to grow in frequency and duration until all viewers are converted and accounted for.
Public broadcasters have devoted millions of dollars and plenty of angst to prepare for digital broadcasts that will put more channels and HD pictures on big living-room screens. But another DTV transition that’s even more exciting to some pubTV vets is arriving in viewers’ pockets. Mobile digital TV will use slices of stations’ broadcast spectrum to beam live and prerecorded programming directly to cell phones and other handheld screens on the go. Stations will be able to multicast to this new audience while maintaining HD and standard broadcasts to steadfastly stationary sets. “Moving from analog to digital, viewers can use the same system and the same habits watching TV—it’s still a lean-back kind of situation,” says Jim Kutzner, PBS chief engineer, who serves on several industry committees working to develop the platform.
With a show of hands, all but a few public TV station chiefs attending an APTS Capitol Hill Day meeting Feb. 24  said the lobbying group should keep developing its “digital-only broadcasting,” or DOB, strategy. [APTS went public with the plan in a press release March 18.]
Instead of continuing to use analog TV channels for the next decade or more, the strategy goes, public TV would make a concerted effort to speed viewers’ move to digital over-the-air broadcasting, cable or satellite reception. The government, pleased to earn billions from early auctions of the channels, would give public TV special assistance in exchange. Public TV would not only save transmitter power bills but could also win mandated cable carriage and an endowed trust fund from Congress, APTS President John Lawson told station execs.
More than half of the country’s 357 public TV stations missed
the May 1 deadline to begin digital broadcasting, according to
APTS. As of late last week, only 163—just 46 percent of public
TV stations—had launched their DTV signals. Not that it matters much. The 194 public stations that failed to flip
the switch are eligible to petition the FCC for two six-month extensions. When commercial stations faced their deadline a year ago, two-thirds
missed it and the FCC freely issued waivers.
The argument over the digital TV standard will continue, though the FCC tried to put it away Feb. 4 , unanimously denying Sinclair Broadcast Group’s petition to permit the use of a different transmitter modulation scheme. Public TV has taken no official position on the issue — engineering managers in the system are divided on the issue. Though informal Sinclair tests found that first-generation DTV receivers have trouble getting pictures with indoor antennas, the FCC said in its letter to the Baltimore-based station chain, “we believe that Sinclair has done no more than to demonstrate a shortcoming of early DTV receiver implementation, rather than a basic flaw in the ATSC standard . .
Which would be worse? Raising ungrounded fears about DTV technology that spook the public and delay the transition for years? Or ignoring those worries and finding out later that the system is a dog? Public TV’s engineers are divided on question of reopening the three-year-old U.S. standard for DTV transmission, a course of action championed by Sinclair Broadcast Group and now festering on the body technological. “I’m conflicted — it’s a thing that an engineer doesn’t like to be,” admits Bruce Jacobs, chief technology officer at KTCA in Twin Cities.
An extra digital TV channel should be reserved in every community for noncommercial
educational purposes, the Gore Commission recommended last week in its report to the White House. These channels, the usual 6 MHz wide, would be granted more than seven years from now, or whenever broadcasters turn back their old analog channels to the FCC. The expected recommendation from the Advisory Committee on Public Interest Obligations of Digital Television Broadcasters was one of the most concrete in a report constructed of compromises between seven commercial broadcasters and 13 other members of the committee. Co-chairmen Norman Ornstein and Les Moonves “were trying very hard to get a consensus, which is a good goal, but I think the splits were simply too wide,” said Newton Minow, a committee member, last week. “The result is, you get the lowest common denominator.”
If you were among a certain handful of people watching the Ken Burns/Lynn Novick bio Frank Lloyd Wright Nov. 10–11, you could get a whole lot more from the broadcast after
it was over. Most people watching the two-night series saw only a stylized “E” icon appear
briefly in the corner of the screen (with the disclosure “where available”),
reminding viewers that the program was “enhanced.” But there was more for viewers watching on specially equipped personal computers in the
seven cities where public TV stations were putting out DTV signals. As participants in a
technical trial by Intel Corp.
The year 2003 doesn’t seem so far off when you’ve got plenty to do in the meantime. Between now and then, public TV will raise funds for, install and turn on hundreds of
digital TV transmitters. In its order mandating a speeded-up digital transition, adopted April 3 , the FCC
gave public TV stations six years to add digital signals–at least a year longer than
commercial stations. Some pubcasters will go digital long before that and others will have
trouble doing it at all. Responding to urgings from America’s Public Television Stations and other commenters,
the commission reduced power inequities among stations.