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Multicasting: the practical engine that’s driving public TV’s digital transition

Overview: What is it, and how many channels does it add to public TV?

Repeats: The rationalists' preference for additional channels

Education: An offer that fits the mission and public policy

Online access: How Texas stations aim to bring new media to the outback

Local and regional programs: Hopes for coverage that's often squeezed out of public TV today

Specialized genres: Replicating the model that works for cable

Option 2: Education

An offer of proven appeal: a channel for education

Adapted from Current, April 22, 2002

To get state help in making the switch to DTV, public TV has promised various public services, particularly in education, to legislatures around the country. And many of the legislatures have been generous. In all, they're investing $470 million in conversion.

The Florida stations' pledge was more specific than most. In arguing successfully for the $20 million package--representing about a third of their conversion costs--they committed to airing a full multicast channel for education. In Florida "the shorthand was easier when they could talk about a channel," says Skip Hinton, president of the National Educational Telecommunications Association (NETA).

Now New York stations are using a similar shorthand: an Empire Channel for the Empire State. Their request for a $30 million bond issue, to be repaid by the state, has been endorsed by the New York State Broadcasters Association and smiled upon by the governor and Assembly leaders.

"What we have promised to our state if they help fund the transition is that we will devote a quarter of the spectrum to creating a statewide educational service," says Deborah Onslow, president of WMHT in Albany/Schenectady.

The channel would be used for many kinds of education, says the lobbyist for New York stations in the capital, Alison Leigh. In talks with state education officials, for example, she said the channel could help parents understand the educational standards movement. It could also help volunteer firefighters prepare for their certification tests, she says. Onslow suggests it could help kids prepare for SAT or regents' exams.

Leigh has not said yet whether the channel would be one continuous 24-hour channel or pieced together from various dayparts.

Questions like those already have been answered in the Sunbelt, where the Florida Knowledge Network is up and going.

Florida stations pitched the idea to the commission of education in 1997, demonstrated the technology in Tallahassee the next year and won the $20 million appropriation in 1999-2000, says Eric Smith, director of public broadcasting in the state Department of Education.

Florida was already feeding instructional programs to county school districts via satellite, before DTV came along, but DTV will increase the number of schools plugged in, according to Kim Bowman, director of the Florida Knowledge Network. Each county school district has a satellite dish, and some of the larger ones use terrestrial ITFS microwave or cable systems for further distribution within the counties. But rural counties are not as well equipped, because satellite dishes cost about $2,000 each, Bowman says.

The network was built to serve public schools, but the state is now expanding access to private schools as well as to parents who home-school their kids, according to Smith.

Eighty percent is of programming is K-12 instruction, and the rest, after 3 p.m., is training or updates for teachers. Many of the programs teach reading at the elementary-school level or science and math for secondary school students, says Bowman. The network plans to add college-level programming, says Smith.

The state buys classroom rights for programs chosen in an annual voting process among educators and feeds them statewide on the network. However, local school liaisons to public TV can ask to have other programs inserted in the local DTV broadcast.

As elsewhere in the country, educators in Florida generally save the programs on tape or on file servers to be played for teachers to show at their discretion or for students to check out of media libraries, Bowman says.

The outlines of the deal in Florida and the proposal in New York sound like a quid pro quo exchange--money for bitstream--and that bothers Michael Fields, president of WCNY in Syracuse. He says the stations intend to start the Empire Channel even if the state doesn't help with DTV costs.

Onslow comments: "I don't think we've answered the question, 'What if the state doesn't help us with the conversion?'"

Leigh's answer is that the Empire Channel should be launched regardless. But it will be much more difficult to make it happen.

—Steve Behrens


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Web page posted Aug. 6, 2002
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