The Digital Divide

Public TV's capitol pledge drive

Still, Pagliarini praises digital TV as a potential boon, allowing public broadcasters to air more programming. While the technology is best known for providing a single, high-definition signal (known as HDTV), what interests Pagliarini is "multicasting"--the ability to send up to six different channels over the same bandwidth that used to carry only one.

Twin Cities Public Television is already doing that, on an experimental basis, thanks to a $750,000 grant provided by the state in the late Nineties. Currently a digital signal carries both KTCA and KTCI, as well as three channels devoted to children's programming, adult education, and weather. There are also plans to offer a statewide channel featuring local programming from all of MPTA's stations. Pagliarini is quick to point out, though, that despite these strides, the station still doesn't have the equipment to produce its own digital programs--which is why it needs state funds.

While there has been talk among public broadcasters about winning a deadline extension from the Federal Communication Commission, there have been no signs that the federal agency would be willing to relax its timetable. "The deadlines are firm and the FCC is expecting people to be working to meet them," FCC spokesman David Fiske says flatly. There are provisions in FCC guidelines under which an individual station could be granted an extension for circumstances beyond its control, but lack of funding is not seen as a valid excuse.

Trevor Collis

While public broadcasters in Minnesota fight for funds in St. Paul, a similar struggle continues in Washington, D.C. The Department of Commerce has a long-standing, matching grant program in place to help public stations across the country. But it doesn't provide enough to offset the costs of digital conversion, and the U.S. Congress has yet to come up with additional funds. While the feds never promised to help bear the costs, public television advocates such as Nancy Neubauer, spokesperson for the Washington, D.C.-based Association of America's Public Television Stations, say many lawmakers have acknowledged that they should. "I don't think anybody ever said that they wouldn't give us the money; they just haven't been eager to do it in a timely fashion," Neubauer explains. "We're really hopeful that this year, this congress will come forward with some money."

Back in Minnesota, Pagliarini argues the Ventura refrain--that public broadcasting "leave it to the private sector"--requires serious scrutiny. "Just because there are Barnes & Nobles doesn't mean that we shouldn't have public support for public libraries," he argues. "It's a service that clearly cannot be supported by the marketplace. We're a public institution in the same way a public university is."

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