The Digital Divide

Trevor Collis

According to an old political adage, there are two things you don't want to watch being made: sausage and laws. Still, for the inveterate political junkie with a taste for the latter, there is KTCI-TV (Channel 17). One of two stations operated by Twin Cities Public Television, KTCI airs an endless array of committee meetings, floor debates, and roll calls from the Minnesota State Capitol throughout the legislative session.

This year those same public broadcasters will be in St. Paul looking for a little payback--close to $21 million to help convert their analog signals to digital, a process the federal government mandated that public TV stations have completed by May of 2003. (The deadline for commercial broadcasters is May of 2002.) To make the conversion, stations such as KTCI, and its sister station, KTCA-TV (Channel 2), will have to purchase new transmitters and upgrade everything from the cameras to the editing equipment. It's a daunting task financially, and advocates for public television argue that if the state doesn't help offset the cost, they will lose a valuable resource (public stations that fail to become digital by 2003 will be forced to hand back their broadcast licenses and cease operation). But, so far, the signals coming from the capitol have not
been encouraging.

In 1999, the Minnesota legislature approved $113,000 to help the state's public stations pay for engineering studies related to digital conversion. The newly elected Gov. Jesse Ventura vetoed the measure. "Digital TV should be provided by the private sector," the Governor noted in his veto letter. "This is an expansion of the state's role and is in addition to substantial support already provided by the state for public television."

A year later public broadcasters in the state asked for $11.5 million to begin the digital changeover. The Senate said yes. The House of Representatives said maybe, agreeing to earmark $6.7 million. When the matter reached conference committee, however, the final number was zero: Not one red cent. "Nobody made the motion to put it in the final bill," explains Bill Strusinski, lobbyist for the Minnesota Public Television Association (MPTA).

This session, the MPTA is looking for $20.9 million. Strusinski says the money would almost split the cost of a statewide conversion, which is estimated at $46.5 million. If everything goes as planned, the rest would be paid with the help of the federal government and privately raised funds. There is already strong, bipartisan support for the measure: Senate Majority Leader Roger Moe (D-Erskine) and Speaker of the House Steve Sviggum (R-Kenyon) have both signed on as authors in their respective bodies. Both the Star Tribune and the St. Paul Pioneer Press have editorialized in favor of the plan. "All indications that I've picked up are that we have very strong support," Strusinski says.

But there is no money for digital conversion in Gov. Ventura's proposed, parsimonious budget. And while gubernatorial spokesman John Wodele declines to speculate on the possibility of a Ventura veto if the legislature approves funding, he does allow that, "The best way to gauge what the governor might do in the future is to look at what's he's done in the past." Al Harmon, president of the MPTA and general manager of the Duluth-Superior Area Educational Television Corporation, is more blunt: "Historically, public television stations have found their support in the legislature, rather than the governor's office."

The situation facing Harmon's WDSE-TV (Channel 8 in Duluth) illustrates how daunting the switch from analog to digital can be for small broadcasters. The station's total annual operating budget is currently $2.4 million. Just to be able to relay digital signals will cost $3.2 million. And that's before the station buys a single new camera. "It's a pretty significant hurdle," Harmon says.

Like viewers in Duluth, Minnesotans in most other areas have access to a public TV station. MPTA's members include Twin Cities Public Television (TPT), the Duluth-Superior Area Educational Television, Lakeland Public Television of Bemidji, Pioneer Public Television of Appleton, QTV of Austin, and Prairie Public Television of Fargo, North Dakota, which serves the Moorhead area of Minnesota. The cash crunch and accompanying fear is greater at the smaller, rural stations that face many of the same fixed costs as TPT, but have nowhere near the resources.

Meanwhile, Minnesota is way behind the national curve. MPTA lobbyist Strusinski notes that 32 other states have appropriated money to help their public stations go digital--including unlikely suspects such as Alabama and Arkansas. Strusinski argues it's time for Minnesota, which has a progressive reputation for supporting the arts and nonprofits, to step up. "We don't have any more time," he insists. "This is the session that we have to have support."

Broadcasters like Jim Pagliarini, president and CEO of Twin Cities Public Television, have adopted the refrain "go digital or go dark," to dramatize what would happen if the legislature doesn't come through with some cash. He insists that it's no bluff: "Every year it's been, 'Will it hurt to put it off one more year?' Two years ago, three years ago, I was a little calmer about this. [But] nobody [from the Federal Communications Commission] has sent us a letter saying, 'Relax, don't worry about that.'"

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.

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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