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Public TV struggles for digital funding

9/03/2000 08:00:00 PM Eastern

Commercial broadcasters may be grumbling about the millions spent on going digital without any tangible business plan in hand, but public broadcasters are simply wondering where they'll get the money in the first place.

The FCC mandate gives public broadcasters a little more breathing room-until May 2003-but efforts to coax funds from the federal government have been difficult, impeded by the political stalemate of an election year and power struggles among PBS supporters and detractors in Congress, Washington insiders say.

Currently, only 18 of PBS' 175 licensees are on-air, covering 26% of viewer households, "if in fact, those households [have digital-capable] TV sets," notes Ed Caleca, PBS senior vice president of technology and operations.

Another 12 to 15 stations are expected to convert before the end of 2000, followed by a roughly equal number in 2001, at which point coverage of TV households will still be only about 50%. "Many stations are pushing the calendar out as far as they can, knowing full well they have to give themselves time not only to design the infrastructure but to get it accomplished," Caleca adds.

Public TV and radio broadcasters will need $1.7 billion to maintain their educational mission in the digital age. At least that's what the Association of America's Public Television Stations (APTS) told Congress three years ago when it requested approximately 45% of that sum-$770 million-with the expectation that stations would match that amount through capital campaigns and state grants.

In turn, the White House Office of Management and Budget in February 1999 recommended a package of $450 million over five years, paid out through two sources: Public Telecommunications Facilities Program (PTFP) would pay $355 million, and the Corporation for Public Broadcasting (CPB) would chip in the remaining $95 million.

To date, there has been no direct federal funding for public stations for digital TV. Congress has appropriated $10 million for fiscal year 2000, but only if it's authorized sometime before Sept. 30-once legislators reconvene after Labor Day. Hopes are not high that funding will materialize in this time frame.

"We are certainly working on authorization, but it is a difficult goal, given the fact that this is an election year and there is no public-TV-specific bill being considered at this point," says Marilyn Mohrman-Gillis, vice president of policy and legal affairs for APTS.

One small victory in 2000 was $26.5 million authorized for public TV and radio, by way of competitive matching grants dispersed through PTFP. But those funds aren't limited to digital-conversion projects.

As APTS revises its cost estimates for digital conversion with an eye toward the next administration, some individual stations are hitting up their state legislatures, pushing capital campaigns and pounding the pavement for corporate donations.-A.B.

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