The hard reality of digital television hit public television stations last week. On May 1, the day Public Broadcast Service (PBS) broadcasters were mandated to begin offering terrestrial DTV service, roughly 160 out of a total of 373, or less than half, were not able to comply. The figures come from the Association of Public TV stations (APTS).
When compared with their commercial counterparts, however, the public television’s progress toward the industry’s eventual digital television transition actually looks promising. On May 1, 2002, when commercial broadcasters faced the same deadline, two-thirds failed to make it. Today, a full year after the FCC’s deadline, slightly more than half (about 700 out of a total of 1,288) are on-the-air with DTV.
“Public stations are making a real effort to get on-the-air, but the realities of public television have limited some of their options at this point,” said a spokesperson at PBS headquarters in Alexandria, Va. “It should be pointed out that several public stations were on-the-air in digital from the first day [October 1998], long before they were mandated to do. I think that says a lot.”
Those early DTV pioneers included public stations KCTS, in Seattle, Wash., KOPB, in Portland, Ore., WETA, in Wash. D.C., KCPT, in Kansas City, Mo., MPN, in Jackson, Miss., WITF, in Harrisburg, Penn and WMVS, in Milwaukee, Wis.
Similar to commercial stations’ reasons for non-compliance, more than 200 public broadcasters claimed a wide-ranging list of technical and financial problems and have asked for one or more six-month extensions from the FCC. About 80 percent of the requests for more time provided were technical or logistic in nature, including back-ordered transmission gear, unavailable installation personnel, and—in some areas—bad weather.
More than 40 percent cited legal hold-ups, including zoning problems with new tower construction, pending clearances with other federal agencies such as the FAA, and potential interference problems with other broadcasters.
Also, as might be expected with public stations, some had money problems, which included either delays or problems getting construction funding from the federal government, grants or other outside sources, or delays associated with bureaucratic red-tape requiring competitive bidding for equipment.
Under FCC rules, public broadcasters may be granted two six-month extensions. Beyond that, it takes a vote of the full FCC to grant additional time.
In a related development, the commission has granted a six- month extension on implementation of a 50 percent simulcast rule for public television stations broadcasting digital signals. The public broadcasters now have until Nov. 1 to begin duplicating half of their analog content on digital channels.
Before granting the extension, the FCC had required that public broadcasters meet the 50 percent simulcast requirement by May 1. The commission granted the delay after deciding that public broadcasters already had their hands full just attempting to launch DTV service without the added burden of implementing the simulcast rule at the same time.
APTS said that public stations broadcasting a digital signal now reach 73 percent of U.S. TV households, and that over-the-air coverage may be limited in specific markets as stations ramp up to full power.