Public TV HD Could Benefit from Spectrum Auction

PBS--the first broadcast network to air a limited amount of HD programming in prime time in late 1998--could wind up financing some of its future HD and other digital services from a superfund of as much as $20 billion generated by analog spectrum auction in a few years. Such a resource fund also could be tapped by NPR and universities, as well as other designated educational interests. But there are a lot of "ifs" before any such fund could become reality--most notably the fact that the fund's chief sponsor, Rep. Ed Markey of Massachusetts, is a Democrat in a Republican Congress.

Such a pool of financial resources for the long term has been at the top of the wish list for public broadcast executives for many years, including PBS chief Pat Mitchell and top public TV lobbyist John Lawson. According to published reports this week, Markey aides said their boss, a longtime congressional proponent of long-term public broadcast funding, this time has lined up enough supporters on both sides of the aisle to overcome the highly partisan atmosphere that observers say has become commonplace these days on Capitol Hill. The Markey bill calls for 30 percent of the proceeds from analog spectrum auctions to be earmarked for the superfund.

Although limited financially, PBS and several local public stations began educating their audiences to HD and other DTV services about seven years ago. PBS had commissioned the production of several programs in HD starting in 1998, and worked in conjunction with the Harris to conduct a series of educational DTV seminars for engineers and non-technical staffers at both public and commercial stations throughout the country over 15 months. The HD equipment and mobile studio facilities from that project (the Harris/PBS DTV Express) were demonstrated on Capitol Hill in Washington and in 40 cities, marking the first time many lawmakers and broadcasters had ever seen HD up close and personal.

The timing of trying to create such a long-range funding source comes at an especially troubling time for public broadcasting, having little to do with the actual DTV transition. In recent weeks, some conservative subcommittee members in Congress have voted to severely curtail (or eliminate) the traditional annual funding for PBS stations, which is used largely to complement their own viewer-supported budgets, and for new DTV infrastructure. (This annual funding would still be needed if a superfund were to ever become reality.)

Other partisan factions, who have complained about "bias" against conservatives in PBS programs, are reportedly trying to assume control of the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, which was designed more than 35 years ago to, among other things, serve as a buffer between government and public broadcast program content.