- The Washington Times - Wednesday, December 21, 2005

Public television and radio stations need about $700 million more than their current funding over the next five years to pay for the equipment to switch from analog to digital broadcasts, according to a new report.

“In addition to this one-time technical transformation are enormous costs for content creation, intellectual property rights clearance for existing and new content, and the tools to manage and deliver over multiple platforms and on demand,” according to the report released last week by the Digital Future Initiative panel.

The panel is a group of 15 public broadcasting system experts led by co-Chairmen James Barksdale, former chief executive officer and founder of Netscape Communications Corp., and Reed Hundt, former chairman of the Federal Communications Commission.

Congress this week approved a Feb. 17, 2009, deadline for the digital transmission of all TV content.

Digital broadcasts from cable and satellite providers offer clearer pictures and better sound than those sent via traditional analog signals. Some analog spectrum freed up with the move to digital will be used to improve radio communications for law-enforcement agencies and emergency responders, while the rest will be auctioned for $10 billion or more, part of which Congress would like to use to reduce the budget deficit.

Wayne Godwin, chief operating officer of the Public Broadcasting Service, said its 348 member stations will meet the federal deadline.

As of February, federal and state appropriations for the digital transition totaled about $800 million, according to the report, “Digital Future Initiative: Challenges and Opportunities for Public Service Media in the Digital Age.” Federal funding accounts for about 15 percent of public broadcasting budgets.

While PBS, National Public Radio, their member stations and private donors also have contributed to the estimated $1.9 billion needed for the digital transition, a five-year, $700 million shortfall remains.

The report didn’t endorse any one funding source, but mentioned charging user fees on new digital televisions, video recorders, and noneducational video games. It also called for establishing an endowment fund administered through the existing independent boards affiliated with the PBS and NPR foundations.

Stations need to use on-demand and interactive digital platforms to better serve the realms of education, local news, health care and emergency preparedness, areas where public broadcasting can help address national needs, according to the report.

The recommendations, especially in early-childhood education, were excellent, and “it’s good to see they’re being realistic about funding not [coming] solely from the federal government,” said Bradley Mascho, communications director for Rep. Paul E. Gillmor, Ohio Republican and co-chairman of the more than 100-member Public Broadcasting Caucus.

“We must appeal to children programmatically and technically in language they’re comfortable with and will use,” Mr. Godwin said.

The report was not a PBS undertaking, but its findings and recommendations are being taken seriously, he said.

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