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First Reading: Expanding the band

Published (3/28/2008)
By Courtney Blanchard
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Even TVs adorned with old-fashioned antennas can keep working under the conversion to digital airwaves. Provided the TV set has the proper plug-in, a converter box will upgrade the signal. A federal government program offers each household up to two $40 coupons for converter boxes. (Illustration by Paul Battaglia)

Next year, TV remotes will switch off fuzzy channels for the last time.

When TVs power up in February 2009, most stations will be broadcast with a digital signal. Rabbit ears won’t give you static; there will either be a clear picture or nothing at all. Many shows will broadcast in high definition, and if you have an HD TV it will display a startlingly sharp picture with crisp sound quality. This will happen because the current method of TV reception, analog signals, will be replaced by digital.

While one goal for the switchover is to free up some of the analog spectrum for communication among public safety agencies, perhaps the biggest reason for the change is simply the money that the federal government can make. The Federal Communications Commission raised more than $19 billion from auctioning the analog airwaves to wireless phone and Internet companies, according to a March 20 release by the commission. It was one of the largest auctions the commission has ever held, and surpassed twice the amount Congress had anticipated. The money will go straight to the U.S. Treasury.

But money in the government’s pocket comes at a price for TV stations. Since Congress mandated the switch 10 years ago, every TV station has been upgrading their equipment to enable them to pump out a digital signal by the February 2009 deadline.

While most stations must foot the entire bill for conversion, the Minnesota Public Television Association is looking for help from the Legislature. The association depends on annual state support for part of its operating costs, about $1.36 million per year, according to the nonpartisan House Fiscal Analysis Department.

The money is divvied out among all six stations, and for the largest, Twin Cities Public Television, state funding makes up about 1 percent of its operating budget, according to the station’s Web site.

But Lakeland Public Television, which sends channels to Brainerd and Bemidji, leans on state funding even more. It makes up 8 percent to 18 percent of the budget, and federal funding is tied to the amount of state funds received, said General Manager Bill Sanford. When state funding drops, so does the entire budget, he said.



Another cost

The tab for conversion is piled onto every station’s normal operating budget. It’s a costly process, and even the electricity bill will go up for many stations, said Bill Strusinski, a lobbyist representing Friends of Minnesota Public Television.

“For those rural stations, it’s problematic,” he said. “They just don’t have the resources.”

The MPTA has already taken advantage of available federal funding, and the state doled out $8 million four years ago and $6.65 million last year for the digital conversion process. But the association hasn’t yet wrapped up the switchover.

To cover the cost, the MPTA asked the House Minnesota Heritage Finance Division recently to include a request for $6.5 million in the bonding bill.

Rep. Phyllis Kahn (DFL-Mpls) sponsors HF1181, which would provide funding to the MPTA. A companion, SF1047, sponsored by Sen. Gary Kubly (DFL-Granite Falls), awaits action by the Senate Finance Committee. So far, the request hasn’t ended up in the bonding bill that has been sent to a conference committee.

Even though it may be hard to fulfill the request during a deficit year, Kahn said lawmakers should take a serious look at the consequences if they don’t grant money to MPTA.

“They do not have the money to do it themselves,” Kahn said.

For the six stations lacking funds for new equipment, filming could be halted on local programming such as spelling bees, workshops and church programs, Strusinksi said.



Expanding

After the upgrade, stations will be able to expand programming. With the space allotted for one analog channel, stations can send out multiple digital channels.

“We are on the air with more services than ever before, that’s the great news about all of the work and all the expense associated with the transition,” said Dan Thomas, chief operating officer for Twin Cities Public Television.

The network sends two channels to analog TV sets, he said. But there are seven digital channels — many devoted to one thing, like children’s education or how-to shows.

The Minnesota Public Television Association has almost completed the transition, Thomas said. The last step would upgrade stations with equipment for the ability to shoot on location in digital.

Not everybody agrees that money for the switch should come from taxpayers’ pockets.

Digital conversion will allow public stations to raise more money, said James Gattuso, a senior research fellow on regulatory policy at the Heritage Foundation, a conservative think tank.

The government assigns the digital signal for free, which comes with space for additional channels. The improved quality and expanded service will attract more viewers, hence, more revenue.

“It seems to be ironic that this opportunity becomes a reason to ask for greater support,” Gattuso said.



Your tube

For those worried whether the transition will leave their TV screen blank, there are options.

For one thing, there’s still some time before the February deadline. Until TV stations are required to shut down their analog signals, most stations, including public stations, will continue to pump them out. When analog goes off the air, it will be business as usual for TVs hooked up to a digital cable or satellite connection.

For TVs using antennas, it’s a different story. While newer sets are capable of receiving digital signals, many old TVs can’t do the job without a converter box. The boxes typically run from $50 to $70, but a federal program offers up to two $40 coupons per household. Like any coupon, there are restrictions. It expires 90 days after the issue date and customers can’t combine coupons to buy one box. To apply for the coupons, visit www.DTV2009.gov.

The digital transition will also hit home at the Legislature, which provides live coverage of House and Senate proceedings.

Because the Capitol’s production crews are not licensed broadcasters, the digital conversion mandate doesn’t apply, said Barry LaGrave, director of House Public Information Services, which produces the televised House proceedings. But much like the owner of a Ferrari in a small town, production crews will find it hard to replace broken parts. Analog equipment will soon be obsolete, so any new equipment purchased will be digital, LaGrave said.

He’s in no hurry to buy the latest technology. Even after the analog production equipment breaks down and is replaced by digital, the House proceedings probably won’t be filmed in high definition. There’s just no reason for it when all you see are the faces of legislators, LaGrave said.

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