While ABC, CBS, NBC and other commercial broadcasters try to figure out what they're going to do with the coming transition to digital television, PBS is drawing up ambitious programming plans. The only catch is, the public-TV network has to get Congress to help pay the huge bill for technological conversion.
"The commercial guys are looking for ways to make money on DTV," says Robert Ottenhoff, executive vice president and chief operating officer of PBS. "We see DTV as the way to expand the mission of public television."
The switch from analog to digital transmission will enable broadcasters to pack much more material into the TV spectrum they now use. How they choose to use the technology may vary. Some may offer several TV channels at once or a TV channel and data services; others will offer one channel as they do now but with high-definition pictures and CD-quality sound, far superior to what viewers currently receive.
PBS wants to do some of both. It plans to use digital technology to split its TV signal into four separate channels from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m., Ottenhoff said. One of them would look just like PBS does today. But there also would be a channel exclusively devoted to children's fare, such as "Sesame Street" and "Barney," another would carry how-to shows and a fourth would offer instructional programming for use in schools.
Viewers with digital TV sets could watch any one of the four.
Then at 5 p.m., PBS would switch to a single, high-definition signal to present its programs with super-sharp picture and sound.
The network also would use digital technology to provide additional reference materials--audio and text--for selected shows, such as the documentary series "Frontline" and "Nova." "This will be an extension of our Web site," Ottenhoff said. "Digital TV allows you to download directly through your TV set."
The Federal Communications Commission has mandated that all commercial stations convert to digital television by 2002, with stations in Los Angeles and the other top 10 markets required to begin by May 1999. All public-TV stations must convert to digital by May 2002.
The major broadcast networks have not yet settled on what kind of digital service they intend to provide. Originally, Congress thought all of the networks would offer high-definition television (HDTV). But since the FCC handed out digital licenses last April, broadcasters have suggested that they might find other uses for the spectrum. Some analysts have doubts about whether there is real consumer demand for HDTV because new digital-TV sets will cost $2,500 initially.
PBS plans to start supplying the multiple channels and some high-definition programs by the end of this year, Ottenhoff said, even though only about five PBS stations will have the ability to transmit in digital by that time. An additional 10 markets will be digital by the end of next year, the PBS executive said.
The slow roll-out is due to the fact that installing the equipment needed to produce and transmit the digital signals requires huge investments. PBS estimates that converting its 349 stations will cost $1.7 billion.
PBS is asking the federal government to pay one-third of the bill, $771 million, over the next several years. The Clinton administration is backing a smaller request, $450 million, in a measure currently before Congress.
Although PBS periodically comes under attack from conservative critics in Congress, the home of Big Bird also has friends on Capitol Hill. Ottenhoff thinks the network has a good chance of winning support at least for the $450 million and possibly more.
Even with congressional approval, however, PBS stations will still have to raise at least two-thirds of the $1.7 billion, through capital-improvement campaigns and other fund-raising efforts at stations around the country.
To help build support, PBS is taking its digital act on the road. A 66-foot truck containing a digital-TV studio--with high-definition TV tapes and demonstrations of the classroom and living room of the future--will come to PBS stations around the country this spring. KCET-TV Channel 28 in Los Angeles will be the first PBS station on the tour, May 4 to 8.
The PBS digital tour is being funded primarily by Harris Corp., a communications company whose products include digital equipment.