High Tech, Low Profile

Never has a revolution started so quietly. Some 40 stations across the country, from WCBS in New York to KGO in San Francisco, began digital television (DTV) broadcasts last November, and almost no one was watching. At least not on sets capable of receiving the high-definition television (HDTV) signals. Those large-screen models, at $5,000 and up, remain well beyond the reach of most consumers, as do the much less expensive set-top converters (designed for use with existing analog sets and currently costing approximately $1,500), which are just starting to show up in stores.

Thus the DTV revolution, which officially began with ABC’s high-definition broadcast of 101 Dalmatians on November 1, isn’t simply a quiet one. It looks like it will be a remarkably slow one as well. Although stations in the top 30 markets, covering half the population, will be offering digital broadcasts by the end of 1999, the audience for these broadcasts will remain tiny. Forrester Research’s Josh Bernoff, author of a study on the future of DTV, predicts that it will be at least a decade before a majority of American homes are actually equipped with DTV devices. That’s about two years longer than VCRs and audio CD players needed to reach a similar level of market acceptance.

But that timetable could change dramatically once the cable conglomerates, whose coverage is approaching 70 percent of American homes, figure out their role in the digital revolution–and once the Federal Communications Commission decides the extent to which cable companies will be required to include network DTV broadcasts in their basic service (the so-called "must carry" rule). In the meantime, as Gene Faulkner of Atlanta’s WSB-TV told CNN recently, "It’s truly a classic case of the chicken and the egg. Producers don’t want to produce this very expensive programming until there’s a sufficient number of viewers, and viewers don’t want to buy the TVs until the programming is there."

All of which is fine with Public Broadcasting Service (PBS), which never let a scarcity of viewers spoil its party. Indeed, while the major commercial networks seem thoroughly baffled by the new delivery platform (which NBC uses to give us a high-def Tonight Show, of all things, while CBS features a digital Chicago Hope that isn’t even carried in the Windy City), PBS has boldly staked its claim in the new DTV universe. Undaunted by the slender prospects for ratings (since only seven affiliates were up and running with DTV at the time), last fall PBS proclaimed the week of November 9-12 as its "Digital Week," offering a little bit of everything: some high-definition splendor (Chihuly over Venice, in which Dale Chihuly’s monumental glass chandeliers were installed over the Italian city’s canals), a dose of primetime edutainment (Digital TV: A Cringely Crash Course, featuring high-tech personality Robert X. Cringely), a new digital hybrid referred to as "enhanced TV" (in this instance a collaboration with Intel that turned Ken Burns’ two-part Frank Lloyd Wright documentary into a multimedia PC extravaganza), and the opening of a new DTV wing on PBS’s already capacious Web site [www.pbs.org/digitaltv]. And even if the famous glass artist and the legendary architect reached fewer households than Cruella De Vil and those spotted pups, the promise of DTV came through clearly. This could be a chance, as industry analyst Gary Arlen put it, "for broadcasters to reinvent their medium, not merely enhance it." PBS, in its typical fashion, celebrates the advent of DTV with equal parts institutional hubris and public-service piety. The ultimate value of the new medium, a network press release intones, depends "on our own human creativity and ingenuity–on whether we use this extraordinary new technology to improve the quality of our lives, our communities, and our country." More than mere entertainment, then–"more than just quality television," in fact–the network vows to deliver something truly special: "We will harness the power of this new media in ways that improve the quality of life and learning for all Americans."

All of that will take time, of course, not to mention cash–the estimated $1.7 billion it will cost to bring all 350 public television stations into the digital loop (which the FCC requires by 2003), a hefty sum for a $1.6 billion industry. Federal support will reduce some of that burden, but not by the $771 million that the pubcasters requested last year. The Clinton administration recently proposed $450 million in new, digital-conversion funding, but the final figure is still to be determined by Congress. Thus well over $1 billion for the digital upgrade will have to be raised at the state and local levels, from foundations, corporations, and "viewers like you." Even PBS President Ervin Duggan, who’s never met a hyperbole he didn’t like, sounds realistic about public television’s ultimate role in the digital era. "We will invest prudently and not leap out and do rash things that get us too far out ahead of the marketplace," Duggan explained recently, "and we know that digital conversion will be driven more by commercial broadcasters than by us."

But the uncertain economics haven’t stopped PBS from taking at least a small leap into the digital future, trying its hand at each of the four basic DTV options: o HDTV, with twice the resolution and clarity of regular television, a wider aspect ratio (16:9 as opposed to the current 4:3), and six channels of CD-quality sound. o Multicast standard definition TV (SDTV), with four or more simultaneous channels of video superior in quality to existing analog broadcasts.

o "Enhanced" TV, with hundreds of megabytes of supplementary video, audio, text, and images transmitted in the background, adding depth to a particular program. o Datacasting, using a small portion of the digital signal to transmit a wide variety of data much faster than a PC modem.

In the HDTV arena, Gary Gibson’s 90-minute Chihuly over Venice (produced by KCTS in Seattle for over a half-million dollars and scheduled for rebroadcast this July) was just the first in a series of monthly specials that also included a Jessye Norman holiday concert, a Kennedy Center tribute to Muddy Waters, and Over Ireland, part of a planned series of aerial photography showcases. PBS promises a lot more of that bird’s-eye geography in the next several months, with aerial views of Canada, Portugal, and Australia on tap, along with a centennial tribute to Duke Ellington (featuring Wynton Marsalis and the Lincoln Center Jazz Orchestra) later this spring.

However spectacular such programming might be for the tiny fraction of viewers with the requisite equipment, the heart of DTV for PBS (and for most commercial stations) will almost certainly lie in multicasting, in which each station’s 6MHz spectrum is divided into four or more SDTV channels. But while the major networks will be exploring home-shopping channels and various pay-per-view and subscription services, PBS has loftier goals in mind for its new programming real estate. "Just as an art gallery cannot display all of its collections at one time," the network declares (no doubt thinking more along the lines of the Metropolitan Museum than the Leo Castelli Gallery), "public broadcasting has many more hours of educational programming and services than the stations have airtime . . . DTV will enable public television to share more of its wealth of educational and cultural resources with every American than ever before." PBS has already announced the launching of a new kids channel next September, and other educational program streams, from K-12 to adult, will likely follow. Public affairs, arts, and foreign-language programming are also multicast candidates, but network executives are well aware that education is PBS’s strong suit, which may also be its best chance to generate increased earned income.

"The only thing we can sell is education, education, education," observed Barbara Landon, vice president of development at WBRA in Roanoke, Virginia, at a National Educational Telecommunications Association conference last November. Others at that conference, however, acknowledged that instructional television has become a much tougher sell in schools these days, given the ascendancy of computers and the Internet. Thus it’s increasingly important for noncommercial DTV to distinguish itself from its analog past, offering something more than clearer pictures and better sound. In its new incarnation, educational television especially will have to become more interactive, with customizable programming and two-way communications, drawing on the Internet-like aspects of the so-called "enhanced TV" that pubcasters are just starting to explore.

There is another, more fundamental reason for a multicast public broadcasting system to distinguish itself from its single-channel predecessor. Regardless of PBS’s educational prowess and despite the indisputable quality of much of its programming, multicasting cannot simply mean "more of the same" if DTV is going to realize its full potential–or, indeed, if public broadcasting is going to fulfill its original mandate. "[I]t furthers the public interest," as the Public Broadcasting Act of 1967 declared, "to encourage public telecommunications services which will be responsive to the interests of people . . . , which will constitute an expression of diversity and excellence, and which will constitute a source of alternative telecommunications services for all the citizens of the Nation; . . . programming that involves creative risks and that addresses the needs of unserved and underserved audiences, particularly children and minorities…"

Diversity and risk are not the terms that spring immediately to mind when assessing PBS’s polished, often predictable primetime schedule these days, Frontline and P.O.V. notwithstanding. Certainly the original Carnegie Commission on Educational Television envisioned something far more daring when it authored the report (Public Television: A Program for Action) that helped launch the new system over 30 years ago, calling for a noncommercial alternative to NBC, CBS, and ABC. Public broadcasting, according to the commission, "should seek out able people whose talents might otherwise not be known and shared." As a genuinely public system, moreover, "it should provide a voice for groups in the community that may otherwise be unheard . . . , a forum for debate and controversy." And in words that sound especially poignant today, in light of the casualties of the culture wars, "[its] programs should have the means to be daring, to break away from narrow convention, to be human and earthy."

While PBS has given little evidence thus far that it intends to take any risks, aesthetically or politically, in the digital era, there have been some signs of life recently in its bureaucratic uncle, the Corporation for Public Broadcasting (CPB), whose federal appropriation stands at $250 million this year. It’s still too early to assess CPB president Robert Coonrod’s record after Richard Carlson’s middle-of-the-road reign ended in June 1997, but his acknowledgment of the system’s roots is encouraging. "The issue that’s most on my mind," Coonrod explained early last year, not long after assuming the presidency of CPB, "is how we take the declarations of purpose in the Public Broadcasting Act and actually realize them in the digital world. And not just continue what we’ve been doing, which was a splendid job, but do it even better."

For its part, CPB has set aside between three and four million dollars for experimentation under its new "Going Digital" banner, inviting "producers, educators, and others to submit experimental projects that use digital technology’s features to broaden and deepen the education content of programs." The first grants awarded under this program, announced late last year, focus on four priority areas: innovation, education, diversity, and local relevance. "We’re asking producers, educators, technology specialists, and others to be mindful of what digital has to offer," explains Katie Carpenter, CPB vice president for programming. "We invite them to submit proposals that either foreshadow the future or move into areas of innovation not yet found on public television." For that reason CPB is giving less emphasis to either HDTV, which is too costly and reaches too few people, or to datacasting, which PBS has been doing for years under a for-profit subsidiary. (The spring application deadline for Going Digital was April 30 and the fall deadline has yet to be announced. Interested producers should check the CPB website: www.cpb.org/producers/funding/intro.htm) A select handful of viewers (all of them employees of PBS and Intel, using PC prototypes equipped with digital TV tuners) got a glimpse of the future that CPB has in mind during the two-night broadcast of Ken Burns’s and Lynn Novick’s Frank Lloyd Wright last November. After watching the documentary itself (and Burns reportedly insisted that nothing interrupt the three-hour work), these viewers were able to make their way through some 225 megabytes of material that had been downloaded in the background during the broadcast–taking a virtual tour through three of Wright’s buildings, listening to extensive interviews, and otherwise sifting through the excess footage that the Burns/Novick team at Florentine Films made available on 3/4" worktapes for the enhancement effort.

Future enhanced TV projects emerging from CPB’s "digital incubator" include an interactive component for Anna Deveare Smith’s one-woman performance piece on the 1992 Los Angeles riots, Twilight in L.A. A similar project is Third and Indiana, which will combine the Arden Theatre’s production of a play depicting inner-city life in Philadelphia with documentary footage shot at that very street corner by WHYY-TV and a radio series discussing community issues raised by the play. Heidi Gitelman, a graduate student at MIT’s Media Lab and a former TV producer, was brought in to weave together the various strands of this project, and she’s typical of the unlikely supporting cast that CPB has assembled for its various enhanced TV demos. In other projects, CPB has turned to Internet design teams from iXL and Razorfish and to computer experts at the San Diego Supercomputer Center, MIT, and the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism Center for New Media for assistance in navigating the uncharted waters of DTV.

Whether these experimental efforts will ever find their way into American homes is another matter, of course, as is the extent to which the new digital delivery system will encourage programming at the local level. In recent years, three eastern seaboard stations (Boston’s WGBH, New York’s WNET, and Washington’s WETA), along with the Children’s Television Workshop, have provided some 75 percent of PBS’s national schedule. Conversely, fully 85 percent of all public stations produce no original programming at all. The expense of HDTV programming, unfortunately, will only reinforce this trend. But the expanded capacity of multicasting and the increased flexibility of "enhanced TV," on the other hand, have the potential to provide a platform for many new voices–"for the experimenter, the dissenter, the visionary," in the words of the original Carnegie Commission–breathing new life into public broadcasting in the process. In the final analysis, the possibility of accommodating those new voices, putting public broadcasting back in touch with its founding principles, may turn out to be the digital TV revolution’s most revolutionary aspect of all.

About :

Gary O. Larson [glarson@artswire.com] was a contributing editor at The Independent