CPB’s Digital Game Plan

Provided we all make it through Y2K safely, the Corporation for Public Broadcasting has another milestone in mind "2K3" denoting the final, April 2003 deadline for all of the nation’s 1600 television stations to be broadcasting in digital. Among those stations making the mighty analog-to-digital conversion are some 350 public television stations, which hope to bring with them their small-but-steady Nielsen ratings (an average 2 percent market share), their firm commitment to "education, culture, and citizenship," and, most importantly, some novel ideas about the nature of TV in the digital age.

Fueling those novel ideas is the CPB’s "Going Digital" program, whose call to the independent film and video community late last year was a welcoming one: "We invite producers, with technology and education partners, to push the envelope on what interactive television can do. Imagine being able to capture all the potential of a subject in a digital format"not just the taped or filmed portions, but also additional text documents and graphics gathered for the production, primary source material, interviews, and other educational materials, and the ability to interact with the viewers. We extend this invitation to every producer who has had to shorten or oversimplify a rich and complex subject, or has had to leave revealing interviews, illuminating archival footage, or whole story lines on the cutting room floor." But more than simply a larger vessel, the digital medium will be more participatory as well, according to CPB: "The digital future is a highly interactive place where constant communication makes the most flexible and exciting projects possible."

Or so the theory runs. But those "flexible and exciting projects" won’t come cheaply, and thus CPB hopes to raise $8 million a year from private sources for its new digital initiative. The Washington-based agency will also draw on its federal appropriation, which grew to $300 million this year (up $50 million from FY 1999), but less than a fifth of that total is available to support new programming. About half of CPB’s grant-making budget goes directly to the local stations, and the vast majority of those outlets (fully 85 percent, in fact) produce no original programming at all.

Still, CPB is optimistic that this, too, will change in the digital era, and that the transition to digital broadcast will provide an opportunity to "learn how to use a technology that has the potential to help us fulfill our mission"to fund programming and services that emphasize education, innovation, diversity, and local relevance"better than ever before." And if all of that sounds like so much Washington huff-and-puffery, it’s equally true that the noncommercial broadcast sector represents the best chance we’ll have for meaningful innovation in the realm of DTV. While the commercial networks will surely deliver pay-per-view entertainment, home shopping, and breathtaking shots of the same touchdown run from 12 different angles, public broadcasters will be encouraged to probe more deeply into digital’s possibilities.

Of the several options that DTV represents"high-definition programming, ancillary data streams, multicasting, and something called "enhanced television"CPB is most interested in the latter two. But it’s enhanced TV where independent producers have the best entry point. This new form, the agency explains, "will combine the flexibility of the interactive computer with the engagement of storytelling to create a new breed of multilinear entertainment – neither television nor computer but a complex and stimulating hybrid." For that reason, CPB has fashioned alliances with a number of groups from the emerging world of multimedia (including Intertainer, Razorfish, and the MIT Media Lab), who are more apt to regard audiences as players or participants than as passive spectators.

The formerly distinct fields of computers and television, insists CPB Senior Program Officer Louis Barbash, will soon travel in the same orbit. "Those worlds have to come closer together," he observes. "What you’ve got here – and this is one of the main sermons we’ve been preaching – is that in order for these [enhanced television projects] to work in a way that is meaningful for public TV, each one has to be a collaboration among people who know television, people who know education, and people who know technology."

Accordingly, CPB’s "Going Digital" guidelines sketch a future of television that puts new power in the hands of viewers, armed with "interactive keypads or remote controls" that allow them "to navigate seamlessly through program elements for additional resources, text, graphics, animation, or audio clips. (for examples of CPB-funded projects, see sidebar.) Documentaries may offer opportunities to see extended interview excerpts or supporting documents. Shows on controversial topics may allow viewers to ‘discuss’ the program with other viewers in interactive chat rooms while the program is still on the air. Other formats may allow viewers to experience a mystery from the perspective of four different characters. The possibilities are infinite"limited only by the producer’s imagination."

Well, limited by their imaginations and their production budgets, and no one is certain yet just what the economics of DTV will turn out to be, especially for noncommercial broadcasters. While Mitsubishi, in the interest of stimulating demand for its fancy new DTV receivers, will be underwriting CBS’s HDTV programming this fall, no such corporate angels have rushed in to offer similar support for public broadcasting. And CPB support for new digital projects will be fairly modest. "It depends entirely on the project," explains Barbash. "With respect to the digital prototypes, most funded projects have been in the five-figure range. The more original and elaborate the project is . . . the higher the amount granted tends to be."

"The real challenge here is not technological," adds Barbash. "The real challenge is a creative challenge: what does this new technology allow you to do, that you always wanted to do but were never able to? . . . Independent producers tend to be people who make films because they’ve got something to say – they’ve got stories to tell, or ideas to communicate. And the question is, what’s the best way to convey those ideas, what’s the best way to tell that story? And what digital technology gives you is a much broader canvas to paint on and a much more varied palette to choose from."

Whether the public broadcasting "gallery" in which these new works will be shown turns out to be equally accommodating, or whether it will inherit the same distribution bottlenecks that afflict the current system, is another matter entirely. Nor, in this early, exploratory phase, is it possible to predict precisely where CPB funding is headed"or, indeed, where CPB itself is headed, given recent staff changes at the agency. Most significantly, Katie Carpen-ter, vice president for programming at CPB, was abruptly relieved of her duties last March, and the agency entered what one insider called a "circle-the-wagons mode" for some time thereafter. Credited by many with being one the genuine visionaries behind the agency’s DTV plans (including a proposed "Convergence Lab" in Manhattan that remains on hold), Carpenter received word of her firing on the night before she was scheduled to represent CPB at the Asian-American Film Festival in San Francisco.

More recently, in an internal memorandum to staff that raised as many questions as it answered, CPB President Robert Coonrod acknowledged that various "internal realignments" were forthcoming. "For us, as for nearly everyone associated with telecommunications," wrote Coonrod, "the status quo is not a viable option. This means change for all of us, professional disruption for some."

Depending on one’s interpretation of the "status quo" and of CPB’s mixed record in providing leadership in the area of public telecommunications policy, Coonrod’s somewhat cryptic declaration may be taken as a positive sign. In any event, CPB still wasn’t talking when this issue of The Independent went to press, but the new technology itself may yield some of the answers: for the latest information on CPB’s digital initiative and its upcoming grant deadlines, visit the agency’s web site at www.cpb.org

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