PBS plans digital future

Org receives $200,000 grant for public affairs channel

WASHINGTON — The Public Broadcasting System isn’t waiting around for the feds to decide whether cable companies will be forced to carry more than one signal per broadcaster in the digital future.

Org announced Thursday that it had received a grant of $200,000 from the John S. & James L. Knight Foundation to help fund planning of a new digital public affairs channel. Private grant is the first PBS has received for a programming initiative.

New project, dubbed “PBS Public Square,” would expand the pubcaster’s digital offerings, which already include “PBS You” and “PBS Kids.”

“This opportunity really expands our footprint and our commitment to public affairs,” Jacoba Atlas, senior veep of PBS programming, told Daily Variety. “We’re about treating our viewers as citizens, not consumers … and this new digital channel will help us do that even better.”

Idea is to create an electronic public square, a channel or programming product entirely devoted to local, national and global news and opinion. Some of PBS’ most popular shows –“The NewsHour With Jim Lehrer,” “Washington Week,” “Frontline,” “Frontline World” and “Now With Bill Moyers” — would air on the new channel in addition to original content.

Execs predict the channel could be up and running as early as January 2005.

Despite PBS enthusiasm about the grant, $200,000 is small change for the launch of a new channel. Grant will fund only the brainstorming sessions necessary to come up with original content; PBS topper Pat Mitchell estimated establishing “PBS Public Square” will cost anywhere from $25 million to $100 million.

Org will have to work quickly to raise the cash needed to have the channel up and running by 2005.

“We will begin the fund-raising process right away,” Atlas said.

Such an investment in digital programming is consistent with PBS’ record and demonstrates the org’s confidence about the upcoming regulatory battle.

In the next few months, Federal Communications Commission officials likely will decide whether they will force cablers to carry more than one signal from broadcasters after the transition to digital TV is complete.

Public television has a huge stake in the decision, having raised more than $1 billion to underwrite its transition to digital (the majority from state governments). PBS and other public stations want the FCC to force cablers to carry multiple signals so they can justify the investment.

Some PBS stations have already negotiated initial deals with cablers –including Comcast, Time Warner Cable and Insight — to carry their digital programming. But those deals are good only through the end of the DTV transition and PBS would be thrilled to have the government rule in its favor.

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