Channel Turfing

Minorities struggle for a foothold in public television's digital future

Stanley Nelson's documentary The Black Press: Soldiers Without Swords, which screened at last month's Independent Feature Film Market and kicked off the fall season of the ''New Documentaries'' series at the Museum of Modern Art, exemplifies the use of digital technology that will soon become an entertainment standard. Nelson supplemented his story of the nation's black

newspapers with a CD-ROM of material not used in the film. When the nation converts to digital television (DTV) (scheduled to happen by 2003), viewers will be able to access the CD-ROM's content on-screen. DTV also brings the promise of thousands more channels, and because it transmits much more visual information than the current analog standard, the DTV picture has immense clarity and detail.

According to Katie Carpenter, vice president for programming at the Corporation for Public Broadcasting (CPB), Nelson is one of the forward-thinking filmmakers public broadcasting ardently supports as it begins its own transition to digital. ''Soldiers is a prime example of public broadcasting's efforts to make sure the digital future includes minority programming,'' she says. ''It's been immensely well received by PBS, which has given it prominent airtime and promotional efforts.''

Gore Commission member James Yee fears the airwaves could become ''homogenized''
Denise Keim
Gore Commission member James Yee fears the airwaves could become ''homogenized''

But while he received production funding from CPB and PBS, Nelson says they ''had nothing to do'' with his film's digital component. ''[They] didn't fund it, the Annenberg School for Communications did,'' he says, adding that he struggled just to get the film on PBS's lineup, where it is scheduled for broadcast next February.

Funding and airing the work of all communities is a challenge facing public broadcasting as it struggles toward DTV with increasingly tight funds. And making sure minority communities are not left behind is just one of the problems being grappled with by the Gore Commission, a presidential panel currently meeting to determine what the ground rules will be as broadcasters, public and commercial, head into the digital age.

In early September, Frank Cruz, vice president of CPB's board of directors and a commission member, called for increased minority hiring and station ownership. ''If we're going to take taxpayer dollars, CPB and PBS need to be inclusive across the board,'' he says. ''This cannot be window-dressing. Someone has to be a producer, a station manager, an owner, to get that minority perspective into the decision-making process.''

Carpenter says public broadcasting pays close attention to the numbers. ''The goal we're working toward is to have both our employment base and programming schedule be as diverse as the demographics for the nation itself.''

But CPB's report to Congress on the needs of minority audiences, issued in early July, shows that while hiring on the whole at CPB and PBS stations increased 1.8 percent from 1996 to 1997, minority hiring fell by 5 percent. From 1997 to 1998, overall employment for public television and public radio rose 1.3 percent and minority employment fell one-half of 1 percent. Of the 350 CPB-funded PBS stations nationwide, a mere eight are run by minorities. Only one of these, WPBA in Atlanta, is on PBS's list of 19 stations scheduled to convert to DTV by 1999.

''If you don't have minority producers or administrators in positions of leadership,'' asks Mark Lloyd of the Civil Rights Forum on Communications Policy, a Washington watchdog group that monitors minority issues, ''how can you be sure you're serving the needs of those communities or attracting them as viewers?''

The CPB report contains next to no quantifiable information about minority TV viewership. CPB claims minorities are served by programs like Baking With Julia (citing a high percentage of minority viewers) and Charlie Rose, which ''covered minority subjects on over 50 programs''--though it airs five nights a week. There is a long list of both national and local programs relevant to minorities and created at least in part with CPB funds, but no information about whether any of the programs were conceived or created by minority producers and no information about what percentage of the funding was provided by public broadcasting. And there is a mere five pages (out of more than 100) devoted to the minority consortia, a group of five CPB-funded nonprofit organizations dedicated to financing programming by and about African Americans, Native Americans, Asian Americans, Pacific Islanders, and Latinos. The average annual programming budget of each group is $700,000, a collective total that roughly equals the budget for one typical PBS miniseries.

Advocates like Lloyd had hoped to find a statement of support from CPB and PBS for minority programming during the Commission's proceedings. (The last hearing is scheduled for October 26 and 27.) But the eight pages of recommendations submitted to the Commission by CPB, PBS, and America's Public Television Stations (APTS, the umbrella lobbying group for PBS stations nationwide) are utterly silent on minority participation in digital TV. The document focuses instead on funding for public TV in general and argues CPB and PBS are best poised to use any public interest space the Commission might recommend. Advocates for universities, libraries, and community-based television stations would like to utilize the old analog spectrum--accessible side-by-side with digital channels--to transmit classes, facilitate home-based research, or broadcast locally generated programming, but public broadcasting wants the spectrum used another way. CPB, PBS, and APTS have proposed a ''trust fund'' for public broadcasting (which CPB would administer), paid for by a combination of fees from license renewals, transfers, and an auction of the analog spectrum currently in use--despite the fact that this revenue has already been counted toward the federal government's year-2000 balanced-budget agreement.

Hugh Carter Donahue, associate director of the Information and Society Program at the Annenberg Public Policy Center, takes pains to point out that PBS ''has a vital role to play in the DTV future,'' but he suggests another use of the analog spectrum. ''Twenty-five percent of that spectrum in each market should be put aside for public affairs and other programming that is local in origin, content, and interest,'' Donahue says. He suggests auctioning only 50 percent of the spectrum and redirecting that money from the Treasury toward a programming fund. ''The hallmark and ruse of American broadcasting has been the notion that the broadcaster serves their community,'' he adds. ''This could make true localism a reality at last.''

''That kind of access is an important goal, but it's not enough,'' claims CPB's Carpenter. ''CPB has the experience and the expertise to create quality programming. We believe that puts us in the best position to partner with schools, libraries, and other nonprofit groups to deliver digital programs and services.''

Commission member James Yee, the executive director of the Independent Television Service (ITVS) in San Francisco, a CPB-funded organization that awards grants to independent producers, admits there's no neat answer on funding. ''There's been a lot of hyperbole and speculation about how something like a trust fund could work. We haven't even discussed the mechanics or the infrastructure.'' Yee cautions against creating another entity without adequate funding, a longstanding problem for CPB and PBS. ''We can't repeat ourselves by creating another starving child expected to run some huge national undertaking.''

Yee strongly believes CPB and PBS have not yet fulfilled the original mission of public broadcasting. ''As [CPB president] Robert Conrood has said himself, this represents that very opportunity. We must make sure our report strongly ensures the voice of minority communities like ITVS and the minority consortia. We cannot let the airwaves be homogenized.''

Lloyd feels the Commission's work so far hasn't lived up to its potential. ''Television is one of the most important institutions in terms of protecting and preserving our democracy,'' he says. ''But this discussion--which is supposed to be about the obligation of all broadcasters, public and commercial, to serve their local communities--hasn't really happened.''

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