Public TV sees changeover as an opportunity

Steve Adams

For public TV, the changeover to digital is an opportunity to expand its channel offerings and take the lead in a campaign to raise public awareness about the changes.

Beginning in April, WGBH-TV plans an extensive education campaign including TV and radio messages and outreach to community groups, libraries and senior citizen centers, president and CEO Jonathan Abbott said.

‘‘We’ll raise the issue and ring the bell after the (converter) boxes are available,’’ Abbott said.

Digital converter boxes will begin arriving in many electronics stores next month, although the changeover to digital broadcasts won’t happen until February 2009. The federal government is offering $40 coupons to offset the cost of the converters.

People who have older TV sets with analog tuners and who get their TV signals from antennas will need to buy a converter to continue using their existing TVs.

With lingering public confusion about the nuts and bolts of the transition, the Association of Public Television Stations has pledged $50 million to support the campaign. Congress has allocated $5 million for educating consumers about the coupon program, a sum that Abbott says is insufficient given the widespread unawareness about the issue.

In testimony before a House subcommittee in October, Abbott asked lawmakers to allocate an extra $20 million for education.

Public broadcasters see the digital changeover as a key opportunity to deepen their market penetration. Members of the American Cable Association have agreed to carry at least four public TV channels in their basic packages after the changeover.

Public TV broadcasters secured another new market last month when El Segundo, Calif.-based DirecTV agreed to carry local public TV stations in high-definition beginning this year. DirecTV, which has 16.6 million customers in the U.S., also will carry two national public TV channels in standard definition. Negotiations are still taking place with Englewood, Colo.-based Dish Network parent EchoStar Communications, the second-largest U.S. satellite provider.

‘‘It’s just a matter of the satellite companies waking up and realizing that as new services are available, they ought to figure out a way to keep up,’’ Abbott said.

WGBH has been steadily converting its production to high-definition, with shows such as ‘‘Antiques Road Show,’’ ‘‘Frontline’’ and ‘‘Nova’’ switching to the new format.

‘‘The first order is to get everything produced for prime time, and ultimately our kids’ programming,’’ Abbott said.

The Patriot Ledger