KSMQ loses out on digital upgrade funding

Published 12:00 am Tuesday, May 16, 2000

The lack of state funding this year could be disastrous for Austin public television station KSMQ Channel 15.

Tuesday, May 16, 2000

The lack of state funding this year could be disastrous for Austin public television station KSMQ Channel 15.

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Specifically, six Minnesota public TV stations had asked for $11.5 million from the state Legislature to be used toward converting the stations from analog to a digital broadcasting format. KSMQ, if the funding had been approved, could have gotten $2.4 million – which then could have been used to get a 40 percent matching grant from the federal government.

"We had hoped to get a kick start this year," KSMQ interim manager John Wilcox said. "Basically, we need state support to make this work. Without it, it won’t."

However, the federal government has mandated that the public television stations have until May 1, 2003, to make the conversion work. There is $110 million in federal funds available, but only as matching grants at the moment. The Legislature’s dropping of the digital conversion funding this year could make it very difficult to comply with the federal mandate.

"There are more than 1,700 stations in the U.S. that have to change," Wilcox said, either by that year or the year before. "There already are delays with equipment because of the sheer volume. And there are only a few tower crews, people who can actually do the work. … By not putting the funding through, they’ve shortened our timetable by a year."

Wilcox estimated the conversion would cost KSMQ a minimum of $1.5 million, and that’s just to give the station the capability to "do the pass through." To give them the capability to be able to feed local programming into the digital transmitter, the master control would have to be upgraded. That would put costs at closer to $3 million.

Advantages of digital broadcasting include enhanced video and sound quality and an increased capacity to broadcast: KSMQ could broadcast up to six channels of programming at once, Wilcox explained.

The interim manager wasn’t sure why the issue had been dropped, he only found out the day before the Legislature’s final vote that it hadn’t made it into any of the final bills. He thought that at the most basic level, it was simply that there wasn’t enough money to go around, with the three-way split and all.

"It’s a political year," he said. "They wanted to give a rebate, and there were a lot of needy projects. Besides, I don’t think we ever really got the governor’s ear."

Although Wilcox was disheartened by the news, he said the folks at the local public TV station were looking for other ways to raise funds and looking ahead to next year’s legislative session.

"We did our best, but it wasn’t to be," he said. "We’ll go back at it next year. In the meantime, we may be trying out how to raise some of the funds locally. We had wanted to wait until after we got the state grant to do that, so we could put the two together to get a larger matching grant."

There is a transition period included in the mandate, a loophole, when broadcasting will be both analog and digital. Wilcox said May 1, 2006, or whenever the digital mode has 85 percent penetration, the analog signal will be turned off.

"If we don’t have a digital service by then, we go dark and go home," he said.