PBS delaying digital switch a win for children

<B>CORRECTION</B> 2/27/09 -- In Thursday’s Mediaology column, the cost of operating KLVX-TV, Channel 10’s transmitter for the next four months was incorrect. The actual cost is $20,000.

Bless their rabbit-eared, transmitter-powered hearts.

Viewers of KLVX-TV, Channel 10 -- specifically those of the parental variety -- got a bonus beyond a doo-wop special or a PBS tote bag for their fund-drive dollars: fair consideration. And from a station with considerably less leeway to offer it.

To wit: After weighing whether to kiss off or keep their analog signals until Congress' new June deadline mandates a total digital conversion, most local stations left the analog light on for us, rescuing those whose TVs haven't yet been zapped by the miracle of digital. Exceptions were KVCW-TV, Channel 33, and KVMY-TV, Channel 21, as dictated by owner Sinclair Broadcasting.

Lisa Howfield, general manager of KVBC-TV, Channel 3, summed it up: "As broadcasters, aren't we here to serve the community? There's an energy cost to keeping a transmitter, as high as $5,000 a month. That's a good reason (to switch) but not good enough."

Commendable sentiment that especially taxes Channel 10. About half of PBS' 356 stations severed analog lifelines to viewers, sidestepping ongoing energy/repair costs and ditching the digitally deprived. But Channel 10 still administers CPR to a 30-year-old transmitter -- most spiral into a death rattle after 20 -- patched with what general manager Tom Axtell calls "bailing wire and bubble gum," wheezing at 47 percent power. The extra four-month, $200,000 electrical expense for dying equipment saddles their ledger after funding tumbled 23 percent from the last fiscal year for a station largely living off the kindness of donors, rather than off declining yet still reliable ad revenue at commercial stations.

"Every source, from corporate to foundations to individual giving to tax support are down," says Axtell, who has laid off no employees, but 10 positions remain vacant among a staff of 67. The tipping factor in the decision to delay all-digital? The peewee demo.

"When you see that 35,000 homes (locally) have no way to get television except over the air, that underestimates the impact of a sign off," he says, and that's because another 105,000 homes have secondary sets not decked out digitally. That's a crucial statistic, particularly for parents.

"The second or third set is often used by children to watch educational programming," he says, citing national PBS research. "Most of those don't have a converter box. If you end that TV, the impact on young learners is magnified."

Pressures on PBS stations to serve public interests always outweigh expectations of commercial television, given their reliance on our largess, and especially true in these tight times. Our revenue demands their responsibility.

Channel 10 pays the bucks and doesn't buckle. While others unplug analog life support, they provide a vital viewership -- children -- a feeding tube for brain TV.

As for their transmitter: Here's hoping their bailing wire has the strength of stainless steel and their bubble gum the texture of Crazy Glue.

Contact reporter Steve Bornfeld at sbornfeld@reviewjournal.com or 702-383-0256.