PBS Stations to Seek Carriage Help

Public TV broadcasters might enlist the aid of local regulators for assistance in gaining carriage for second- and third-tier digital signals on local cable systems.

John Lawson, president and CEO of the Association of Public Television Stations, said the national group is still focused on obtaining national carriage.

To date, though, only Time Warner Cable and Insight Communications Co. have made commitments to carry public broadcasting stations in digital format.

Local stations have attempted to meet with system-level MSO officials, he added, but have had little success even getting in the door.

As a result, APTS has a revised cable strategy under review, which will direct PBS stations to attempt to influence local officials to include blanket carriage among their demands in refranchising negotiations.

The organization is less concerned about primary PBS stations in major markets, but more with secondary outlets, often affiliated with local universities.

"Clearly, [cable] is not interested in carrying community-college and other licensees, even though they reach underserved audiences and don't duplicate programming" of primary PBS outlets, he said.

He offered several examples, including Washington, D.C., where Comcast Corp. has an affiliation with WETA, the major outlet and a producer of national programming for PBS. But three other public stations — one affiliated with Howard University and two in Northern Virginia that air K-12 educational shows and foreign language programming — have no carriage agreements.

"In national meetings, cable has shown interest in services to drive digital penetration, in high-definition television, which we're interested in, too. But adult-literacy programs that air during the day, that is not something that excites them," Lawson said.

The real tension comes from cable's desire to preserve shelf space for revenue-producing channels, Lawson said.

At this point, APTS has only "initiated contact" with organizations such as the National Association of Telecommunications Officers and Advisors, Lawson said.

A strategy to raise the issue in refranchising could have impact in major markets. For instance, Los Angeles is in negotiations for new agreements with Comcast, Time Warner Cable, Cox Communications Inc., Adelphia Communications and Charter Communications (the latter has a system with less than 100 subscribers).

APTS might also partner with groups with a stake in the analog spectrum that will be returned to government control once the digital transition is complete.