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Pubcasters to centralcast DTV

Noncommercial TV stations in the Northwest are working together to make the transition to digital TV less painful and less costly.

The stations are developing a centralcasting system, in which a common master-control room would send and receive programming to and from each of the stations over a network of satellite and fiber.

The system, dubbed the Advanced Digital Distribution Entity (ADDE), could be operational by early 2003. Two weeks ago the participating stations sent a request for proposals to equipment vendors and telecommunications companies.

The project got its start with 13 noncommercial licensees in Idaho, Montana, Oregon and Washington two years ago. It now also includes four stations in northern California and one in Reno, Nev.

"If the FCC weren't mandating that we [make the conversion to DTV by 2006], we wouldn't be doing it with the urgency we are now," said project head Dennis Haarsager, who is general manager, educational telecommunications and technology, at KWSU-TV Pullman, Wash. "Within the public-TV community, there are 40 to 50 stations whose existence is jeopardized by the transition to DTV. A significant number of those are in the rural Northwest, so this is a logical place for this to happen."

By sharing digital resources in an ADDE, Haarsager said, most of the smaller stations will not have to invest in a new master-control system and separate digital distribution gear.

According to Haarsager, the Corporation for Public Broadcasting has put up about $500,000 for ADDE. But the stations will need to raise additional funds to fully implement it.

The Public Broadcasting Service, the stations' principal source of national programming, initiated the effort, hoping it would serve as a model for other stations.

"Stations involved in the regional ADDE would be able to share programs and engineering, and most likely save some operating costs," said John Tollefson, VP and chief technology officer for PBS. "The viewers would still receive all of the local services they do now from their local public station."

"We don't want to reinvent the wheel in each region," Haarsager noted. "The work we're doing here will hopefully help others."

A similar project among stations in the Northeast is in the initial design stages. It's headed by David Liroff, VP and chief technology officer at WGBH-TV Boston.

In the Northwest project, two or three master-control rooms will initially serve the network of stations, Haarsager said, but eventually they will be consolidated into one.

One difference from "centralcasting" systems being developed by commercial station groups, he continued, is that the ADDE is being designed to accommodate stations' local programming.

"Because we're trying to keep control at the station level, we're [unofficially] referring to our model as 'de-centralcasting,'" Haarsager explained. "Our goal is to combine the cost and advantages that commercial broadcast groups are realizing in centralcasting, while maintaining community-service advantages of local ownership."