Signal from the feds

A reported $8.2 million federal aid package is destined to be used to help get New York City broadcasters back on the air, but attempts to verify specifics last week proved as confusing as playing Chinese checkers in the dark.

According to a published account, the Metropolitan Television Association had lobbied Congress for the money, arguing that after the Sept. 11 terrorist attack, New York broadcast stations had difficulty reaching the entire viewing area in non-cabled homes; that is about 20% of the market.

New York stations had their transmitters and antennas on top of the World Trade Center's north tower. Since the disaster, stations have been using makeshift facilities atop the Empire State Building and at a site in Alpine, N.J.

But Doug Land, executive director of the umbrella group that represents New York stations, says there were no lobbying efforts and that the first time he heard of the funding was when he read about it in The New York Times.

Then, from what he learned from his sources in Washington, the money was specifically aimed at "public broadcasting" facilities, not for the construction of the new tower or transmission facilities for commercial television stations.

"I checked with WNET New York, and they said they don't know anything about it either," Land said, referring to New York's PBS outlet. "So, in all candor, we don't know anything about it. The only message we have gotten is that it is for public broadcasting, and the best we can ascertain it has nothing to do with the tower."

William F. Baker, president and CEO of WNET-TV confirms that he has not heard anything about impending federal funds.

(Radio, neither public nor private, is not part of the package, says a spokeswoman for New York's public radio station, WNYC-FM.)

With Washington basically shut down last week for the holidays and many industry employees on vacation, details were sketchy. Even Land was having difficulty getting specifics.

The Times
said New York Sen. Charles E. Schumer pushed to get aid for the broadcasters that lost their facilities.

Federal aid aside, Land says that the progress towards getting a tower up and running by Sept. 11, 2003 continues to move forward.

Studies are expected to be completed shortly on possible transmission sites, and Land says that the station consortium is now looking for two sites instead of one. Land would like to start construction by next September.

"The one thing we learned after Sept. 11 is that we can never be in a position where a terrorist act deprives the public of free over-the-air television," he says.

"So our objective is to build two fully redundant sites with equal capacity. That means two tall towers. We're exploring every single option in terms of available land and buildings within 3.2 miles of the World Trade Center.

"We're also continuing to talk with the Empire State Building," he adds. "We're doing the studies to determine what needs to be done to accommodate all broadcasters in terms of the structure of the building."