WFYI-TV adds digital channels

December 3, 2007

WFYI-TV Channel 20 has quietly launched two public television channels, but a third station that's about to launch should pack the biggest punch.

The Indiana Channel will feature an all-local lineup, including extensive live coverage of the Indiana General Assembly, judicial proceedings, and arts and cultural programming.

"It will be like C-Span, but focused on Indiana," said WFYI President Lloyd Wright.

WFYI hopes to have the new digital channel operational by February. All three of WFYI's new channels are the result of digital technology upgrades.

The station has invested $12 million in its digital conversion since 1996. The money came from corporate and individual donors and government and foundation grants.

In addition, WFYI has raised $17.2 million since October 2003 for a $20.2 million capital campaign needed to purchase and renovate a building at 1630 N. Meridian St., where it plans to move by May. It will continue to raise money after the move, if necessary, and was just granted a $900,000 Kresge Challenge Grant if the remaining $2.1 million can be raised by Sept. 30.

"WFYI is in a very good place in terms of digital technology and use of the digital spectrum," said Paula Kerger, president of Arlington, Va.- based Public Broadcasting Service, during a recent tour of WFYI's new facilities. "Among public broadcasters, I would put [WFYI] out in front of the curve."

Public broadcasters are feeling the heat to fund the infrastructure for the digital conversion and to supply programming for new channels, Kerger said.

"I would love to spend all day thinking about where we're going to find the next Ken Burns," she said. "But the truth is, I go to bed worrying about money and I wake up worrying about money. I think many public broadcasters are in the same situation."

WFYI is in a stronger financial position than most, Kerger said.

The station has been raising funds not only for technology and facility upgrades, but also to increase its endowment from $1.5 million to $5 million. Contributions have already pushed the endowment to $3.5 million.

PBS has 354 local member stations nationwide, and many of them are trailing WFYI into the digital era, industry experts said. But having enough money to market the changes is still a challenge.

"We do a lot of preaching to the choir by airing announcements on our own TV and radio stations," Wright said. "Now, we want to get the word out to a broader audience. We think there's going to be lots of interest in our new offerings."

WFYI has begun using "new media," including a presence on Web sites such as Facebook and YouTube, to get the word out.

Wright and Kerger think digital programming enhancements will broaden public TV's audience significantly.

Digital technology allows TV stations to squeeze four signals in the spectrum a single analog signal occupies. And the digital signal provides a picture superior to that of its analog predecessor.

That means WFYI can now offer more programming not found on commercial TV, with a heavy emphasis on locally generated shows, Wright said.

"The technology has finally caught up with the mission of public television," he said.

Receiving the new channels isn't as difficult as many viewers think, industry experts said. Any high-definition TV can pick them up with an antenna. Digital cable subscribers also get the channels.

And many regular cable subscribers can get the new channels if they have a TV set purchased in the last couple of years and they obtain a cable card from their cable provider.

"The cable card is the size of a credit card--easily installed--and the cost is nominal," said Comcast Cable spokesman Mark Apple.

The call for more local programming is universal among public broadcasters and their viewers, said Bill Cahoe, director of Ball State University Teleplex, which operates public station WIPB-TV Channel 49 in Muncie.

"We're not only hearing from viewers that want more local programming they won't find on commercial television, we're hearing from local content providers that want more of an opportunity to get their content out in front of people," Cahoe said.

Wright is hopeful that additional opportunities to air local programming will spur an increase in work for Indiana video producers. Wright said WFYI will work with PBS to gain national distribution for high-quality local productions, which in turn will be good for the state.

"We're very focused on trying to create more local content that tells the stories of Hoosiers," Wright said.

The Indiana Channel got a big boost in spring 2007 when the General Assembly allocated $4 million to launch the station and connect it to public stations statewide, which should happen by 2009. The money also will likely help fund some initial programming, including the General Assembly coverage.

The Indiana Channel also will include heavy doses of local shows focused on Indiana arts, culture, education, history and more. It will air programs around the clock.

It will join a WFYI lineup that will comprise a channel airing traditional WFYI-TV Channel 20 fare; one airing programs from PBS, the BBC and other national and local providers in high definition; and WFYI Plus, airing some of the same programs on the traditional WFYI channel and an expanded lineup of shows not otherwise available.

The high-definition channel and WFYI Plus recently began airing and also offer around-the-clock programming.

The Indiana Channel might have to supplant one of those offerings initially, but all will likely fit into the spectrum as digital technological advances continue.

The content on all channels will be streamed nonstop on WFYI's Web site.

"This is an exciting time for TV, and a time of immense opportunity," said Scott Uecker, a veteran broadcaster and University of Indianapolis communications instructor. "It's also a very stressful time for TV."

Some industry insiders worry that, with all its fund raising for the digital conversion and other capital projects, WFYI's solicitation well could run dry.

Wright has learned to have faith in his central Indiana backers. He is no longer surprised at the outpouring of support WFYI has received for its efforts to enter the digital era.

"In the 1990s, I didn't have any idea where the money was going to come from," Wright said. "But it came. I think it's a validation that our constituents like what we're doing."

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