Jim Goodmon Encourages the Legislature to Pass UNC-TV Funding
Jim Goodmon, President and CEO of Capitol Broadcasting Company, on behalf of UNC-TV Public Television, wrote an editorial stating the importance of UNC-TV and what the funding delays in the North Carolina Legislature could mean to the future of the network. The Editorial was published in the News and Observer on Sunday, August 8, and is presented here in its entirety.
The Signal is Clear: UNC-TV Needs Help
By JAMES F. GOODMON
As someone who has spent a career in commercial broadcasting, I am keenly aware of the critical role public television plays in keeping the standards of program quality and public service high for the viewing audience. I am proud of my own service on the UNC Center for Public Television’s Board of Trustees. But I am worried about the future of statewide public television in our state. A major deadline faces UNC-TV that is less than four years away, and if it fails to meet it, statewide public television in North Carolina will come to an end. This is not an idle threat or an exaggeration. It is completely real. Furthermore, the real tragedy is that it could occur without anyone wanting or intending for it to take place.
How could such a thing happen? It is directly related to the Federal Communication Commission’s order that all television broadcasters convert their facilities from the current “analog” technology to digital television technology (DTV) by May 2003. That includes UNC-TV. (In my company, WRAL-HD is already on the air broadcasting a high-definition digital picture — the first station in the country to do so.) The FCC has stated that failure to meet this deadline will result in the loss of digital broadcasting licenses. In other words, this is the equivalent of the death penalty for a broadcaster. This is a challenge related to both time and money.
Because UNC-TV is actually a statewide network made up of 11 transmitters (most TV stations just have one), the cost of UNC TV’s conversion to DTV is much higher than that of most broadcasters. The current cost has been calculated at $61.6 million — or, approximately $15 million a year for the next four years. Because UNC-TV is licensed to the UNC system, the cost of its facilities and infrastructure has historically been funded by the General Assembly. This is fortunate, because $61.6 million is three times UNC-TV’s annual operating budget, and the likelihood of the network being able to raise this amount through fund-raising efforts in time to make the required conversion in addition to the cost of its continuing operations is, frankly, extremely remote. Thus, those of us who support public television in North Carolina are grateful to the General Assembly for its historic support of UNC-TV, and its years of investment in developing a statewide system. We look to it again for the funds to convert UNC-TV to digital technology.
Unfortunately, the digital conversion funding requested in the last session of the legislature became caught up in the impasse that developed over much larger sums of money proposed for a multi-billion dollar bond to cover a multitude of maintenance, construction and repair needs for the entire 16-campus UNC system. As a result, the session ended with no money appropriated for DTV — although funding for this project enjoys virtually unanimous support in the legislature.
Some might ask why this creates a crisis. After all, can’t the next session of the General Assembly rectify this problem? The answer is that the problem is not only one of money, but one of time. Put simply, DTV conversions are major construction projects that require many months to plan and complete. With broadcasters all over the country working hard to meet FCC deadlines, the equipment and skilled personnel required to perform this work are in high demand. Each project also involves a process of acquiring permits, gaining regulatory approvals and many other complexities. Waiting for another year to even find out if it will have the funds to move ahead could be disastrous for UNC-TV and the 2.5 million citizens who watch the network each week.
Meanwhile, the FCC’S deadline draws nearer with each passing day. In addition, there is a proposal in Congress to provide federal matching funds for digital conversion of public TV stations. If the money is not appropriated for UNC-TV, then there is a very real chance we could miss out on some, or all, of the federal match. We need to start the conversion process now, to meet the deadline.
Ironically, I do not believe that it is the intention of anyone involved in these decision-making processes to do anything that would jeopardize UNC-TV’s existence. But there is a need for concerned citizens to clarify the gravity and the urgency of this situation to those leaders who have always been so supportive of statewide public television in North Carolina.
It is my hope and belief that once the full dimensions of this problem are known, the people of this state and their elected leaders will be united in the determination to take timely action assuring that public television will continue to be available to all the homes and classrooms in North Carolina in the coming millennium.