CHAT ROOM: Next Gen TV Enhances Public Television’s Mission

In the Chat Room this month, THE STANDARD sat down with Patrick Butler, President and CEO of America’s Public Television Stations. Leading APTS since 2011 is the capstone of Butler’s storied career in media and government service. He’s a passionate advocate for ATSC 3.0 and sees Next Gen TV figuring prominently in public television’s future.

THE STANDARD: When the Public Broadcasting Act of 1967 was signed into law, about 25 percent of U.S. households had a color TV. Five decades later, digital broadcasting is pervasive and HDTVs are ubiquitous. Tell us about public television’s vision for the next 50 years.

BUTLER: Public television’s first mission was education, and the vision of lifelong learning remains compelling for all of us in the system. In addition to the pre-school education for which public television is well known and which serves 18 million very young people every year, public television has expanded to include PBS LearningMedia, a collection of more than 120,000 curriculum-aligned, interactive digital learning objects which help almost two million registered teachers and users educate 40 million K-12 students and tens of thousands of home schoolers every day. We also operate virtual high schools bringing expert instruction in specialized subjects to the most rural and remote classrooms in America. We manage the largest non-profit GED program in America, helping tens of thousands of second-chance learners get their high school equivalency diplomas. And we’re a growing contributor to workforce development, providing customized job training and certification that meet local markets’ needs.

Our second public service mission is public safety. Public television stations have committed 1 Megabit per second of our digital bitstream to support the new FirstNet federal public safety network. We play a critical role in the Wireless Emergency Alert system that sends local emergency information to cell phone subscribers nationwide. We provide the backbone for the emergency communications network that allows the President of the United States to communicate reliably and securely with the American people in times of national emergency. We have a strategic partnership with the U.S. Department of Homeland Security to promote public television’s well-tested public safety datacasting capabilities to homeland security, law enforcement and emergency communications agencies throughout the country. And we are connecting a growing number of state and local law enforcement and first responder agencies with one another and with the public in times of local crisis to keep communities safe.

Our third mission is civic leadership, through which we serve as the “C-SPAN” of many state governments, host trusted candidate debates at every level of the ballot, and produce almost 200 local news, public affairs, history and cultural series on a daily or weekly basis to connect our viewers with their local communities. We think of our viewers as citizens first, and we are dedicated to providing them with the information they need to govern the world’s most important democracy.

These public service missions go well beyond the traditional television service that actually began well before the 1967 Public Broadcasting Act, and we expect that in the next 50 years we will see dramatic improvements and enhancements in all of these public service missions, provided to everyone, everywhere, every day, for free, by public television stations. Using our spectrum in these creative ways – and more already on the drawing boards – will revolutionize the power and purpose of public television.

THE STANDARD: How do the enabling technologies in the ATSC 3.0 suite of standards fit with public media’s mission?

BUTLER: The Next Gen broadcast standard is immensely important to the future of public television, for a variety of reasons: It will give the viewer new picture and sound quality that are truly transformative and new mobility options that can make any mobile phone or tablet a portable TV. This same enhanced mobility can create a powerful new educational and public safety tool available to everyone everywhere. Equipment manufacturers are already preparing to include ATSC 3 chips in their new products, and we’re hopeful that our friends in the wireless industry will be willing to activate these chips.

The new standard will give us a spectral efficiency, too, that can foster many more specialized channels for learning, public safety and public affairs, further enhancing the core missions of public television, as well as providing new service and revenue opportunities for our stations across the country. And because the new standard is IP based, it can be a platform for constant innovation and improvement that will enhance our public service missions while benefiting our industry and everyone we serve.

The adoption of ATSC 3.0 this year will let us make a single transition in the wake of the spectrum auctions – both repacking our channels and transitioning to ATSC 3.0 on a voluntary, market-by-market basis. It’s very exciting; it couldn’t be more timely or strategic for public television; and we’re eager to see the new standard adopted.

THE STANDARD: Pat, you’re more of a Washington insider than virtually all other broadcasting executives. How do you read the tea leaves on the FCC’s Next Gen TV rulemaking? 

BUTLER: Well, I’ve been at this a long time, if that’s what you mean. I think it’s clear to anyone interested in this subject that the FCC under Chairman Pai’s leadership is proceeding quickly, though carefully and thoughtfully, toward the approval of this new suite of standards. Commissioner O’Rielly has said publicly that he thinks the process may be complete by Halloween, and an FCC-approved ATSC 3.0 broadcast standard would be quite a treat for public television stations and the millions of people who use our services every day.