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'Particularly Transformative'

Public TV Seeing Transition in Leadership and Tech

Public television stations are focusing on streaming and pursuing advances in ATSC 3.0 and leadership transitions, speakers at America’s Public Television Stations Public Media Summit said Tuesday. “We are a system in transition in terms of technology and clearly in terms of leadership,” said Franz Joachim, CEO of New Mexico PBS and APTS board chair.

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In the past three years, 76 public TV stations have changed general managers, 48% of the system, said Joachim. The 2024 summit saw a farewell speech from retiring longtime APTS CEO Patrick Butler and the introduction of APTS general counsel Michelle Shanahan, hired in November. “This point in time feels particularly transformative,” Shanahan told the crowd. On Monday, Butler said that of 260 station GMs in place when he took the helm of APTS in 2011, only 22 remain. Butler also told the summit that “a promising new generation of media leaders” must convince lawmakers of public television's benefit. “You are that generation,” he told the summit crowd.

Public TV stations should use ATSC 3.0 to make broadcasters part of the nation’s broadband infrastructure, Joachim said. Thirty public TV stations have converted to ATSC 3.0, with two more expected to do so next month and five others are in progress, Shanahan said. APTS has representatives in all three working groups in the Future of TV Initiative ATSC 3.0 task force, but Shanahan declined to comment in detail on progress in that effort.

Using rural translators, broadcasters can reach rural communities and be “a tremendous bridge” for attacking the digital divide rather than “an ancillary service to rural communities until they become broadband capable,” Joachim said. He is speaking with equipment manufacturers about using ATSC 3.0 to provide on-demand content free over the air. “I'm all in favor of higher quality video, quality audio, but people want on demand,” Joachim said.

A program in California that uses public TV datacasting to send earthquake warnings to first responders in a bit more than two seconds has progressed to phase two, said Northern California Public Media CEO Darren LaShelle.

Started as a pilot on five stations in 2018, ShakeAlert is expanding to six other stations, LaShelle added. The system uses U.S. Geological Survey sensors along major fault lines. It allows emergency communications to reach rural areas in Northern California that can’t receive wireless emergency alerts, said Lori Nexhura, of the California Governor’s Office of Emergency Services. The system can be tied into first responder equipment to provide a head start on earthquake readiness, LaShelle said. For example, the software could automatically open garage doors at firehouses before an impending quake, preventing trucks from being sealed inside by a possible power outage.

Streaming is a growth opportunity for public TV stations, said Andrew Russel, CEO of PBS SoCal. Streaming industry revenue and viewing time increase 20% annually, Russel noted. “So who’s taking advantage of that? It’s on us to respond and invest” in a growing medium, Russel told the summit. “That’s where viewers are going.” As commercial streamers increasingly move to ad-supported models and raise subscription prices, public television streaming offerings can distinguish themselves by remaining “uninterrupted” and free, Russel said.

While entering the streaming sphere, public broadcasters should heed state and federal data privacy laws concerning viewer data they gather, Shanahan said. In addition, audiences generally have higher expectations of public broadcasters than of other entities, she said. That makes transparency about data collection and use more important “to protect audience relationships and trust,” she said.