WGVU Receives Digital Upgrade

December 30, 2004
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GRAND RAPIDSGrandValleyStateUniversity's WGVU-TV may have been one of the latest arrivals to the digital age, but the public television station hopes that it will have the most local impact.

According to information from the Federal Communications Commission (FCC), Congress has determined that broadcast television must eventually convert to digital operation. With that in mind, the FCC began an initiative to hurry along the process to free up the current analog bandwidth for other users, like emergency responders.

When the public TV stations — also known as "noncommercial educational television stations" — were told that their digital facilities must be constructed by May 1, 2003, it was bad news for the nation's PBS carriers.

Much of public stations' operating revenues is derived from donation drives and few had the extra funds needed to launch the costly capital investment required by the unfunded mandate.

WGVU filed for an extension, and the deadline came and went.

Since then, the station has erected a digital transmitter and has begun broadcasting the digital television (DTV) signals, while the recent arrival of $1.6 million in grants and the completion of the $6.5 million WGVU Digital Campaign will help usher the station through the digital conversion.

The Corporation for Public Broadcasting Digital Distribution fund, a fund earmarked specifically for public television stations needing digital upgrades, awarded a grant of $1,523,850 to be used to rebuild the analog master control facility at the MeijerPublicBroadcastCenter

WGVU General Manager Michael Walenta is anxiously awaiting the completion of that upgrade so his station can start realizing the full potential of the new technology.

"This is going to revolutionize the way people use television," he said. "There is a part of the new technology that I think is wonderful and it seems is custom designed for PBS. The beauty (of DTV) is that I can put four channels on simultaneously and you are able to pick the program of your choice."

Similar to how the ability to have multiple programs open simultaneously on a computer screen elevated productivity, DTV's ability to concurrently broadcast different programs could change the way PBS performs its educational mission.

The wide-broadband DTV technology has added value over analog broadcasting in two different forms.

Super-sharp "high definition" (HDTV) is fast gaining popularity in the consumer market, allowing for television programming to provide over twice the resolution of "standard definition" broadcasts as well as audio features such as Dolby digital surround sound.

DTV also allows for multicasting and interactive capabilities wherein a station can concurrently broadcast several different standard definition programs or apply interactive applications to a single program.

"During the day when we do instructional programming for 220,000 West Michigan K-12 students, somebody else at home can watch 'Julia Child' or 'Antique Road Show,'" Walenta said. "This will allow me to put on an instructional channel, a standard PBS channel, some other type of learning channel and maybe even a local government channel, simultaneously."

Not only will this allow the station to serve a wider audience but could allow for even broader educational opportunities.

Walenta envisions the station becoming a video library where educators can order up a lesson plan for the next day. The station can cater to educators' needs during the day or overnight — when the station can air less programming, opening up bandwidth to deliver specific programs with attached study guides and quizzes per teachers' requests.

DTV will likely allow programming to become even more individualized, Walenta believes.

The "MacNeil/Lehrer NewsHour" and other programs are working to digitize their entire runs. Walenta sees these catalogs eventually taking a form similar to the Internet, where viewers can scroll down on topics to see more information and archived stories.

During prime time viewing hours, Walenta said, the station will broadcast PBS' HDTV programming.

"We'll always be PBS, committed to programming that educates, informs and entertains," Walenta said. "But we're not just a TV transmitter anymore but a program delivery service."

A second grant of $88,055 from the U.S. Department of Commerce Public Telecommunications Facilities in September will be used to purchase a digital microwave transmitter to upgrade the connection between WGVU and its sister station, WGVK-TV in Kalamazoo.

Both stations currently are broadcasting DTV, but GVU has been forced to convert its DTV programming to an analog signal for its feed to Kalamazoo, where it is converted back to DTV. When the new transmitter is in place, that extra conversion step will be removed.

Another federal grant will allow for transition of GVSU's radio station — WGVU-FM 88.5 — into digital format.           

A pair of challenge grants from the Charles W. Loosemore Foundation inspired $2.4 million worth of donations from 2,500 donors in KentCounty and Kalamazoo.    

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