July 24, 2003 – With the Federal Communication Commission's national deadline a mere 10 months away for television channels to switch from analog to digital transmission, a glimmer of hope is on the horizon for V.I. Public Television, which operates WTJX/Channel 12, the territory's Public Broadcasting System affiliate.
On May 24, 2001, the Source reported:
"Lori Elskoe, general manager of WTJX/Channel 12, told the Senate Finance Committee, meeting Wednesday afternoon, that May of 2003 is the deadline set by the Federal Communications Commission for all of the nation's TV stations to be broadcast in digital format.
"Elskoe said the capital improvements needed to make the conversion have been at a standstill because WTJX has not received any project funds for a decade. The station's Fiscal Year 2002 budget request included the digital phase-in project, she said, adding, 'Even if we didn't receive the full funding for capital, we would be elated to receive the $350,000 to purchase a new 240-foot tower and $780,542 to purchase a digital transmitter/antenna and accessories — a total of $1,130,542.'
"The station, a semi-governmental entity, has been asking for funding for digital-related projects for the last four fiscal years, Elskoe noted."
A year and two months later, nothing had changed when she made the same plea before the same committee on Tuesday for the Fiscal Year 2003 budget, except that May 2003 looms that much closer — and that Elskoe is now Lori Elskoe Rawlins.
However, the results may be different this time around. Last year, the Finance Committee chair, Sen. Alicia "Chucky" Hansen, told Rawlins that she supported funding for the station, but "supporting funding for public television is not sufficient. We must be prepared to work to identify [sources for] the funding."
On Tuesday, Hansen took action on the funding aspect. From the Senate floor, she called Kenneth Mapp, Public Finance Authority director of administration and finance, on her speaker phone to ask if bond proceeds could be used to finance the switch to digital. Mapp said WTJX would qualify, and that legislation would have to be written and a funding source identified.
Sen. Carlton Dowe noted that the governor has proposed an appropriation of $4.5 million for the digital conversion in the FY 2003 budget. Rawlins replied, "That is still less than what we're asking for." She said the station needs $2.5 million for operating expenses in addition to the $4.6 million for the conversion. However, she pointed out, "The reality is, without funds to convert to digital, the operating budget is pointless."
When Sen. Donald "Ducks" Cole asked Rawlins how much she needed immediately, she reiterated that the "bare bones" cost to commence digital transition is $1,130,542. The committee members vowed to "walk through" that appropriation in order to get the process started, saying they would offer legislation at the Senate's next full session.
But Hansen repeated a familiar lament from Crucians regarding WTJX operations — that St. Thomas has much more staff, facilities and local programming than St. Croix. "If we have to be one public television for the V.I.," Hansen said, "I want a policy that will bring equity to the territory."
Again reiterating her words of 14 months ago, Rawlins said that the station, which will observe its 30-year anniversary in August, will "go black" and everybody will be out of a job if the digital system is not functional by next May's deadline.
She warned the senators not to look for an extension on the deadline. "In the July issue of TV Technology," she said, "the FCC stated, 'This time we mean it,' — the FCC shook its enforcement finger and denied more than 70 broadcasters' requests for extensions." She added, "Those broadcasters may be on the road to license forfeiture."
In her closing remarks, she asked the legislators to ponder what Channel 12 has meant to the territory: "30 years of public service to our community; 30 years of quality educational, cultural and informational programming; 30 years of touching the hearts and minds of this community as their personal library, museum, school and concert hall; 30 years of delivering even when funds were undeliverable."
Committee member present were Sens. Douglas Canton Jr., Cole, Dowe and Hansen. Members not present were Sens. Adlah "Foncie" Donastorg, Norman Jn Baptiste and Norma Pickard-Samuel.
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