Forget television as you know it.
That’s the message from Virginia G. Fox, executive director and CEO of Kentucky Educational Television.
You can’t tell by flipping on your television set today, but Fox and Kentucky’s public television network are part of a revolution taking place behind the scenes of that familiar box in your family room.
Television will soon have the capability to be more like a personal assistant, helping you plan and learn and have fun. Fox is excited about the possibilities, although some people cannot envision what is going to happen. This revolution is taking place—in fact, it has already begun.
In Kentucky, it officially began in August 1999 when Gov. Paul Patton and Fox activated the state’s first digital television transmitter. Although WKPC-DT currently covers only the Louisville area, KET is installing 15 more digital transmitters, ultimately penetrating the state with digital signals by May 2003. And digital is the key to the future capabilities. What’s possible?
For example, take a favorite KET program like Kentucky Afield. As you watch host Tim Farmer reel in a fat bass, you want to know what kind of lure he is using. No problem: digital signals allow for the transmission of several bands of data at one time. At your command, the program pauses (or the screen splits) and a Web site with information about lures pops up. Want to know where to purchase them? There’s information on that too, listed right on your screen, as well as the best bass fishing holes complete with maps to get you there. You could make campground reservations or find out if there is a hotel nearby for the less-outdoorsy members of your family. In short, just about any kind of information associated with the show is now available at your command. The show even stops while you retrieve the data you want or is available for you at the show’s conclusion.
“The use of digital signals permits data broadcasting or datacasting that allows the use of the telephone, computer, and television separately or together,” Fox says. “In essence, the television set itself is a giant server holding many kinds of information, including television signals.”
This digital future is far different from the analog world of television Fox stepped into some 31 years ago. In many ways Fox and KET have matured together. A school librarian when she joined the fledgling television network in September 1968—the month that KET went on the air—Fox quickly grasped the potential of the medium and by 1975 was KET’s deputy executive director, working hand-in-hand with founder O. Leonard Press.
Press and Fox led KET to national prominence. They created the GED On TV series for adults needing a high school diploma (which is still in national distribution). They introduced college on TV and nightly coverage of the Kentucky General Assembly. They began KET’s public affairs programming. They oversaw KET productions, many of which have been broadcast nationally.
Fox left KET only once—to become president of the Southern Educational Communications Association (SECA). She returned in 1980, and when Press retired in 1991, she assumed leadership of KET. While she has continued the work they began together, the 62-year-old television executive has also crafted her own vision for KET, one that puts the network at the epicenter of positive change for Kentucky.
A seventh-generation Kentuckian, Fox has used partnerships with other organizations to provide the power for bringing about change. A joint venture between the University of Kentucky College of Agriculture and KET made agriculture the focus of the first such partnership with the production of a series called Gee Whiz in Agriculture. Broadcast into 4th- and 5th-grade classes, the series used a fun approach to convey information about farm animals, agricultural practices, and farm products, as well as deliver a dose of math and science.
Dr. Carla Craycraft, director of agricultural communication services for the University of Kentucky College of Agriculture, praises Fox as a partner. “When she identifies a good idea—an idea that benefits everyone—she says, ‘Let’s just do it. Let’s go for it.’ ”
This attitude of working with others permeated KET and the number of partnerships skyrocketed. Today, KET is involved in more than 100 partnerships with a wide spectrum of organizations.
Just as she has led the network through many firsts, Fox herself has achieved many firsts. She was the first female CEO of a national organization in public broadcasting, and the first public broadcasting representative selected by the Association of Independent Video and Filmmakers for the Independent Television Service Board. She created the first National ITV Satellite Schedule (NISS)—serving more than 23 million students annually and SERC, the first public broadcaster/Department of Education interstate consortium for distance learning.
The common thread has been a desire to “make a difference” both as an individual and with KET.
And that difference is what excites Fox about the digital future. For example, by May 2003 when all of their digital transmitters are in place, KET could have multiple channels since a single channel could split (called multicasting). Fox envisions a children’s channel, a citizenship channel, a lifelong learning channel, and an arts and culture channel.
Time also becomes inconsequential, Fox says.
“Although we have made a lot of technological leaps, we are still dealing with a linear experience,” Fox says of television programming. “There is a beginning, middle, and end to the program. With digital technology, you will have more control. If the phone rings, you can stop the program and come back to it. When you return, you pick right back up where you left the show.”
It really is all possible technologically, she insists, adding that “funding is the only issue now.”
Some aspects of this new world of television are available now. KET has filmed one program, The Ryan Interview, in high- definition television (HDTV). They are also broadcasting at least one program each month in HDTV. That number will rise exponentially in coming years, as will the opportunities digital television will bring.
“It is so important that public television be digital,” Fox says. “We haven’t even begun to think of all the needs we can serve or the access to learning that we can provide.”
DIGITAL TV DEFINITIONS
Following are some of the terms you are most likely to encounter with digital television. For more definitions, go to the Public Broadcasting System (PBS) Web site at pbs.org/digitaltv .
Bandwidth: The complete range of frequencies over which a circuit or electronic system is allocated to function. The U.S. television channel bandwidth is 6 MHz.
Broadband: Capable of handling frequencies greater than those required for high-grade voice communications.
Byte: A group of data bits that are processed together. Typically, a byte consists of 8 bits. There are kilobytes (about 1,000 bytes); megabytes (about 1 million bytes), gigabytes, (about 1 billion bytes), and terabytes (1 trillion bytes).
Compression: Reduction of the size of digital data files by removing redundant and/or non-critical information. Digital TV in the U.S. would not be possible without compression.
DTV: Digital television. This comprises all the components of digital television including HDTV, SDTV, datacasting, and multicasting.
Datacasting: Enhanced options offered with some digital programming to provide additional program material or non-program related resources, allowing viewers the ability to download data (video, audio, text, graphics, maps, services) to specially equipped computers, cache boxes, set-top boxes, or DTV receivers.
Enhanced TV: Term used by PBS for certain digital on-air programming that includes additional resources downloaded to viewers. Some forms of enhanced TV allow live interaction. Other forms are not visible on screen until later recalled by viewers. Also called datacasting.
HDTV: High-definition television. This is the most superior video picture available in DTV. HDTV is an option with DTV.
Multicasting: Option made possible by digital technology to allow each digital broadcast station to split its bitstream into 2,3,4, or more individual channels of programming and/or data services.
NTSC: National Television Systems Committee and the name of the current analog transmission standard used in the U.S.
SDTV: Standard definition television. Digital formats that do not achieve the video quality of HDTV but are at least equal, or superior, to NTSC (National Television Systems Committee) pictures.
Video-on-Demand: When video can be requested at any time, solely at the discretion of the viewer.