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Digital mandate, funding cuts, threaten SOPTV

Budget cuts to public broadcast stations may leave many rural Southern Oregon Public Television viewers without access to their favorite shows, officials say.

Available over-the-air and free to all, SOPTV programming — from Masterpiece Theater to Newshour with Jim Lehrer to Oregon Art Beat to Clifford the Big Red Dog — is voluntarily funded by viewer support, said Mark Stanislawski, president and CEO of SOPTV.

"We get our money from people who voluntarily send us checks," said Stanislawski.

But legislative cuts to fund federally mandated infrastructure changes may leave viewers in the dark, he added.

The Legislature denied Gov. Ted Kulongoski's request for $3.75 million to fund Oregon public broadcasting networks — which include Medford-based SOPTV — and slashed the figure to $500,000. The cuts may make it impossible for public stations to complete the federally mandated switch from analog to digital signals.

The U.S. government has ruled analog television transmitters all over the county will be shut down on Feb. 18, 2009. Anyone without access to digital broadcasts or connection to a cable or satellite system will lose their public television signal.

"Sixty percent of the population has no idea this is coming," said Stanislawski.

The nonprofit station has relied upon state funding to help with the massive infrastructure change, Stanislawski says. Thanks to a special $8 million capital appropriation from the Oregon Legislature in 2001, SOPTV ($1 million) and OPB ($7 million) have been able to convert to digital transmitters.

Anyone within reach of these signals will continue to have over-the-air access to public television programming, he said.

However, there are 13 translators which boost the public stations' signals within the hills and valleys of rural SOPTV areas that must also be converted, he said. OPB has 41 translators. SOPTV provides four channels of services throughout Jackson, Josephine, Douglas, Curry and Klamath counties.

"Working with OPB we converted the transmitters," said Stanislawski. "But the translators need to be converted. Mountains are a broadcasting nightmare. They are part of the joys of living in our beautiful area. But they make it hard to get signals to some areas."

Oregon's public stations were hoping to leverage the state funding into matching federal dollars to help with the last leg of the digital switch, which could cost as much as $5.5 million, Stanislawski said. The recent cuts are cause for concern, he said. Without additional funding for the massive infrastructure switch, SOPTV and OPT may not be able to complete their conversion efforts.

"We are disappointed," said Stanislawski. "This is a fundamentally unfunded federal mandate. If we don't get the funding, people without cable, dish (or other forms of digital service) might not get a signal."

Stanislawski said representatives of the Joint Ways and Means Committee have announced dates and locations for a series of "field hearings" on the proposed budget. Committee members are slated to be at South Medford High School at 6:30 p.m. on Friday, April 13, he said.

"We'd encourage our loyal viewers turn out and voice their opinions on this important issue," said Stanislawski.

Reach reporter Sanne Specht at 776-4497 or e-mail sspecht@mailtribune.com.