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More powerful WQPT sees many changes


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Quad-Cities public television station WQPT has seen many changes since it debuted in 1983, but Big Bird from Sesame Street remains a staple on public television for children.

From Big Bird to Bean, from ``This Old House'' to Nova, WQPT has been providing the Quad-Cities with public television since 1983.

At the time, the Quad-Cities was the largest market in the country without a public television station. But since its debut, WQPT, located at Black Hawk College, has built a devoted audience.

WQPT is still going strong -- navigating its way through threats of government cuts, morphing technologies and the constant need for funding.

``In the past couple of years, Congress has made some serious noise (about cutting money to PBS) but our viewers respond pretty well to that kind of threat with support,'' said Rick Best, WQPT general manager. ``Fortunately, those in Congress who want to zero-fund PBS are in the vocal minority, and although government support has gone down for several years in a row, there hasn't been a serious threat to zeroing out public funding. They know there is serious support for PBS among voters.''

They have to know, since a taxpayer survey just a few years ago showed PBS was one of the most appreciated services that receives tax money. That's pretty good considering PBS costs taxpayers only about $1 a year.

``But that's just a small portion of what it takes to operate the system,'' Mr. Best said. ``A lot of the money comes from sources other than the government, not the least of which is support from viewers.''

Luckily for WQPT, its potential support group, so to speak, was enlarged recently. On Nov. 26, 1997, the potential audience for the station was enlarged with the debut of a new full-service transmitter for the station.

The new tower gave the PBS affiliate a signal six times stronger than before and enlarged its audience to include the entire Q-C area as well as many outlying communities. It about triples its geographic coverage and more than doubles the potential viewers of WQPT, Mr. Best said.

``It not only makes our programming available to a wider audience, but also improves our fundraising capabilities,'' he added. ``That's important because putting up the transmitter took up a significant amount of funds, and the cost of keeping it going is also much higher than what we were paying before.''

Along with increased power, the station has undergone a large personnel change. Mr. Best was named general manager in December, replacing Moss Bresnahan, who left for a job in Virginia last fall. Mr. Best, with the station for 12 years, was its business manager and assistant GM before moving into the top spot.

``My goal as general manager is to make the whole community aware of the challenges that PBS faces in the next six years, with the conversion nationwide to digital TV and the funding that's going to be necessary for that kind of project,'' Mr. Best said.

``So much of it is uncertain, since much of the equipment we need for the conversion hasn't even been manufactured yet, so we don't know how much it's going to cost. Luckily, we have the new transmitter, so we won't have to get one of those.''

With the transfer from the current analog system of TV broadcast to digital, TV stations will have greater options for information and programming dispersal. With the additional bandwidths given out for digital broadcast, the possibility of multiple PBS channels all under the WQPT banner is there for the taking.

``We're going to have four or five streams of video, which you can use to broadcast one station as high-definition television, or you can program separately,'' Mr. Best said. ``You might have one channel that's all childrens' programming, or one that might be all college credit telecourses. It's really up to the station to determine how to use that extra capacity.''

In the near future though, WQPT's main goal is to just get the word out about the station to its new potential viewers.

``There's going to be a huge public awareness effort that we'll need to get under way to let those viewers know the services we provide,'' Mr. Best said. ``We hope that those folks who are now viewing spread the word to those who haven't tuned into WQPT yet.''

-- By Sean Leary (February 9, 1998)

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