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Public TV expands its reach

ST. PAUL -- Many Minnesotans living far from St. Paul are able to watch the daily doings at the state Capitol and other Minnesota programming - by tuning into their local public television station.

That is because each of the six public television stations serving the state began airing The Minnesota Channel in February, digital programming providing transmissions of the Minnesota Legislature when it is in session, and television shows about regional topics and issues.

"This is really an exciting thing," said Bill Hanley, Twin Cities Public Television executive vice president. "The biggest thing about this, and I was surprised about it, is that this is the first statewide television network in Minnesota."

The new network is called the Minnesota Public Television Association. Its members are TPT, and the public stations serving Brainerd, Bemidji, Fargo-Moorhead, Duluth, Austin and Appleton.

Hanley said the move to simulcast programming statewide was, in part, a response to the high number of television channels coming online as more and more stations convert to digital technology.

"There are nine zillion channels, but fewer and fewer of them cater to a local audience," Hanley said. "Frankly, we're offering programming where integrity of content is important."

By February 2009, all television stations must deliver their programs by digital signals. The digital technology makes it possible for one television station to offer up to six, seven or more different channels.

TPT created programming for the Minnesota Channel five years ago, but the advent of digital television means other public stations with digital channels can pick it up and contribute to it.

Duluth's PBS Eight-WSDE will broadcast its locally produced shows like "Native Report," and "Venture North" to a larger, statewide audience.

"It has long been a dream of the independent public television stations to coordinate programming to offer a truly regional service," said Allen Harmon, the Duluth's station's general manager.

Minnesota network member Prairie Public Broadcasting in Fargo, N.D., long has led its own statewide network of eight stations in North Dakota.

Chief Executive Officer John Harris said although the channel is called the Minnesota Channel, it really is a regional network. His station will contribute programs to the network including "Prairie Churches," and "Old Red Trail," a history of Interstate 94.

"We're definitely excited to have this program service and be able to interconnect which we have never been able to do in the past," Harris said.

Though the Minnesota Channel launched in February, the Minnesota Public Television Association will officially inaugurate the channel in the fall with a series of programs celebrating Minnesota's 150th birthday.

Lakeland Public Television, which serves Bemidji and Brainerd, also is a network member.

Lakeland Program Director Jeff Hanks said new channel is doing very well with viewers.

"I think overall it's a tremendous public service, and an added benefit to the stations who didn't have this programming," Hanks said.