The Squeeze on Big Bird

By: - March 4, 2010 12:00 am

Idaho Reports is a weekly news program about politics that appears all over the state on public television. Normally it’s quite civil. But one recent show took an awkward turn when the host asked about Governor Butch Otter’s proposal to eliminate the program’s funding.

“Can you give us an update,” moderator Thanh Tan asked, “on where we stand in terms of the agencies that face a possible phase-out…which includes the agency that produces this program?” Guest Wayne Hammon, the state budget director, replied that “the governor felt he had no other choice.”

Idaho Public Television already has seen its state funding cut by 61 percent since July 2008, necessitating layoffs, furloughs and the frequent airing of re-runs. The governor’s proposal, according to the agency, would force it to reduce or eliminate most of its local programming-and cease serving many rural parts of the state altogether.

“We’ve had to take a look at everything we’re doing in state government and asking the question, why?” Jon Hanian, a spokesman for Otter, says of the proposal. “We’re looking at everything and asking, ‘Is this or is this not a proper role of government?’ We’re also differentiating between things that we’ve started doing because it’s nice and things that we must do because it’s necessary.”

The challenges that Idaho Public Television is facing are emblematic of the decisions that public television agencies and stations around the country will have to make if states decide that public television is no longer a business they can afford to be in. According to the Corporation for Public Broadcasting (CPB), state and local funding for public television stations nationwide declined by $36 million between 2008 and 2009. CPB forecasts an additional $45 to $49 million in state and local cuts for the upcoming fiscal year.

States have cut back on funding during previous economic downturns, says Mark Erstling, a senior vice president at CPB, but this downturn poses a new threat. “The revenue sources always made up the difference,” he says. “This time around, everything is basically down.” Total non-federal sources of revenue, including member donations and corporate underwriting, declined by $200 million from 2008 to 2009. CPB is concerned that member donations may begin to decline more sharply, as they tend to be the last source of public broadcasting revenue to drop during economic downturns.

According to the Association of Public Television Stations (APTS), public TV stations in Florida, Louisiana, New York, Pennsylvania, South Carolina and Utah were among the hardest hit by cuts to state funding this year. Next year, APTS   expects stations in a number of states to lose at least a quarter of their remaining state funding, including those in Idaho, Illinois, Minnesota, Ohio, Nevada, Oklahoma, South Carolina and Pennsylvania.

CPB’s Erstling says the greatest immediate danger is to stations in states like Idaho, which serve sparsely populated areas that can’t sustain themselves through corporate underwriting and individual donations. “You can really see a potential loss of service,” he says. “We don’t have enough funding to bail out all the stations that are coming to us asking for help and saying they’re in financial distress.”

In Idaho, Boise and its surrounding areas are responsible for 82 percent of the individual and corporate contributions the network brings in each year. “Very bluntly, the governor’s proposal means that we would have to focus on the populated parts of the state,” says Peter Morrill, the Boise station’s general manager. Because of Idaho’s challenging geography, Public Television is the only statewide broadcaster. No common satellite system exists to tie the state together, and the effect on far-flung regions of the state would be isolating.

Public television stations vary widely both in ownership and operating structure and in how much they rely on state funding. Ten states, including California and Massachusetts, provide no funding at all to public television stations, while annual appropriations in other states range from about $2 million to about $20 million. Some states and localities dedicate fees or taxes to public television, while others dedicate funding to particular types of programming, such as educational programming for children.

Even when state funding doesn’t provide the bulk of a station’s overall revenue pie, it often constitutes an important piece. Unlike most corporate, foundation and individual support, state money can frequently be used to fund less glamorous aspects of operating a television station, such as purchasing and maintaining transmitters and other necessary infrastructure and equipment.

Erstling says that stations can flourish under a number of different ownership models, but that transitioning from one to another needs to be done thoughtfully. “If states decide to get out of this business, they have a responsibility to do it in an organized manner,” he says. “They have to manage that process and not just toss stations out there.

In New Jersey, Governor Chris Christie’s transition team put forth a proposal to eliminate all funding for its state-owned and operated public television network in January, but the governor’s official budget proposal for next year has not been released yet. “Everything’s on the table, good programs as well as other cuts across the board,” said Michael Drewniak, the governor’s spokesman, when asked about implementation of zero funding for public TV.

For the second year in a row, Pennsylvania Governor Ed Rendell’s budget proposal has recommended eliminating all funding for public television. Last year, the outcome was a 90 percent decrease in state funding, and the dissolution of the Pennsylvania Public Television Network, the state agency with oversight authority for public television. One of the agency’s primary functions had been to connect Pennsylvania’s eight relatively independent public television stations and facilitate collaboration and content-sharing. Under the old system, says Kathleen Pavelko, president of WITF in Harrisburg, “stations could easily and at no additional expense air programs simultaneously and statewide.” That capability doesn’t exist anymore, at least for now, and the infrastructure and equipment the state purchased in 2000 to create it is out of commission.

All of this is happening at a time when a number of other conversations and transitions are taking place in the world of public media. Public broadcasting by its very nature isn’t supposed to compete with commercial media; the idea is that public support enables forms of media that provide a clear public good but couldn’t thrive on their own. Still, adapting to a media landscape that is increasingly multi-platform and high-tech is critical to public media’s ability to carry out its mission and remain relevant.

“We’re asking a lot of public broadcasters at a time when they’re less and less well-funded,” says Ellen Goodman, a law professor at Rutgers School of Law and expert on public media. “On the other hand, public media hasn’t always done a good job at articulating its mission and value, and is being forced to make a case for itself now in a way that should ultimately help clarify that mission.”

Pavelko says that Pennsylvania’s stations were originally shocked by the governor’s proposal to drop the state’s funding commitment to public television from 7.9 million to zero without warning-and assumed that it was being used as a bargaining chip. “Funding had gone up and down with the fortunes of the Commonwealth, but never before had a governor proposed eliminating all funding,” she says.It soon became clear that the governor’s office was serious about the proposal, however, and funding for public television became a topic of debate at public hearings about the budget and throughout the state’s 100-day budget impasse. “We came away feeling well regarded,” says Pavelko, “but also recognizing that we did not measure up as highly as we thought we did against things like lease protection and social services in general.”

Some in the public broadcasting world are hoping the national broadband plan that the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) will present to Congress later this month will have positive implications for their fiscal futures. One of the problems the plan seeks to address is a projected shortage of certain frequencies of broadcast spectrum necessary for 3G mobile devices such as iPhones. The FCC has signaled that one component of the plan will involve the opportunity for broadcasters to relinquish a portion of their spectrum in return for some form of financial compensation. Trading spectrum for financial compensation is a tempting prospect for cash-strapped public stations and networks, but also one that might diminish their position in the media landscape down the road.

Wick Rowland, president of Colorado Public Television, says he is leery of any spectrum exchange. “You don’t sell real estate if at all possible, and spectrum is beachfront property for us in the digital landscape,” he says. But Rowland isn’t closing the door entirely. “At some level, we can all be bought,” he acknowledges. “Make the price high enough and the grants large enough and even I might change my tune about the sacrosanctness of my megabits.”

WITF’s Pavelko is more optimistic. She believes that mobile broadband devices are the future and is willing to listen carefully to any proposals that would put her station on better fiscal footing while also contributing to national broadband goals. “The question,” she adds, “is will the compensation be adequate to position public television with the capital they need to survive and thrive in the broadband age.”

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Melissa Maynard

Melissa Maynard oversees the Pew state fiscal health project’s Fiscal 50 online resource, which helps policymakers understand fiscal, economic, and demographic trends affecting their states by tracking tax revenue, reserves, employment rates, Medicaid spending, and other issues important to long-term fiscal health.