Panel to weigh state spinoff of NJN

By Steve Behrens

The governor says the state can’t afford New Jersey Network anymore. NJN’s leaders say it would do better as a nonprofit anyway. But the NJN employees’ union predicts that a spun-off nonprofit NJN inevitably would fade away, its valuable assets and New Jersey news lost forever.

Looks like the ideal time for a Legislative Task Force on Public Broadcasting, lawmakers in Trenton decided June 29.

Howard Blumenthal speaking in 2009.

Howard Blumenthal, now NJN acting director, speaks in 2009 as head of MiND. (Photo by Robert Francis, licensed under Creative Commons.)

While Gov. Chris Christie (R) has pushed for quick action, proposing in March to give NJN half of its past annual appropriation, the task force won’t be done task-forcing until Oct. 15, and its recommendations won’t take effect until two years from now, in July 2012.

This is not a case of pubcasters struggling to hold onto their state support. Elizabeth Christopherson, NJN’s previous executive director asked for a divorce two years ago, with gradually phased-down state aid, and Howard Blumenthal, acting director, seemed ready this spring to leap out of the budget by now.

The state aid, including a $4 million appropriation and separate sums for employee benefits and facilities, recently has supplied with NJN about half of its $20 million income.

Blumenthal, who also remains part-time manager of Philadelphia’s MiND (WYBE), adds a twist of 21st-century media thinking to NJN’s planning, with decentralized workgroups and video editing on laptops. In May NJN gave the state a 79-page draft plan proposing greatly expanded production that would fill 55 percent of primetime with Jersey-centric fare.

While annual output today is dominated by 352 half-hours of its nightly NJN News and weekly public affairs shows, the net makes fewer than 20 hours of other kinds of shows — kinds that 80 percent of viewers prefer, the plan observes. The plan has NJN adding 300 half-hours of non-public affairs production.

“Blumenthal wants to do the same or more news with half the number of bodies,” so that he can put resources into food shows and the like, predicts an NJN employee who declined to speak for attribution. NJN news staffing “is a lean operation as it is,” the staffer says.

Last month’s resolution by the Democrat-controlled legislature assigns leaders from both parties to appoint the 10-member task force — three Democrats and two Republicans from each house.

Legislators directed their task force to evaluate and make recommendations on the proposed spinoff to a nonprofit, a for-profit company or other kind of licensee, while taking timing, technology, efficiency, partnerships and employees into account.

A TV commercial from a CWA union local representing NJN employees warns that the state-owned network’s plan for transition to a nonprofit “will destroy NJN and the licenses could be gobbled up by Philly and New York.”

The task force is also tasked to assess what NJN’s channels, hardware and other assets are worth, and whether they “should be transferred to an organization that pays no monetary consideration therefor.”

These concerns may be inspired by the prime opponent of the spinoff, Local 1032 of the Communication Workers of America. The union, which represents about two-thirds of NJN’s 130 employees, calls the spinoff “privatization” and predicts that economics ultimately would force a nonprofit NJN “to merge with a New York or Philadelphia broadcaster.” CWA says the state network’s assets are worth $200 million and would be lost if the nonprofit fails.

The union also predicts NJN News “will be a shadow of our current effort” if the network goes nonprofit.

That could catch the attention of state politicians, who want to keep NJN News on the air, says Nick Acocella, editor of the political newsletter Polifax New Jersey. “They’re politicians — they like the exposure,” he says. “They certainly don’t want to see it die.”

EARLIER ARTICLES

With state aid shrinking, NJN asks for independence, May 2008.

NJN starts planning break from state after governor proposes transfer, April 2010.

New Jersey Senate authorizes study of NJN assets as part of break from state, June 2010.

Pubcasters keep funds in some state budgets, June 2010.

DOCUMENTS

Blumenthal submits draft plan (PDF) to state, May 2010.

New Jersey Senate Resolution No. 113 and Assembly Resolution 138 established a Legislative Task Force on Public Broadcasting, June 2010.

LINKS

Blumenthal is author of The Business of Television.

Carl Golden looks back at NJN’s history in Philadelphia Inquirer, July 2010.

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