Puerto Rican station drops PBS shows

Would prefer to carry them in Spanish

By Dru Sefton

Puerto Rico’s government-controlled WIPR dropped its PBS membership on July 1 — the fourth member station to quit this year.

Puerto Rico TV, which produces and broadcasts mostly in Spanish, carried only the English versions of PBS Kids programs. A separate station — Sistema TV (WMTJ), licensed to the private Ana G. Méndez University System — carries a selection of general audience PBS programs.

PBS lost WIPR fees amounting to $713,000 a year. The network earlier lost KCET in Los Angeles on Jan. 1 and two Florida stations as of July 1:  Orlando’s WMFE-TV, and Daytona’s WDSC-TV, which shared their service area with a third station, which continues as a PBS outlet.

Pedro Rua, WIPR’s executive v.p., said WIPR and PBS negotiated for about a year but could not reach an agreement that would retain the station as a member.

Puerto Rico Public Broadcasting Corp., controlled by the territorial government, has built the station into a production powerhouse that produces seven hours of programming a day and in addition operates the only 24-hour news service on the island. Productions include current affairs, culture, sports, music, talk shows and food shows.

In May WIPR President Ray Cruz announced a move into drama production. He  wants to transform the station into the “premier workshop for local actors.”

The station is also completing a deal to distribute its the programming on the mainland.

The governor appoints WIPR’s top executives every four years. With an annual budget of some $19 million, it has about 196 employees and 150 contractors.

Its primary channel is branded Puerto Rico TV. Others are its news channel, Noticias 24/7; Kids TV; V-Me, the pubTV Spanish channel; and Echo, which airs retro and historic Puerto Rican programming. It also operates three radio channels.

The children’s channel is “by far” the most successful multicast, Rua said, “sometimes with bigger numbers than the primary station.” There is children’s programming on commercial stations, he said, “but it’s more like, Japanese animation with sword fights. Not really appropriate.”

The station’s main goal with Kids TV is readying children to learn in school, Rua said. But many viewers find English-only shows difficult to understand. A U.S. Census study based on 2005-2009 data said 85 percent of residents on the island reported they “did not speak English very well.”

Spanish-language versions of PBS Kids programming are available only to foreign broadcasters but not to WIPR, which is treated as a U.S. station in program licenses. “We spoke to PBS about this, but they couldn’t help us,” Rua said.

PBS explained that it only has the English language broadcast rights for programs, “so there is no way for PBS to preclude producers from selling their programming in Spanish-speaking markets.” Because each producer negotiates their own international distribution deals, there is not one blanket agreement with PBS.

Instead of spending $700,000 on PBS fees, WIPR will use it for local productions, Rua said. “I can do a lot with that much,” he said. “All public TV stations are decreasing local programming. But we identified two years ago that we could be successful in that niche, so we’re growing that.”

More in Current‘s July 25 issue. Comments, questions, tips? sefton@current.org

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