Been down so long

At APTS summit, public TV remembers which way ‘up’ is

By Dru Sefton

“What a difference a year makes,” Patrick Butler, president of the Association of Public Television Stations, told the crowd at the group’s Public Media Summit on Feb. 27 in Arlington, Va.

Last year at this time, the House of Representatives had just voted to eliminate all federal funding for public broadcasting. Since then pubcasters have notched several victories, including protecting the fiscal 2011 appropriation for CPB to $445 million.

In recognition of Butler’s performance during his first year, the APTS Board of Trustees gave him an extended standing ovation.

Butler congratulates PBS Hawaii execs with EDGE Award for its statewide student news network Hiki No, which involves 73 schools. Pictured with him: Hawaii station chief Leslie Wilcox and executive producer Robert Pennybacker.

APTS renamed its longtime Capitol Hill Day public TV political advocacy gathering as the Summit, which included sessions on how both TV and radio stations are “Moving from ‘Nice’ to ‘Necessary,’” and appearances by former U.S. Secretary of Homeland Security Tom Ridge and Nebraska Gov. Dave Heineman, chair of the National Governors Association and a conservative Republican, who had nothing but praise for his state’s NET network.

Nearly 250 participants — the most ever to attend the annual APTS gathering — also heard from Bill Lake, chief of the FCC’s Media Bureau, on recent spectrum legislation (Current, Feb. 27) and Gary Knell, new NPR president, who reminded the mainly TV-executive audience that radio and television are “inextricably linked.”

Butler’s optimistic remarks set the tone for the gathering.

Membership in the organization has grown from just over 70 percent of pubTV stations last year (Current, Nov. 7, 2011) to 78 percent. “I am confident that a year from now, we will have crossed the 80 percent membership threshold,” he said.

The group’s work on the 170 Million Americans grassroots campaign generated some 500,000 emails to Congress as funding hung in the balance. APTS and other organizations were able to nudge the final station reimbursement figure for spectrum repacking in the recent legislation from $1 billion to $1.75 billion. APTS and the National Association of Broadcasters are offering a joint membership, and NAB will offer webinars for pubcasters on increasing station revenues.

Still, challenges lie ahead. Station reps who descended on Capitol Hill on Feb. 28 had plenty to ask their members of Congress for: They want to restore PTFP, the $20 million station infrastructure fund killed last year (Current, Jan. 30), as well as the $3 million Rural Utilities Service equipment funding that President Obama proposed ending in his most recent budget. And Ready to Learn, the $27.3 million pot of money that helps assists curriculum-based PBS Kids shows, remains vulnerable to reduction because the Obama administration is lumping it into a broader pool of Department of Education funds.

“Washington wisdom has it that we are likely to bump along this year with a series of stop-gap funding measures through the election, and that the mother of all lame-duck Congresses will come back after the elections to deal with a host of pressing tax and spending issues,” Butler said. “Uncertain as these prospects may be, we can take great confidence in the fact that we have earned the support of some of the most powerful Republicans and Democrats in this city. And we have made ourselves a force to be reckoned with in Washington, D.C.”

FCC chief admits he’s “daunted” by spectrum issues ahead

The session on spectrum with the FCC’s Bill Lake was particularly timely, with President Obama signing legislation just this month giving the commission the authority to auction bandwidth for wireless use.

“We are daunted by the challenge,” Lake said, of formulating rules and coordinating “forward” and “reverse” auctions to establish prices and then sell the bandwidth. “We’ve never done this before,” Lake said. “Previously, we just sold unoccupied spectrum.”

Lake said 187 citizens and organizations filed comments with the commission on the spectrum auctions and subsequent repacking. He addressed “principal concerns” voiced by pubcasters:

  • Lake doesn’t anticipate interference problems because the FCC plans to put TV and wireless broadband services in separate parts of the spectrum. “There will be a very clear line and we will take whatever steps we need to avoid interference.”
  • Some public stations “expressed the tentative view” that channel sharing with commercial stations “might be appropriate for some noncommercial stations in certain circumstances,” Lake said. “We are encouraged by that support, however tentative. We appreciate the openness of public TV in thinking creatively about its future, engaging in a productive dialogue.” He said 73 percent of CPB-qualified noncoms broadcast 24 hours of HD programming; others may be good candidates to share channels with other noncoms in overlap markets, or with commercial stations.
  • But pubcasters also urged the FCC not to let channel sharing reduce the total spectrum reserved for noncom. “We’re with you,” Lake said. “Our vision for channel sharing is to preserve the current environment for noncom stations,” with the only change being stations that voluntarily move to sharing a 6 MHz channel.

Lake said the largest markets, probably the top 30, are where the greatest demand for spectrum will be, although there may be exceptions. In general, smaller markets probably won’t have an opportunity to participate in the auctions as there won’t be demand for their bandwidth.

Nebraska’s NET helps tune up spectrum usage

A session on station initiatives looked at how Nebraska’s NET network helps other state agencies and even a newspaper use spectrum most efficiently.

“NET is having best year we’ve seen in a decade,” said Rod Bates, g.m. of the network. In a pilot project, the Nebraska net is using its content management system, installed during the DTV transition, to earn revenue by servicing multiple agencies and organizations throughout the state with streaming and archiving services.

Clients so far include not only the state capital for legislative coverage, but also the libraries at the University of Nebraska, the state Department of Education, and the Omaha World Herald for its Nebraska Prep Zone high school sports online channel. Pending clients include the Nebraska Department of Correctional Services, community colleges, vocational centers and the Nebraska State Fair.

“These partners don’t have the technical expertise or money to build their own CMS,” Bates said, so NET is leveraging its equipment and knowledge. The work prompted development of an entire NET department in May 2011 called Media Management to develop and oversee partnerships.

The project brought praise from Gov. Heineman, especially for its potential in education and job training, which he called two of the most important issues in the state. Heineman comes into the station so often for remote national media appearances that the NET staff created a “Governor Dave’s Transporter Room” sign. “I’m taking that with me when I retire,” he said.

Heineman is exploring with NET a pet project of his — a “virtual high school” online to reach remote areas of the state with educational services such as foreign language and advanced placement classes, and urban areas with computer lab after-school hours to keep kids off the streets. With NET’s technical know-how and access to PBS Learning Media content, “we’re now developing a more robust virtual school opportunity,” Heineman said.

Ridge counsels patience of geological timeframe

Patricia Harrison, CPB president, kicked off what she said will be a series of “Thought Leader” conversations on the value of public broadcasting, with Tom Ridge, the former Republican governor of Pennsylvania, now president of Ridge Global, a Washington, D.C.-based consultant on energy, economic growth, maritime management and risk management.

How can public broadcasting best build bipartisan support? Harrison asked.

After a long pause, Ridge replied: “In this environment, if you’re able to do that, it would be a victory unparalleled in recent history.”

“But,” he added, “you’ve got to start somewhere, and what better place to start than public broadcasting?” The audience is bipartisan, he noted. The institutions, people and corporations leveraging federal dollars to provide programming are bipartisan.

“It’s like water dripping on a stone,” Ridge said, “just keep sending that message out. I think it will play well on both sides of the aisle,” that public dollars have “great leverage” with the private sector. “That’s a great message to sell,” he said.

Also, pubcasting’s strength lies in its localism, another good selling point on the Hill. “Big commercial television networks are the equivalent to big banks, they are not really connected to the daily activities of a city or region,” Ridge said. “You are. You stay connected. Your programs are often dictated by the desires and needs of your local community,” unlike commercial networks, whose schedules are driven by national priorities. “Separate yourselves in a meaningful way, highlighting that difference,” he said.

APTS begins to thaw out its dues levels

Earlier in the Summit, the APTS Board of Trustees voted unanimously to return to its original membership dues formula, with a station’s dues set at 2 percent of its CPB Community Service Grant, beginning with fiscal 2013. APTS promised that no station would pay $2,000 more or $2,000 less than its current annual rate.

Hooking dues levels to CPB funding would allow  dues to rise somewhat, though it’s not immediately likely, because Congress has approved flat appropriation levels through 2015.

APTS is asking its three largest member stations, WNET in New York City, WGBH in Boston and WETA in the Washington area, to continue paying their current rate for the time being, said trustee John Harris, president of Prairie Public Broadcasting in Fargo, N.D., who had led the association’s talks about the dues formula since November 2010.

Butler told the board that WNET and WETA have agreed, and WGBH appears likely to do so.

Butler said one of the objectives of the dues review was to do away with complicated special arrangements, such as multi-station membership deals for California and Pennsylvania. “We wanted to get back to a dues formula that is simple, transparent and defensible,” he said.

EARLIER STORIES

Membership in APTS fell to just over 70 percent of public television stations last year, from a high of 85 percent in 2008.

The upcoming spectrum auction presents difficult decisions for stations, as well as complex technical challenges.

PTFP, which had provided public stations more than $233 million in capital funds since 2000, fell to the congressional budget ax in April 2011. Gone was $20 million a year used to replace or upgrade equipment, add coverage new stations or build new repeaters for existing stations.

RELATED LINKS

Butler’s speech

President Obama’s proposed budget for fiscal 2013 contains $445 million in advance funding for CPB in fiscal 2015.

Comments, questions, tips? sefton@current.org

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