Anchorage becomes hub in Alaska’s latest public TV alliance

By Mike Janssen

A new configuration of public TV stations in Alaska will begin sharing a single programming feed July 1 under the name Alaska Public Television, a move that shifts distribution duties from KUAC in Fairbanks to KAKM in Anchorage.

The change disbands AlaskaOne, a network operated by KUAC for 17 years that excluded Anchorage. KUAC will not participate in Alaska Public Television but will attempt to make it on its own with a renewed focus on programming tailored to its local community.

Viewers in Anchorage will receive much the same programming from Alaska Public Television as before, while viewers of Bethel’s KYUK and Juneau’s KTOO may notice some changes. The centralcasting facility at KAKM allows for program feeds customized for each station, but that option will not be used at first. The stations will also be able to share production resources over time.

State funding of $118,000 a year will be transferred from KUAC to KAKM, which will help the distribution hub expand operations and engineering support for its new role. It may also be able to earn additional membership and underwriting revenue from audiences in Bethel and Juneau.

The participating stations will share the $200,000 annual price tag to run Alaska Public Television, and will determine each year how much each will contribute toward the sum.

The new network will reach about 85 percent of the state’s population by including Anchorage, the largest market in Alaska. AlaskaOne reached about 45 percent, according to Steve Lindbeck, president of Alaska Public Telecommunications Inc., which operates KAKM.

“It’s becoming a little more unified,” Lindbeck says. “We’re not fully unified yet.”

The four stations had talked for three years about consolidating operations under a central nonprofit entity, but they failed to reach consensus and narrowed their focus last year to creating a centralcasting system.

KUAC had provided programming to KYUK and KTOO since 1995, when state legislators threatened to zero out state aid to pubcasting, and the stations agreed to create AlaskaOne. But KUAC, the only university licensee of the four, did not want to continue bearing the full cost of operating AlaskaOne.

Last fall, representatives of the three other stations voted to move distribution to Anchorage.

To stay part of the network, KUAC would have to pay into the shared-services agreement, an expense that General Manager Keith Martin says the station could not afford unless it cut local services. “I’m just not ready to do that,” Martin says.

Losing state funding for AlaskaOne and the underwriting revenue the service brought in “is going to hurt quite a bit,” Martin says. But he hopes the station will be able to succeed by focusing on local viewers.

“We’ve lost our community connection,” Martin says. “We need to try to rebuild.” KUAC’s sister radio station has had a strong bond with listeners, and “that’s what we need to try to get back on the TV side,” he says.

If KUAC’s new strategy fails to pan out within the next few years, the station may reconsider joining Alaska Public Television, Martin says.

“We respect KUAC’s decision and thank them for carrying this load for 15 years,” says Mike Martz, g.m. of KYUK.

For Martz’s station, the most rural of the four, Alaska Public Television guarantees the ability to continue broadcasting PBS programming. “With us being as small as we are, we have no other way to access public broadcasting programs other than to receive the signal from another source,” he says.

Martz hopes his station will be able to save money under the new arrangement by ending duplicated operations, freeing up funds for local and statewide productions.

As Anchorage takes over distribution, KYUK is trying to assure viewers that the new arrangement is not an intrusion by Anchorage — a suspicion often shared among Alaska’s independent-minded residents. “We’ve been working hard to avoid putting out that kind of impression, that this is a kind of move on the part of the Anchorage station to take over everything,” Martz says.

Indeed, KAKM has even changed its programming to accommodate Juneau viewers, who are big fans of Doc Martin, the BBC dramedy. The Anchorage station did not previously carry the show but picked it up just for Juneau.

“I’ve already had messages from people in Juneau who are thrilled and delighted they’ll be able to see Doc Martin,” says KAKM’s Lindbeck, who admits he has never seen the show.

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