Vise tightening on pubTV

PBS discount plan a ‘no-brainer’ for WLVT

By Dru Sefton

The public TV station serving eastern Pennsylvania’s Lehigh Valley recently decided that the best way to survive as an independent station was to step back from its status as the primary station serving its market.

For WLVT in Bethlehem, a small city less than 70 miles north of Philadelphia, becoming a PDP station “was a natural,” said Tim Fallon, acting c.e.o. “It just doesn’t make sense that two stations, just two channels away from each other, have exactly the same programming.”

WLVT, which is locally branded as PBS39, was hard-hit by budget cuts in 2009 when the state sliced its $1 million in annual support to $100,000. Nearly half of its staff was laid off. When longtime C.E.O. Patricia Simon stepped away in March, the board appointed Fallon, a businessman and longtime station board member and volunteer.

After taking over at WLVT, Fallon came to an “alignment of vision” with WHYY President Bill Marrazzo on how the stations could complement each other.

The two execs have been talking regularly over several months “about how we can fortify one another,” Marrazzo told Current. As the station paying full PBS dues, WHYY waived its right to eight days of exclusive broadcast rights on PBS programs. WLVT will only have to wait three days to air PBS shows.

To Marrazzo, the opportunity to differentiate the stations’ programming was important because it allows each to provide a better service to viewers. The stations were able to “think about time-shifting elements of the primetime service, so their viewers and ours had more scheduling choices around the schedule,” he said.

“Quite honestly,” Fallon said, “the perception within PBS . . . is that PDP stations are sort of the redheaded stepchildren. That is, until you really delve into it and really think it through — then it’s a no-brainer.” The savings on PBS membership dues will be “certainly substantial,” although Fallon declined to say how much of a discount WLVT received.

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