Vise tightening on pubTV

R.I., N.H. go indie as state funding ends

By Rhys Heyden

Two New England public television stations are moving to sever their ties to state and university licensees, cutting loose to become community-based nonprofits as they adapt to new business models and learn to live without state subsidies.

Members of the Rhode Island Public Telecommunications Authority (RIPTA) voted unanimously June 25 to assign the broadcast licenses of WSBE Rhode Island PBS to its supporting nonprofit, the Rhode Island PBS Foundation. The licensee change, which the FCC must approve, is part of a three-year plan to end state funding of the statewide pubTV network.

Eight days later, trustees of the University System of New Hampshire (USNH) agreed to transfer New Hampshire Public TV’s broadcast licenses and permits to a board of directors that has supervised operations of the state public TV network since 2008. The license transfer, which follows an abrupt end to the state aid that had been provided through the university, formalizes NHPTV’s shift to a community-licensed station.

“I’ve never been a big fan of government, especially government that runs inefficiently,” said Dave Piccerelli, president of Rhode Island PBS. “The state shouldn’t own a public TV station, especially here in Rhode Island, where we’ve been in a recession for the past 20 years.” Piccerelli pursued the license transfer as he negotiated a phase-out of state funding for pubTV with Gov. Lincoln Chafee.

The close timing of the two license transfers is entirely coincidental, but the underlying rationale for the transfers is not surprising. Reduction of state and university subsidies to pubcasting stations often makes governance under a community licensee a necessity if the organization is to fundraise and manage its resources effectively.

“There are far more positives than negatives of being a community licensee,” said Steve Bass, president of Oregon Public Broadcasting. OPB was a state-owned network until 1993, when it lost state funding and became a community licensee. “In stateor university-licensee situations, instead of a culture of ‘Why can’t we?’ it’s often a culture of ‘why we can’t.’”

Both the Rhode Island and New Hampshire networks face substantial financial challenges, as the chiefs of both pubcasting outlets acknowledged, but they believe they’ll have a better shot at riding out the hard times under community-licensee governance.

Countdown to zero

For some time, Rhode Island PBS leaders had been mulling the benefits of operating as a community licensee, according to Piccerelli.

Then early this year Gov. Chafee, a former Republican senator who was elected to the governorship as an independent, proposed to eliminate all funding to Rhode Island PBS by the year’s end (Current, Feb. 13, 2012).

The proposal pushed Piccerelli “over the edge,” he said.

Piccerelli negotiated a three-year phase-out of state funding that protects the state network from deep cuts until next year. State aid, which covers about 30 percent of RI PBS’s budget, will cover roughly 15 percent in 2014, drop to 10 percent the next year, then end.

Piccerelli sees big advantages to being freed from state governance, despite the funding losses ahead. As an independent community licensee, RI PBS will have more flexibility to cut wasteful spending and pursue new fundraising options that hadn’t been available before.

“With this change, we will become more of a TV station than a state agency,” Piccerelli said. “We’re not going to be complacent; we know that we’ll have to develop relationships in the community to garner additional funds.”

Changes to employee benefits packages, including its pension plan and health-insurance policies, will “add up to significant savings.”

Piccerelli predicted that the license-transfer petition could clear the FCC by November.

“It’s an exciting time, but it’s also a nerve-wracking time,” said Piccerelli. “I want to succeed financially, and I want us to remain an independent, viable organization.”

Granite State challenge

New Hampshire Public Television began moving to a community-licensee operating model four years ago, after USNH trustees transferred control of day-to-day operations, but not of FCC licenses and permits, to NHPTV, which established itself as a 501(c)(3) organization.

The complete elimination of NHPTV’s state aid, which the legislature appropriated through the university system until last year, triggered the spinoff from USNH.

Policymakers also applied their budget knives to university’s state funding, and USNH was beset by its own financial challenges, said Peter Frid, NHPTV president. Even its limited role in governing the state public TV service had become too much.

“The university system has so many other things on its plate, and we’re more efficient separated entirely from the university system and running on our own,” said Frid.

USNH’s trustees unanimously supported the license transfer, and discussions leading up to the July 1 decision were amicable, Frid said. He expects NHPTV’s licenses and permits to clear the FCC by September.

Among his top priorities for independent NHPTV is raising enough money to resume production of NH Outlook and Granite State Challenge, two local shows that were cancelled last year.

Tough time to go it alone

Switching a pubTV station to a community-licensee model is no cakewalk, according to those who’ve done it, but it does free pubcasters to reconsider their mission and services in ways that state and institutional licensees aren’t able to do.

“It’s a tougher economic climate to go out into in 2012 than it was in the ’90s,” said Bass, who led Nashville Public TV through a similar change in 1998. OPB was already well established as a community licensee when he arrived in 2006. “You’re not going to triple your station’s audience. I think it has to be put in some context — the time in which you do this matters.”

As community licensees, the Rhode Island and New Hamphire networks “have the ability to look around and get visions about what the future holds. They have the possibility of figuring out a model where service, not politics, is at the forefront of what they do,” Bass said.

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