NHPTV pairs with WGBH to bolster its program line-up

By Elizabeth Jensen

After discussions lasting nearly a year, New Hampshire Public Television and Boston’s WGBH have hammered out a collaboration to coordinate program schedules and consolidate some back-office operations. The agreement stops short of a merger, and each station will remain independently owned and operated.

Students from John Stark Regional High School, champions of the 2007 <i>Granite State Challenge</i>.

NHPTV’s collaboration with WGBH will save enough money to revive the state network’s popular academic show, Granite State Challenge. Above: students from John Stark Regional High School, champions of the 2007 contest, pictured with their coach and series host Jim Jeannotte.

The arrangement will bring PBS’s full common-carriage schedule to the entire state of New Hampshire beginning in October, a departure from the current setup, under which NHPTV time-shifts the PBS national lineup because of a partial signal overlap with WGBH. The cost savings from outsourcing some technical and administrative functions — including master control and broadcast technologies, membership services and financial administration — to the Massachusetts station will allow NHPTV to revive a local student quiz show, Granite State Challenge. The program went into hiatus last year after legislators zeroed out the network’s state funding.

NHPTV also looks to revive local news and public affairs programming, but not until 2014 or later, and possibly in collaboration with New Hampshire Public Radio.

The alliance, announced Aug. 9, is the second major structural change to New Hampshire’s statewide public TV network this summer: In early July NHPTV cut ties to the University System of New Hampshire, which held its broadcast license, and transferred control to its independent, community-based nonprofit.

Peter Frid, NHPTV’s president and chief executive, declined to say how much money the new collaboration would save or how much will be paid to WGBH. “What this is about is aligning resources, so we can think in terms of growth,” particularly on the programming and services side, he said in a telephone interview.

Frid credited a CPB Community Service Grant review panel for planting the seed of NHPTV’s cross-state collaboration way back in 1996. The panel, convened when congressional Republicans sought to eliminate pubcasting’s federal aid, recommended that public TV stations prepare for leaner times ahead by negotiating collaborations and even mergers. At the time, Frid said, the technology to support such collaborations “was not as robust as it is now.”

The more immediate catalyst for NHPTV’s alliance with WGBH, however, was the loss of $2.7 million of state funding last year. The subsidy, which was appropriated through the University System of New Hampshire, provided 31 percent of its $8.8 million annual operating budget. The state network cut 20 full-time positions, canceled the news show NH Outlook and the high school quiz show, and reduced salaries and benefits for remaining staff. It also started exploring its options, with the help of Chicago-based Silverman Consulting, whose fee was paid by CPB.

The consultants said that “it was critically important that we start to seek alliances,” Frid said.

Also shared: master control . . .

Under the new programming agreement, New Hampshire viewers will gain more than an enhanced lineup of PBS programming. NHPTV and WGBH will revamp NHPTV’s secondary service and expand the reach of digital multicast channels World and Create, which are now available only in portions of the state. Local time slots will be reserved to differentiate NHPTV’s program lineup, such as a new Saturday-night independent film strand that will be added, complementing a WGBH movie package. Programmers at WGBH will take the lead in scheduling.

WGBH doesn’t expect to lose viewers or members, even though some will see more duplication in the programs available from both stations, said Jonathan Abbott, president and chief executive of WGBH. He expects the changes will give NHPTV a stronger appeal within its home state.

The two broadcasters will also align their websites and educational services. NHPTV’s accounting system and membership will be contracted out to WGBH over the next year, and NHPTV will adopt such proven practices as a monthly sustainer program. Master control will move to Boston by September; WGBH is exploring the possibility of offering similar master control services to more stations as well, said spokeswoman Jeanne Hopkins.

Shifting management of broadcasting technology to WGBH alone saves as much as $300,000 annually in capital funds, Frid said.

“We get the opportunity, in effect, to create scale together, so that more of the resources to the region can go into programming,” Abbott said.

Indeed, Frid said, Granite State Challenge is expected to return in the winter, most likely with substantial support from a company whose identity he declined to disclose. “This is our first big step to rebuild local production,” he said. WBGH has its own High School Quiz Show and the two are discussing aligning episodes, qualifying rounds and time slots, with an eye to creating a regional championship. Going forward, “I think it’s going to be typical to ask the other, ‘Is there more that we can accomplish by working together?’” Abbott said.

The regional collaboration does not include public TV systems in neighboring Maine and Vermont. NHPTV spokeswoman Grace Lessner told the New Hampshire Union Leader that discussions with other neighboring stations “are still underway.” Frid would say only that NHPTV has been talking to other regional stations about developing joint programming for New England.

Earlier Coverage

New Hampshire Public Television was one of two state networks that began operating as an independent community-based nonprofit after its state funding was eliminated.

There was an odd twist to the 2011 debate over the elimination New Hampshire Public TV’s state funding. The  lawmaker who proposed it was motivated in part by NPR’s dismissal of longtime news analyst Juan Williams in October 2010. After discovering that NPR member station New Hampshire Public Radio wasn’t subsidized by state taxpayers, New Hampshire state Rep. Steve Vaillancourt (R) decided to target NHPTV instead.

WGBH and New Hampshire PTV first collaborated in May 2011, when they coordinated broadcast schedules for the PBS debut of “Freedom Riders,” an American Experience documentary.

The two stations revealed in September 2011 that they were discussing a broader collaboration – possibly involving stations in Vermont and Maine. Grace Lessner, NHPTV spokesperson, said the loss of state funding as of July 1, 2011, “has accelerated our discussions.”

Related Links

WGBH is exploring its options for providing master control services to many more public TV stations, Chief Technology Officer Joe Igoe tells TVNewsCheck.

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