Collaborative partnerships with like-minded nonprofits have been bruited
about in public broadcasting since the last millennium as a way to sustain
local programming, but Twin Cities Public Television has moved beyond the
It’s walking the walk with its Minnesota Channel, now approaching its second birthday and preparing to go 24/7 this fall.
|By airing taped events such as a university lecture by former U.S. Poet Laureate Rita Dove, the Minnesota Channel enlarges the partner's audience and strengthens the partnership.|
TPT had the luxury of a second analog channel, Channel 17, to begin its experiment one evening a week in April 2003. With the help of more than 80 partners—the likes of the Mayo Clinic, St. Olaf College, the Science Museum of Minnesota and the state’s Agriculture Department—the station has produced 148 programs to date. The Minnesota Channel now airs 11 hours weekly, on Saturday and Sunday evenings. (At other times Channel 17 carries state legislative coverage and the previous day’s primetime schedule.)
Jim Pagliarini, president of the station, had long had a vision of creating an “I-SPAN,” or intellectual C-SPAN, to serve a niche audience in the splintered digital channel world, said Bill Hanley, executive v.p. That meshed with dialog in the system about sharing stations’ DTV capacity with other civic groups, amplified by such voices as Benton Foundation consultant Richard Somerset-Ward, which filtered into a formal business plan for walking the aforementioned walk.
Economics and technology also insisted on change. Business as usual was barely supporting TPT’s main channel while the oncoming switch to DTV held out a dream—or nightmare—of four, five, perhaps eight or more channels to fill with programming.
“The basic thought was that in sharing editorial control with partners, we would also ask them to share the cost,” said Hanley. “. . . There had been little individual [partnership] projects, but not this notion of a business model on which you could create a whole service, promote around it, give it a name.”
For people with a taste for paradigm shifts, it’s a sexy occasion, risky and exciting.
Translated to electrons, much of the Minnesota Channel is unsexy, C-SPAN-like coverage of panel discussions, academic lectures and town hall meetings, supported with the nonprofit partner’s contribution that, Hanley says, averages $12,000 to $15,000. Less frequent are higher-end productions such as a St. Paul Chamber Orchestra concert or a documentary that can run to $150,000 or more. A nonprofit can join in a bare-bones program for as little as $5,000.
What’s the partner get for its money? A guarantee of at least three
broadcasts the first year and rights to do whatever it wants with the tape.
In its first year, the Minnesota Channel brought in $347,000 in revenue. It more than doubled the amount in year two. This year, it’s expected to top $1.3 million and Hanley predicts annual growth closer to 10 percent after that. However, the operation isn’t making money yet: TPT is contributing roughly $400,000 a year to the channel (a big chunk of which is covered by grants from the McKnight Foundation and Saint Paul Foundation), much of that going toward production, promotion and management.
If you’re thinking the Minnesota Channel could degenerate into infomercials, TPT is ahead of you. The station developed strict editorial guidelines, said Keith Parker, senior partner manager of the Minnesota Channel. Partners are informed that programming can’t be used for lobbying purposes, for example, and that partner interests will be fully disclosed.
To clarify his point, Parker gave two examples: The Courage Center, an organization devoted to helping people with disabilities, wanted to acknowledge its 75th anniversary by doing a program on the social history of living with disability. The program got made. Another health institution, in honor of its round-number anniversary, wanted to do a program on its own history. TPT rejected the project as too self-promotional, Parker said.
He believes viewers recognize that the programming they’re seeing during the block is different from wholly local TPT productions because the partnerships are prominently identified, and the look and feel of the Minnesota Channel is different from other programming. “People recognize it as a brand of TPT,” said Parker.
TPT’s plan was to be running the Minnesota Channel full time by year three. Hanley said that is tentatively scheduled to happen in September, when one of its multicast channels will be devoted to state-focused programming. Hanley estimates about a quarter of households in the area will have access to digital-tier cable channels; TPT is trying to broker a similar agreement with Comcast. The analog channel will likely continue to air “best of” Minnesota Channel programming on weekends, Hanley said.
What works outside the Social Capital Belt
TPT may be singing the virtues of its partnership programming, but is this a viable model for other public TV stations?
Maryland PTV Senior Vice President Eric Eggleton said he’s talked recently with Parker about the workings of the Minnesota Channel but doesn’t see MPT doing anything similar in the next year or so.
“It’s good to know how they’ve worked it in their shop, but it would not be a cookie cutter for us. The Twin Cities are a unique market. As [Bowling Alone author] Robert Putnam put it, it’s in the high social capital belt. . . . Minnesota is a remarkable community. There’s a great deal of support for public media in general.”
WXXI in Rochester, N.Y., likewise couldn’t move as fast as TPT. “We have a single analog and four multicast channels,” says Gary Walker, v.p., television. “We don’t have the luxury” of the second analog channel that TPT has, he says.
Nonetheless, WXXI is developing a one- to two-hour block of weekly programming branded as Community Rochester to broadcast on its analog channel. Launch is tentatively set for June. Walker didn’t want to name potential community partners because projects were still in the negotiation stage.
Because Community Rochester will be sharing the same channel as the rest of the station’s local and national programming, Walker said producers will give the partnered efforts a distinctive look and separate it from news and public affairs programming. “We may use a split screen to say this is Community Rochester; breaks and interstitials will say this is a different service, that we’re partnering on content,” he said.
“Part of the reason TPT has been successful is they are building on their strengths, which is local production. If your station hasn’t done a lot of local production, you may need to lay a little groundwork first before considering trying this model,” said Cindy Browne, a former TPT executive and now a Twin Cities-based consultant specializing in public broadcasting strategic partnering, change and organizational renewal.
She said she couldn’t judge how well viewers distinguish the Minnesota Channel from TPT productions, but says area nonprofits she regularly works with “are very aware of this effort,” thanks, in part, to aggressive wooing by the station.
South Carolina walks a different walk
South Carolina ETV has chosen a different community-centric model. Its South Carolina Channel has been running 24/7 since fall 2003. A teeny number of programs are produced with partners like Clemson University and the state Department of Natural Resources, but most are local productions the station has financed through underwriting, said President Moss Bresnahan.
Underwriting for the SC Channel, with its coverage of high school and college sports, the state fair and legislative goings-on, has been relatively easy to attract.
“Our statehouse coverage is practically sold out. One of our most popular shows is a live, weekly press briefing by the speaker of the House that makes news every week. It’s must-see TV. We think we’ve found a pretty good business plan,” said Bresnahan.
The local sports events coverage is also tapping into a new audience base, he noted.
“There’s definitely a place for collaborations, and we have done them, but I think we’re looking for the punch-through programs that draw audiences and really make a difference. And those programs come from TV professionals,” said Bresnahan.
As Donald Browne, professor of communication studies at the University of Minnesota, notes, TPT’s second analog channel doesn’t get nearly the viewership its main channel does.
The un-slick production values “are not going to be sticky to channel surfers” but Minnesota Channel fare “will have a strong synergy with TiVo for the niche communities to grab and watch at their convenience,” said John Forde, a Twin Cities independent producer and media watcher whose series Mental Engineering is going to be feeding this summer on the PBS satellite.
How narrow is narrowcasting?
As Hanley and Parker see it, the Minnesota Channel isn’t looking for programs that draw a general audience and ratings closer to the size attracted by PBS shows. Hanley points to an example of narrowcasting with intense value to a partner’s public-interest mission: a lecture produced with the Minnesota International Center. “They get 350 people in the audience to see the Chinese ambassador speak. We put it on the Minnesota Channel and 13,000 people watch it. Now that’s less than a point in the ratings, but they are absolutely thrilled at the spectacular increase in impact and outreach. They can go to their funders and say, ‘Look at how many people we reached.’”
And to be clear, not every show on the Minnesota Channel is a joint editorial effort of TPT and a partner. A couple of hours each week are filled by acquired community programming — magazine-style programs serving Hmong, Vietnamese, Middle Eastern, Latino and other audiences. These shows originate on cable access channels but TPT carriage makes them available to viewers who don’t have cable. Some aren’t in English.
“They produce the shows themselves and they’re serving niche communities we haven’t been able to produce programs for,” said Parker.
Still other programs fall into the public service category. TPT paired with state and local health agencies to produce ECHO — for Emergency and Community Health Outreach — programs containing public health advisories and emergency alerts in Spanish, Vietnamese, Hmong, Lao, Khmer and Somali. Topics have included fire safety, flu awareness and household poisons.
Serving the community is exactly what community access channels have been doing for decades, said Mike Wassenaar, executive director of St. Paul Neighborhood Network, a community access television organization. Of TPT he says, “I welcome them to our world. I hope they succeed, but when they lose interest and move to another [funding] model, we’ll still be serving the community.”
Some of the community programs that TPT airs are produced at SPNN, so he sees TPT as both “a collaborator and a competitor.”
The number of area nonprofits with sophisticated development departments that can raise five- and six-figure sums for a show is limited, said Wassenaar. When informed that some Minnesota Channel productions could be financed for as little as $5,000, he countered, “If you went to the average community nonprofit and said, ‘raise $6,000,’ they would look at you like you’re crazy. They’re struggling to keep their doors open.”
Cable access can produce programs for one-sixth to one-tenth for what TPT does, he says. “They’ve got revenue goals. This isn’t a charitable exercise.”
Web page posted March 17, 2005
Copyright 2005 by Current Publishing Committee