South's 'Five Star' partners break bread--and state boundaries
Originally published in Current, Dec. 1, 1997
Beginning with appetizers in Louisiana and ending with desserts in Georgia, five state-operated public TV networks will make dinner together next year as the most public collaboration of their young Five Star Network.
They'll be sharing portions of a three-hour "Taste of the South" cooking special for their pledge drives March 8, .
But in the meantime, many departments at the networks in Alabama, Arkansas, Georgia, Louisiana and Mississippi have been making their own plans to work together, in one of the widest-ranging projects backed by CPB's Television Future Fund. Among other things, the networks plan to collaborate on:
- Digital transition: group buys of equipment and consulting services for the networks, which now run 38 transmitters; monitoring of Mississippi ETV's proposed DTV tests [separate story]; development of a case statement for state appropriations; periodic shared teleconferences to inform staffs about DTV developments.
- Teacher training: joint application for a federal educational technology challenge grant; survey of teachers on their needs for technology training; sharing of teacher-training resources.
- Fundraising: possible group purchases of direct mail and other services; multistate underwriting sales; regional pledge programs.
Fundraisers already have set regional underwriting rates and rounded up a couple of multistate underwriters, said Susan Howarth, executive director of Arkansas ETV.
In buying direct-mail services, the Five Star project may dovetail with another collaboration backed by CPB; the southern networks are talking with Infinite OutSource, the new joint backroom operation set up by Florida pubcasters, said Judy Stone, head of Alabama PTV.
CPB gave the Five Star project $150,000 for its planning phase, completed this summer, and now will negotiate a second-phase grant. The applicants will have to revise, focus and trim their request, according to Connie Rannels, director of CPB's TV Future Fund. A CPB review panel in November rejected the project's bid for a two-year, $857,000 renewal.
Rannels said the project in its first year had unleashed "incredible" energy in the five network staffs, which share similar educational missions and struggles with state bureaucracies.
Paring down the number of proposed ideas for collaboration has been the biggest problem, said Werner Rogers, executive director of Georgia Public Broadcasting, during a session about Five Star at the NETA conference in Austin last month.
The clear state boundaries help avoid turf problems between staffs, which can arise in other collaborations, said Howarth. But she did predict that some networks will steal staff members from others as the neighbors become acquainted.
Though Five Star aims to cut costs, the state networks already are fairly lean, said Janet Rechtman, an Atlanta consultant working with the project. "My take on it is that revenue generation is going to be much more powerful. ... The real money is in the better performance of the direct mail program."
Directors of each of the networks are serving as "coaches" for interstate teams in five disciplines: Alabama's Stone in technology; Arkansas's Susan Howarth in underwriting; Georgia's Rogers in education; Louisiana's Beth Courtney in pledge drives; and Mississippi's Larry Miller in membership services.
Almost certainly catfish
For the joint pledge special in March, each network will produce its own three-hour pitchathon, but the local chefs in each studio will take turns with live interludes from other states, brought in by satellite.
Louisiana ETV will contribute appetizers with "fluffy little pastry shells--that type of situation," said Clay Fourrier, production chief in Baton Rouge, who is pulling the special together. Alabama will contribute soup and salad, Arkansas will bake the bread, Mississippi will almost certainly serve catfish for the main course, and Georgia will finish off with dessert.
Each network is also undertaking part of the project. Arkansas, for instance, is developing a cookbook to offer as a pledge premium.
Each has already done cooking shows, so this is an easy way to start collaborating, said Fourrier. "We hope to be able to do more advanced projects down the road." For instance: a high-profile music program that none of the networks could produce alone. Travel and gardening shows also are possibilities.
Since the Georgia and Louisiana networks lease satellite transponders for their own statewide interconnections, they'll be able to provide feeds for the pledge special in March.
And that satellite capacity could be used more routinely if the southern networks develop a joint schedule for certain dayparts, said Howarth. They may also explore the idea of developing a shared second channel that could be offered to local cable systems fairly soon and broadcast via DTV in the future, Howarth said.
The ideas surfaced at the first meeting of Five Star programmers during the NETA conference, Nov. 2. Programmers also discussed group buys of programming and ratings analysis and the adoption of common software for program scheduling, Howarth reported.
Fatal tower collapse changes DTV picture
The collapse of a TV tower near Jackson, Miss., which killed three tower riggers, knocked the Mississippi ETV Network off the air in the state capital but had the odd effect of slightly accelerating the network's transition to digital TV.
The 31-year-old tower, owned by NBC affiliate WLBT, collapsed Oct. 23, , killing the employees of LeBlanc & Royle, a Canadian tower firm, who were retensioning its guy wires, said Larry Miller, executive director of the state network. Investigators have not yet found what caused the accident, he said.
As a temporary measure, the network bought a small 5 kw transmitter, which can later be used in DTV testing and service. The network had already asked the state legislature for funds for DTV planning, as well as a new tower, anticipating that the network will lose its present tower lease in 2000, Miller said. "Little did we know that a few weeks later the tower would come down." After the antenna and transmission line were destroyed in the accident, the network increased its appropriation request. Insurance proceeds and possibly a federal facilities grant will help with the expenses.
Within two days after the collapse, the state network resumed service on a major cable system in the Jackson area through a microwave link set up by the cable operator. A wireless cable firm provided ITFS microwave hops to other cable headends. In five days, the signal also was back on the air. The state's public radio network uses another tower in Jackson and was not affected.
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