On the table in Boise: should Idaho divorce its public TV net?
Originally published in Current, Jan. 29, 2001
By Steve Behrens
Even before springtime, the question of privatizing the Idaho PTV network has ripened in Boise. At least four state bodies are likely to vote next month on the network's future after reviewing a new outside analysis of its financial situation and options.
The report by the Bornstein & Associates consulting firm says a privatized nonprofit network would have to make deep cuts in IPTV services if it loses its annual $1.6 million state subsidyalmost a third of its budget. And it would be "very unlikely" to continue operating at all if the state doesn't pay all or most of its DTV conversion costs and transfer the network's facilities to the new licensee.
Conservative legislators have campaigned for tighter control or divestiture of the state network since it aired two nationally distributed documentaries on gay issues in September 1999 and June 2000. After the second broadcast, the annual party convention of the state's dominant Republican party endorsed privatizing IPTV.
A state appropriation now covers 28 percent of the network's $5.6 million operating budget, and the state so far has put up $2 million of the $11 million requested for conversion to DTV transmission. Gov. Dirk Kempthorne is backing an additional DTV outlay of $6.2 million this year.
The Bornstein report, for which CPB paid $80,000, arrived this month at IPTV's licensee, the State Board of Education. It's "clearing up a lot of misunderstandings" about public TV, said Peter Morrill, IPTV's g.m., who was nursing his voice last week after hours of testimony before state bodies.
IPTV is already raising more private money than the average medium-size state network with population and viewership more than twice as large, the report said. It spends a smaller share of its budget on administration, and its fundraising costs are a smaller percentage of its fundraising revenues. The network is "lean and mean," Morrill summarized.
The state's choice, as posed in a front-page Idaho Statesman article about the Bornstein report, is between continued state ownership/subsidy of the network or nonprofit ownership with deep cuts in program production and service. Many in Idaho took the report as an argument against privatization.
"There will be all kinds of talk and clatter, but there's no chance that public TV is going to be privatized," Republican state Sen. Stan Hawkins told the Associated Press. "No chance at all. I know a lost cause when I see one."
Sen. Mel Richardson, a vocal Republican who favors divestiture, told the Statesman he wasn't surprised that the report's lead author, Ronald Bornstein, would "favor public television." Bornstein worked in public broadcasting for decades in key roles at the University of Wisconsin and CPB.
The report tells the recent story of Hawaii PTV, where the state handed its network to a new nonprofit last July, but without continued funding. Staffing in Honolulu dropped from 104 to 32 positions last year.
But there are other choices. The study also cites precedents in Vermont, Maine and Oregon, where the state governments continued to aid their statewide networks after transferring them to nonprofit ownership. Another option, the report said, is to create an independent state agency with its own board of directors.
As soon as next week, the state Senate and House education committees will make recommendations to the legislature's joint Finance Committee, which may also vote, according to Morrill. The State Board of Education plans to discuss the issue Feb. 15-16. IPTV's nonprofit friends groups also will address the question.
. To Current's home page . Earlier news: Privatization campaign gained momentum in summer 2000. . Later news: Bornstein report, combined with public opinion, undercut the campaign to spin-off IPTV. . Outside link: Bornstein study on IPTV website.
Web page posted March 2, 2001
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