A key to Alaska cooperation: giving each station a niche
Where there had been four separate public TV stations pumping out very similar PBS-based services, now there are three or four differentiated services produced at lower cost.
The place is Alaska and the story was one of several field reports delivered to the Southern Educational Communications Association (SECA) Conference in Lexington, Ky., last week.
Bill Legere, g.m. of KTOO-TV in Juneau, described the Alaska stations' eight-month scramble to restructure their state system after the Republican majority in the state government announced plans to zero-out state aid to public broadcasting. "It's amazing to see what you can do," he observed, "when your back is against the wall."
For a while, Legere said, top managers seemed so resistant to change that they all would have to be fired if Alaska was to restructure.
The plan--which has similarities to West Virginia's restructuring--ended up giving three of the four PTV stations a specialty: new statewide services that they hope will give Alaskans additional reasons to support public TV. This is the new division of labor, according to Legere and Mark Badger, former g.m. at KYUK and now director of information services for the state government:
- KUAC, Fairbanks, last week began preparing and feeding a "classic" public TV schedule, now called Alaska One, serving viewers in Bethel, Juneau and seven smaller communities in southeast Alaska, as well as Fairbanks.
- KYUK, the Alaskan Native-controlled station in Bethel, took over operation July 1 of the 248 satellite-fed low-power rural transmitters previously run by the state's Rural Alaska Television Network (RATNet). Now known as Alaska Rural Communications Service (ARCS), the bush network carries three nights of public TV fare and four nights picked up from the commercial networks. Some transmitters serve only a few dozen viewers, but grouping them together means that Bethel's service area population grows from 6,000 to 100,000, Legere estimated.
- KTOO, in the state capital of Juneau, will develop Alaska Too, a new cable channel modelled on C-SPAN that carries legislative sessions and hearings, press conferences and call-in shows. His budget for part-time operation during the five-month legislative session is less than $300,000.
- KAKM, Anchorage, which has half of the state's 600,000 population in its coverage area, will keep its own public TV service for the time being, Legere said, as well as developing an overnight telecourse service for Alaska One and producing the daily half-hour Alaska weather report. KAKM has shown interest in developing distance learning services for the K-12 grades, he said.
Statewide distribution of the new services was made possible by digital compression of the satellite signals, permitting the state to put multiple channels on a transponder that previously carried only RATNet. Cable systems as well as low-power transmitters will be able to downlink the signals.
Parallel changes in West Virginia
Legere's report from Alaska may have sounded familiar to SECA Conference attendee Rita Ray, head of West Virginia Public Broadcasting, which is also consolidating functions of several public TV stations that were founded separately in their communities. One strategic difference: "We haven't waited for the legislature to tell us to do it."
WSWP in Beckley and WPBY in Huntington agreed last spring to share a program schedule and did so in September, consolidating their operations and traffic functions at Beckley. Staffers at Huntington were freed up to coordinate a new statewide daytime Ready to Learn service for preschool kids, Ray told Current. She expects to look to the strong production staff at WNPB in Morgantown to take the lead in program-making. WNPB will start sharing the statewide program schedule next September.
Ray said it was important to get senior staffers to "buy in" on the restructuring and that they now have assumed responsibility for making it work. But they had not done so in 1993, when the licensee board and her predecessor, Kenneth Jarvis, tried to consolidate the radio program guide and three TV guides, Ray said. The initiative provoked a feud with volunteer "friends" groups and contributed to Jarvis's departure.
Broke out of "deep denial"
Like the West Virginia public broadcasting system, Alaska's grew up at a time when states had more money for public services. It was planned when Alaska was flush with oil money, before oil prices fell in the mid-'80s.
In the decade since then, Alaskans have been "in deep denial" about their state's reduced circumstances, Legere said at the SECA Conference. Pubcasters held onto their turf, and CPB rewarded them by paying larger grants because the stations remained separate. "We convinced ourselves that the only way to operate was to have four separate control rooms."
They were forced to change, however, when fiscal conservatives took control of the state legislature, proposed to zero-out state funding for pubcasting, and cut funds by a third this year. To promote collaboration among stations, the Alaska Public Broadcasting Commission said it would give TV grants only to a collective of all four public TV stations. In radio, grants would be available only to five regional groups of stations.
"The empowering process of giving each region a specialty was critical" to the restructuring in TV, says Badger. Alaska pubcasters are hoping they've moved quickly enough to establish new specialty services and begun to build new constituencies and viewerships while there is still some remaining state support to subsidize the fledgling services, Badger said in an interview.
The winners in the situation, he said, are the broadcasters who look for the opportunities made possible by changes rather than dwelling on the parts of the status quo that are lost.
Web page posted March 14, 1996
Copyright 1996 by Current Publishing Committee