This control room in Denver will soon put together the programming for not only KRMA and its sister channels in other cities but also the other Denver public TV station, KBDI. (Photo: Bud Rath, KRMA.)
Talks yield more shared control rooms, towers in public TV's overlap cities
Originally published in Current, June 19, 2000
By Steve Behrens
Pairs of nearby public TV stations are now sharing master control rooms in two metropolitan areas, Denver and Indianapolis, and pairs or trios of stations are planning to combine their control rooms in three other cities, New York, Philadelphia and New Orleans. In two other areas Tampa and Salt Lake City/Provo overlapping stations will share new transmission facilities.
The matchmaker, CPB's recently discontinued Overlap Market Program, spent about $10 million taken from the stations' usual federal grants to help rationalize the public TV system's infrastructure, which critics call duplicative and wasteful. In all, CPB can point to projects in a dozen multi-station markets, but attempts to encourage collaboration in six other cities fell behind schedule or collapsed.
Joint master control
Most operations combined
Possible shared fundraising
Proposed joint production and master control facilities
New York City
Joint master control
Joint master control
Salt Lake City
Joint transmission facilities
San Juan, P.R.
Joint underwriting sales, traffic control system and possibly more
Joint transmission facilities
Licensees already operating together
Joint accounting system and other capital spending
DTV planning, fundraising software, programming study.
Joint master control rooms an intimate form of cooperation at the stations' technical core are even planned in New York and Philadelphia, where the larger and smaller stations are famous for not getting along. In New York, plans are nearing the announcement stage for WNET to share its new control room with not only its Long Island-based rival, WLIW, but also with WNYE, the Brooklyn-based station owned by the city school system.
Philadelphia's two stations were at war in the early '90s. Under previous management, WHYY and the state's other public TV stations tried to keep the city's newer and smaller station, WYBE, from getting state aid, recalls Kyra McGrath, v.p. for strategic projects and general counsel at WHYY. Now the two licensees are moving ahead on plans to share a control room at WHYY. "Both stations have new people at the top, and they get along very well," she says.
One reason for the attitude change is the growing recognition that multiple stations in a market do not necessarily eat each other's lunch. CPB-backed studies in Tampa and other markets indicate that fundraising in a market is not a zero-sum game, says David Clark, who directed the Overlap Market Project and now heads the TV Future Fund at CPB. The studies indicate that the availability of more differentiated programming leads to more viewing and more donating, Clark summarizes.
But the most persuasive factor will be the economics of DTV multicasting, predicts John Luff, president of Synergistics Technologies Inc., an engineering firm that worked with eight CPB overlap projects.
"Every DTV station will be operating multiple program streams," says Luff. Operating eight or 10 instead of four or six is only an incremental increase in expense. Only a few commercial stations are sharing control rooms now, but Luff expects that to become the norm. Of the eight commercial facilities that Synergistics is now designing, five will run multiple stations from one room.
In Denver, KRMA was going to begin multicasting even before switching to DTV, since it now runs sister stations in Pueblo and Grand Junction. Adding the smaller Denver station, KBDI, to its control room was a only an incremental (if not easy) complication.
Though there are capital savings in joint master control rooms, they will be dwarfed over time, compared with the savings in operating costs. In New York, the three stations will save an estimated $8.7 million in salary and operating expenses over six years, compared to the cost of running three separate control rooms, says Dale Emerson, a Tampa-based consultant to the New York project. Capital cost savings will come to about $1.25 million.
Stations that combine their master control rooms may save 15 or 20 percent of capital costs, comments Luff, in large part because each station won't need as much redundant equipment to stand by for emergencies,
But they won't get full savings, he warns, unless they take the difficult step of reducing staff. Pubcasters often reassign unnecessary staffers rather than laying them off. "The key to it is not 'repurposing' people, but eliminating jobs," he says. "As a lifelong, bleeding-heart liberal, I can understand the motive of trying to protect the people who've got you where you are today, but if you're faced with changing economics, to say you want to have your cake and eat it too is pretty unrealistic."
Where no partnerships emerged
Future savings did not look big enough to justify combinations in some regions. There was not much chance of immediate savings in Tampa because WUSF was already operating with a single control-room technician, says WEDU President Stephen Rogers.
Savings from a single salary might be smaller than increased costs for hookups to move signals from two stations to one site, according to Luff.
Great distances as in the San Francisco area, where the four stations cover a span of 110 miles can also be discouragingly expensive, Luff adds. The stations would need wideband hookups, plus emergency back-up connections, and staffers would do a lot of driving.
The four San Francisco stations didn't see sufficient advantage in technical consolidations, says David Clark. Talks in Miami and Washington, D.C., also failed to go anywhere. In Atlanta, conversations between the state's Georgia Public Broadcasting and the Atlanta school system's WPBA were cut short by the ouster of most GPB executives in the past year.
Deals still may develop in Chicago and Orlando. Chicago's WTTW and WYCC have only recently received their engineering study, according to CPB, and an engineering study may still be ordered for the Orlando area, where WMFE's signal overlaps with WCEU in Daytona Beach and WBCC in Cocoa.
Though there was no progress in six markets, CPB was pleased that it fostered collaboration in a dozen others. "We feel very successful," says David Clark.
Money for matchmaking
CPB undertook the project in 1996, when congressional leaders were criticizing public TV for many things, including being "overbuilt," with duplicative facilities in many of the top 20 markets. CPB accepted and even promoted the criticism. In 1994, Richard Carlson, then president of CPB, lampooned public TV for airing Barney & Friends 29 times a week on several stations in the New York area. Though CPB today supports multiple channels, at the time it appeared to join the critics in Congress, who assumed that one PBS outlet in a market was enough.
Under congressional pressure to reduce "wasteful duplication," CPB adopted a one-base-grant-per-market approach to public TV (the "base grant" being the flat portion of the Community Service Grant). In overlap markets, community service grants began declining in fiscal 1997 and by 2003 will be down to an even split of a single base grant, according to David Clark. (Where there are three stations in a market, each will get one-third.) Over the three fiscal years, 1997-99, the 44 stations in overlap markets altogether lost $9.9 million, by CPB's count an average of about $225,000 each, with the larger stations losing more. The notion, says Clark, was that CPB would pay out only one base grant per market to support a single station infrastructure.
The money became both stick and carrot. Cutting the grants was a disincentive to multiple facilities, and giving it back in Overlap Market Project grants was an incentive to consolidate. With the advice of a panel of station execs, CPB helped stations hire consultants, do studies and begin developing collaborations.
In Seattle/Tacoma, the matchmaking got KCTS and the smaller KBTC to start talking and develop a comfortable relationship, says Walter Parsons, chief operating officer at KCTS. "Losing half your base grant is not the most welcome way of doing this, but it did produce great progress in relations between us and KBTC."
The project did help create some efficiencies, says Stephen Rogers, president of Tampa's WEDU, but it also caused some serious financial pain.
That pain should end, says James Heck, g.m. of Tampa's smaller station, WUSF. For the most part, the stations would have made progress anyway, he says. The two Tampa stations already were sharing fundraising staff and cooperating on program schedules. Now that the project is over, Heck believes, CPB should resume "fair distribution of grants" to grantees in multi-station markets.
Leftover fiscal 1999 money from the project is still available for grants to overlap-market stations. But new CSG money cut from overlap markets is now plumping up the grant pool for TV stations in other cities instead of contributing to further collaboration projects in the 18 markets.
Like Jim Heck, Wick Rowland of KBDI would like to see overlap stations get full CSGs. Even with merged infrastructures, multiple channels means higher operating costs. "The issue becomes whether you have a philosophy of program diversity," he says. CPB's cutbacks in multiple-station markets "was done under considerable political pressure coming out of the [Newt Gingrich] zero-out period," he says. U.S. pubcasters have been slow to look at foreign public broadcasting systems in every other advanced society, where there are multiple streams of both TV and radio, according to Rowland.
"CPB sees a signficant value in multiple services in a market," says David Clark. "It also sees a value in consolidated infrastructure. We don't necessarily need multiple infrastructures to maintain multiple services." But should the multiple licensees continue to lose aid as further incentive to consolidate? Clark expects that policy will be challenged during CPB's next grant policy review next year, for fiscal 2002 grants.
. To Current's home page . Earlier stories: The traditional view in public TV was that one PBS outlet per market was enough -- a view that helped marginalize the "overlap" stations. The two Denver stations were not able to agree on a merger, but did agree to consolidate control rooms. In Indianapolis, two stations have physically merged while maintaining separate licensees. . Later news: WNET and WLIW combine their infrastructures but maintain separate program staffs, 2003. . More information on the 12 collaboration projects, summarized by Current.
Web page posted June 25, 2000, updated Feb. 26, 2003
The newspaper about public television and radio
in the United States
A service of Current Publishing Committee, Takoma Park, Md.