Beyond public TV’s single-channel habit

Public TV system places marginal value on its 'overlap' stations

Originally published in Current, July 22, 1996
An analysis by Steve Behrens

If you walked into public TV for the first time in July 1996, you could easily get the idea that, unlike the rest of the media world, it's dashing toward a single-channel future.

An extra public TV channel in the nation's largest city, WNYC, has been sold off and left the air June 30, and the FCC is supposed to decide this week whether the operator of two channels in Pittsburgh can cash-in one of them.

National policies encourage the trend. A consensus of public TV stations supports legislation that would let second stations be sold off. And a new CPB rule supported by many stations will cut next year's total Community Service Grants given out in a market if there are two or more stations.

Maine Public Broadcasting announces, as the result of another CPB rule change, it's closing down the second channel it created in a much-hailed 1993 consolidation.

The losses are temporary ones, pubcasters assure themselves. If the FCC's plan for transition to digital TV transmission moves ahead, stations are likely to be able to transmit four or six or more "standard-definition" signals simultaneously.

The fuss surrounds a few dozen stations that happen to share their large and medium-size markets with other public TV outlets. By CPB's count there are:

Though some of the duopolies' second stations have been duplicative, underappreciated and underused--KQED's second channel in San Francisco was "dark" for so long that the FCC took the license back--many pubcasters are coming to regard the extra channels as valuable "shelf space" for multiplying their service delivery.

"We need more shelf space in public television, not less," says Terrel Cass, president of the biggest overlap station, WLIW on Long Island. "We have hundreds of [commercial] channels with all this garbage. If we can't have two or three places with quality television, what's our society coming to?"

James Day, a pioneer station manager at KQED and WNET, likewise has spoken recently in favor of a second national public TV service.

But second services like WLIW have also been pictured as a major source of wasteful duplication and irrational "overbuilding" of the public TV system.

29 Barneys

In Cass's view, CPB President Richard Carlson kicked off the issue with an April 1994 op-ed in the New York Times. Though Carlson aimed to promote management consolidation, his complaint about excess broadcasts of Barney ("29 times a week") tarred the general idea of multiple stations in a market, even where their schedules aren't duplicative.

Members of Congress picked up the cry against wasteful overlap, and Rep. Jack Fields' draft bills called for CPB to award only one CSG per market. In that spirit, a station task force recommended and the CPB Board adopted a less severe remedy: the new grant rule gradually reducing CSGs in the 16 markets with substantially overlapping stations. In a market with two stations, the stations will lose a total of $71,500 this year and $286,000 by the year 2000. In formal terms, the reduction is in the "base grant" portion of the CSG; instead of each getting a base grant, they'll split one.

A separate CPB rule will end multiple base grants to a single organization.

Though this rule imposes some equity among licensees, it has already has worked against second channels.

Maine Public Broadcasting President Rob Gardiner announced in May that the licensee would be dropping its second channel, PLUS, as of June 30. The network already lacked the money to run it, much less expand its reach to northern Maine, and CPB cutbacks would make the situation worse, he told Current. The network laid off 10 staffers, most of whom had run PLUS from Lewiston; it may sell off a low-power station, but will keep and reconfigure its full-power transmitters, Gardiner said.

The CSG cutbacks downgraded the value of second stations in public TV, but not so thoroughly as other legislative provisions discussed early this year. America's Public Television Stations (APTS) unsuccessfully pursued a plan that would have used all but one of the digital transition channels in each market as assets to finance a national trust fund.

In Cass's view, APTS was proposing to finance the trust fund "on the backs of the large overlaps," he said back in March. "I think our industry's gone nuts. We should not be talking about giving away or selling off spectrum."

The idea failed, but did confirm the value of the second stations. APTS had proposed that they be sold or leased as a group, recognizing that they'd make a great starter set for a new commercial network.

Indeed, the overlap stations in the Program Resource Group reach about 40 percent of the population, says Mel Rogers, a consultant to PRG. If you add in the households reached by duopolies' second stations and through cable channels, the reach would exceed 60 percent, he believes.

Though Fields, chairman of the House telecom subcommittee, rejected the APTS trust-fund proposal, he has maintained two bill provisions that would let licensees sell off licenses in multi-station markets:

Provisions like these were backed by the Earned Income Initiatives Group, a lobbying group of public TV executives that helped shape the Fields bill.

"Thank god, we have an overbuilt system," says Bryce Combs, g.m. of WMVS/WMVT, Milwaukee, and an active member of the EIIG. "Now we're able to turn it into some kind of financial security." Combs doesn't want to sell off or lease out his second station, but he would dearly have loved to accept an offer he got from Milwaukee's major league baseball team last year--to carry Brewers games with advertising. Even more, he'd like to be ready to accept a semi-commercial programming deal like that proposed by former PBS President Larry Grossman.

One-per-market policy

These dark days for second stations may be temporary, however. Late in the legislative year, the Fields bill is reportedly stalled in bipartisan malaise, and Fields will retire in December.

And both New York City's sale of WNYC-TV and WQED's proposed sale of WQEX are extraordinary situations.

APTS President David Brugger says the legislative provisions involving second stations were just an unfortunate, short-term compromise under financial pressure. It didn't reflect the stations' long-term thinking; "it was the consensus of the stations to allow it to happen."

Still, public TV may not want to overturn its lifelong tradition as a one-channel world, or may find it hard to do so. Like first stations, the second ones have been willed into existence one at a time, sometimes exceeding the region's capacity to support them. Wherever they developed, the original pubcasters regarded them as interlopers, competing for funding and viewers. The generic name "overlap stations" emphasizes their redundancy.

That line of thinking led Pennsylvania's public TV stations to establish "one-per-market" as official policy governing state funding--a policy overthrown by a federal court in 1992, ruling on a suit by Philadelphia overlap station WYBE. The court ruled that the policy had been "unconstitutionally biased" and self-serving.

From the viewpoint of second stations, the first arrivals developed a "might makes right" attitude "no different from that of turn-of-the-century capitalists who felt their size entitled them to eliminate smaller entities and create gigantic monopolies," according to a PRG briefing paper by Mel Rogers last year.

Not surprisingly, PBS-member stations never developed a consensus to put resources into a strong, exclusive feed of programs that would help build a network comparable to Britain's BBC2.

The idea was put on the table anyway, back in 1978. In a series of PBS System Planning Papers, the network's leading planner, Vice Chairman Hartford Gunn, recommended creation of three program services that would be fed on separate satellite schedules so that they could be transmitted simultaneously.

Gunn imagined a "blue" high-quality primetime service, a "red" service with varied programs of narrower interest, and a "green" service of educational and children's programs.

And early in the '80s, PBS adopted the blue/red/green scheme in a reorganization under President Larry Grossman. But the three services did not develop into separate streams of programming. As the services were laid out, "the average station would basically see the need to participate in all three," recalls Wayne Godwin, who managed PTV-2, the "red" service at PBS.

"I honestly think what you had was a wonderful flash of a very good idea," says Godwin. However, the three-service scheme soon washed away in the "cold shower" of Reagan budget cuts.

The part that survived as a separate stream was the Adult Learning Service, which benefited from its own revenue sources: tuition income, plus an influx of telecourses underwritten by the Annenberg/CPB project. Indeed, the college telecourses and other educational services amount to de facto national program streams with the fiscal potential to become a second public TV network.

Today, the only program source dedicated to the second stations is the one that WLIW and the other "overlaps" set up themselves--the Program Resource Group.

The strong PBS schedule has been a vital factor in the success of the primary stations, and a cohesive national feed could do the same for a second public TV network. The PRG stations are on their own, at the moment. "The future depends on whether they can pull together and create the kind of programming they need to be viable," says Mel Rogers.

The two-dozen second stations, and all the potential unborn channels, can't necessarily expect much help from the single-channel majority. As always, those stations too are fighting for their life.

"I worry more about the strength of the primary service," says Godwin. All of public TV, he believes, relies on the core service for its standing today.

Overlap stations scout for stronger programs; PRG syndication offers its fifth season

Overlap station execs began a series of meetings July 11 on strengthening their shared programming, possibly through first-run production or a deal with cable firms, says Terrel Cass, president of WLIW on Long Island.

They want to rely less on British imports, which constitute nearly all of the programming syndicated by Program Resource Group, he says.

PRG, which Cass chairs, has doubled its number of participating stations from 11 to 22 in the past four years, and has upgraded its program quality, but is still handling about the same quantity of programming, around 200 hours a year, according to Executive Director Al Rose.

More than half of the inventory, 130 hours, is one weeknightly half-hour: ITN World News, a special U.S. feed based on newscasts from Britain's ITV commercial network.

Almost all PRG members broadcast its classical music specials and International Dispatch, 16 documentary hours a year packaged at WLIW from BBC, British Channel 4 and other overseas sources, according to Rose. But other PRG genres have limited carriage: 12 stations carry ITN World News and 13 buy the package of British action dramas.

New in the drama package for PRG's fifth season will be Kavanaugh, Q.C., a four-episode Central Television courtroom mini-series starring John (Inspector Morse) Thaw, which has aired for two seasons on ITV in Britain. Continuing are Scottish Television's Taggart and Central's Peak Practice.


PBS joins PRG in a study on a possible packaged feed for overlap stations and other distribution channels, 1997.

An overlap station tries something different: Being a member of WYBE in Philadelphia means you're a producer, 2008.

Web page posted July 26, 1997
Copyright 1997 by Current Publishing Committee

Selections from the newspaper about
public TV and radio in the United States

"We need more shelf space in public television, not less," says Cass.
"We have hundreds of [commercial] channels with all this garbage.
If we can't have two or three places with quality television,
what's our society coming to?"

Button reads: Some markets need more than 1 PBS station.Advocates for the overlap stations once distributed buttons to support their case.