Public TV's mainstream joins ‘overlaps’ eyeing second PBS network
Future Fund assists study by PRG and PBS

Originally published in Current, June 2, 1997
By Steve Behrens

PBS has joined forces with a key group of outsiders--the Program Resources Group "overlap" stations that operate second public TV channels in many cities--to study the feasibility of creating a second PBS program service.

CPB is providing $241,000 from its Television Future Fund for the six-month feasibility study. The fund is also investing an additional $2.38 million in Florida stations' collaborative fundraising, and is backing several other projects announced last month.

The PRG/PBS study gives a new push to the idea that public TV can put national resources behind services besides the main PBS National Program Service. The PBS Board's New Technologies Working Group also endorsed the creation of multiple specialized channels in March.

The study will be directed by Mel Rogers--new president of a major overlap station, KOCE in Huntington Beach, Calif.--and PBS syndication chief Alan Foster.

Rogers emphasizes that PRG and PBS are only beginning a study, not a new network. They have many aspects to explore--funding, programming vision, hours, carriage, governance and potential corporate partnerships--and they face many familiar obstacles to agreement.

"Those of us who are optimistic, if we blur our eyes a little bit, see there could be a solution," says Foster.

The new network would be designed first to serve the needs of the overlap stations, which already reach a big chunk of the population. "Overlaps are the delivery mechanism," Foster affirms. "Their philosophy and their comfort level is vitally important in determining where this goes."

But the overlap stations by themselves have had limited resources. PRG has been able to import European programs, but not to produce much in this country.

More customers

When PRG leaders discussed the second-network idea a year ago, they had an immediate concern: making their schedules more attractive so that cable operators would keep their channels on cable even if the Supreme Court voided the must-carry law, according to PRG Executive Director Al Rose. The threat to must-carry went away when the high court upheld the law in March [1997], but there are persuasive new reasons to consider multiple networks.

Top PBS executives, for instance, are now looking into the digital future and seeing a need to develop multiple services. Their interest came together with PRG's, according to Rose.

Now an array of potential outlets beyond the overlap stations gives the second network political support within the public TV system--and potential national underwriting support from businesses. A second or third network could have some or all of these outlets:

PRG brought PBS into the study to extend the range of possible outlets for a second network, according to Rogers, who was serving as a PRG consultant before accepting the KOCE job. PBS's involvement is also important because its name means much more to potential funders than "PRG" does.

But dealing with non-overlap stations raises potential conflicts. Overlap stations will want strong programming for a second service, but if it were really attractive, the bigger public TV stations would want to have it on the main PBS service, Rogers speculates.

Rogers is convinced that multiple public TV services can thrive in a market if they are counterprogrammed. That worked in the Salt Lake City area, where he gave KBYU a "family channel" personality that contrasted with KUED's straight PBS image, and it works in Tampa, where the programmers of WUSF and WEDU avoid head-to-head programs that appeal to the same interests.

"Pledge-free" channel for members

The biggest grant of the CPB Future Fund round, $2.38 million, went to Florida stations to implement their plans for a joint direct-mail and telemarketing agency to handle those parts of their fundraising activities. After a year-long planning phase, 18 stations are taking part.

CPB also laid $350,000 on four major producing stations participating in PBS Sponsorship Group--KCET, Los Angeles; WETA, Washington; WGBH, Boston; and WNET, New York. They're jointly selling national underwriting spots linked to their own and other programs carried by PBS.

The fund put $100,000 into a project at WCET in Cincinnati to develop a "pledge-free" channel on local cable systems that will give WCET donors exclusive access to pledge programming without the fundraising pitches.

Also: Texas Television Broadcasters Association received $75,000 to plan a regional underwriting-sales cooperative for statewide and multimarket contracts. Norman Hecht Research got $80,000 to work with as many as eight public TV stations on member retention techniques. And KPBS, San Diego, was given $75,000 to study donation patterns in minority communities.

The grants totalling $3.9 million make up the bulk of the $4.6 million that the Television Future Fund will distribute this year. The fund backed seven of the 14 proposals submitted.


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