April 20, 2024

Burdened by PBS Dues, Stations Consider Withdrawing

But while Ms. Smith’s keynote address and the gloriously sunny skies contributed to an overall atmosphere of enthusiasm among member station representatives, some executives did not see much of the nice weather. They were holed up trying to fashion a plan to keep public television programming on the air in Orlando after June 30, when WMFE — the city’s major public broadcaster — ends its contract with PBS. The station is being taken over by the founders of a religious programmer, Daystar Television.

WMFE announced in April that it was selling its TV station (it will keep an NPR-affiliated public radio station) because it was unable to pay its PBS dues of just under $1 million annually. José A. Fajardo, the station’s president, said that the public television model was no longer viable because of decreased donations, including a 34 percent drop in pledge contributions from viewers.

And WMFE is not alone. In this financially troubled time, some PBS stations are questioning whether they can continue to find a way to make the PBS business model work.

In Los Angeles, KCET, a PBS station for four decades, quit PBS on Jan. 1, and went independent, citing PBS dues. Unlike in Orlando, a much smaller nearby PBS station quickly stepped up to continue providing PBS programming to the Los Angeles area.

This year, PBS narrowly averted another major loss in Chicago, where the board of WTTW-TV told management to examine the question of withdrawing as well. “Our board, they are smart business people, and when they look at our business model they scratch their heads and they say this is upside down from a business standpoint,” said Dan Schmidt, WTTW’s president and chief executive.

In Chicago, as in Los Angeles and Orlando, one crucial issue is that there are simply too many places to see PBS programs; each of those cities has more than one PBS station. The biggest station pays the highest amount of PBS dues and gets rights to all of PBS’s marquee shows, like “Masterpiece Theater” and “PBS NewsHour”; smaller stations pay less but can still broadcast some of the most popular shows, as long as they wait eight days.

“Others pay pennies on the dollar and run the cream of the crop,” said Mr. Schmidt, whose station had a $4.2 million operating deficit last year. His station pays $4.5 million a year in PBS dues, and yet “viewers can see that content on other stations and increasingly, whenever they want to on PBS.org,” Mr. Schmidt said.

WTTW decided to stay in the fold — for now. Leaving, Mr. Schmidt said, “was on the table along with everything else, but at this point we are committed to making this work.”

What no one knows is how many other stations are contemplating quitting. The PBS station in Waco, Tex., shut down last year for financial reasons, and there are murmurs of half a dozen more stations, at least — no one will name them on the record — that are on the fence and could leave depending on whether state and federal financing fall through.

“I don’t think this is necessarily going to be limited to these two stations,” Orlando and Los Angeles, said Steve Bass, president and chief executive of Oregon Public Broadcasting.

PBS is retooling its dues formula, which may help some big stations and will also require each market’s secondary stations to pay more. Ms. Kerger said that she did not foresee other stations dropping out, but that over the next several years she expected the difficult economy would force more consolidation among stations.

In the New York City area, WNET-TV is among those bidding to take over NJN in New Jersey, which is losing its state financing in coming weeks.  Ultimately, she said, if consolidation leads to “fewer stations but stronger stations, that ends up being healthy for the system.”

But each station that leaves also means less money for PBS to put toward its programs; PBS’s programming budget is dropping by $5 million in fiscal 2012 to $202 million, according to the trade publication Current, partly because of losing KCET dues.

Article source: http://feeds.nytimes.com/click.phdo?i=46d6ab114cfee936514294a0579ce2d7

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