Public TV too valuable for Idaho to abandon

Spokesman-Review Editorial Board
February 6, 2010
Spokane Spokesman-Review

Idaho Gov. Butch Otter's proposal to end the subsidy for Idaho Public Television raises interesting theoretical questions: Is this something government should be funding? Couldn't it be fully privatized?

Yes, it could be fully privatized, but it wouldn't be the same. Before weighing whether to eliminate funding, the Legislature should first weigh what would be lost. One-fourth of IPTV's operating budget comes from the state. Sixty-two percent of its budget is from private donations. IPTV already outpaces most of its peers in private fundraising. Some states cover as much as half of the budgets of their statewide public stations.

This suggests that it would be a long shot to replace the annual $1.7 million state subsidy. That money is used to maintain the state's 41 translator sites, which beam programming to 97 percent of the state. If the funding isn't replaced, large swaths of rural areas will lose public television. Areas such as Coeur d'Alene could still pick up the KSPS signal out of Spokane, but Idaho-centric programming would be lost.

Pete Morrill, the head of IPTV, suggests that a market-based model would mean Southern Idaho's Treasure Valley could probably sustain programming, but few other areas could.

So the question before the Legislature is actually more severe. Is the demise of Idaho Public Television in its current form worth it? We don't think so, because programs such as "Legislature Live" and "Idaho Reports" keep the entire state up to date on the workings of public officials, and that access to government is crucial. In addition, rural areas would lose valuable educational and cultural programming they can't get anywhere else.

Of course, the value depends on whether one watches or not. Otter says he doesn't. But many Idahoans do, as evidenced by the thousands of people who have joined a Facebook group in support of IPTV. An overflow crowd attended a hearing in Boise.

Otter's plan to phase out funding over four years ignores some hidden costs. IPTV has spent $22 million for digital conversion over the past 10 years, with $6 million from the feds with strings attached. If the station cannot maintain the equipment because of budget cuts, it would have to repay $1 million to $2 million.

We understand the difficult budget situation and the need to enact spending cuts. The station should certainly share in the pain. But too much would be lost by completely pulling the plug.

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