Dialing back dollars

Ben Botkin
February 14, 2010
Twin Falls Times-News

BOISE — Idaho Public Television is at a crossroads.

Across its intersection is the present system, in which IPTV offers a service that covers virtually all of Idaho.

But a sharp turn may be in store for IPTV, in which it is weaned entirely off state funding, and relies upon private contributions.

What happens next depends on the Legislature and how it balances the state’s budget with Gov. C.L. "Butch" Otter's recommendation to gradually strip away IPTV's state funding during the next four years.

For public television, home of popular programs such as "Sesame Street," "Masterpiece Theatre" and "Antiques Roadshow," the change would mark a fundamental shift away from state support that helps broadcast programming to sparsely populated areas.

The proposal would take away one-fourth of IPTV's $1.6 million in state funding - $400,000 - each year until it's gone. That money would go to the state's education budget instead.

The loss of state funding would remove about 24 percent of IPTV's $7 million budget. The rest of IPTV's money comes from a Corporation forPublic Broadcasting grant andprivate contributions.

"The state's investment is modest but that modest part is a really key piece," said Peter Morrill, general manager of IPTV.

State funding pays for the administration and maintenance of IPTV's statewide broadcast system, while private donations help pay for programming and production.

About $3 million of the budget comes from private contributions, which means IPTV would have to increase donations received by more than 50 percent within four years to fill a$1.6 million hole.

Jon Hanian, Otter's spokesman, said the proposal reflects the governor's belief in user pay.

"That means if you use or enjoy a service - whether that means driving on a state road, enjoying a state park, or watching a taxpayer-funded television program to some degree or another - the user of that service should be willing to bear some part of the cost associated with providing that service," Hanian said. "This is what we are doing."

Regional impact

In south-central Idaho, the proposal means IPTV would have to monitor donations from the region to see if they match what's needed to maintain the transmitter that serves most of the Magic Valley.

IPTV has five transmitters serving the population hubs in the state: Coeur d'Alene, Moscow, the Treasure Valley, the Idaho Falls region and the Magic Valley. A system of 42 smaller translators sends the signal through rural areas, including Hagerman, Burley and Glenns Ferry.

"If this is passed and we are set on this course, we believe we can commit to keeping all five main transmitters up and operational for at least two years," Morrill said. "As we get into the second year we will do cost analysis."

Pledges will need to cover electrical equipment, a prorated portion of programming costs, and maintenance staff costs.

Changes could put programs such as "Outdoor Idaho" and "Idaho Reports" at risk, or pare them back extensively. There also would be less money for British comedies, dramas and musical shows that supplement IPTV's lineup.

"Based on our initial calculations, we think there is sufficient base population in the Treasure Valley, eastern Idaho, Coeur d'Alene-Spokane," Morrill said. "We are less confident about Twin Falls and Moscow."

The biggest concern is Moscow, because the size of its transmitter requires more electricity. Moscow is followed by Twin Falls, though. IPTV will look at the ZIP codes of contributions to see if each region's donations are supporting its transmitter.

As for the system of repeaters, the technology that sends signals into rural areas, IPTV will have to stop servicing them if the plan goes forward.

"We do not see a business model for maintaining in a cost-effective manner the vast majority of those," Morrill said. As a result, service to those regions would end once the translators break down, providing an uncertain date for when viewers can expect their screens to go dark.

"It could be tomorrow," Morrill said of that scenario. "It could be two months from now. They will just stop operating."

Fundraising challenges

Fundraising, already a regular event for IPTV, isn't expected to increase enough to fill a $1.6 million hole.

In the world of public television, about 10 to 15 percent of market households tend to donate. IPTV receives donations from more than

15 percent, already outperforming its peers, Morrill said.

"We do not see any substantial new sources of funds sitting out there that we have not already explored," he said. "We're not seeing the potential there. ... Now are we going to see small increases? That's possible, but not to this type of degree."

The station can't charge for its signals, air commercials or gather fees for airing infomercials.

"The box that we live in is extremely limited," Morrill said. "We're a public service. We can't be anything other than a public service."

At the same time, foundation giving on a national level is decreasing. IPTV expects a drop in support from foundations that help pay for programming and production.

Boise resident Jim Paxton, also the owner of Snake River Pool & Spa in Twin Falls, sits on the Board of Directors for Friends of Idaho Public Television. If IPTV loses state funding, he said, it also loses its ability to operate statewide. Using their money - not tax dollars - the board's members have sent letters to IPTV viewers to raise awareness. There's also a Web site to boost awareness about the issue.

"It reaches all facets of age groups from the young children watching 'Sesame Street' to 'Antiques Roadshow,'" Paxton said, adding that he appreciates lawmakers and the governor listening to their concerns.

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Originally posted at http://www.magicvalley.com/news/local/article_f834ee5a-1e20-5e8b-8f96-1793aa33966d.html

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