October 5, 2011
Independent public television stations are becoming an endangered species due to steep declines in funding. In response, a consortium of five non-profit organizations known as the EBS Companies, today announced the formation of Independent Public Media, an initiative dedicated to preserving community-based public TV stations throughout the United States. In an effort to keep public television alive, Independent Public Media is planning to acquire and recapitalize television stations at risk of closing or selling their licenses to organizations that may not represent a community’s interests at large.
“Public television remains a vital information source that finds itself in the same evolutionary process as print journalism. Old financing models no longer work; a new model must emerge if public TV is to survive,” says John Schwartz, founder and president of the EBS Companies. “It’s time to reinvent public TV to make it sustainable. We need to create a new operating and programming framework to ensure it survives for generations to come. We hope other non-profit funding partners will join us in this effort.”
Public television faces a multitude of internal and external challenges that threaten its survival. According to the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, non-federal financing for public television declined by more than $120 million between the last two reported years with decreasing viewer and business support, reduced foundation grants, elimination of state subsidies, and cutbacks from educational institutions. In addition, federal government funding is threatened by continued budget cuts. These rapidly shrinking revenues, combined with escalating costs, shifting technologies and changing viewership, are forcing long-time public TV licensees to reassess their capacity to continue their on-air operations.
Three notable examples of the crisis emerged in recent months: KCSM-TV (San Mateo, CA), WMFE-TV (Orlando, FL) and KWBU-TV (Waco, TX). KWBU-TV went dark in July 2010, and was sold to the Daystar faith-based network. WMFE-TV was also sold to Daystar. Most recently, KCSM-TV announced that it plans to issue a request for proposals to sell the station.
Independent Public Media expects this list will grow, and Schwartz cautions that a dangerous trend may emerge that could lead to these airwaves disappearing forever. “Public TV operates on channels assigned exclusively for non-profit, non-commercial use, and the Federal Communications Commission will not create more of these channels. Yet many stations are now being forced to consider selling to entities that may not represent diverse community interests, or risk going dark completely. We are prepared to purchase stations that find themselves facing this possibility.”
Independent Public Media will develop and implement sustainable operating models for the stations it acquires, paving the way to serve wider, more eclectic audiences at a viable cost. This may include airing public television programs from an array of distributors, releasing non-commercial programming via multiple platforms and leveraging content from the Internet and the Social Web. It will also seek partnerships with current and new content producers.
Independent Public Media will serve public broadcasters that are actively questioning the ongoing viability of their television operations, such as:
- Universities, school boards, community colleges, and similar educational institutions that are beginning to use new technologies to meet their instructional mission and goals, and where operating a public television station may no longer be cost-effective.
- Entities that operate multiple TV stations, but are considering reducing the number.
- Licensees unable to sustain ongoing shortfalls and long-term deficits in their television operations.
- Community and institutional licensees who see their radio operations as being successful while their public television stations are struggling.
Utilizing only financing from non-profit organizations, Independent Public Media will acquire at-risk licenses and demonstrate that they can be operated sustainably while programming to a wide range of viewer interests.