Big Apple noncoms, unite!

CPB urges three public stations to talk synergy

At the urging of the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, three New York-area public TV stations are talking about consolidating operations-and possibly more.

WNET (TV) New York, Long Island-based WLIW-TV and Brooklyn-based, NYC Board of Education-owned WNYE-TV have been talking for about a year about a common master control, but in recent weeks, the talks have gone further, according to executives at the stations.

"There are a lot of 'ifs,'" said Terrel Cass, president and general manager at WLIW . "Presently, we've agreed to a joint master-control project: the merging of our technical facilities to put the signal out. We got a grant [from the Corporation for Public Broadcasting] to build the master-control facility, but about three months ago, WNET started talking about a full blown merger. Our board thought that was interesting," Cass said, and the stations have been talking ever since.

"This was started by the Corporation for Public Broadcasting in an effort to make overlapping stations as efficient as possible," said WNET President Bill Baker. CPB provided a $450,000 feasibility study for combining the master-control operations. "And it makes sense. Digital was a catalyst to get this started. Things are getting tougher in fund-raising. There's no way to raise all that money for digital conversion at all three stations."

As WLIW and WNET-TV explored possibilities, Baker said, the New York City Board of Education approached WNET about participating in the partnership. The other stations were receptive. "We are used to dealing with public agendas and public entities," Baker said. Signals from all three stations would likely come from WNET-TV 's master-control facility.

Regarding potential job losses, Baker said, "We haven't determined that yet. I think it would be relatively minimal. We're looking to do more; we're not looking to make profits" like commercial stations.

And while Plainview-based WLIW would want to maintain some of its Long Island localism and would maintain a studio there, local programming from WNET would also be local for WLIW . "We also cover the New York City market," said Cass. "About 25% of our audience is on Long Island; another 50% is in New York and Westchester [County]."

CPB's goal, said Andy Russell, senior vice president, media, "is improving operating efficiencies at all our stations. In situations like New York, there are opportunities to take advantage of technology to lower operating costs and the cost of digital conversion. We have three stations looking at substantial digital conversion costs. Instead, the stations can turn those funds into strengthening local content."

Through grants and guidance, CPB has been promoting consolidation in several geographic areas. "We've been at this for a while," said Russell. "We've spent nearly $10 million across 18 markets, investing in trying out approaches along the lines of 'hubbing,' or sharing broadcast functional capabilities." Those investments have included various consolidation efforts at four public stations in Colorado and in Philadelphia, Indianapolis and the Pacific Northwest. Boston and Dallas, where there are also significant overlaps in public television and radio stations, also have joint operations, CPB said.