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Evolution of public TV

Fri., July 4, 2008

Look at the budget for Spokane Public Schools and you’ll see a line item for Spokane Public Television.

The same school district that’s trying to get kids past the WASL also brings Big Bird and “Antiques Roadshow” to Spokane homes.

In a relationship that dates to the 1960s, the nonprofit Friends of 7 organization raises money – about $3.8 million last year – through pledge drives, then hands most of it over to the school district, which runs the station. The district chips in about $300,000 of district taxpayers’ money – roughly the value of videos the school district uses to communicate with constituents.

It is a relationship that was common 40 years ago but has become rare. As of 2006, only seven of 356 public television stations nationwide were operated by local government entities of any kind, according to the Corporation for Public Broadcasting.

Now, a few people are quietly questioning whether the relationship still makes sense in Spokane, given that both institutions face challenges – declining enrollment and budget shortfalls for the school district, competition from the Web and cable stations for KSPS. School officials say yes; one former Friends board member says no.

“Very little leadership comes from the school board,” said Eric Johnson, who served stints as president during his 10 years on the Friends board. “They simply don’t have the time … to deal with the details required for the day-to-day operation of a public television station.”

Inarguably, overseeing the station is one of many duties to which the school district must attend while overseeing a $300 million budget, 27,000 students and more than 3,000 employees. No one runs for the school board on a platform of improving public television.

When the two boards formed a joint planning committee a couple of years back, it was considered a big step toward cooperation. And when the entire boards met together in June to discuss challenges faced by the station, some members called it “historic.”

To the best of anyone’s memory, it had never happened before. But that doesn’t mean the television station is a low priority, said school board member Christy Querna, who is part of the joint planning committee.

“It is part of the fabric of our community,” she said. “And insofar as it enables such things as lifelong learning … that is not outside our mission.”

On the air

“KSPS is on the air!” were the first words broadcast on Spokane’s Channel 7, on April 24, 1967.

Those call letters were no accident; the last three letters stand for Spokane Public Schools.

Daytime programs were geared for classroom use in Spokane and surrounding districts that paid for their use. Elementary music, money management, driver’s education, science, Northwest history and Spanish were among the offerings. Later in the afternoon, there were programs like “Modern Mathematics for Parents.”

Evening programs leaned toward the arts and how-to programs. A grand piano was “an absolute must,” the station manager told reporters, since recitals would be broadcast live.

In the early 1970s, 327 Spokane-area adults passed tests to receive their high school equivalency diplomas after watching instructional programs produced by the district and regularly broadcast on its station. Spokane Public Schools more than covered production costs for the 39-part “TV High School” series by selling broadcast rights to school districts across the nation, The Spokesman-Review reported.

Nothing happened at the station without district approval. And when KSPS aired a 1974 documentary about primates, it was the school district that heard complaints from viewers offended by the mating scenes.

Forty years after it started broadcasting, KSPS no longer is a classroom tool. Viewers make their comments directly to the station or contact the Friends of 7, in the mistaken belief that the fundraising organization controls programming.

No more does station staff go to the school board for approval for local projects, although station manager Claude Kistler meets regularly with Mark Anderson, associate school district superintendent.

And while the school board stays out of programming decisions, Kistler said he gives Anderson a heads-up when KSPS is going to air a program that some viewers might find objectionable, like a 2005 episode of “Postcards from Buster” that featured a same-sex couple.

On the same page

Querna, the school board member, said that even if the district decided it was time to get out of the television business, a separation might be impractical. The district owns much of the station equipment. Station salaries are paid by the district, which also tends to things like pensions.

Anderson notes that the station would likely have to add staff to handle functions like payroll, which now is done by the district.

And there is a definite advantage to the school district of being in the television business.

The Spokane Public Schools Web page includes an archive of videos, mostly titled “School Talk,” that are produced at KSPS. They are about a variety of topics, including school construction, math requirements and the Our Kids: Our Business effort to fight child abuse and neglect, in which The Spokesman-Review was involved.

Produced periodically through the year and broadcast repeatedly on cable television, the videos are used by the district to communicate with its constituents. There is also a call-in show that airs live four times a year on KSPS and then repeated on cable.

“About 80 percent of the city population don’t have kids in schools, but need to be involved so they can see the value when it’s levy time,” said Kistler, who started as an intern at KSPS during its founding year.

If reaching voters is the district’s challenge, the Friends group faces one that’s parallel: prompting donations from people who tune in to KSPS. So far, the organization has met its fundraising goals every year, and donor demographics haven’t changed much – it’s typically a 55-year-old woman, said the organization’s executive director, Patty Starkey.

But Kistler said growth in donor support is slowing. He’s seen the relationship between the station and its supporters change from one that was value-based, meaning people gave because it was the right thing to do, to one that is “transactional.” In a transactional relationship, donors expect to get something tangible in return for their gift – concert tickets maybe, or a DVD.

“That’s not as solid a relationship as when someone gives from the heart,” Kistler said.

There are other concerns, too.

Friends of 7 gets 51 percent of its money from Canadian viewers, a relationship that was strengthened in 1992, when customers of Shaw Cable Canada started receiving KSPS.

But Shaw picked Seattle’s commercial and public television stations last year to be part of a high-definition bundle for customers who were willing to pay more for that service. Kistler and Starkey worry those customers may stop supporting KSPS, even though it’s still offered as part of Shaw’s basic cable package.

“It’s the No. 1 concern in our minds,” Starkey said during the joint board meeting.

Kistler wonders, too, what will happen Feb. 18.

That’s when analog television will end and customers without cable stop receiving the station, unless they’ve bought a digital converter for each TV.

Broadcasters have launched a massive campaign to inform those customers of the steps they need to take. Still, there could be “surprises,” said Kistler, like some viewers deciding it’s a good time to unplug their TVs for good.

Some of those viewers – particularly the younger ones – are probably already getting much of their information from the Web, and Kistler said that’s another challenge faced by all PBS stations.

And KSPS struggles to provide locally produced programming. Costs are rising, so stations like to have major sponsors in place before they start production. Yet, fundraising is complicated by the fact that decision-makers for a growing number of traditional corporate sponsors – local banks, for instance – are based outside Spokane.

Kistler said none of it amounts to a crisis. But taken together, it prompted the Spokane school board to ask that the joint committee ramp up its efforts to study the challenges and possible solutions, and report back within a year.

“We’re going through conversations that will put us all on the same page,” Kistler said.

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