New venture fund for public TV, and launch of all-pledge PBS channel

WASHINGTON – New revenue models to support public television have been announced – one a new twist on venture philanthropy and another taking a traditional source of funds to what may be its logical extreme.

The venture philanthropy comes from the formation of Independent Public Media last week. Fuelled by revenue from spectrum leases, IPM will “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,” according to its news release.

To illustrate the threat to local public television stations, IPM’s announcement cited three stations:

“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 [the PBS station in San Mateo, California] announced that it plans to issue a request for proposals to sell the station.”[again from the press release]

Other stations are also threatened or have gone off the air, as we reported over the summer.

IPM is already actively pursuing investments in public TV.

“We have proposals out to a couple of stations and will participate in an auction of KCSM,” said IPM chief operating officer Ken Devine in an interview with Current. And IPM founder John Schwartz told Current that they have plans to raise more funds to acquire or support more stations.

“If we can show how it’s done, we can raise money from other parties and do a much larger rescue effort,” said Schwartz.

If this plan is successful, IPM could become the owner of a number of PBS stations across the country. That would follow the example set by Minnesota Public Radio, which created a national programming and station arm that controls stations including KPCC-FM in Los Angeles.

The other innovation in public television funding is, well, not exactly an innovation: it simply takes a decades-old business model and extends it to its logical extreme.

Viewers are all familiar with public television pledge drives, which interrupt regular PBS programming to raise money and attract new members. But one PBS station is going to extend its pledge drives into an entire 24-hour channel.

That is the innovation that WQED in Pittsburgh will start this fall, launching a new channel that will feature “national pledge programming that has never been shown on WQED,” according to the station’s announcement.

“[I]t will be another way for WQED to maximize revenue so that we can continue to fulfill our core educational mission to this community,” said Deborah Acklin, the station’s president and CEO, in the announcement. But Acklin says that it is also about serving that other PBS audience, the viewers who prefer pledge shows to the NewsHour and Masterpiece.

“[A] lot of people really like pledge programming, and we forget that sometimes,” Acklin told Current in an interview. “I’m always pleasantly surprised when people ask me when we’ll be having those great music shows again, and they mean pledge programs.”

The regular PBS schedule will continue to run on WQED and WQED HD channel 13.1. The new pledge channel will be broadcast on WQED digital channel 13.4.

Station managers around the country may be scratching their heads and asking why they didn’t think of this themselves. And maybe it is not just PBS station managers: commercial stations could launch 24-hour infomercial channels on little-used or vacant digital frequencies.

That would be a new twist on the Communications Act of 1934’s charge that broadcasters serve the “public interest, convenience and necessity.”