Philosophy, finances behind push to trim Idaho PTV

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BOISE, Idaho (AP) — Gov. C.L. “Butch” Otter’s push to eliminate Idaho Public Television’s state funding is as much philosophical as financial: In an era of private networks, cable and Internet, government should exit the TV business.

Under the move, the 45-year-old network would likely trim broadcasts that now reach 300,000 people weekly to only Idaho’s most populous areas, as 41 of 42 translators that broadcast seven channels to far-flung regions are dismantled.

“Government TV,” in Otter’s words, has outlived the day when it was needed to connect Idaho’s disparate northern, southern and eastern reaches, divided by geography and culture.

In fact, the Republican governor would push to wean public TV off Idaho tax dollars even without a $50 million budget hole, his aides said.

“The budget sped things up and caused things to come closer to the surface that would have been addressed anyway,” said Mark Warbis, Otter’s spokesman. “Every dollar you save is a dollar more you have to put into the classroom.”

Larry Sidman, the Association of Public Television Stations’ lobbyist in Arlington, Va., said state governments cut at least $23 million from public TV funding this fiscal year, with more expected in 2011. The hardest hit states include Pennsylvania, where stations lost 90 percent of their $12 million state funding.

But the main reason is because tax revenue is shrinking, Sidman said, not out of concern support is inappropriate.

“There are pockets of skepticism about why government should be funding TV,” Sidman conceded. “But I think the strength of that view had declined markedly over the last decade.”

Peter Morrill, Idaho Public Television general manager, learned of Otter’s plan in late-December: His $1.6 million appropriation — a fourth of its $7 million annual budget — would be gone by 2014.

If the plan is approved, Morrill expects to begin cutting 20 of 54 full-time and 37 of 58 part-time jobs this spring. Moscow and Pocatello studios would be shuttered; equipment that broadcasts the Idaho Legislature would go dark.

Reception could eventually be limited to Boise, Coeur d’Alene, Idaho Falls, Pocatello and maybe Twin Falls, as remote digital translators that relay “Sesame Street” and locally produced “Outdoor Idaho” to 41 rural communities like Bonners Ferry, Challis, Salmon and Soda Springs fall prey to weather and aren’t repaired.

Here’s why: Currently, Morrill’s station gets 63 percent of funding from private sources.

With 82 percent of that from southwestern Idaho’s Treasure Valley, those contributors want to pay for programs, not to maintain gear on distant mountaintops just so residents scattered in the hinterlands can get a signal.

Without state support, “we would be forced to pull back our statewide operations and focus on populated areas,” he said.

Otter points to neighboring Oregon as a public broadcasting operation that’s been severed from state government.

Oregon Public Broadcasting, with radio and television stations that reach 3.8 million people, was privatized in 1993.

But the station still got more than $23 million in appropriations from 1993 to 2003, as well as $125,000 in 2009, said chief executive Steve Bass. Oregon lawmakers also gave $3 million in 2007, to upgrade digital translators so rural communities could still get signals.

“Even in our privatized state, there’s still a role and a need for some state support to provide equivalent service in both rural and urban areas,” Bass said.

In 1981, the Idaho Legislature cut all but $70,000 of public television’s funding after it angered lawmakers with programs about logging practices and lead poisoning in northern Idaho. A year later, they relented, but required the then three stations to be operated as a statewide network under Board of Education oversight.

And in 1999 and 2000, programs about homosexuality prompted lawmakers to require programming disclaimers.

Rep. Steve Hartgen, R-Twin Falls, remains irked by what he said is public TV’s liberal, pro-government bias. But he’s not ready to pull the plug, saying state funding allows lawmakers to make sure things don’t go too far.

“It does give the state some oversight,” Hartgen said.

Rep. Maxine Bell, the Republican co-chair of the budget committee, said Otter’s push for savings has merit. Still, she believes public TV remains a key part of Idaho’s educational system, including daily broadcasts of the Legislature that show voters back home what their lawmakers are up to in Boise.

“They are an integral part of opening up the activity we have at the Capitol to the people of the state,” Bell said. “I think their programming is terrific.”