The history of Idaho Public Television: A roller-coaster ride of funding, programs

By Royce Williams

For 50 years of Idaho Public Television’s existence, the network’s budget has been the best and the worst story, usually the result of the network’s somewhat schizophrenic relationship with the Legislature.

Every budget is a river with funds rarely at flood stage but just as rarely at drought stage. IdahoPTV has experienced both. As a general rule, any organization sitting on the shore is ultimately measured by its reaction to funding levels. It is tougher when the organization has little or no control over the flow.

IdahoPTV has often had to make do with too little (about every 10 years), rarely with freshets. In 2016, IdahoPTV was watched in any given week by just over a third of Idaho’s 1.6 million people on average, and it is these viewers who have sustained the network over the years. The network can depend on them, giving administrators some planning flexibility. Fifty-two percent of the viewers are 35 to 64 years old, a group usually employed. Twenty-seven percent are 65 years old or older, experienced with little time and support for frivolous television. Twenty-one percent range in age from 2 to 34 years old (increasingly making up a new internet generation) and interested in educational programs.

The figures are reassuring, yet television of the quality level most viewers demand is expensive. Video equipment used is used by few others, so it costs big bucks. It starts to crash after five years, and by seven years, repairs (even if parts are still available) cost more than the equipment is worth. It’s money down a rat hole. Getting the programs to televisions and websites in Idahoans’ homes in this corduroy state requires expensive equipment placed in spots where weather is often severe, making the equipment difficult and costly to install, reach or replace. The flow of dollars can dwindle when the quality doesn’t make it to a viewer’s home, so a systemwide downward spiral is tricky to avoid.

If the quality doesn’t reach the viewer, and he or she hides the credit card, there are two other funding sources that might save the day – Corporation for Public Broadcasting (CPB) grants or other federal or foundation grants and state appropriations. But even these funds are tied to viewer support, meaning the funding begins to dry up as soon as foundation boards and elected officials get a hint that viewers are unhappy or changing channels.

The most crucial source is state funds, for that money buys the hardware that gets the programs from the editing bay to home television sets. Today, that system includes five transmitters, 18 microwave links, and 47 translators. Historically, the state funding has often saved the day, but roughly every 10 years, funding cuts or the possibility of cuts by the state have brought the threat of shutting the station doors close enough to cause stress levels to peak. Often the cuts have come as a result of confusing coverage with advocacy, two very different concepts in practice. State funding for IdahoPTV can be graphed to resemble a rollercoaster track with a historic fear level of 6.8 out of 10.

IdahoPTV was 15 years old when it first happened. Up to that time (1980-81), public television would have had to work pretty hard to find detractors. In fact, the Idaho Legislature passed a concurrent resolution in 1972 praising public television and the host of legislative coverage (Gene Shumate) for thorough and unbiased coverage of the work at the Statehouse. But the early 1980s session brought a bill to cut all state funding to public television. There were threats, too, of fewer federal grants to local stations from the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, the result of winning politicians’ promises in their campaigns of spending cuts.

A perfect storm was brewing, and IdahoPTV was a trailer in the path of the tornado. The 1 percent property tax initiative had just passed, and that meant less money coming in to state coffers. No one knew at the time how little, plus inflation was at record levels, so whatever did come in wasn’t going to buy as much. Legislators were at a loss as to how to implement the initiative or what that would cost.

Add to the mix a recent KUID-Moscow documentary called Cedar Thief and budget frustrations took the form of punishment. The documentary focused on the plight of northern Idaho’s small sawmill owners, who said they had finally resorted to stealing cedar logs to maintain their livelihoods. They blamed new rules for timber sales and large mills like Potlatch for their predicament.

The Forest Service said their sales were larger and that might squeeze the smaller mills, but that it had been approved at the federal level because of a national lumber shortage or, in some areas, a glut of overpriced lumber from inflation. Although asked to respond by program producers, Potlatch said no. Had they appeared on-screen and told their story, people there at the time said the controversy would never have happened. (Potlatch would later become a corporate supporter of public television.)

Local legislators came to Boise, pounded on their desks and said that IdahoPTV was using taxpayers’ money to malign a major North Idaho employer. If anyone spoke up for the small sawmill owners, it was not found in the fat files of clippings from the media of the day. Support, too, at the University of Idaho for documentary work got a lot harder to justify.

There had been rumblings of opposition to earlier documentaries coming out of Moscow. Two programs – Kellogg: The Best To You Each Morning, a report on lead buildup in Silver Valley yards in 1973, and Sweet Land of Liberty, interviews with gay people in the Moscow-Pullman area in 1976 – were seen by some as an affront to the mining industry and to mainstream religious groups. White hats and spurs came off the shelves at the Statehouse, and IdahoPTV lost all state funding except for a small residue of funds (about $35,000) in the Department of Education’s budget for educational television.

The fallout was nearly deadly for public television, but public reaction to the cuts tempered the effects somewhat. Cutbacks at the stations were in place. KAID-Boise cut back on part-time people, cut on-air hours, went off the air at noon on Saturday, and sign-on was at 3 p.m. each day. Savings went into fall-winter program buys and keeping The Reporters a daily show. Still, by the middle of 1981, both Pocatello and Moscow stations were planning to shut down.

Sixteen people lost their jobs at the statewide network. Probably the toughest cuts to take were to the students at U of I. There was no longer enough money to provide what they needed to do hands-on production. Numbers are hard to sift, but a large percentage of communication majors left the university less competitive for jobs than the students from the 1970s.

However, in the fundraising Festival that followed the cuts, memberships increased to 6,000 and $143,000 was pledged, a record amount at the Boise station. The average pledge was $25.55. It had been $7 the year before. And at Moscow, a short fundraising break during halftime at the NCAA tournament brought in a whopping $35,000, a huge amount from the Moscow area in the early 1980s. Also, IdahoPTV was starting a trend of leading the nation in the percentage of PTV viewers. The state with the most dedicated viewers had the stingiest legislature.

A Catch 22 is developing: The more money IdahoPTV raises from sources other than the state funds, the more the state wants to cut funding. And if cutting budgets is popular, how could you get more credit for doing it than by cutting public television? It is built-in publicity, even if you don’t do the cutting or restore some of it quietly. The amount of state funds in the various budget cutting years has never been great in relation to the total state budget. Using figures from the National Transportation Association’s average costs for resurfacing a mile of interstate highway through a city like Boise in 2016 ($32,000,000), IdahoPTV’s general fund appropriation ($2,314,000) would cover the cost of about 382 feet of road, not enough to get you off the on ramp to Mountain Home.

A supplemental appropriation late in 1981 ($334,000 with an extra $34,500 to KAID-Boise for legislative coverage) kept the doors open at all three stations through the upcoming January legislative session. There, the Legislature created Idaho Educational Public Broadcasting Service and put the statewide operation under a single general manager answering to the State Board of Education, a go-to person for questions that might come up from both the Statehouse and from the general public. Stations left the three university umbrellas and became part of the State Board of Education budget. No other public television network in the country had a similar structure, so no one was sure of the ways to make it work. In later years, other PBS stations would view this change as a good idea.

By the mid-1980s, the state was contributing 26 cents of each dollar spent on IdahoPTV (coming from 65 cents per Idahoan per year), but it wasn’t enough to replace video and electronic editing equipment that was beginning to conk out. For example, one tube socket shorted out at KUID-Moscow and the station was off the air for two days. Budgets were getting critical. Managers were unable to plan ahead for program purchases that they weren’t sure they could deliver to homes. And if they bought the equipment, they couldn’t afford the programs.

State appropriations to IdahoPTV boil down to $1.42 per Idahoan per year in the FY 2016 budget. In a list of 14 similar states, the average annual cost per person is $2.36. Idahoans are getting a pretty good deal. Here are the figures for the other 14 states:

State                State funds      Cash/person

Alabama          $6.2 million       $1.28

Arkansas          $9.1 million       $3.08

Georgia                        $14.8 million     $1.47

Iowa                 $9.3 million       $3.00

Kentucky          $13.2 million     $3.05

Louisiana         $5.5 million       $1.22

Maryland          $8 million          $1.39

Mississippi        $7.9 million       $2.65

Nebraska         $10.5 million     $5.58

Oklahoma        $3.3 million       $0.90

South Carolina $6 million          $1.32

South Dakota   $3.8 million       $4.54

Wisconsin         $5.2 million       $0.92

West Virginia    $4.8 million       $2.61

The network set up a fundraising program to buy new equipment. The goal was $3 million, which they managed to reach. But no sooner was the new equipment turned on than the second 10-year budget cut roared over the horizon. This time it was at the federal level, an attempt to squeeze the Corporation for Public Broadcasting (CPB), the major source of grants to IdahoPTV (30 percent of the budget at the time).

President Ronald Reagan had vetoed the 1987-88-89 CPB budgets, one passed unanimously by the Congress. CPB argued that their budget was a small part of the total federal budget and worked out to less than a dollar per US citizen per year. The cuts did not materialize in that budget cycle, but the Republicans won a majority in Congress in 1994. New members were candidates who had promised to make meaningful cuts to the federal budget. The combination was a strong signal, and IdahoPTV announced major cuts in January of 1996 to give people losing jobs more time to find new ones before the July 1 deadline.

In a news release, the network announced the layoff of 10 staff people (four people in production; three in technical services; two in multi-media services and one in marketing-development), the result of notification by CPB of a total of $700,000 loss over the next four years. And the state, also in a budget cutting mood, had already stripped $100,000 from the network in the current year. There were significant cuts in the operational budget, too.

All of it was done under an umbrella with a deficit reduction imprint, but those opposed to the cuts countered that PTV’s tiny portion (.00025 percent) of the federal budget made a barely visible dent in the deficit. It wouldn’t come close to balancing the budget. At the time, the federal budget included more dollars for military bands than for both public television and radio. The friends of public television also pointed to national surveys that showed nearly 80 percent of the public thought the private-public partnership, including federal funds, worked just fine.

Outdoor Idaho and Dialogue escaped the 1990s cuts, but Idaho Reports was scaled back from a daily half-hour show; Portraits of Idaho was dropped; Child Care Almanac would not have a planned third season; and coverage of U of I Vandal Sports games was discontinued. Learning Link was dropped and the branch office in Coeur d’Alene was shut down, although broadcasting from the KCDT transmitter continued.

This round of funding cuts brought a decade-long discussion on whether or not the government should be involved in television at all. There were a lot of suggestions:

  • The network should sell advertising. Selling ads would put public television in competition with commercial stations, and given the current ad market, there would not be enough dollars to cover the current number of stations. Also it would take nearly a third of the money raised by ads to hire people to design, produce and sell the ads, even if the station could get around a violation of the Federal Communications Commission license that ad sales would create. Ads would turn the public in public television into consumers, something that is the opposite of what public television was conceived to do – serve the underserved viewers. Plus ads coming from small towns and ranching country would be nil, leaving these viewers at the mercy of the cities.
  • Cable or satellite television could do the work. Cable and satellite delivery of television is working well, but its major failing is the absence of local programming, something public television does quite well. The cost of local production can’t be covered by bills sent to cable. They aren’t buying. And cable rates to viewers are well above what Idahoans pay for public television.
  • Set up a non-profit organization to run public television. Contributions from the public and dedicated funds now cover about 73 percent of the network’s costs. The state supports 27 percent, spent on program delivery to homes and schools. With this combination, Idahoans are paying $1.42 each per year for public television fare. It is doubtful this cost could go much higher and keep contributions at a level that would cover increasing costs. And in surveys of other funders, results show that a majority feels that government needs to be involved, needs to carry its weight.
  • If government funds it, government should have a say in programming. This is a never-ending argument. Carried too far, it begins to resemble the Soviet or Middle Eastern system of information dissimilation. Yet, legislators are faced with constituents who often mistake coverage for advocacy and demand action, even punishment, by the legislator, putting him or her between a rock and a hard place politically. While it can sometimes be too much to ask of a legislator to fund programming that may express ideas and opinions contrary to ideology, public television depends upon his or her thick skin. Public television remains committed to listening to legislators’ complaints and responding to them and to their constituents as needed. The dichotomy is often quite apparent as a given legislator will claim to love watching public television, yet vote to cut its funding.
  • The cost of public television outweighs its benefits. Costs are easy to pin down, but benefits of public television are nearly impossible to quantify. The costs sound high, but in comparison to other budgets, they remain reasonable. The benefits to children and other underserved audiences are substantial, based on responses from individual Idahoans on the depth and balance of the programming. Also, Idahoans consistently watch public television more than viewers in any other state. They are finding something they like or need.

As the 1990s wore on, it became obvious that IdahoPTV would have to develop new sources or try to expand existing sources of funds if it was to keep up with viewers’ needs. Whatever was designed also would have to give station managers some leeway in planning for the future needs of those same viewers. Of course, some up and down is expected in public funding and has to be heralded or absorbed. Both happened in the 1990s.

With budget cuts at the federal level, grants from the Corporation for Public Broadcasting didn’t dry up but were severely limited. In Idaho, cutting spending of nearly any kind was popular and IdahoPTV was planning on a cut of nearly $500,000 if the 1 percent property tax initiative passed and there was no increase in other taxes to offset the loss – highly unlikely. Since state funds are sometimes used to match funds from other grants, an additional $26,000 in grants might be lost, too. The state was in that decade’s budget cutting mood as well; it was futile to ask for more.

The initiative didn’t pass, but there was another huge cloud on the horizon. The Federal Communications Commission sent down a decree (unfunded mandate) that analog television was a thing of the past and every television station in the country had to switch to digital broadcasting by 2003. Making the switch would be an engineering nightmare at every transmitter tower in the state. All of it was projected to cost between $11 and $14 million.

IdahoPTV did what it could do. It set up an endowment with the goal of $3 million by the first year of the new century. Again, the network went to those private donors who had already given a lot and asked them to give more. Amazingly, they came through and the money was real and solved an immediate problem – replacement of worn-out and outdated production and editing equipment. It was equipment that would merge smoothly with the coming digital revolution.

The state came to bat in the switch to digital. From a low appropriation point in the mid-1990s, the state’s one-time funding jumped to a high of nearly $2 million in FY 2000. In the following three years and again in the last years of the decade, the state rustled up 60 percent of the cost of the transition to digital. With these one-time appropriations, IdahoPTV was able to put some money into matching grants that covered some of the remaining costs. Private donations made up 8 percent; federal grants paid 15 percent; CPB, 7 percent; USDA, 1 percent; and universities, 4 percent. Final cost of the project, less some replacement here and there, was just over $25 million.

Digital television has required replacement of most antennas around the state, and Idaho’s Legislature provided the money for 60 percent of the cost of the switch.

However, the appropriations that covered the ongoing expenses at the stations saw a drop in FY 2003, and IdahoPTV laid off four full-time employees. These annual appropriations (separate from any one-time spending authority) would climb slowly to a peak of $1.7 million in FY 2008, then start a decline that lasted through the Great Recession.

How much of the decline can be blamed on the recession and how much on dissatisfaction with programming is anyone’s guess, but the cuts early in the decade came after a program on gays (It’s Elementary) aired in 1999. Editors at IdahoPTV had some experience with the subject and took Governor Dirk Kempthorne’s request to air the show later in the evening as a not unreasonable suggestion. The experience had occurred 23 years earlier when KUID-Moscow did a show called Sweet Land of Liberty. In that show, producers talked to homosexuals in the Moscow-Pullman community who were willing to appear on television about losing jobs, about losing apartments, about being generally excluded from most of what the rest of the community took for granted.

Phones started ringing off the hook even before the credits rolled. But the resourceful producers took that as grounds for doing a follow-up program. They sat pro- and anti-gay people face to face and asked each side to confront the other. It’s Elementary was directed at adults and gave pointers on how they might handle questions from children about the issue. The television reaction in 1999 was a carbon copy of 1976. IdahoPTV did a follow-up call-in show on the issue, letting people ask qualified panelists about the topic.

In the reaction to the 1999 show, something that’s hard to pin down, there seemed to be a general acceptance of the subject as something worthy of coverage. There was a small group of legislators threatening both publcly and privately to eliminate state funding. After the two shows aired, there was little evidence to support a statement about a lot of people changing their minds on the subject. It was different in 1976. One vehemently anti-gay guest did a 180-degree on-camera opinion change about gays.

There is little question about the cause of the dip in the rollercoaster track that occurred with the beginning of the Great Recession. From the roughly $3.2 million in 2008, the appropriation of all income to the system slid to a low of about $1.4 million in 2012. Money wasn’t being appropriated from the Legislature because they simply didn’t have it. The cuts may have serendipitously agreed with the ideology of a few legislators, but it can’t be said that the cuts were punishment for programming.

State funds are necessary to build the numerous towers that are in turn necessary to get a video signal to all corners of the state’s rugged terrain. Idaho’s system gets television to 97 percent of the state’s citizens.

But there was the overriding notion that the government at all levels was spending too much, and the opinion resurfaced in Governor Otter’s third inaugural address. He proposed eliminating all state funds to public television over four years starting in 2010. The old 10-year cycle of boom and bust was beginning. State appropriations did fall over the next two years, but as with all government cuts, support erodes as the cuts are felt at home. The governor ended up appropriating about $1.5 million in FY 2010.

The zero funding never materialized, and the governor was proposing in FY 2014 the same amount as he had proposed in FY 2010. There were even some dollars appropriated for one-time capital outlay spending.

And in FY 2015 the general fund appropriation for Idaho Public Television broke the $2 million mark for the first time in the network’s 50-year history. Also, in March of 2016, the Legislature approved spending $3 million in the FY 2017 fiscal year starting in July 2016. The state’s contribution to IdahoPTV remains at 26 percent of the network’s overall budget, money that pays for the hardware that takes television from the source to Idahoan’s homes and schools.