Charlotte's public TV station in dire straits [The Charlotte Observer, N.C.]
(Charlotte Observer (NC) Via Acquire Media NewsEdge) July 01--Charlotte's public TV station revealed Thursday it has run a deficit of about $300,000, and the treasurer warned that if the coming year is as bad, WTVI could shut down.
"Within a year or two, if nothing changes, the lights go out," C. Lal Vishin, Channel 42's treasurer, told the station's board.
Vishin said the station dipped into its reserve fund of about $500,000 to cover the losses. "If we go with a deficit like this, we have one more year to live."
Vishin's assessment is the most dire forecast made publicly to date about WTVI's financial condition, which has turned perilous since the recession began to grip Charlotte in 2008.
Station President Elsie Garner said the station, which signed on in 1965, had a "disastrous fourth quarter" in fundraising. WTVI's shortfall represented about 10 percent of its overall budget.
Among the station's problems: A June membership drive failed to erase the deficit, an ill-timed direct-mail campaign in December fell far short of expectations and membership numbers have dropped.
"We are in a really tough situation in this community to raise money," said Garner. "Every nonprofit I know is struggling."
Garner had appealed to Mecklenburg County to help underwrite its expenses, but the county declined to provide operating support for the second straight year. In the past, the county has given WTVI about $800,000 for operations.
Mecklenburg County does maintain the station's studios on Commonwealth Avenue, pays the debt on WTVI's digital broadcasting equipment and pays about $95,000 to televise county commissioners meetings. It also provided a $44,000 emergency appropriation for equipment repair in April.
Specials in pipeline
Despite its problems, the station unveiled a relatively solid slate of local programming for the new fiscal year, which begins today. Among the projects are a September documentary on former Charlotte Mayor John Belk, another about gold, and "Overdraft" from Davidson producer Scott Galloway, a look at how the national debt affects people on a grass-roots level.
WTVI's board approved a $3.1 million budget for the new year, about $30,000 less than last year's. Darlena Goodwin, WTVI's new development director, said the station was planning a number of new fundraising approaches, including pursuing foundation grants, and she was confident the station would reach its goals.
WTVI's problems mirror those of public television stations across the nation. Orlando's public TV station closed this year, and New Jersey's state public network was to go out of business Thursday night.
Cuts in state systems
North Carolina's statewide system, Chapel Hill-based UNC-TV, got a 12 percent budget cut from the legislature this year and has been placed on annual "continuation review" status, meaning its state money is tied to a study each year on its effectiveness.
Steve Volstead, UNC-TV's marketing director, said Thursday that the system is looking at how it will absorb this year's budget cut.
"My perception is that it's not going to result in anything so drastic that it would be obvious to viewers," he said.
UNC-TV is carried on Channel 58 in Charlotte.
Rob Schaller, spokesman for South Carolina's statewide public TV system, ETV, said its annual budget was cut 6 percent by the legislature this week. It's too early to say what kind of impact it would have on ETV's operations, he said. ETV is carried on Channel 30 in Charlotte.
Over the last few years, lawmakers in Columbia have cut money to the network by about 40 percent.
Both statewide systems raise money from Charlotte viewers in competition with WTVI.
WTVI continues to suffer from a perception among viewers that it duplicates the programs shown on the state networks, but less than 10 percent of its shows are the same -- and those are mostly children's programs aired at different times, incoming chairwoman Liz Downing said.
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