September 1, 2014
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PBS On Chopping Block
Rep. Naughton troubled by plan to eliminate PBS funding
Warwick Beacon photo
READY FOR QUESTIONS: David Piccerelli, middle, and Michael Issacs, right, testify before the House Finance Committee Thursday on the governor's budget article that would eliminate state funding to Rhode Island PBS.

Usually when a state agency comes under the budget ax, all the stops are pulled and those believing in the agency’s mission rally to show how misguided those cuts would be.

But that wasn’t the case last Thursday when the Chafee administration proposed phasing out about $922,000 for Rhode Island PBS [Channel 36], or about a third of its funding, in the next year. In fact, even David Piccerelli, RI PBS president and CEO, told the House Finance Committee, “No one likes to have a budget cut;” adding, “We’re prepared to do what’s necessary.”

Michael Isaacs, chairman of the Rhode Island Public Telecommunications Authority, elaborated that the station is working on a plan for private support.

That isn’t good enough for Warwick Rep. Eileen Naughton, who not only grilled the governor’s director of administration, Richard Licht, during the hearing but also, in a later interview, said the state would be casting aside its investment and future opportunities if it didn’t ensure PBS’ continuation.

Licht prefaced his remarks, saying, “Difficult times require making difficult choices.” He said the station has to survive on its own and that he believes with a “sensible transition plan” that would be possible during the first six months of the new fiscal year.

Naughton wanted specifics.

“Supply us with the documents that it can be self-supporting,” she told Licht.

Naughton had some support from Warwick Rep. Frank Ferri, also a member of the finance committee. He wanted to know how the administration had arrived at the conclusion to eliminate state support of the station halfway through the fiscal year.

Licht said the decision was reached that across the board cuts of 5 to 8 percent would not come up with the $120 million to $140 million to balance the budget. Rather than a comprehensive cut to all departments, Licht said the administration prioritized departments and PBS was on the chopping block.

Ferri also questioned if the station could raise the funds to sustain operations. He wanted to know how many viewers the station has – PBS is broadcasting on two channels that are both carried on cable – and how many members.

“Do I really have to answer that question?” Piccerelli asked.

He said the two channels get an average weekday viewership of 78,000 and has a membership of 6,500. Of the station’s $2.9 million budget, $1.1 million comes from fundraising and donations and $800,000 in federal funds. The balance is state funding.

Committee chair Helio Melo wondered if it is realistic to think the station can make up what it would lose in state funds with increased contributions and fundraising.

“I don’t know,” Piccerelli confessed.

And if it can’t make it, Piccerelli asked who would own it. Worst of all would be an alliance with Boston’s WGBH.

“They would absolutely gut the station,” he said. He said they would scoop up the members and strengthen the signal they have in Boston.

Isaacs said the survival of the station depends on whether it can ramp up funding “and transition without diminishing programs.”

That was too big of an unknown for James Parisi, of the Rhode Island Federation of Teachers and Health Professionals. He called the station a resource for teachers and said they should be “at the table” when it comes to deciding the future of PBS. And he said before the state pulls the plug on financing, the station should demonstrate that it could raise the added revenue through fundraising.

“I’m very disappointed in this administration for not thinking through the stability of public broadcasting in Rhode Island. This is a vital service in Rhode Island and we can’t assume all have cable,” Naughton said.

Later, as the committee considered additional articles in Chafee’s budget, Licht said the central goal of the package is to deliver “meaningful results” that can be quantified by their outcomes. “Just looking at the numbers with the dollars signs attached doesn’t tell it,” he said. He talked of performance management and how the administration is seeking to change the culture of state government so that outcomes are a priority. He said for the system to work, employees must “buy in” at all levels, not simply the top.

Naughton didn’t buy it all. She wanted to know where the checks are, saying that auditing is essential. Licht responded that the administration would not be abandoning audits.

In an interview Saturday, Naughton was all the more adamant about ensuring the future of PBS.

“I see a vision of what it could be,” she said. She imagines the station having multiple channels carrying such programming as school athletics, mock trial and “prevention” programming aimed at healthy lifestyles. She said she has worked closely with the station and sees partnership opportunities with Connecticut PBS.

As for the administration’s plan to cut funding, Naughton doesn’t see how the station can do it in the proposed timeframe.

“You need a 3- to 5-year plan if you want to see it continue,” she said.

“The people of the nation and the state have invested in this system,” she added. “A public investment has been made; you can’t just jettison it out of here.”


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