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A home for Elmo and Doc Martin - a Sunday Conversation with WEDU President and CEO Susan Howarth

By Christopher OíDonnell, Times Staff Writer
Published: December 5, 2017 Updated: December 7, 2017 at 05:14 PM
MONICA HERNDON | Times Susan Howarth, president and CEO of WEDU PBS, posed for a portrait at WEDU, in Tampa, Fla. on Tuesday, Dec. 5, 2017.

In October, WEDU became one of the first PBS stations in the nation to offer six channels of programming with the addition of new channels PBS KIDS and Create TV. ē At the same time, it became a new home for PBS favorites like Doc Martin and Penelope Keithís Hidden Villages and other show previously broadcast on WUSF-TV. That station went off the air Oct. 15 after the University of South Florida sold its broadcast license back to the Federal Communications Commission.

WEDUís two new channels both provide 24-hour programming. PBS KIDS will air programs like Sesame Street and Arthur while giving parents and teachers access to more than 130,000 free online resources including educational videos, games and lesson plans that tie into programs.

CreateTV lineup includes specials on cooking, travel, home improvement, gardening, arts and crafts such as Cookís Country, Garden Smart and This Old House.

The new channels required a $300,000 investment in new equipment. WEDU is also paying an extra $100,000 per year to air its new programming.

WEDU president and CEO Susan Howarth recently talked with Tampa Bay Times staff writer Christopher OíDonnell about shepherding WEDU through its biggest transition since the introduction of digital broadcasting.

Why did you decide to take on WUSFís programming and how did viewers react to the switch?

I thought it made sense. WUSF has such a wonderful radio service that I thought they could concentrate on radio and we could focus on TV and it would end up being really good for the community. We started doing an analysis of the programs to figure out which ones they had been airing that we hadnít been airing and we did a viewer survey to figure out which ones people really wanted to see and valued the most.

We knew that there would be a lot of questions from the community and from donors, supporters and viewers but there were well more than we expected.

We came in here on Monday morning (Oct. 16) and had set up our pledge phone bank in the lobby. It was overwhelming from the first minute and, for the entire week, it was just crazy busy.

The good news about that is people really wanted their public television. You could tell how important it was to them.

What programs were viewers most worried about losing?

A lot of people missed their exercise programs. They wanted to know where to find their Sit and Be Fit and Classical Stretch. The most requested programs were the British comedy dramas, the Doc Martin, the Mid Somer Murders. They were so relieved when they found out we were actually carrying them.

How will the new channels and programming affect viewership and future pledge drives?

We donít subscribe to Nielsen (the company that produces TV ratings). That was a decision we made years ago because it was so darn expensive. We look at pledge results and membership campaigns. If that is going well, we tend to think the viewership is up.

Weíre in a membership campaign right now. Weíre ahead of our goal and itís going a lot better than a lot of other stations around the country. While I canít tell you specifically itís because of the new programs, I have to think it is and people are responding well to the fact that we did step up as an organization in order to provide them with everything they would expect from a public television station.

You now broadcast a 24-hour kids channel. Who is watching Sesame Street at 2 a.m.?

There was a lot of research done nationally before PBS decided to launch that channel. At 2 a.m., itís mothers with their sick kids but surprisingly in prime time there is a big audience for kidsí programing. It was surprising how many families or kids watched in non-traditional times.

PBS KIDS is available also as an online stream as well. Kids can watch on a tablet in the back of the car. Itís pretty cool.

How does WEDU and public broadcasting remain relevant in an era of "cutting the cord" and on-demand viewership?

Itís a little tricky. Our audience is either quite old or quite young. Itís 65 plus, those are the people who watch the most and value us the most and we have young children watching the kidsí programs.

You have to maintain those services for those audiences. You have to maintain the legacy technology. Itís quite expensive to have a tower out in Riverview and a transmitter and to pay that electricity bill.

We need to do that and to move into the on-demand.

PBS has provided all of their programs on-demand for at least short windows. Weíre putting our local programs online. We assume they will be more attractive to a younger audience. But it is a challenge because thereís only so many resources.

What is the future direction for WEDU?

One of the things we said we want to do is to continue to increase and concentrate on local productions.

With technology changing, you donít need WEDU technically to watch Downton Abbey. You could stream it online so what is the purpose for a local public television broadcaster?

My belief is the purpose is added value. With Ken Burnsí Vietnam War, we did local interviews and oral histories with local Vietnam veterans. We put them on air; we put them online and weíre sending them to the Library of Congress for their collection. And we did teacher training about how to use (the show) in the classroom.

When I came here, we didnít have anyone on our education staff. Now we have 1.5 people now and it enables us to go out and do workshops and teacher training helping parents and teachers utilize all the resources that are free.

Sunday Conversation is edited for brevity and clarity