Tough times for WEDU revealed in struggle over DTV transition
As Congress moves to approve a delay in the much-anticipated transition to digital television on Feb. 17, I pulled together a story for today looking at what an extra four months of analog transmissions might cost local TV stations -- anywhere from $10,000 to $60,000 a month in extra electricity costs.
And one of the bay area stations that may be hardest hit by the unexpected expense is Tampa's largest public television station, WEDU-Ch. 3. That's because the station is already facing a serious financial crisis, having slashed $500,000 from its budget and laid off four people to cope with shortfalls stemming from a downturn in charitable contributions.
Stations are expected to drop their analog broadcasts and offer only digital transmissions on Feb. 17, enacting a transition initially approved by Congress four years ago and already postponed twice. But instead of saving money by eliminating one signal, they are facing the possibility of months more expense to broadcast two signals.
Besides the budget cut and layoffs, WEDU has cut remaining staffers' pay by 5 percent (general manager Dick Lobo says he took a 10 percent pay cut), stopped providing employer contributions to the staff's 401(k) accounts and generally frozen salaries. And all this came before Lobo knew they might have to broadcast in analog for several more months.
Public TV stations seems particularly vulnerable to this problem, because they have smaller budgets than most commercial broadcast stations and have seen serious declines in charitable and corporate giving as a result of the ongoing recession. Nationwide, PBS president and CEO Paula Kerger estimated delaying the digital switch could cost public TV stations $22 million.
At Tampa’s other public television station, WUSF-Ch. 16, general manager JoAnn Urofsky expects Congress to pass the delay, which will cost their station about $90,000. She said WUSF would likely follow the new date, but may scrap plans to serve as a “nightlight” station, keeping an analog signal going for 30 days after the transition with information on how to switch to digital for those still unprepared.
“Early in this process, we were concerned we weren’t reaching all the people, and it turned out we weren’t,” she said. “We have to make sure everyone is included, because in an emergency, people will truly be in the dark (without television).”
No wonder Lobo is considering switching off his analog signal Feb. 17, even if Congress allows a four-month delay.
"Even if they wait another four months, there will be millions of people affected . . . and we've spent millions informing the audience about the change for years," said Lobo. "Sometimes, enough is enough, already."