Reality Television 

The school board dashes NPT's funding hopes

The school board dashes NPT's funding hopes

Much like the parting of a romantic relationship that seemed a little too friendly, WDCN Channel 8’s split from the Metro Board of Education has belatedly prompted a good deal of tension and hurt feelings. Now that station officials have seen the school board slash more than $500,000 in transitional funding over the past two years, they’re on the offensive. They’re appealing to viewers, negotiating behind the scenes, and, perhaps most notably, they’re openly expressing disappointment with a school system they had counted on for support.

“Our goal was to develop a world-class television station,” says Steven Bass, president and CEO of NPT, which recently changed its name. “That may have been too ambitious a goal. There is no room for error at this station.”

For decades the old WDCN operated under the wing of the Metro school system. It was not a flawless arrangement. Station officials struggled both to solicit donations from viewers who worried their money would be lost in the bureaucracy of the school system and air the kind of programming that would not prick the considerable sensitivities of the school board. And as far as the Metro school board was concerned, even though WDCN provided educational programming for Metro schools, the station was never going to be much more than an afterthought. After all, getting through each budget cycle meant contending with the increasing reality of portable classrooms and underpaid teachers. Public television was a luxury and never a front-burner topic.

“It was always crisis funding,” says NPT board member Dewey Branstetter, who served on the Metro school board in the 1980s. “There was no long-term planning.”

Both sides knew something had to be done, but it would take 10 years of on-and-off discussions before school and station officials hammered out what was proudly termed the “definitive agreement.” Finalized in April 1999, that agreement transferred the ownership of WDCN from the school board to an independent, nonprofit organization. A crucial element of that agreement, however, was essentially akin to an alimony arrangement. Because the school system had long been the station’s primary source of annual revenue, both sides agreed the school system would gradually taper its funding over five years instead of cutting it cold turkey. And during that time, the station’s top brass would start turning to viewers, corporations, and foundations for increased financial support.

But station officials say the spirit of that agreement has been violated. In the 1999-2000 fiscal year, amid a tight Metro budget, the school board funded NPT to the tune of $1,777,848, almost $150,000 less than what the agreement outlined. And this year the school board considered gutting the scheduled $1.85 million payment altogether before trimming a still significant $359,000.

School board members say the definitive agreement made it clear that the payments to NPT were discretionary and contingent on availability within the city’s budget. And this year, in the wake of yet another anemic Metro budget, money was not exactly growing on trees. “If it’s possible, I feel like funding this agreement is the right thing to do,” says school board member Patricia Crotwell. “But I feel like my priority as a school board member is to the children in this district.”

But NPT’s Bass says the agreement was penned in good faith and will ultimately save the school system $9.5 million in operating costs. Besides, he says, the debate can’t be reduced so easily to kids versus TV. “This is not about the school system supporting Masterpiece Theatre,” says Bass. “This is about a channel with an educational mission.”

Former school board member Murray Philip, who initially proposed slashing all funding for the new NPT, suggests station officials earned his distrust when they negotiated their independence. “We based our decisions on misstated facts put out by WDCN,” he says.

Philip, the only school board member who voted against the definitive agreement, says station officials failed to disclose that federal grant money would be available to help pay for the federally mandated conversion to a digital television format. He also claimed that station officials falsely claimed that the station was on the verge of losing state funding.

“They were worst-casing what the ultimate worst-case costs would be,” Philip says.

Milt Capps, an NPT senior vice president, disagrees. He notes that at the time station officials were negotiating the agreement, they had every reason to doubt both state funding for public television and federal grant money for the digital conversion. About the negotiating process in general, Capps portrays it as a very open and careful process in which “much time was spent answering questions from Murray.”

Recently, Capps has been asking questions of John Dietz, assistant superintendent of Metro schools, about the feasibility of restoring some of the scheduled funding in the event the budget situation brightens. But even if that happens, the school officials have outlined three areas of need they would address before NPT.

Meanwhile, some school officials feel resentment toward the public television station because it has openly touted its newfound independence. And they’re still smarting from the station’s refusal to air the school system’s magnet-school lottery last spring.

Naturally, NPT officials are hoping for the best, but they’re not holding their breaths that the school board will restore funding. Already, in reaction to the funding cuts, NPT has laid off five people, one of whom is a loyal, 20-year employee. In some quarters, that move heightened a perception of Bass as an out-of-towner with little concern for the station’s past.

Bass, originally a New Yorker, worked at the well-known PBS affiliate WGBH in Boston before moving to Nashville. Like a stereotypical Northerner, the NPT executive did not take the recent funding cuts lying down. Viewers were especially surprised at recent on-air pledges during which Bass openly talked about NPT’s beef with the school board. “We’ve got a significant problem, and that is that the Metropolitan school board has not come through with the funding that they have promised to this station,” he said during one of those fund-raising pleas. “What we’ve got to do is make that funding up through more viewer contributions.”

Bass, who has recently ceded the day-to-day operations to station manager Beth Curley, says that viewers have indeed risen to the occasion. Not only have prime-time ratings shot up 30 percent in just a one-year period, but viewer donations now constitute the station’s largest source of revenue—even eclipsing the funding from the school board. Other groups, including the Frist Foundation, have also opened up their checkbooks.

Still, an unexpected loss of more than a half-million dollars for what is essentially a start-up company can’t be overstated. NPT officials even acknowledge that. While the station plans no cuts for its highly rated and locally produced Tennessee Crossroads and Volunteer Gardener programs, it won’t be able to air programs such as Turner South’s acclaimed Live at the Bluebird—a production most think would be a perfect fit on NPT.

“Everyday people with interesting ideas approach me, but we don’t have the money to get them running,” Bass says. “I’m trying to make sure that the funding cuts don’t affect current programming, but I can tell you it affects on a daily basis what we can run—it’s the projects that people won’t see, that they never knew they were going to see.”

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