Four months ago, ASU's journalism school moved into its spiffy new home in downtown Phoenix. But the school's public television affiliate didn't come with it.
Arizona's biggest PBS station had failed to raise enough money to pay for its move.
Today, KAET, known as "Channel Eight" to old timers and "Eight" under its current branding, is living a bipolar existence. The station's management has made the move downtown, to a handsome suite at the Walter Cronkite School of Journalism. But its bread-and-butter operations are stuck in Tempe — trying to raise another $1 million for the move. Station brass now say those operations won't make it to the Cronkite School until April 2009. That's the best-case scenario.
The delayed move is only the most obvious symbol of some serious problems. The station has been forced to lay off a half-dozen workers; other positions are staying open indefinitely. Its general manager "resigned," and there are currently no plans to replace him. (The buck at Eight now stops with an ASU public relations guru.) The station is looking at a $1 million budget deficit in this fiscal year. In hopes of cutting costs, it plans to shift more production duties to free student labor.
Of course, it's not just Eight; PBS stations everywhere are experiencing hard times. Twenty years ago, it was clear why America needed public television. Far fewer families had cable, and viewers hungry for culture (or just something different) had few options beyond PBS.
Today, those viewers can go anywhere. A recent Nielsen survey revealed that 65 percent of Americans have both digital and satellite TV. There is simply too much content out there. And though the glut of choices is great for consumers, it's hell for producers hoping to make money. Or just break even.
Which brings us to Eight.
Insiders tell me the station used to be subsidized fairly heavily by the Legislature, via ASU. But when Michael Crow took the helm as ASU's president, he decreed that Eight had to become self-sustaining.
Good idea, in theory. But Eight had a hard time increasing its donations to the necessary level — or, until recently, cutting expenses. When a pledge drive came up $200,000 short this summer, insiders say it nearly pushed the station over the edge.
Bad decisions played a role. Virgil Renzulli, the executive vice president for public affairs at ASU and the guy who's now in charge of Eight, recently told the station's advisory board that a consultant was hired last spring to diagnose problems. The consultant recommended layoffs. But when it came time to make the cuts, station management failed to act before the end of the fiscal year.
"If you don't make the cuts by June 30, they roll over," Renzulli told the board. "Those cuts weren't made in time." Without some big-money donors, he added, the station's reserves will be virtually exhausted by the end of this fiscal year.
The move to the Cronkite School was supposed to cost a total of $5.2 million. The expense is so high because, in part, Eight didn't want to move clunky old equipment. It'll be buying new and improved stuff instead.
It's raised $700,000, according to marketing director Kelly McCullough, and ASU is chipping in $3.5 million. That leaves $1 million to go.
But McCullough says the station would love to raise another million beyond that. The more money, the more new equipment.
Two million dollars? In this economy?
I'm beginning to wonder if management at Eight has been watching too much Sesame Street.
During last week's advisory board meeting, the station's former manager, Bob Ellis, joked about how the station needed a "bailout" for the move.
Ellis added, poignantly, "I have a 30-year stake in this station. I don't want to see it go under."
"It's not going to go under because of the move," responded the station's big boss, Renzulli. "I don't think it's going to go under at all."
It wasn't exactly a rousing promise.
Layoffs are probably not a bad thing. I was stunned to learn that the station has nearly 70 employees and a budget of $13.9 million. For what? It gets most of its programming directly from PBS headquarters!
But there's a bigger problem here.
With myriad options — the Food Channel and the Travel Channel and the History Channel and more — why would anyone come to public television for cultural programming?
Many Eight supporters have come to believe that the answer is local programming. That's what it can do that the Food Channel, for example, cannot.
The conundrum is that local programming is expensive. In an e-mail to New Times, Renzulli actually called the station's "commitment to local programming . . . [its] basic financial problem."
"Every time we produce a local show such as Horizon, Horizonte, or Arizona Stories, it costs us money," he writes. "We receive very little funding specifically for these shows, but because we think local programming is so important, we continue to fund these shows out of our general revenue."
Renzulli says the station remains committed to Horizon and Horizonte — and producing three hours of the public affairs programs every week. But, he says, the station is going to be doing the work with fewer paid staff: Students at the Cronkite School will handle an increasing share of the production workload.
It's a sign of the times. Every big newspaper in the state, from the Arizona Republic on down, is now running local articles with "Cronkite News Service" under the byline. That sounds professional, right? But the "news service" is actually the work of J-school students. TV stations are increasingly picking up the school's broadcast work, too.
As Renzulli told the station's advisory board last week, he's heard Cronkite students doing on-air reports on Phoenix's NPR affiliate, KJZZ. "If they can use 'em, by God, we can use 'em!"
Despite all that free student labor waiting at Cronkite, Eight has a rocky road ahead. The station has two big hurdles: its fundraising model and its content.
Of the top 25 PBS stations, only two others are affiliated with a university. The rest are mostly run by non-profit corporations, charged solely with making PBS work in their market.
In economic times like these, there's benefit to the ASU umbrella. (If cash gets too tight, there's always the possibility of a temporary loan from the university.)
In the long term, though, I'm convinced that the station's status as an ASU program has led to many of its problems.
Eight does not have its own board of directors, charged with ensuring its financial health. The Community Advisory Board, which I got to sit in on last week, is filled with smart people, but it's strictly advisory. Several members I spoke with said they aren't even given annual budgets!
Worse, they aren't allowed to raise money for the station. No one is — all fundraising must go through the ASU Foundation.
There's reason for that: You certainly don't want fundraisers for one ASU program hitting up wealthy donors even as another ASU program buzzes in on the second line, asking for money. But with all the ambitious, expensive programs the university has launched under Crow, it's easy to see Eight relegated to poor-stepsister status.
Sometimes, the station seems to deserve it. These are intensely competitive times for any media outlet; you simply can't air the same kitschy stuff you did in 1970 and expect to attract donors — or an audience.
I'm genuinely worried about the future of Eight, and not because the cost of the move, or that $13 million annual budget.
No, my fear is about viewers. As in, will there be any in 10 years?
At the community advisory board meeting last week, Herb Paine, executive director at the Arizona Humanities Council, challenged Eight's top brass to think carefully about the station's pitch. Why, he asked, is PBS worth saving?
The response struck me as glib.
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To see why the station is important, urged marketing director Kelly McCullough, "you simply need to look at TV Guide."
A few minutes later, a board member unwittingly asked a great follow-up question. What is Eight airing during its next pledge drive?
"Music shows," McCullough said. "Yanni, for one . . ."
I only wish I were making that up. The fact is, whether Eight is broadcasting from Tempe or the school that Cronkite built, Yanni simply isn't going to cut it. And if Eight needs me to tell it that, well, it's got much bigger problems than simply the price of its movers.