New Hampshire Public TV should be about New Hampshire

by Joe Lahr (Manchester community media professional and advocate of citizen media)

After National Public Radio fired Juan Williams over his political views and statements in October, many people, both nationally and locally took a hard look at government funded TV (PBS) and radio then asked if it should continue.  They made statements such as "While I like much of the programming, the fact is, it is luxury we cannot afford to subsidize"  The question should not be it is “affordable”, many public radio stations are funded in large part by private grants and donations, many more are funded by corporate dollars. True government-funded TV is the minority; even the local PEG-TV is funded by a grants and fees that derive from the cable television company that services the area.  These are not taxes; they are voluntary choices that companies and consumers make to provide for a non-corporate media.  The question should not be is it affordable? The question should be is it useful? Is it good? Is it serving our needs?

New Hampshire Public Television (channel 11) where you used to watch Sesame Street is now under such scrutiny.  NH State government, as part of the UNH budget, provides approximately $2.5 million a year to Channel 11 (or about one-third of the NHPTV budget).  However, the UNH budget is not something Concord legislators control line by line, so even if they were to remove the $2.5 million from the University System budget, the remaining monies could be found elsewhere in the two-hundred page UNH budget.  A bill submitted by Manchester Representative Steve Vaillancourt would simply deny them the ability to fund Channel 11 from any source.  Says Vaillancourt, “In an age when I can get literally hundreds of channels, as opposed to the handful I got in the 1960s, there is nothing public TV does that can’t be done without public monies”. 

So what do NH voters (and viewers) receive on Channel 11 for their $2.5 million?  Programs that are redundant, recycled, elitist and generally not useful; programs that simply miss the whole point.  NHPTV, and to be fair—most PBS stations across the county—has become an irrelevant and even obnoxious exercise in media democracy.  A medium that enters into the homes of nearly every citizen in our state, it should be a vehicle of real purpose and opportunity; but the fact is, that it is underutilized and lazy, living on its lofty PBS history and laurels.

The concept of public service broadcasting was conceived and fostered with an ideal of cultural and intellectual enlightenment of society. The conception was that it would be insulated from both political and commercial influence.  The creation of a mechanism for funding educational television came in the passage of the Public Broadcasting Act on November 7, 1967. 

During the 1980s, the arrival of new modes television delivery--cable television, satellites, video cassettes--had created new means of access to broadcast services and thus changed the public's perception about the importance and even legitimacy of a broadcasting service founded on the principle of spectrum scarcity.  Adding to this was the growing realization that program production and distribution costs would continue to mount within an economic climate of flat or decreasing public funding.

Today, that trend continues, but more vehemently as public broadcasting loses more support among the general public, viewership is down, costs are up, sponsors get better visibility elsewhere as viewers contribute less… the picture is as gloomy for PBS stations everywhere… but it does not have to be.  This incredible tool has lost its way by becoming a repetitive venue for art programs that are already available on Bravo, or cooking programs that are available on the Food Network, or historical shows that are available on the History Channel, or educational shows that are available of Discovery and on and on and on… Sadly, I don’t know anyone who watches Channel 11 anymore—honestly, there’s simply no reason to. 

Some PBS stations across the country have evolved to be very successful creators of content, such as WGBH in Boston and KQED in northern California; they create programs and sell them to other stations such as NHPTV.  Boston’s programming is already available to us on Channel 2 for NH viewers, yet NHPTV purchases it anyway, creating a redundancy that is ridiculous, wasteful and shows the lack of vision and passion by the trustees of this enterprise.  Seemingly on autopilot, NHPTV’s Board of Directors is on a slow burn into anonymity and indifference. 

New Hampshire Public TV should be about New Hampshire… the best use of this channel is simple:  it should serve the public interest of the people and the state.  It should be a combination of a statewide version of C-SPAN and a more local version of the old CN8 channel on Comcast.  The cost would be far less and the usefulness would be far greater.  Local events, local news, local gossip, local politics… New Hampshire Public Television should be New Hampshire Public Television.  Everything about indispensability is proprietary to keeping it within the grasp of those who really care. 

NHPTV currently has only a handful of local programs—many have been on for years, when is the last time to watched one of them?  Those of you that claim to enjoy the imported programs that Channel 11 pays for--are documentaries about Tony Bennett and music from Texas really what NHPTV should be about? Are British sitcoms and Celtic music imports what you want on your statewide stations?  These shows are widely available on the hundreds of other channels now available on cable and satellite. 

I wouldn't mind paying for something if it were of value or use to me.  The call to defund NHPTV is out of frustration, not indignation.  It has survived this long because it has become almost invisible, it does nothing that matters to anyone, it doesn’t entertain or even offend or challenge us.  Do not defund NHPTV, charge its Board of Directors with the mission of making it better.. Here are just a few ideas for Channel 11 that would make it useful and worthy of our time, our efforts and our money:

— Engage:  politics is the life-blood of NH…keep it flowing!  Offer the Governor, Representatives, or Senators a weekly live State of the State information program, get a group of district Representatives to host a call-in segment to explain what is going in the House.  The community awareness and information derived from such a candid discussion outside the formal process of meetings would be enormously valuable and critical as a statewide education tool... 

— Have a show with an opinionated and informed panel of respected journalists, bloggers, news enthusiast, and radio hosts, broadcasting live every week, and make it required that every candidate, issue, bond, plan or controversy be thoughtfully discussed.

— In several states, programs like “America’s Most Wanted” are produced by the local county sheriffs and successfully return a 50% capture rate of most-wanted felons or sought criminals.

— Involve our state’s non-commercial educational broadcasters as well as the best of the PEG stations in NH—they keep it local everyday; these are knowledgeable individuals with an understanding of the concept of local, non-commercial non-profit volunteer-based broadcasting.

— New Hampshire (specifically southern NH) is an immigration destination...Encourage other immigrant communities and leaders of those communities to utilize the channel for news and cultural announcements and discussion.

— Offer selective, key non-profits in the state an in-depth 30 minute “about us” documentary...something that can be cable cast year-round or a monthly 15-minute awareness piece.

—  Gavel to Gavel of State House and Senate hearings is what viewers really want—the C-SPAN model of this is nearly perfect.  House & Senate committee meetings and Executive Council meetings are equally as important.   In Connecticut and many other states, a state-wide channel provides coverage of government.  Our 400+ legislature is innately New Hampshire. The events of that body of citizens governors should be presented diligently to the citizenry…this is purpose of state TV and critical to indispensability—if NHPTV does not do this, then who should?

— Invite rational and radical comment:  three cameras, and a few trimmings, keep it moving, keep it local…“The Conservative Corner”, the “Republic News and Issues Show”, “The Right Time”,  “Free State News”  “Tea-Party NH”,  “Reality Check”, “Main Street Democrats”, “The Green Scene”, “The Peace Center News”.

—There are others wanting to make their own voice heard: The local Native American Nation. The Garden Club. The History Museum. Humanists and the Literary, The League of Women Voters. The Cub Scouts. Planned Parenthood. Right to Life. The New Hampshire Center for the Arts. NH Audubon and many, many more…

— Invite “letters to the manager” and have a program where someone asks and answers those questions.  Go behind the scenes, television is not a fanciful wizard-of-oz environment, it is a work place where decisions are made, mistakes are rectified and ideas are weighed.

— Embrace drama:  Have local judges that routinely approve video coverage of local trials for airing on television, show our trial system and its attorneys at work.

— Education is local…sorry, no more Sesame Street please (that’s already on channel 2)…Create the “Education News”, two hours every week. Have “Saluting New Readers” where 3-4-5th graders from around the state show off their reading skills.

— Music soothes:  Be an occasional fixture in the state’s art and music scene. 

— High energy high school championships of various sports are played out each year featuring our very own children and state-wide media rarely gives them a few minutes of coverage…these are great games and will attract an audience of viewers.

— Get down to earth…drop the “quality-television” snobbishness, embrace our hometowns and this “neighborhood that is New Hampshire”, give us TV for the proletariat…celebrate our state, our people, don’t give us something we don’t want…let us contribute to something that we do.   

NHPTV is local, it belongs to us:  this is an opportunity to create a statewide media that is truly public and truly New Hampshire…many others have squandered the opportunity this channel brings…NHPTV can be indispensable.  NHPTV can be useful.  NHPTV can be relevant.  Or, it can just be forgotten

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About Joe Lahr:  Joe has been involved in community media since 1995.  He has managed a media center and held positions with national media democracy organizations.  Joe's initiative is to make this existing opportunity better.