Charlotte's struggling public television station says it could go out of business as early as this summer if a plan to turn it over to Central Piedmont Community College fails.
"It's a dire possibility," said Elsie Garner, CEO of WTVI (Channel 42).
WTVI, in business for 47 years, has been gasping financially since the recession gripped Charlotte in 2008. Last year, it ran a deficit of about $300,000.
On Tuesday, CPCC will present a merger plan to county commissioners. It would involve a takeover of the station and its studios on Commonwealth Avenue.
But in the proposal, the college says it will need $357,000 next year from the county to execute the merger and about $800,000 over the next four years to replace aging equipment.
"I consider this proposal to be a government-funded bailout of a failed business model, and believe county taxpayers should not pay," County Manager Harry Jones said in a memo to commissioners Friday.
"As regrettable as it may be that WTVI would cease operation, it is important to remember that WTVI has had multiple years to redesign and reshape its business model to reflect the new normal," Jones said.
If the county doesn't come up with money to pay for the merger, the college says it couldn't continue with the takeover.
"We wouldn't be in a position to absorb the additional expenses," said CPCC spokesman Jeff Lowrance. "We'd need that to move forward."
In his memo, Jones said that the demise of WTVI could come as soon as June, when the current fiscal year ends. Garner did not dispute the estimate.
WTVI's March membership drive has reached about a quarter of its $120,000 goal, Garner said, with three weeks left.
She said she looks to local public radio stations as a forecast of how the pledge drive will go.
WFAE-FM (90.7), the region's primary NPR affiliate, eliminated about a week of its spring drive last week with advance pledges of about $250,000, its largest early donation level ever. WDAV-FM (89.9), the region's classical station based at Davidson College, reached its goal Friday afternoon, with $210,000 pledged.
CPCC's plans for station
If the merger were to occur, CPCC would move much of its video production unit, which provides content for the college's station on Time Warner Cable channel 17, to WTVI's modern studios on Commonwealth Avenue.
It could become the new base for journalism and videography courses offered by the college and in time would probably be used to develop new curriculum in digital media, Lowrance said.
"We found the model of a college or university operating a public television station fairly common across the United States," he said. Also in the proposal to the county, WTVI asks for $125,000 to cover possible severance payments for station workers.
Lowrance said no decision would be made on staffing until it is decided whether a merger is possible.
WTVI went on the air in 1965 as an educational station licensed to Charlotte's school board in the era before PBS. Now it is the only independent public broadcast TV station in the Carolinas.
Both North Carolina and South Carolina operate statewide public TV networks, which are received in Charlotte, carrying mainstream PBS shows and self-generated programming.
Struggle to survive
WTVI has tried to find a niche between UNC-TV and SCETV by offering alternative - and lower cost - public broadcasting shows and providing local programming. But it has struggled to raise money in recent years and saw the CPCC merger as the best way to keep operating.
"It seems to me to be excessively simple to create something like this of such value to the community so we could continue uninterrupted," Garner said. "With CPCC's help, we would have a lot more resources to create local programs."
County cut donation
Two years ago, amid layoffs of teachers and librarians and other service cuts, the county eliminated its $800,000 annual donation for operating costs for WTVI. There has been little political support on the county commission for reinstating it.
But Mecklenburg County does maintain WTVI's studios, pays the debt on the station's digital broadcasting equipment and pays it about $95,000 annually to televise county commissioners' meetings. WTVI has an annual budget of $3.2 million, made up from grants, studio rentals and about $1 million raised from viewers and local businesses.