Three months after being taken over by Central Piedmont Community College, Charlottes struggling public TV station announced Monday it would return to carrying PBSs primary schedule full-time beginning this week.
In a move that will cost about $200,000 annually in program fees, WTVI (Channel 42) will go back to airing popular PBS prime-time shows like Nova, Antiques Roadshow and Nature on the networks standard schedule as well as Downton Abbey in January to reconnect with viewers it lost in recent years.
WTVI abandoned the first-run PBS schedule in 2004 because it duplicated the programming on two other public TV networks carried in Charlotte, UNC-TV out of Chapel Hill and SC ETV out of Columbia. It replaced the offerings with other independent public TV shows and sought to increase the level of local programming aimed at the 13 counties in the Charlotte metro area served by the station.
At first, the moved paid off. By 2005, WTVI ranked No. 2 in percentage of viewers in U.S. cities where more than one public TV station was available, behind KBYU in Provo, Utah. Prime-time ratings rose 17 percent in a year.
But over time, the gains faded. Without marquee prime-time PBS shows, viewership and donations declined. WTVI memberships, meaning core contributors, fell from 20,000 a decade ago to about 7,000 last year, said Elsie Garner, the stations executive director of broadcasting.
When the recession hit, losses accelerated. By 2011, WTVI was running $300,000 in the red annually on a $3.2 million budget. It would have gone dark this year if CPCC had not taken it over in July.
By bringing bookkeeping, personnel and other administrative functions into the college, the stations budget has been trimmed to $2.8 million. CPCC spokesman Jeff Lowrance said Monday it is not known when the station will return to profitability.
Other changes coming
Other changes announced Monday as part of CPCCs relaunch of the station include:
• Thursday nights will be dedicated to local programming, in step with other major PBS affiliates. WTVIs offerings that night will include shows imported from CPCCs cable channel (Channel 17 on Time Warner Cable) including Trail of History, Charlotte Cooks, Great Ideas and Inside Jobs.
• Off the Record, a local media roundtable on current events based on the long-running Final Edition, will begin airing at 9:30 p.m. Fridays hosted by WTVI general manager David Rhew, once a reporter at WBTV (Channel 3). Final Edition, which ran on WTVI for 30 years, was canceled in 2009 amid budget cuts.
• In branding, the station will now be known as PBS Charlotte, though it will retain the WTVI call letters, which date to its founding in 1965.
Lowrance said CPCC conducted a survey among viewers and local residents on what direction WTVI should take after the college takeover. About 400 people responded. Viewers told us they wanted to see more PBS and shows with local focus, Lowrance said.
Fund-raising for the station, which is largely supported by grants and viewer contributions, is likely to continue being a challenge, though CPCC has a history of successful community campaigns. Kathy Drumm, CPCC executive vice president, said the college is preparing a strategy to raise money for WTVI that may include direct-mail appeals and a national fund-raising component as well.
But a direct mail campaign, reported to the IRS by WTVI in its 2010-2011 fiscal year accounting, raised only $48,257, and 46 percent of that was kept by the New York-based fund-raiser in expenses. WTVIs 2011-2012 IRS report is still in preparation.
In mid-2011, WTVI estimated it was about $300,000 short of its fund-raising goals and the station had to dip into reserve fund to continue operations.