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Down the (Boob) Tube

Las Vegas' Public TV Station Guts Programming to Save Itself

by Ken Ward

ublic television in Las Vegas just isn't what it used to be. Four years ago, KLVX didn't have a program director. By most accounts, it was understaffed, underfunded and lacked on-air promotion.

Then a new management team came on board, committed to bringing Channel 10 into bigtime broadcasting. Now, after an energetic expansion and spending spree, the bubble has burst. The station is canceling programs, firing staff and hoping to avoid further cuts.

The rise and decline of KLVX reflects, in miniature, the challenges encountered by the Public Broadcasting Service (PBS). Meager ratings, conflicting missions and stiffening competition are pressuring the system as never before. And as if that weren't enough, a government-mandated transition to digital technology threatens to inflict a fiscal coup de grace.

Oh, the irony.

Public television, launched with such fanfare 30 years ago, is bedeviled by controversy these days. Reports of sold and swapped donor lists have reinforced the image of PBS as the Perpetual Begging System. Long suspected of liberal bias, the network is getting heat from both the right and the left. Even Sesame Street was criticized by Ralph Nader for broadcasting a 15-second message from an indoor playground manufacturer that had given $1 million to the show.

As the federal government's financial support has diminished, PBS stations have been forced to be more entrepreneurial. And KLVX has tried, with some success, to bolster its private fund-raising efforts. In the last four years, corporate support has grown from $218,000 to $962,000.

But administrative overhead has been rising too. To attract that $962,000, the station incurred an astounding $464,000 in expenses. Meantime, top executives at Channel 10 are driving cars provided by corporate sponsors - personal perks that do not help the station pay its bills.

The Clark County School District, which operates KLVX, was surprised to learn this summer that its station had amassed an $860,000 deficit. Just four years ago - back in those bad old days - Channel 10 reported more than $1 million in reserves.

General Manager Tom Axtell blamed a shortfall in state funding. He explained that when the Legislature did not renew distance-learning and teacher-training grants, it blew a $560,000 hole in the station's budget. (Hmmm. Maybe KLVX should have sold those donor lists instead of just trading them.)

The real story is a bit more complex, of course. It turns out that Axtell & Co. had been betting on the come. They figured that state funding would continue, even though there were no such assurances. Like lemmings lurching over the cliff, station administrators had already spent the surplus and hired new staffers with one-time, "soft" money. When those funds dried up, the station was deep in red ink.

In August, the school district was asked to ratify a series of budget cuts. Eleven full- and part-time staffers were laid off and 17 unfilled positions will remain vacant. All student "showcase" shows (including Varsity Quiz and the Clark County Spelling Bee) and two community-based programs were canceled.

These reductions will stop the hemorrhaging for now. But at what cost? And what lies ahead? If past is prologue, the answers are unsettling.

Competing For Eyeballs

Fact is, the trustees' action does not begin to address the deeper problems confronting KLVX. Despite its $5.7 million annual budget and the investments made over the past four years, the station appears to be in an increasingly precarious position.

Like public television stations everywhere, Channel 10 finds itself in tough competition for viewers. The explosion of cable and satellite networks splinters the audience more every day. It's a vastly different world than the one PBS was born into three decades ago.

In Las Vegas, new stations continue to pop up. Last year, for example, the Greenspun family launched Las Vegas 1, a local news channel that also airs public affairs programming. It provides C-SPAN-like coverage to major events such as Mike Tyson's licensing hearing, the Ted Binion murder trial and the National Gambling Impact Study Commission's visit to town.

Striving to stay in the game, Axtell has invested in state-of-the-art editing bays and satellite uplink equipment. The theory was these would become profit centers as outsiders would pay for their use. But compared to the busy production facilities at the local affiliates for ABC, NBC and CBS, KLVX's studios are eerily empty. One time, when CNN tried to use the station's uplink, a station staffer threw the wrong switch and knocked out all the power. The news network's crew left in disgust.

There are other costly tales. Axtell installed a new phone system for paging - even though the existing system had that capability. High-tech touch pads replaced old-fashioned door locks - but incidents of theft have increased.

Meantime, KLVX's home-grown content has languished. For all Axtell's expenditures, his station actually produces less local programming than it did four years ago. There are fewer live events, less high school game coverage and virtually no public service announcements. With the latest cancellation of 13 programs, just four non-educational offerings remain.

Though the station now broadcasts round the clock, its late-night schedule is filled with B-movies. Six-month-old reruns from A&E and VH-1 appear in prime time. The same episodes of Nova and other PBS staples are shown again and again.

Station officials, however, believe they are on the right wavelength. During the February sweeps week, KLVX actually topped the Nielsen charts on three out of four Saturdays with its PBS line-up of cooking and home improvement shows. The bulk of those viewers were women 64 and older.

In its market-savvy mode, Channel 10 hired TRAC Media, of Tucson, to analyze ratings. This outfit claimed that KLVX was watched by proportionately more people in Las Vegas than any other PBS station in the country during last November's sweeps. (Incidentally, TRAC has been retained while local production staff have been let go in the latest budget.)

If TRAC's claim is true, it's a serious indictment of PBS's penetration. Statistical spin notwithstanding, Nielsen consistently places KLVX in seventh place in the Las Vegas market. That puts it behind even a Spanish station.

And, unfortunately for KLVX, viewer loyalty seems ephemeral at best. When the cuts were voted on in August, just 10 members of the public bothered to voice an objection - and one of those was a program host. For the lion's share of its support, the station still relies on the school district, the state and the Corporation for Public Broadcasting. With government funding getting tighter, that formula does not bode well.

Critics of public broadcasting say that PBS's original mission of "quality programming" has given way to a mad scramble for ratings and underwriting. As if on cue, KLVX's Outdoor Nevada, which has garnered numerous awards, recently got the ax because it lacked a sponsor.

"Public TV is best looked upon as a kind of niche market within commercial broadcasting, rather than an alternative to it," says James Ledbetter, author of Made Possible By ..., a book about public broadcasting.

Amid the quest for dollars, some have noted that formerly aggressive PBS reporting has gotten soft. "Frontline was doing a lot of shows critical of the Reagan administration. Now they're doing stories about Hillary Clinton's college class," says Tim Graham of the conservative Media Research Center.

Frontline also came under attack from environmentalists who blasted a segment called "Nuclear Reaction." "We sent the producer a 10-page list of scientists, doctors and experts. None of them was ever contacted. It was absolutely reprehensible," said Scott Denman, director of the Safe Energy Communication Council.

The left-leaning Fairness and Accuracy in Media chides PBS as well, accusing it of a "persistent elite bias" that gives big business and government officials more air time than "citizen activists" or Joe Sixpack.

The same complaints could apply to Channel 10. One of its remaining in-house shows, Nevada Week in Review, has corporate support and is stolidly establishmentarian. Dismissed as "Nevada Geeks in Review" by some journalists, the Friday night talk program comes off as a softball version of The McLaughlin Group.

Because the station is owned by the school district, public education is rarely discussed on the show, for fear that an overly critical comment might upset the station's masters. Politicians such as Lorraine Hunt, a friend of moderator Mitch Fox, even get an occasional opportunity to crash the panel to spin stories their way.

Las Vegas Sun reporter Jeff German complained that Fox's gang was simply not up to the task of critically questioning congressional candidates in the 1996 election. German has declined to appear on the show since getting into a heated argument with perennial panelist Jon Ralston.

Pulling the Plug

The cancellation of Community Matters and Ventana silenced KLVX's minority voices - and a third of its general local programming.

The handling of these shows can be second-guessed all day long. Community Matters hostess Barbara Robinson is a polarizing figure in the valley. Her semi-weekly column in the Review-Journal generates a large number of letters - almost all critical. Thus, it's not surprising that no one stepped forward to keep her show on the air.

Ventana is another story. The program attempted to tap into the Las Vegas Valley's fast-growing Hispanic audience. But it has been riven with ethnic politics. The Mexican and Cuban communities, to name just two, bickered over who would serve as host. The show also may have missed the mark because it aired in English.

So at a time when Las Vegas boasts of three Spanish-language newspapers, two Spanish radio stations and two Spanish TV stations, Ventana has gone down the tubes. Another KLVX success story.

Axtell explains, reasonably, that the two shows had simply failed to garner financial support. And that raises a crucial question: Is public television duty-bound to produce money losers?

With KLVX at the fiscal crossroads, the answer would seem to be no. If its fund-raising efforts cannot pay the bills and its subsidizers are tapping out, something has to give eventually. Now that the school district has decided, at least for the time being, to stick with the current management, Channel 10 has no choice but to quickly broaden its viewer support . . .or continue to cut. It should be abundantly clear by now that the days of big government support are over.

Axtell remains hopeful that a "sugar daddy" will step forward to defray the cost of converting to digital technology - a $10 million job. But he admits he has no idea if such a philanthropist even exists. Nor is it certain that Channel 10's game of financial brinksmanship will produce a savior.

A more plausible scenario is for the school district to spin off its station and programming. And here's where the private sector can step in. Cable franchise agreements, by FCC rules, can provide public access channels. Cox Cable (previously Prime) has designated a government access channel (Channel 4), which keeps the politicians happy. Now, after years of footdragging by the Greenspun-owned Prime, Cox says it is committed to launching a true public access outlet.

Public access, as operated in hundreds of other markets across the country, allows members of the community to produce their own programming on a first-come, first-serve basis. It's a natural venue for such loss leaders as Community Matters and Ventana.

As for the PBS affiliate, UNLV is waiting in the wings to take over if the school district tires of toting a fiscal albatross. Chafing since it lost its spot on the dial to the Clark County government channel, the university's school of communication is eager to get back on the air. Many staff positions could be filled by student interns and the school could then own collegiate broadcast bragging rights like the University of Nevada, Reno has with KNPB Channel 5 in that city.

Whether UNLV could do any better financially is another imponderable. Shifting the station from one educational bureaucracy to another may just move the same inherent problems to another venue.

At this writing, the district has given no indication it is ready to pull the plug on KLVX. School officials worry that K-12 educational programming could fade away completely in a university setting. Yet only a handful of school systems across the nation still own and operate public TV outlets. Universities, conversely, see these stations as a natural fit for their own educational outreach.

And then there's always the possibility that a non-profit organization might step forward to take over the whole mess. One of PBS's flagships, WGBH of Boston, is owned by a non-profit foundation. Indeed, the trend toward such community-based licensing is growing as the decrepit government-run model crumbles before our eyes.

This turf war appears to be just heating up. So, as they say in the business, stay tuned. NJ

Ken Ward is a free-lance writer who has a weekly education column in the Las Vegas Review-Journal


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