When longtime broadcaster WMFE-TV’s parent company announced that it was selling its TV station and getting out of the television business within 90 days, the joke was definitely on Central Florida viewers who enjoy Public Broadcasting Service shows such as PBS NewsHour, Nova, Sesame Street and Masterpiece.

It was a big joke – some WMFE-TV supporters said – to think that a public television station that didn’t sell traditional ads could stay in business when government funders were cutting back and many corporate donors and individual contributors wanted a free ride.

But others disagreed. University of Central Florida and Brevard Community College are betting millions in cash and television-station assets that a new type of partnership with the two organizations, the community and the Public Broadcasting Service will sustain a flagship PBS station in Central Florida for years to come.

When WUCF-TV is launched in July, it will reach more than 1.5 million households from the Atlantic Ocean, west almost to Lakeland, and from Flagler Beach to the north, to below Palm Bay to the south. There are certainly many obstacles to overcome, but PBS is saying that the two schools may have discovered a new community-based model with lessons for PBS affiliates across the nation.

“Most of what we have right now in public broadcasting [when a college or university is involved] is you have a public television or public radio station that is part of the communications department of a university or a journalism school,” said Paula Kerger, president and CEO of PBS. “Where I think this is a very different type of model is that you have two academic institutions that are very committed to this Central Florida community really trying to look at the assets of their institutions and a public media station and how they can serve the community differently from what they are able to do now.”

Before the launch of WUCF on July 1, both schools were limited in their television outreach to an outdated secondary PBS station called WBCC broadcasting from Bithlo. The schools have now moved from the equivalent of a Ford Model T to a 2011 Fusion with the complete technology package included.

Like the old station, and like many other university-affiliated PBS stations, WUCF says it will dedicate station resources to educate and train students.  And certainly other university-affiliated stations also work with community partners to serve local and statewide needs.

But the emphasis for WUCF may be different, says Kerger and other supporters. UCF and BCC administrators say they will use the new flagship station to build loyalty to their institutions as Central Florida hometown favorites. Along the way, they will repair frayed partnerships with PBS corporate donors and individual contributors that helped doom WMFE-TV and continue to trouble other PBS stations around the nation.

“Something that has happened over the last week or two as this partnership has become known is the number of community leaders who have approached [Brevard Community College] President [James] Drake and me to express support and offer assistance,” said UCF President John Hitt. “So I think there is a lot of happiness about what we are doing. And we expect that to translate into a number of different types of support for the new station.”
University Of Central Florida: The Partnership University
Many longtime Central Florida residents barely remember in 1963 when the state of Florida launched a suburban commuter school named Florida Technical University  13 miles northeast of downtown Orlando and 55 miles southwest of Daytona Beach.

From the earliest days, however, regional partnerships were part of the fledgling university’s DNA. The first alliance was with the John F. Kennedy Space Center in Merritt Island. FTU opened its doors specifically to provide highly trained personnel to the U.S. government installation that manages and operates America’s astronaut launch facilities.

The school, later renamed the University of Central Florida, soon was partnering with other government agencies and the private sector to help expand key businesses such as Central Florida’s world-class optics, computer modeling and simulation, digital media and hospitality industries.

Hitt joined the university in 1992 and helped champion many of these economic development partnerships. Most recently, the university helped open a medical cluster in the Lake Nona area of Orlando that includes UCF’s new medical school and proposed dental school working with an A-list of medical-research institutes and hospitals also operating in the medical city.

UCF has also joined with community partners to improve the region’s cultural amenities, building a new football stadium, arena and first phase of a performing-arts center on its main campus and helping support a planned performing-arts center in downtown Orlando.

“I think that one of the strengths of Dr. Hitt is that if there is a good idea and there is a partnership opportunity that is mutually beneficial not only to the university but to the partner, that is an easy and quick one that you ought to consider jumping into,” said retired Navy Vice Adm. Al Harms, who serves as UCF’s vice president for Strategic Planning and Initiatives.

“If the risk looks prudent and the opportunity looks substantive and, oh, by the way, there is a need in the community,” Harms said, “UCF, I think, tries to fill that void and do it in good style.”
A Partnership With Deep Roots
Brevard Community College and UCF have been partners forever, it seems.

“We build upon a deeply rooted history of collaboration that extends nearly three decades,” said BCC’s Drake. “Our two institutions have partnered on a lot of things. So this is not new for us.”

The partnership – with a capital “P” – between UCF and Brevard is an agreement whereby UCF guarantees that any student graduating from the community college with an associate’s degree is guaranteed admission into UCF. That is a big plus for some BCC students as UCF has become one of Florida’s more selective public universities for admissions. It also shows UCF’s trust in the quality of a BCC degree. Beyond sharing students, the two institutions have built joint-use facilities and regional campuses together.

Meanwhile, the lowercase-“P” partnership between the two schools was an agreement in recent years with both schools broadcasting television programs from WBCC, a secondary PBS station in the market.

Until recently, WBCC served as a platform for Brevard Community College to broadcast a limited schedule of second-run PBS shows and for UCF and BCC to air local programming about their schools and communities.

In the new broadcasting partnership, BCC is contributing the WBCC station license and broadcast infrastructure worth millions.  UCF is contributing $1 million in the next year to upgrade the facilities and fund first-year staff costs. It is also throwing in $380,000 annually to support WUCF’s operating budget and will lead community fundraising.

Brevard’s WBCC and Central Florida’s UCFTV programming will continue to broadcast as part of the new station. Now the schools will reach three times the audience reached by their old station.  And, WUCF will broadcast the full range of first-run PBS programming viewers formerly received from WMFE-TV.
Contributors (REALLY) Needed
WUCF is launching this summer even as other PBS station affiliates have struggled, including a major market affiliate in Los Angeles where multiple PBS stations were competing for viewers and donations.

Metro Orlando’s WMFE-TV faced significant funding problems, said Jose Fajardo, the former president and chief executive officer for the PBS affiliate.

  • The station relied on on-air support for 80 percent of its revenue. But of 450,000 households that tuned into WMFE-TV, only 4 percent contributed during the station’s annual fund drives.
  • When viewers did contribute, they gave less and less. The station’s fall 2010 TV pledge drive was a big disappointment. The $170,000 raised missed the station’s goal by 43 percent, according to reports.  To add insult to injury, those who donated wanted expensive gifts in return.
  • Nor did corporate underwriting help make up the difference. Corporate donations to WMFE-TV fell 75 percent to $100,000 this fiscal year from $400,000 in 2007.
  • Finally, federal and state funding for public broadcasting is under attack as governments look to solve their budget deficits. Most recently, state-mandated budget cuts for public broadcasters would have meant an immediate loss of $400,000 to WMFE-TV, if it had stayed in business.
  • “That [state budget cut] would have been catastrophic for WMFE-TV,” Fajardo said.

    Meanwhile TV production costs, PBS dues and other operating costs were too much for the company to handle, Fajardo said.  Despite repeated layoffs and employee furloughs in recent years. WMFE still found itself dipping into cash reserves to make ends meet.

    Ultimately, the WMFE board decided to sell its TV license to the Daystar Television religious broadcasting chain while it could. The sale was still pending FCC approval as this story went to print.  It continues to own, and Fajardo continues to manage, 90.7 WMFE-FM, metro Orlando’s primary provider of National Public Radio programming.

    WMFE-TV’s parent agreed to a $3 million sales price that was about half of what it initially hoped for the station. Daystar’s sales price was also about 8 percent below the national average price for noncommercial educational stations sold since the recession, according to Current.org, a public media trade publication citing data from TV station brokers.

    “The programming at PBS was not drawing enough audience to sustain membership support,” Fajardo said about WMFE-TV’s most critical failure, viewer support, “and the fundraising programs made possible by PBS were not performing and bringing in dollar revenues from viewer contributions.”

    Fajardo says that WMFE-TV’s own local television programming wasn’t always getting the job done, either. “[I]t’s being able to translate those local programs into a source of relevancy and local support that has been really difficult to do,” he said.

    “And we had that issue at WMFE where we produced two high quality local shows that we aired in prime time – one on arts [Arts Connection] and one on public affairs [This Week] – both done in high definition.  We aired them on Thursday nights at 8 and 8:30 and even though they were very good and very deep in content, the ratings for them were miserable because we were up against prime-time shows on commercial networks.”

    How bad were the ratings? “There is a terminology called BMS, which is ‘below measurement standards,’ ” Fajardo said. “Occasionally we would crack that.” Both programs, which were launched with much fanfare in 2007, were cancelled.

    UCF and BCC see things differently and realize that they enjoy some inherent advantages in developing a sustainable flagship PBS station, supporters say.

    “Among the most successful PBS stations are  those affiliated with and owned by universities,”

    Hitt said. “So I think that we have a great partnership for the community college here and for Orlando’s hometown university. I think we really do have the makings of a great success.”

    The schools plan to run a less expensive operation than WMFE-TV through operational efficiencies and sharing related school personnel. Students eager to work in broadcasting internships to advance their education also provide a ready source of help. And because PBS dues are based in part on an affiliate’s operating budget, that means lower dues for WUCF than the $1 million WMFE was paying annually.

    Another advantage is alternative sources of revenue. UCF and BCC can directly and indirectly fund WUCF operations and capital expenditures, as the new station gets its sea legs in its first year.

    With WMFE-TV out of the market, there is one less PBS station in the region to compete for eyeballs and donations.

    WUCF now has unrestricted access to national PBS programming. This year, PBS affiliates took home more Peabody Awards, which recognize excellence in broadcast journalism, documentary filmmaking,educational and children’s programming, and entertainment, than any other network.

    Finally, over the next year, the schools say they will listen with “big ears” to the community and will study other successful PBS stations around the nation as they develop the kind of local programming that the community asks for, and actually watches.

    Ultimately, WUCF will be successful if corporate donations and individual members support the station, Hitt said. Again, WUCF may be better positioned than its predecessor.

    “I think it takes adversity to be able to remind the community how important it is to support public broadcasting,” said Fajardo. “And if this episode is going to energize the community to back up their new public television station, great.”