If you have recently discovered UCF TV, you’re just one of the growing number of viewers who may be surprised, if somewhat confused. Channel 1 is easy to find, sitting in a primo spot on the Bright House Networks lineup, but the station ID reads “WBCC,” the public station broadcast from Brevard Community College in Melbourne. WBCC has held the Channel 1 spot for years, and for years viewers have flipped past that station’s stodgy educational coursework and crafting shows.
But all that changed a little more than a year ago, when the University of Central Florida took over Channel 1, without fanfare or fundraising drives, and flooded the airwaves with locally produced shows as well as new-to-this-market syndicated content from PBS and other providers. During roughly the same time period, public television station WMFE – one slot over on Channel 2 – virtually extinguished what was left of its television production department, saying local coverage is prohibitively expensive and expendable (though Lawrence Welk is not?).
So if we’re all accustomed to diminishing returns when it comes to public television, how did this new station come along and, in one year, get it right?
The difference between UCF TV and WMFE-TV is not so much about the amount of financial resources as it is about mindset and creative strategy. While the leadership at WMFE-TV has been burying itself in a hole for the last decade, the people behind UCF TV have a plan for creative programming. And they are doing it with a modest $375,000 annual budget. That can’t be directly compared with WMFE’s $8 million budget, because that money also pays for radio station 90.7-FM, but clearly UCF TV is making do with less and producing more.
The two stations have completely different corporate structures and aren’t considered competitors: WMFE-TV is a traditional public station, a nonprofit operating as Community Communications Inc.; UCF TV has grown out of the university and has capitalized on opportunities created by the analog-to-digital conversion.
Still, it’s ironic that their respective facilities are located just around the corner from each other. WMFE-TV’s cavernous studios on East Colonial Drive near Alafaya Trail echo with emptiness from the string of layoffs. UCF TV’s still-under-construction studios in Central Florida Research Park, adjacent to the sprawling campus, are a cramped hive of activity with a sense of energy and enthusiasm in the air.
“We are a young, vibrant, entrepreneurial, dynamic university, so we wanted the look of the channel to reflect that,” says Richard Payne, assistant vice president of strategy, marketing, communications and admissions, who oversees the programming and operations at UCF TV.
UCF TV started as an obscure station that could only be found if you had a digital converter that could lock onto 68.2. Then, in September 2008, the university’s business partnership with Bright House Networks led to a fortuitous gift: UCF TV got the Channel 1 position on Bright House’s cable lineup. That meant that instantly UCF TV was available to more than 925,000 Bright House customers in Orange, Seminole, Osceola, Brevard, Volusia, Flagler, Marion, Sumter and Lake counties. The Orlando area ranks No. 19 in the country’s top 100 TV markets, so that’s a lot of exposure in exchange for a handshake.
There’s another critical distinction about UCF TV’s local programming: They cover only what’s happening in their backyard. “There is so much happening here on campus at the moment that we can’t get to it all; we don’t have the resources to capture it all,” Payne says.
Payne doesn’t plan for UCF TV to be a competitor to the other PBS affiliates in the market. In fact, he and Program Manager Bill Dotson look for syndicated shows that are not carried elsewhere, that appeal to a younger generation and are representative of UCF’s reputation for technology and entrepreneurial spirit. For instance, Make is carried on UCF TV, a television version of the magazine of the same name. The show, which debuted earlier in the year, is described on its website as “the DIY series for a new generation! It celebrates ‘Makers’ – the inventors, artists, geeks and just plain everyday folks who mix new and old technology to create new-fangled marvels.”
Also on the schedule is Theater Talk, produced in New York; that’s what brought Henry Maldonado into the fold.
“[UCF TV] is catching my attention,” says Maldonado, 60. The former WKMG-TV (Channel 6) general manager retired in March after seven years at the local station, but his roots go back to the early days of PBS in Chicago. As of Sept. 11, he became the president of the nonprofit Enzian Theater in Maitland, which complements his goal to make documentary films.
“So what you’ve got now is that the managers of public stations almost think like commercial television stations, and they are looking for the ratings and for the hits. … In some ways UCF TV is free of the necessity to give me fireworks, and I tune into it because I am lured by the intelligence of the content,” he explains.
Smart content without bells and whistles is what you get on Channel 1, along with a lot of promotion for UCF events and services. And it’s not for everyone. In fact, for many the thought of listening to a couple of theater geeks discussing the quirks and characters of playwright Harold Pinter sounds ghastly. For everyone else, there’s a new station in town.
Source: Orlando Weekly, by Lindy T. Shepherd, November 25, 2009; visit the Web site to read the full story titled, “The public (TV) option, Young upstart UCF TV demonstrates that it can be done right, and cheap.” To contact the author write [email protected]