Better Reception 

Idaho Public Television enjoys ratings success while facing fiscal restraint

Peter Morrill, general manager (left), and Ron Pisaneschi, director of content (right), manage more than 1,000 hours of programming over IdahoPTV's eight platforms.

Laurie Pearman

Peter Morrill, general manager (left), and Ron Pisaneschi, director of content (right), manage more than 1,000 hours of programming over IdahoPTV's eight platforms.

Television, according to former Federal Communication Commission Chairman Newton Minow, is a "vast wasteland."

"When television is good, nothing--not the theater, not magazines or newspapers--nothing is better," said Minow. "But when television is bad, nothing is worse."

Minow's remarks, made more than a half-century ago, scorched the very medium he managed. Soon thereafter, Congress responded with the All-Channel Receiver Act of 1962--broadening an ultra high frequency broadcast spectrum--to help launch nonprofit television stations throughout the country. By 1965, Idaho Public Television hit the airwaves. Nearly 50 years later, IdahoPTV is one of the most successful broadcast operations in the United States.

"The November 2011 ratings indicated that Idaho Public Television was the second-most watched PBS station, per capita, in the United States," said Peter Morrill, IdahoPTV's general manager. "We're very proud of that fact."

However, Morrill doesn't wear his pride on his sleeve. The son of an Episcopal minister, he usually speaks in humble, measured tones, though he is surrounded by accolades. His Orchard Street broadcast center features hallways lined by shelves stacked with trophies and honors. Since 2000, approximately 200 awards have been bestowed to Dialogue, D4K, Idaho Reports, Outdoor Idaho and dozens of specials. IdahoPTV's landmark documentary, the Color of Conscience, examining human rights in Idaho, garnered the Edward R. Murrow Award and the American Bar Association's Silver Gavel Award. No fewer than 17 Emmy Awards fill the shelves, and IdahoPTV is nominated for five more Emmys, which will be handed out Saturday, June 2.

But not unlike a Masterpiece Theater drama, in which the glitz and glamour are upstairs at IdahoPTV, there is great complexity and even mounting concern downstairs.

"What keeps me awake at night is our capital equipment replacement, because we have very, very limited [funding] to keep our statewide delivery system, both broadcast and online, up to date," said Morrill.

And IdahoPTV's delivery system is unlike any other in the Gem State, pushing out more than 1,000 hours of programming each week, across eight broadcast, cable and online platforms.

"On the technology side, there are some real challenges," echoed Ron Pisaneschi, director of content. "Right now, we may be in a pretty good position, but we're not on a funding path that is sustainable long-term."

Pisaneschi and Morrill's nightmare scenario is a disaster--literally.

"If something small or medium-size crashes, we have options," said Morrill. "But if we had some major component die, a catastrophic equipment failure that would cost more than a couple hundred thousand dollars, well, that equipment will probably stay down for a while. A full-power transmitter is about $600,000 just for the cabinetry."

Morrill said he was delighted to procure $189,000 from the 2012 Idaho Legislature for some replacement capital equipment, but he's worried that it won't sustain the station.

"We have to be careful with that money," he said.

"We delayed a number of needs that needed to be addressed sooner than later," Morrill told the Idaho State Board of Education on April 19. (The board holds the broadcast license for IdahoPTV.) "But I'm never totally comfortable. Only the paranoid survive. With the approximate $200,000 from the state ... well, that's wack-a-mole money."

State-appropriated funds represent 19 percent of IdahoPTV's $6.2 million annual operating budget. Community service grants from the Corporation for Public Broadcasting bring in another $940,000.

"But the big mogumba for us are the individual contributions," said Morrill. "About 65 percent of our income comes from pledges and donations."

Morrill's colleagues recently wrapped their spring pledge drive, Festival 2012, to great success.

"We're very pleased," said Morrill. "We're still crunching the numbers, but I can tell you that we'll be very close to the highest pledge drive of all time. That was back in 2007. Remember 2007, when things were better economically? This year was an unmitigated success."

But that success is a delicate balance: attempting to raise the lion's share of income through a small window of opportunity.

"There's a lot of risk associated. We build our pledge drive around a very compressed amount of time: 16 days in March and maybe three or four days in December," said Pisaneschi. "If we don't hit our numbers, there are serious repercussions. But I can tell you that most stations around the country are pledging 50, 60 or even 70 days a year."

Pisaneschi and Morrill are certain that the chief reason for this year's pledge success rests on the quality of their year-round programming, which they said has never been higher. A review of the November 2011 ratings indicate success across the schedule, beginning with daytime programming.

"We're kicking butt," said Pisaneschi. "The numbers are terrific."

George (the curious one), Clifford (the red one), and their friend the bird (the big one) regularly make the Nielsen's Top 25 list of popular shows. In primetime, Antiques Roadshow, airing five times a week on two of IdahoPTV's stations, continually ranks near the top. But nothing came close to the juggernaut that is Downton Abbey.

"It's pretty phenomenal," said Pisaneschi. "It hasn't been on the air in months, and I still get hit up in the grocery store on a regular basis. Everyone wants to know when we're getting the third season. Next season can't come soon enough."

Downton Abbey, the British mini-series chronicling the fictional Crawley family and their servants in the early 20th century, caught the imagination and loyalty of millions of viewers on both sides of the pond. By its second season, it became the most successful British costume drama since Brideshead Revisited of the 1980s or Upstairs, Downstairs of the '70s.

[ Video is no longer available. ]

"I never would have expected this kind of success from Downton Abbey," said Pisanechi. "It's basically a classic drama, and yet my 22-year-old daughter and her friends are all tweeting about it. It's different from what we ever would have expected from Masterpiece."

But in his search for the next Downton Abbey, Pisaneschi said he's regularly testing new programs that are still in development.

"I sit in a dark conference room for days on end, watching one eight-minute clip after another until I go blue in the face," he said. "You're always saying to yourself, 'This one works. This one doesn't.'"

But he hinted at what he thinks could be his next big hit.

"We'll probably go after what I consider to be a very interesting show," said Pisaneschi. "It's a drama--a British production--about a group of London midwives in the 1950s. I've already watched a few episodes and I can tell you that it's great."

The series, Call the Midwife, is a ratings smash in Britain. Morrill said his wish list would include more Idaho productions.

"Depending on funding, we have aspirations to start up an ongoing history series, with the working title The Idaho Experience," said Morrill. "We would showcase significant public figures in Idaho history. We would also love to produce three or four high-level, live performance programs."

He also looks for an opportunity to make Idaho Reports, the weekly examination of state government during the Idaho legislative session, become a year-round program.

"But we know that it would cost us about $150,000 to go year-round," said Morrill.

Morrill and Pisaneschi are certain that the current media landscape provides more opportunity to present higher-quality programming.

"I think the media today is more coarse and less informed than it was 20 or 30 years ago," said Morrill. "I guess that's why I continue to be so passionate about our increasingly relevant role. There's a lot of junk out there. And that's a major opportunity for us to help create thoughtful, quality programs."

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