With PBS dues increasing, affiliates consider leaving the network

After KCET in Los Angeles left PBS in January due to its dues being too high, other public TV stations are considering or have done the same in the current tight economic times.

WMFE-TV in Orlando, the city’s major public broadcast station, will end its PBS affiliation after June 30. The station, unable to pay its bill of just under $1 million annually to PBS, is being taken over by the founders of Daystar Television, a religious programmer.

José A. Fajardo, WMFE’s president, said that the public television model was no longer viable because of decreased donations, including a 34 percent drop in pledge contributions from viewers.

And WMFE is not alone. In this financially troubled time, some PBS stations are questioning whether they can continue to find a way to make the PBS business model work.

Earlier this year PBS narrowly averted another major loss in Chicago, when the board of WTTW-TV told management to examine the question of withdrawing as well. “Our board, they are smart business people, and when they look at our business model they scratch their heads and they say this is upside down from a business standpoint,” Dan Schmidt, WTTW’s president and chief executive, told the New York Times.

In Chicago, as in Los Angeles and Orlando, a major issue is there are too many places to see PBS programs. Each of those cities has more than one PBS station. The biggest station pays the highest amount of PBS dues and gets rights to all of PBS’ marquee shows.

Smaller stations pay less in dues, but can still broadcast some of the most popular shows, as long as they wait eight days after the major station’s airing.

“Others pay pennies on the dollar and run the cream of the crop,” Schmidt told the Times. His station had a $4.2 million operating deficit last year and pays $4.5 million annually in PBS dues. Yet “viewers can see that content on other stations and increasingly, whenever they want to on PBS.org,” Schmidt said.

WTTW decided against leaving for now. It is temporarily trying to make it work.

Other stations are also contemplating quitting PBS. One is the public station in Waco, TX, shut down last year for financial reasons. There are rumors of half a dozen more stations, at least — no one will name them on the record — that could leave depending on whether their state and federal financing fall through.

“I don’t think this is necessarily going to be limited to these two stations — Orlando and Los Angeles,” Steve Bass, president and chief executive of Oregon Public Broadcasting, told the “Times.” PBS is changing its dues formula, which may help some big stations and will also require each market’s secondary stations to pay more.

Paula Kerger, chief executive of PBS, told the newspaper that she that does not foresee other stations dropping out, but that over the next several years she expected the difficult economy could force more consolidation among stations.