Boston's WGBH Keeps Steady Financial Ship

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

DESPITE hard times for New England's economy, funding for Boston's public television station has been "relatively stable," says David Liroff, the station manager for WGBH. He cites two reasons for financial steadiness:

"For at least 20 years WGBH has been able to maintain a critical mass of projects" that receive special funding from the Public Broadcasting Service (through dues from PBS stations) and other sponsors.

As one of the "major market" stations, WGBH serves as a production home for about one-third of the prime-time PBS programming seen across the country, including "Mystery," "Nova," "This Old House," and "Masterpiece Theatre."

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Second, "what has buffered [the station] here is the diversification of the activities," Mr. Liroff says. "One of the critical decisions that we faced several years ago ... was that we're not in the broadcasting business, but in fact we're in the education business."

The diversification includes marketing interactive video discs, information on the Prodigy computer network, and a partnership with Learningsmith stores.

These activities, plus the large amount of national production and editing work done here, gives the station a large revenue base over which to spread its fixed costs.

The station has not entirely escaped the financial squeeze. Last year WGBH canceled "The 10 O'Clock News," a highly regarded local newscast and replaced it with "The Group," a discussion show that costs $2 million a year - a $1 million annual savings.

Liroff explains that the station operates within "two economies," national and local. Much of its funding from PBS, corporations, and foundations is tied to its national productions. The newscast ate up 60 percent of the station's much smaller budget for local programming, and the cost was rising. "The 10 O'Clock News" provided only 2 percent of the station's broadcast hours.

As production costs continue to rise, "it's caused us to become somewhat more creative in our collaborations with other stations," Liroff says.

One example was "Out of Work," a special report on the plight of unemployed Americans. The report included on-site reporting in Boston and Philadelphia and could be promoted by both stations as "local." It also aired nationally and won an Emmy Award for best "community service."

Despite efforts to contain costs, Liroff says the station's view of its mission has not changed. "The idea of `what viewers will pay for' [through contributions] ... has never once come up in a discussion of our primary editorial mission," he says.

The station does canvas contributing members by mail and by phone surveys with a checklist of programs they watch.

Still, Liroff says, "We are not driven by marketplace imperatives."

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