Put the public back in Milwaukee Public Television

    Milwaukee Public Television (MPTV) is at a critical crossroads. Viewership has significantly declined. Either the station embraces a new vision to become a more valuable part of our community or it risks irrelevancy if it simply continues to show mostly national PBS programs.

    MATC (Milwaukee Area Technical College) owns MPTV’s license. With property taxes, it subsidizes most of the station’s $18 million annual expenses. Last year, the MATC board formed a task force of community leaders to recommend a plan to make Milwaukee public television a key contributor to southeastern Wisconsin’s cultural, economic and diverse societal growth for the next 50 years.

    The task force recommended the MATC Board consider a nonprofit organization to manage MPTV’s day-to-day operations. The MPTV Friends board of directors, which represents more than 30,000 supporters, also unanimously agreed.  Some MATC board members disagree with this recommendation, but we hope the majority will vote to put the public back into public television.

    When the role of MPTV was primarily to rebroadcast PBS programming, being owned by MATC made sense. But MPTV can play a bigger role, potentially as the most trusted institution in southeastern Wisconsin! "We envision a vibrant public media that convenes the community’s many diverse constituencies in open dialog about the issues, concerns, opportunities and cultural/educational assets of importance to the community’s vitality,” according to the task force recommendation.

    For five years, Americans have ranked PBS as the most trusted institution in the country.  We trust pre-school education to Sesame Street. We trust PBS news anchor Jim Lehrer to fairly moderate presidential debates. PBS has a rock solid reputation. MPTV has the potential to localize that national trusted reputation to help strengthen our community. For example, serve as a neutral moderator of the current public debate about who should manage Milwaukee Public Schools. Or produce a series on how we can get our locally unemployed back to work. Local content, local production and local relevance are the keys to MPTV’s future.

    Cleveland is a great example of the power of locally-focused public TV. They created "The Listening Project" and in the first year, more than 10,000 people participated in town hall meetings. According to the Carnegie Reporter, "Citizens want public television to look into problems and then stay on the topic long enough to lead the way towards some resolution." As a result, Cleveland viewer ratings increased, as well as subsequent fundraising campaigns.

    Milwaukee public radio, WUWM, similarly gained listeners during the past decade as they provided more local content programming and relevance. With more listeners, WUWM increased fundraising and reduced their relative subsidy by the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee to just 17 percent of total income. Most of the best public television stations in America operate as independent public service organizations, including WGBH Boston, WNET New York and WTTW Chicago. 

    An independent public service organization can help MPTV overcome hurdles to achieving its greatest potential. First, creating more high-impact local programs will be expensive. MATC would need to add experienced editorial staff to achieve this new mission. Historically because MATC owns MPTV license, if the public donated an extra $1 million to support a need, that did not directly lead to an extra $1 million in the station’s budget. An independent public service organization would resolve transparency issues and inherently be accountable to public donors, and help ensure dollars donated to MPTV Friends go directly to MPTV.

    Second, community accountability is critical to trust. A Community Advisory Board for MPTV was established by resolution of the MATC board a few years ago. But, while still mentioned in board by-laws, the MPTV Community Advisory Board was quietly disbanded a couple years later. To try to keep politics out of the station, the MATC board also had to pass a resolution last year restricting itself and the college administration from getting involved in MPTV programming decisions.

    Lastly, an independent public service organization could address unfairness in current MPTV funding. Only taxpayers in the MATC district subsidize MPTV while half the viewers in other technical college districts like Gateway, Waukesha and Lake Shore pay nothing. However, all MPTV viewers help subsidize Madison-based Wisconsin public television via nearly $5 million in state income taxes. MPTV only gets $250,000 from the state.

    Understandably, the MATC board considers all decisions in the context of what’s best for the college. But now they have an opportunity to do something bigger that will not only benefit MATC, but the entire community of MPTV viewers. Board members can and should vote to put the public back into Milwaukee Public Television.
    John Bernaden is the chairman of the board of directors of MPTV Friends Inc. in Milwaukee.

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