MADISON The University of Wisconsin Board of Regents, at its April 8-9 meeting, will consider principles which will frame the UW Systems position on future discussions of a possible restructuring of public broadcasting in Wisconsin.
“The UW System developed the principles to guide us as deliberations begin during the spring legislative session,” said UW System President Katharine Lyall. “The principles will provide a structure for consideration of issues for analysis and continue the dialogue on how we can have the most efficient public broadcasting system for the 21st Century.”
Two factors have been the catalyst for discussions on the restructuring of public broadcasting: a federal mandate for television stations to convert to digital operations and a Wisconsin public broadcasting reorganization proposal in the Governors 1999-2001 budget.
The Federal Communications Commission (FCC) has mandated that public television stations must be able to deliver digital broadcasts by April 2003. It is estimated that it will cost approximately $40-50 million for the UW and the Educational Communications Board (ECB) stations to convert to digital format. Both the UW and ECB have developed budget plans and transition strategies.
“The transformation to digital will significantly enhance public televisions ability to deliver quality educational programming,” Lyall said. “While digital technology provides a high definition picture and permits the broadcast of four program channels simultaneously, it is important to note it can transmit data to home computers at a speed 700 times faster than the Internet. Each of those factors make it especially valuable to the University as an educational tool, potentially significantly enhancing distance education programs.”
She added, “It is critical that UW Extension have access to digital channels for educational purposes without added cost. Additionally, we are suggesting that the Regents indicate they will not support any arrangement that might lead to the selling of the additional channels or other actions which would make these channels unavailable to the university. As we examine the situation, the best way to ensure that the University System has continuing educational access may be for the Regents to retain the licenses.”
Lyall said, “Any reorganization must preserve an institutional environment insuring editorial independence.”
She added, “A key principle that the Regents will consider asks that the current management structure which supports the teaching mission of the campus radio stations not be changed. The stations of UW-Eau Claire, UW-La Crosse, UW-Milwaukee, UW-Oshkosh, UW-Platteville, UW-River Falls, UW-Stevens Point, UW-Superior, and UW-Whitewater are part of the curriculum and are under academic control. They should be removed from any reorganization discussions which might affect other segments of public broadcasting.”
“The principles the UW Regents are considering state that Wisconsin needs a sound financial plan that assures the continuation of public broadcasting operations and the funding to oversee the timely transition to the digital format,” UW System Senior Vice President for Administration David W. Olien said. “We feel that public broadcasting in Wisconsin should be financially supported by a combination of state funding to assure that all regions of Wisconsin have access to public broadcasting, federal support, and supplemental private support.”
“Given the complexity and importance of the issues involved, any reorganization must proceed in a thoroughly-planned manner,” said Olien. “The timetable for reorganization needs to reflect that complexity while not delaying our progress toward meeting the federally-mandated deadline for conversion to digital operations.”
He added, “An important principle the Regents will consider deals with how an independent board would be constituted, so it can make timely decisions.”
The Governors 1999-2001 biennial budget contains a recommendation that a new non-profit, tax-exempt corporation, the Educational Broadcasting Corporation (EBC) be created to serve as the principal public broadcasting entity in Wisconsin. Under the Governors proposal, the broadcast licenses currently held by the Educational Communications Board and the UW Board of Regents would be transferred to the new organization.
The UW Board of Regents holds the licenses for one television station and twelve radio stations, located on UW campuses. The Wisconsin Educational Communications Board holds the licenses for five television stations, six TV translators and thirteen radio stations.
David W. Olien