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‘Extraordinary’ television begins March 1

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Iowa Public Television is about to start its 16-day-long conversation with Iowans. If trends of past Festival events hold true, IPTV will lure viewers away from network and cable programming that station manager Daniel K. Miller says increasingly feature “scantily clad people who can walk over hot coals while eating a tarantula” – and raise more than $1 million to support more family-friendly programming in the process.

During Festival 2003, which runs March 1-16, IPTV will air what it calls “extraordinary television,” much of it with an Iowa theme. The IPTV faithful look forward to Festival with the same anticipation as for a holiday gathering with longtime friends, and between 15,000 and 17,000 of them will call in with pledges of financial support.

“It’s totally a two-way conversation about public television,” said Miller, a Des Moines native who described himself as a “station rat” who hung out at IPTV as a teenager then got a job there as a producer after getting his college degree 28 years ago. “It’s not just us talking. Pledges come with a comment as often as not, and that’s a pretty good-sized focus group.”

Viewer comments run the gamut, from those supporting the “safe” programming they’re not afraid to allow their children to watch to words of praise for the “objective, unbiased and thoughtful” commentary offered on “The Newshour With Jim Lehrer,” said senior producer Duane Huey.

“They love whatever show they are calling in on,” he said. “In a way, it’s kind of a vote for that program.”

Despite fears on the part of IPTV’s fund-raising arm, Friends of Iowa Public Television, that a slow economy might curb donations, Miller remains optimistic. “This year, everyone’s uncertain about the double whammy of the economy and world events, but I’m still hopeful,” he said.

The viewer donations are an important part of IPTV’s $16 million annual budget, 48 percent of which is funded with state appropriations. In fiscal year 2002, the statewide network received $7.8 million from the state, $3.3 million from members (including about $1 million raised during Festival), $1.5 million in community service grants, $1 million in federal grants, $1.2 million from underwriting and $1.2 million from other sources.

“This is a classic example of a public-private partnership that works,” Miller said. “Everybody plays a role – the feds, the state, the foundation members. Every single one of these legs is important for the table that is public TV. A drop in any one of them tilts the table.”

The IPTV table has been tilted by state budget cuts – 32 percent over two years – and as a result, programming has suffered. “Iowa This Weekend,” a summer show, has been cut. Overnight broadcasting has been eliminated, and the network’s stations sign off at 12:30 a.m. Changes also have been made in the number of college wrestling meets that are broadcast, as well as they way they are produced. Once a six-month program, “Iowa Press” runs only four months now. The station’s nightly coverage of the Iowa State Fair has been reduced from an hour to 30 minutes.     “Without membership, everything I just mentioned would have been cut much worse,” Miller said. “If membership dollars dropped at the same time as government support, you’d see much less Iowa in public television.”

Miller said that though IPTV is publicly supported, it faces the same challenges as commercial media, both broadcast and print: “keeping up in a midst of a veritable explosion in media and maintaining a vision in the midst the cacophony of noise in the marketplace.”

“There’s so much on the print side, so much on the broadcast side and so much in the world between that’s called the Internet,” he said.

But IPTV’s viewers are loyal, and Miller and Huey don’t foresee a time when its independent, commercial-free programming won’t fill a need.

“The folks who began this network [in 1967] really thought TV ought to have an alternative to the white noise that mesmerizes or anesthetizes you as you mark time,” Miller said. “They were challenged to make a good show that mattered, and a lot of this state has grown up on that.”

Huey said programming with integrity that is not beholden to any commercial or political interests has struck a chord with Iowans. “People expect it of this enterprise because it began in this way,” he said.

Subtle programming changes, such as the time the Public Broadcasting Service moved its acclaimed “Exxon Mobil Masterpiece Theatre” from Sunday to Monday, are sure to prompt comments from viewers. Negative response was so great that the program was moved back to Sunday. IPTV also tinkered some with its evening lineup, shifting the “Nightly Business Report,” “BBC World News” and the popular British sitcoms.

“We tend to listen and try to respond as best we can,” Miller said. “Networks don’t have a choice when they run ‘Bachelorette,’ but here we do, much more than our commercial colleagues.”

Rich as its 36-year history is with more than 250 awards recognizing excellence in production, leadership and public service, Miller thinks IPTV’s best days may lie in the future. The network will ask for an extension of the May deadline to begin offering digital and high-definition television to its viewers, and Miller is confident the Federal Communications Commission will grant it. Adding digital and HDTV service so will cost about $40 million, and the state and federal governments have pledged $12 million and $1.8 million, respectively.

Digital television will allow the network to broadcast several programs simultaneously and thus increase its daytime programming fivefold. In the HDTV mode, the technology provides CD-quality sound and a detailed image with a clarity that is about five times that displayed on standard-definition television sets.   

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