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  • Writer's pictureMarc Johnson

Killing Off Big Bird…


It Has Been Tried Before Idaho Governor Butch Otter proposed in his State of the State speech this week a four year phase out of state support for Idaho Public Television. Otter’s proposal would eventually eliminate the $1.7 million the system now receives and uses primarily to support its services statewide.

Combined with other holdbacks, the reduction will be more like 33% in the first year.

Otter’s idea has received extensive media attention and, in an irony too rich not to mention, the governor’s speech containing the proposal was carried statewide only on, you got it, Idaho Public Television. Here’s guessing the public pushback is just beginning.

In an editorial, the Times-News made a practical political point that legislators may really want to ponder: “There are few more respected institutions in Idaho than IPTV. It’s beloved by every Idaho parent with a 4-year-old – even if those 4-year-olds have long since grown up.”

The governor and his advisers have said that public TV should hustle up private and corporate support to keep going, but that seems very unlikely given two hard facts.

One, the folks who run Idaho Public Television have mastered the art of looking under ever rock in Idaho for support. They run a lean, mean operation that makes the absolutely most of the checks they collect from Idahoans. In fact, compared to peer operations – states with state licensed systems – Idaho already out performs in the private fundraising arena.

Two, the worst hard times in anyone’s memory hardly seem like a realistic time to tell a state operation that has been around for 40 years to rattle the tin cup more loudly. Every non-profit I know, even the most popular – and public TV is popular – is hurting in this economic environment.

[Full disclosure: I worked for Idaho public television for about eight years back in the 1970’s and 1980’s, I recently joined the Friends of Public TV Board and I have many long-time friends in the operation. I am not an unbiased observer.]

I do know, from having the weird experience of reporting on the decision, that public television funding was eliminated back in 1981. That, too, was a time of severe budget constraint and legislators were looking under rocks. Part of the discussion then, as now, was also ideological. Some lawmakers, including then-Senator Dave Little of Emmett, the chair of the Senate Finance Committee and father of the current Lt. Governor, simply didn’t think the state belonged in the “government TV” business.

Legislators came to rethink – and some, perhaps to regret – the “unfunding” and state support was partially restored a year later. Also in 1982, the legislature mandated a statewide merger of services that created the streamlined, efficient system that exists today.

Personal opinion: I don’t believe Idaho Public TV can survive in anything like its current form, covering virtually every corner of the state, with the kind of Idaho-specific programming and reach without state support. It simply won’t happen.

This discussion is really about whether statewide public television service and programming will continue – period. Removing state funding will also serve to squander the substantial investment Idaho taxpayers have already made in a more-or-less state of the art delivery system. As a very practical matter, translators will sit unused on many mountain tops.

The state is big enough – no statewide newspaper, two time zones, diverse political and social culture – that public TV here, in more than any state I know, pulls the population together. It’s been a bargain for 40 years and will be a bargain this year and next and beyond, even at twice the price.

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