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Charlotte Observer: CPCC, Channel 42 Talk Merger; Bill James Calls Move 'PBSkull-duggery'

Charlotte's struggling public TV station and Central Piedmont Community College are in preliminary talks about joining forces to keep WTVI (Channel 42) on the air. Last year, the station - whose financial condition has turned perilous since the recession began to grip Charlotte in 2008 - ran a deficit of about $300,000. Fundraising is lagging by a couple hundred thousand dollars at the midpoint of this fiscal year, WTVI president Elsie Garner said Wednesday. Garner and CPCC President Tony Zeiss met with County Manager Harry Jones last week to ask whether the county might be willing to underwrite transition costs if they were to enter into some kind of merger. Jones told them he had concerns about budgeting any subsidy for WTVI. And it wasn't clear Wednesday what those costs might be. Two years ago, amid major budget cuts to schools and libraries, the county eliminated its $800,000 annual donation for operating costs for WTVI and there has been little political support on the county commission for reinstating it. If CPCC were running the station, it would still not deserve county money, commissioner Bill James said. "There's been a little PBSkull-duggery," James said. "We have defunded our PBS affiliate. Ever since then, they've been trying to figure out a way to get back on the government dole." James said WTVI is not financially viable because Charlotte is already served by two other PBS systems - UNC-TV (Channel 58) based in Chapel Hill and SCETV (Channel 30) based in Columbia. "If there was just one PBS signal coming into Charlotte, then they'd probably be fine," James said. "What if you had three CBS affiliates here - WBTV wouldn't be able to stay in business." Support from county Despite cutting its annual donation, Mecklenburg County does maintain WTVI's studios on Commonwealth Avenue, pays the debt on WTVI's digital broadcasting equipment and pays the station about $95,000 to televise county commissioners' meetings. It also provided a $44,000 emergency appropriation for equipment repair in April. James said if the station goes out of business, the county would need to sell the modern digital TV equipment to recoup its investment. WTVI has an annual budget of $3.2 million, which is made up from grants, studio rentals and about $1 million raised from viewers and local businesses. Local donations are continuing to lag this year, Garner said. She said that an independent survey conducted two years ago showed that 85 percent of Mecklenburg residents felt that Charlotte should have its own public television station. Garner said the talks with CPCC were in preliminary stages and she didn't know whether the two organizations would ultimately fit together. "We've had conversations with other organizations and educational institutions. "We're still looking for the perfect 'ah-ha' moment." CPCC TV operation For the college, a partnership or even taking over the station's license could have benefits. CPCC already has a television operation that provides about 1,500 hours of locally generated programming annually on Time Warner Cable channel 17 and on other cable systems in the region. Inheriting the modern digital studios at WTVI could raise the college channel's potential and offer students who already take videography courses at CPCC new opportunities. "We'd be interested in whether there would be opportunities for student internships," said CPCC spokesman Jeff Lowrance. He said the talks with WTVI have been going on for only a few months and remain in the early stages. WTVI has about $200,000 left in its reserve fund, but if it has to cover the kinds of losses it incurred in 2010-2011, it could have as little as a year to go before money runs out. Garner said it was too early to tell how fundraising would wind up this year. "I have seen years worse than this at the midpoint and then pull up, and I have seen years better than this at the midpoint pull down." Copyright 2012 The Charlotte Observer. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.