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Q and A with Elsie Garner

by Jennifer Garner

May 6,2007

Mecklenburg County is reviewing its funding of WTVI. Many people assert that taxes should pay for vital services and that public TV is hardly a core necessity. Why should WTVI receive tax dollars?

Several reasons. One is simply the concept of the public good. Citizens expect the government to provide public roads and transportation, public utilities, public schools, public libraries and public television. Of all the industrialized countries, the United States spends the least on its public television system – a little less than a dollar a year per citizen. On the other hand, governments both local and national, subsidize entire industries to the tune of billions of dollars. Why not spend just a bit of that on a medium that reaches 98% of the population, free of charge, and does so much to raise the quality of life of citizens.

Public TV once offered unique content. Today we have cable TV and a proliferation of similar content provided by the market. What case can you make that WTVI offers something so unique that local government should continue to subsidize it?

At issue here is the financial model. Public television is not set up to be a commercial enterprise; we are prohibited from selling advertising and allowing any funder to exert editorial control. Many cable specialty channels have left their original purpose and become "lowest-common denominator" programming in order to make a buck. A & E used to be ballet and drama, now it's "Dog the Bounty Hunter." The most popular genre in cable is professional wrestling. Public television is still where you go when you want TV worth watching.

Instead of the overhead of a TV station, couldn’t you leverage the Internet at far less cost and still fulfill your mission?

Our FCC license says we have to provide a free, over-the-air broadcast. However, we do use the Internet, pod casting, town hall meetings, cable and satellite, as well as broadcasts to get our message across. And the message is simple: COMMUNITY. TELEVISION. We are a community-building institution that uses the awesome power of the media to distribute our services.

If WTVI were to receive all the money that it wanted, what would you do with it?

We would produce more local programs, promote more local programs, and provide more local services around those programs. We aspire to be "extreme Charlotte." I see public television as the electronic version of the old town square. That was the place people gathered to exchange ideas, hear the latest news, spend time with friends. In the virtual world, public television can still be the place to convene the community, where information is provided that gives context to our civilization, where we can participate in the civic life of the city, where we can gain an appreciation of the history of our place, where we can meet people we might not otherwise access in the course of daily life, and where the megaphone gets handed to people who might not have a voice. Charlotte is a city that is unique in the United States today – a sometimes quirky past, a willingness to challenge old ways of doing things, always looking at the horizon for the next great thing. WTVI wants to be alongside with a camera to document that trip!

What would you like to share about WTVI that citizens of the region may not know?

We produce twice the local programming that public TV stations in our budget range usually do. We have an award-winning staff. We have the grand-daddy of all local literacy programs, Ready to Learn, that has been named twice by the U.S. Dept of Education as one of the best five in the country. That residents here take an enormous pride in their community institutions including WTVI. That we treat viewers as citizens rather than consumers.

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