WTVP has been in the news a lot lately, and for all the right reasons. Central Illinois' local public broadcasting station was the first in the state to begin broadcasting in a digital format, and the company's new high-tech headquarters on Water Street is a spectacular addition to the riverfront.
The station has come a long way from its humble beginnings in the late 1960s, according to WTVP and WTVP-DT President and CEO Chet Tomczyk. "WTVP started when Bradley University's Dr. Phil Weinberg, who also founded public radio station WCBU, convinced a group of influential citizens and supporters that television could be used to deliver arts, culture, education, and high-quality children's programming to central Illinois-commercial free. His persuasiveness and a federal grant resulted in the creation of WTVP Channel 47."
The station began broadcasting from Jobst Hall in space provided by Bradley June 21, 1971, Tomczyk said. "The first antenna was mounted on the roof of a university-owned building, and the signal didn't reach much beyond the Peoria city limits."
Much of WTVP's early success can be attributed to Elwin Basquin, who served as general manager from 1971 to 1996, Tomczyk said. "Basquin was responsible for many innovations, such as the WTVP annual televised auction, the move to color broadcasting, stereo sound, and the construction of a 500-foot tower in East Peoria that carries WTVP's signal to all or parts of 21 counties in central Illinois."
Tomczyk became president and CEO in 1996, and, responding to a federal mandate that all television stations begin broadcasting in digital by May 2003, he moved the station through the design and construction process. WTVP-DT signed on air November 5, 2001, and was the first station outside of Chicago and the first public station in Illinois to begin broadcast operations in digital and high definition.
The station's new building was a result of the move to digital, Tomczyk said. "To allow for the increased space needs and to increase the potential for increased service and business revenue, WTVP moved to a new production and technical facility in July 2003. We anticipate growth in the amount of public television and commercial production that will take place in our new technical facility. The goal is to create a cottage industry in Peoria, and by attracting new clients that will require more services and goods from local merchants, cause others to build production facilities, thus creating a viable new business for the area."
He said public television has changed a lot over the past 33 years-and is set to change far more radically than ever before-yet the goals of public service media remain unique and more important than ever. "Our goal is to produce content and services that challenge the American mind, open new frontiers for the American spirit, and preserve the American memory; address local needs and interests; provide an educational service to people of all ages; serve as a forum for balanced, diverse expression; and respond to the interests of communities and audiences overlooked by mainstream media."
Over the next several years, Tomczyk said the basic mission will continue. "The need for more localized programs and services in a milieu of increasing media choices and availabilities will continue to be paramount. WTVP is currently the only locally owned television station in the tri-county area, and we acutely feel the need to increase localism. Currently, the local scene is covered by series like Illinois Adventure and At Issue and a regular series of local documentaries like 'Grand View Drive' and 'Springdale Cemetery.'"
In the near future, WTVP is planning to activate two more digital program streams and increase the content available on the digital side. "At some point, when the market allows, we'll shut down analog Channel 47 and move all broadcast operations to digital. Before doing that, we'll have to determine how we can best continue serving viewers who don't have ready access to digital via cable or off air."
He said WTVP continues to be promoted as a "family channel," which means that while not every program is suitable for everyone in the family, there are programs in the schedule everyone in the family will find appealing and watchable. "Eight and a half hours of our 24-hour broadcast day are dedicated to children, and even there, not every program is aimed at every child. Teletubbies, for example, is aimed at children under age two; Arthur and Liberty's Kids are designed for older children. The remaining 15.5 hours of the daily schedule serves the remainder of the audience with culture, education, citizenship, personal edification, and just plain entertainment. Many of the series on public television are what we refer to as 'icon' series: Masterpiece Theatre; Great Performances; NOVA; NewsHour with Jim Leher; and Antiques Road Show, which is the most-viewed public television series."
Tomczyk said the two biggest changes in the broadcast television industry have been the FCC mandate to convert to digital broadcasting and the Super Bowl Halftime Show. "Both are having a significant impact on how broadcasters conduct business. The mandate to convert to digital came down from the FCC in 1997 and dictated that all television stations convert to this new form of transmission by May 2003 or risk going dark. All stations, commercial and non-commercial, were required to make the expensive conversion, one that would minimally cost approximately $3 million each just for basic digital technology.
"As for the Super Bowl incident, the political backlash has been extensive. While not the sole reason for Washington's new concern over the pervasiveness of suggestive programming, obscenity-laced language, and general poor taste in broadcast television and radio, it was certainly the proverbial straw that broke the camel's back. Based on a recent lobbying trip to Washington, I can tell you this issue is high on the radar screens of our federal legislators and the FCC commissioners."
One of the challenges of public television, Tomczyk said, is that credit for many of its finest programming often goes to other cable networks. "For example, the Ken Burns documentaries, such as 'The Civil War,' got credited to Discovery or the History Channel. We apparently need to do a much better job of identifying our product and ourselves."
Another misperception he fights is that WTVP is totally funded by the government. "Actually, less than 20 percent of annual support comes from the federal Corporation for Public Broadcasting. At last count, WTVP earned nearly 70 percent of its funding from membership contributions and revenue-generating activities and received an additional 10 percent from various grants. Nationwide, the federal support for public television amounts to less than 95 cents per citizen annually," he said.
The conversion to digital and the resultant need to move from Bradley University were perhaps the largest challenges the station has faced since its founding, Tomczyk said. "A campaign to generate the $10.5 million necessary to complete the project was set in motion in 1999, when the markets were still hot and people felt a bit more flush. The challenge now is to complete the campaign in a post-9/11 world so we have the necessary resources to get on with the business of public television."
He said the most rewarding aspect of the business is programming and service. "One aspect of WTVP's service is our educational outreach program called 'Ready to Learn,' wherein caregivers and teachers of young children are taught to use television to augment learning-not as a babysitter. Can you believe it? We're a TV station that tells parents it's okay to turn the television off and read to their children. And we even help them do that. WTVP's 'First Books' program has given away more than 30,000 books to kids in daycare centers, community centers, pre-schools, and migrant centers in central Illinois."
The amazing growth experienced by WTVP has continued through the years because central Illinois is a very giving community, Tomczyk said. "Fortunately, many people place a high value on the services WTVP provides and appreciate the vibrancy of the programs and the access to the world. WTVP is seen as supportive and collaborative with other groups in the region. Rather than being seen as a competitor, we're perceived as a supporter of the local arts, education, and citizenship groups. We support their efforts, hopefully raise the bar on their thinking and performances, and provide ready access to new artists, trends, thinking, and issues." IBI