EXCLUSIVE: Public Broadcasting Atlanta’s Channel 30 becoming full-service PBS station

It will compete more directly with GPB 8

Originally posted Thursday, July 26, 2018 by RODNEY HO/rho@ajc.com on his AJC Radio & TV Talk blog

Public Broadcasting Atlanta is turning its TV station on Channel 30 into a full-service Public Broadcasting Service operation to compete better with Georgia Public Broadcasting’s Channel 8.

PBS cleared the deal on Tuesday.

The station hopes it can start airing more PBS content in September.

Currently, PBA’s station can only air about 25 percent of available PBS content. GPB always had first and often exclusive access to any new programming over the years, from “Masterpiece Theatre” to “Downton Abbey” to “Victoria.”

By spending about an extra half million a year net for programming, PBA will now be able to air any PBS content. They are not planning to simulcast programming and will inform GPB of their scheduling, said PBA CEO Wonya Lucas in an exclusive interview Thursday.

For instance, while GPB 8 airs venerable "NewsHour" with Judy Woodruff at 6 p.m., PBA's Channel 30 will likely air it at 7 p.m. instead. And some shows may be delayed 24 hours.

“There’s room for both of us in the market,” Lucas said.

Also, Channel 30 - long called PBA 30 - is now branding itself as ATL PBA.

It plans to keep its Monday and Friday lineups the same, much of it British programming. She also hired a new person to produce more original shows. “We’ll have slightly different programming,” she said.

PBA's radio station 90.1/WABE-FM is growing in revenue and pulls in a vast majority of the operation's dollars. The TV station in recent years has seen lower ratings and pledge dollars, which Lucas felt necessitated this change.
She believes the shift will enable PBA to pull in more subscribers, viewers and underwriters.

Members who pledge at least $5 a month to PBA will also have access to Passport, the PBS streaming service.

"As we're gearing up with community engagement, we'll be able to do more there with more access to content," Lucas said. For instance, she loved that the station was able to holda screening last year at Spelman College of the James Baldwin documentary "I Am Not Your Negro."

PBA will set aside about $200,000 for FY 2019 from the board's strategic fund to help cover potential losses in the short term. When WABE shifted to an all-news format in early 2015, the board set aside some money for that transition as well.

Four years ago, GPB took over programming for most of the day on Georgia State’s 88.5/WRAS-FM. Ultimately, WABE’s ratings did not appreciably suffer and there was evidence WRAS had gained new listeners. WRAS ratings remain about one-fifth of those of WABE.

GPB, in a statement by CEO Teya Ryan, responded to PBA's move:

"GPB will always remain the primary provider of PBS programming for Atlanta and all of Georgia. We've had tremendous growth over the last five years on television, radio and in donations. We look forward to continuing to serve Atlanta and the state with quality PBS programming and the signature GPB originals that reflect our incredibly diverse viewers.

UPDATE: After I posted this story, I received an email from Robert Lecate, former PBA30 station manager. He said when he arrived in the mid-2000s, he believed PBA was failing as a full-service station.

“The Board of Directors considered the TV station to be a drain on the finances of the organization. In addition, the Atlanta community loudly complained about the redundancy of having two PBS stations carrying the same programming,” he wrote to me this evening.

So they went with the “Program Differentiation Plan” PBS station option, which was far cheaper. They added British dramas and original shows such as “This is Atlanta” and “Get Delicious” and specials such as “Four Days at DragonCon.” Ratings, he said, went up and the public benefited from more differentiated programming.

But after management changed in 2015 with Lucas taking over. Lecate said he didn’t see eye to eye with her. She told him to cut original programming. He left soon after.

His take: “I view this move as an act of desperation by Wonya and a reaction to her failure to sustain the previous success of PBA. Once again, TV will drain the finances of the organization. Once again, the audience will question the need for two PBS stations that carry the same programming.”

Chuck Taylor, board chairman and on the board since 1999, begs to differ, characterizing Lecante as  "a disgruntled former employee."

He said the TV station has never been as big of a revenue driver as the profitable radio station side. And the move to the lower-cost model with PBS was a way at the time to save money. And while he wasn’t aware of the viewer complaints in the mid-2000s that the two TV stations had redundant programming, he said viewers have regularly been confused by the two stations.

Taylor said since Lucas arrived in 2015, TV ratings had gone up until this past year. And while original programming was cut for a time, Lucas is investing in new shows again.

He also said the move to go back to full service was not an act of desperation but a strategic move that would give them access to the streaming service Passport and other benefits. Overall, he noted, PBA is a financially healthy organization and has grown stronger under Lucas’ leadership.