In 1955, Elvis Presley made his television debut on a local show in Shreveport, Louisiana. Harpo Marx guest-starred on I Love Lucy. The $64,000 Question launched America’s infatuation with quiz shows.
And in North Miami, a small TV station started broadcasting under the call letters WTHS on Channel 2 — two hours a day, five days a week, educational programming such as Postal Parade, a show about mailing letters, produced by the Dade County School Board and the station.
Sixty years later, Elvis is dead. I Love Lucy is the only show (instead of a person) to be inducted into the Television Hall of Fame. Quiz-show mania has gone the way of Who Wants to Be a Millionaire — a time-killer on afternoon TV. The school board has its own TV and radio stations, WLRN Channel 17 and WLRN 91.3-FM.
But Channel 2 — operating under the familiar call letters WPBT since 1970 from its studio facility at 14901 NE 20th Ave. in North Miami — didn’t fade away. Instead, the PBS member station, which celebrated its 60th anniversary Aug. 12, is thriving, thanks to a mixture of national programming that has permeated popular culture (Sesame Street, Ken Burns’ The Civil War, the hit British import Downton Abbey) and a growing roster of locally produced shows and films that speak directly to Miami audiences in a way bigger networks cannot.
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Like all other PBS member stations, WPBT2 must evolve without relying on past successes. Downton Abbey’s sixth season, scheduled to air in early 2016, will be the show’s last. And even though Sesame Street has been synonymous with PBS for the last 45 years, HBO announced last week it had entered a partnership with Sesame Workshop, which produces the iconic children’s program, to air the next five seasons exclusively for nine months before they are shown on PBS.
The upside? PBS will still get to air Sesame Street, except now without having to help finance the show. According to Nielsen, PBS remains the most-viewed children’s network among kids ages 2-5.
And although Downton Abbey will go out as the most-watched series in PBS history, other Masterpiece shows, such as Sherlock, starring Benedict Cumberbatch and Martin Freeman, are gaining in popularity. Coming next year is PBS’ first American drama in more than a decade: The Civil War saga Mercy Street, executive produced by Ridley Scott (Alien, Prometheus).
Besides, unlike commercial networks, the nonprofit WPBT2 doesn’t rely on traditional advertising, subscriptions and ratings for its revenue.
“We operate under a different model from commercial media,” says Dolores Sukhdeo, president and CEO of WPBT2 since 2013. “I started out working in commercial media. There, you have to sell products. You have to bring eyeballs if you want to survive. In public television, our mission is different. We’re trying to be lifelong educators. We’ve been able to evolve and experiment and fail and keep changing. We want to provide great quality content, and we’re crazy enough to believe that it actually works and people will support that.”
WPBT2 is one of 348 nonprofit PBS stations around the country (and the 15th oldest). Roughly 15 percent of the station’s annual operation budget of $12 million to $13 million comes from state and federal agencies, such as the Corporation for Public Broadcasting.
The bulk of the budget comes from underwriting, grants and donations from the people who watch WPBT2. In essence, the channel is funded by its audience — just like HBO or Showtime, except the payment is voluntary. Annual memberships start at $40 and go up to $500+, with perks such as studio tours and face-to-face meets with on-air talent. Viewers also make one-time donations or enroll in monthly sustaining donations and receive gifts (CDs, DVDs, concert tickets).
Corporate sponsorship brings the prestige and branding of being associated with a nonprofit PBS station. Longtime supporters include the Schmidt Family Foundation, the Batchelor Foundation and the Fortin Foundation of Florida.
Jerry Liwanag, senior vice president of development and marketing for the station, says the business model for a publicly funded TV station is still effective, even in today’s increasingly fragmented media market and an era in which the Internet has taught an entire generation it is entitled to get whatever it wants, whenever it wants, for free.
“I was at the Chicago PBS station for 17 years and I’ve seen the impact that public television can have,” he says. “I don’t know things are harder today. It’s just a different landscape. We are looking for ways to show people the value of our services. The impact that public television has on a community is long-term. We are not coming up with cures here. But when you realize your child can already read before they’re going to school, or when you watch our public affairs shows, you start to see the value in what we do. That leads to people who are driven to support us and keep that going.”
Sukhdeo worked for Worldwide Television News, the international division of Disney/ABC News, early in her career and admits the reliance on the public for financial sustenance is “scary.” But on the other hand, she says, “it’s a great feedback loop. Because if you bomb, you find out immediately. The audience tells you. We do a lot of reinventing. Unlike the commercial networks, who just want you to sit home and then buy something, I want to use content to educate kids or talk about health issues. We’re trying to serve the community through content.”
Sukhdeo points out that the lack of corporate sponsorship — this show was not brought to you by Miller Light or the new Avengers movie — also earns WPBT2 a level of trust other networks can never attain.
“When we did Cancer: The Emperor of All Maladies, we had these serious scientists acting like they were 9-year-olds because they felt like they were on the brink of discovering a cure,” she says, referring to a six-hour adaptation of Siddhartha Mukherjee’s Pulitzer Prize-winning book. “For me to believe what I’m watching, I need to know that there’s not a big drug company pushing their product or service through between the lines because they paid for the advertising or product placement. PBS viewers are more likely to be civically active, are more likely to vote and be highly educated. It’s not surprising, then, that viewers appreciate it when you’re the most-trusted brand. They are thoughtful consumers of media.”
Although most of its airtime is devoted to national PBS programming, WPBT2 also broadcasts a number of locally produced shows such as:
▪ Changing Seas, a series of half-hour episodes exploring ocean life.
▪ Check, Please! South Florida, a restaurant review show hosted by chef Michelle Bernstein.
▪ Haiti Journal, a monthly public affairs program covering current affairs within the Haitian and Haitian-American communities.
▪ Viewpoint, an exploration of religious, moral and ethical issues.
▪ art loft, a weekly showcase of South Florida artists, openings, installations and performances.
One of its biggest hits to date was the Nightly Business Report, a business news magazine that WPBT2 created and produced from 1979-2013 and aired weeknights on PBS stations nationwide. (CNBC purchased the program and took over production in February 2013, after the cable news landscape became too vast and specialized for WPBT2 to compete.) Another is the landmark bilingual sitcom ¿Qué Pasa, U.S.A.? which focused on the comic travails of a Cuban-American family. Although the show only ran for four seasons (39 episodes), it continues to air in repeats and draws large audiences.
In 1977, WPBT2 made national news by becoming the first network in Florida to bring cameras into a courtroom. The station filmed the nine-day trial of Ronny Zamora, the 15-year-old accused of murdering his 83-year-old neighbor during a botched burglary. The defense argued Zamora had been the victim of “television intoxication” and blamed Kojak for motivating the teen. WPBT’s nightly summaries of the trial were so popular in South Florida, they beat Johnny Carson in the ratings.
WPBT2 has a tradition of producing high-quality historical documentaries, such as ¡Buen Provecho!, an exploration of the Hispanic influence on Florida’s cuisine, aired in conjunction with the 500th anniversary of Ponce de Leon’s arrival to the state; Panama Canal, a two-part documentary look at the history of the maritime shipping conduit and the international implications of its expansion, overseen by WPBT2 senior producer Mark Baker; and Flagler’s Train: The Florida Keys Over-Sea Railroad, which commemorated the 100th anniversary of the first passenger train arrival to Key West.
Increasingly, though, the station is turning to the community for ideas and programming.
“We are a trusted brand and people look at us for the educational value,” says Joyce Belloise, managing director of content at WPBT2. “But we’ve also been able to develop docs that have a lot of entertainment value. It’s about stories that haven’t been told, or telling familiar stories in a new way. The ideas used to come from within the station. Now the focus is looking outside the station. We live in a world where the technology of making TV is available to almost everybody. We’re finding great storytellers who come in with a completed story, so it’s just a question of whether it’s a good fit for public television. It has to have an educational value, so we retain the trust factor with the audience.”
Oscar Corral, a former Miami Herald reporter turned filmmaker, is collaborating with WPBT2 for the third time with his new documentary Exotic Invaders: Pythons in the Everglades, an exploration of invasive reptile species in the Everglades, set to air later this year. WPBT2 previously aired Corral’s Tom Wolfe Gets Back to Blood in 2012 (which also aired nationally on 70 percent of PBS stations) and The Crossfire Kids, a look at young immigrants caught in the political crossfire over immigration policy, in 2014.
Corral says WPBT2 can do everything from provide a “letter of interest” that helps a filmmaker with fundraising to serve as editors or producers on a finished film.
“They are one of the few distribution outlets that has a large regional audience and regularly considers and accepts works from local filmmakers like me,” Corral says. “They are also experienced, savvy producers who know their audience and keep an open mind about topics. WPBT2 is willing to take risks with projects and films that other distributors might overlook. They have provided distribution, access and support that cannot be duplicated in this community. Their recognition of the importance of local storytelling has had an impact on the emergence of a thriving independent filmmaking community in South Florida.”
That impact is about to grow. WPBT2 has entered a merger agreement with WXEL-TV, the PBS member station that serves Palm Beach County and the Treasure Coast. If approved by the FCC, the union will result in a new entity, South Florida PBS, that will be the state’s largest public media company, reaching from Key West to Sebastian Inlet, and the beach to the Everglades and Lake Okeechobee.
A merger will allow the two stations to coordinate programming schedules and share in-house productions, giving viewers different options instead of airing, say, Downton Abbey at the same time. Bill Scott, executive director of WXEL, says a merger would have mutual benefits for both stations, “but the greatest benefit will be the viewers in South Florida, because we’ll be able to increase production of locally relevant programs. If you’re in Miami, you’ll be able to see some of the shows we produce like Bogart on Movies, a review show hosted by Stephen Bogart, the son of Humphrey Bogart and Lauren Bacall. That’s always the goal: To service all our diverse communities better.”
Paula Kerger, president and CEO of PBS, says the merger will solidify both member stations’ standing within the South Florida market.
“Marking 60 years of community service is a remarkable milestone,” she says. “For six decades, WPBT has demonstrated the power of the local/national partnership that is the hallmark of PBS. WPBT brings together the reach of national PBS programming as well as local and regionally produced content that is tailored to the diverse region it serves. The merger between WPBT and WXEL will create a joint entity that brings an even greater array of content and services to all of South Florida, and PBS looks forward to partnering with them for at least another 60 years.”
That merger is one of the things Alberto Ibargüen, the president and CEO of the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation and the former board chairman of PBS, says is a critical element in the long-term survival of a member-sustained public television station. But it’s not the only one.
“Over time, WPBT has been a leader in programming in business or local news,” he says. “The challenge for the future, as with all media, is how to make it mobile-relevant, engaging and sustainable. The era of appointment broadcasting — where a station tells you when a program will be aired and we have to watch it on their terms — is fast drawing to a close. If you don’t adopt mobile-first technology, your niche will be smaller and smaller. To pretend that viewers will simply want to watch TV is to ignore the pull and opportunities of new media.”
But WPBT2 has been aggressively chasing online and mobile media, too. Max Duke, vice president of content and community partnerships, first joined the station in 1999 when he designed its first, primitive membership website. “I think maybe two people used it,” he says. “There was no real e-commerce back then, no PayPal, no Amazon. We generated maybe $150.” But Duke persevered, updating the site daily and using his background in marketing and publicity to make it visually appealing.
In 2000, the station conducted its first live-stream, of a Senate debate. In 2006, with financial backing from the Knight Foundation, they launched uVu, a website devoted to citizen journalism to which anyone could upload their own stories and videos (Haiti Journal was born out of that experiment). Intrigued by the possibilities, PBS hired Duke to help build a national “online video experience,” creating an infrastructure known as COVE (Comprehensive Online Video Ecosystem) that would unite all PBS member stations, allowing them to share each other’s content via their individual websites.
“You didn’t have the type of consumer digital and social behavior back then that you have now,” Duke says. “This is when the iPhone had just come out. That really started our digital revolution. After two years, we had 20,000-30,000 hours of video available, because every station was involved.”
Duke returned to WPBT2 in 2014, where he now helps to consolidate all of the station’s content efforts, including production, online and mobile. Every documentary and episode of every series the station has produced is viewable at wpbt2.org, along with short videos, interviews and clips created specifically for online.
“Our focus is, ‘How do we get people to listen to the stories we’re telling, regardless of how they’re listening to them?’” Duke says. “We also have to think about the people who don’t have cable subscriptions. What are they watching? How are they watching? We still put a tremendous effort into broadcast, because we are a TV station. But if we are paying attention to the stories that need to be told, we [are also] going to flow into the way that they need to be told, too.”
Ultimately, Duke believes that the future of WPBT2 — as well as the future of PBS — hinges on its ability to stay true to the brand and its core values while keeping pace with technology and viewing habits.
“PBS has always had to position itself in a certain way to remind people that we’re there to enrich their lives,” he says. “But at the same time, we provide an amazing and entertaining experience. It’s a challenge as you go forward with new generations, how do you get them to realize that PBS is something that is critical to their lives and to understanding who we are as a community? Most of the last 60 years, we’ve been a television company. In the last 10 years, we’ve become a media company.”
MAJOR EVENTS IN STATION HISTORY
Here is a time line of some of the major events in the history of WPBT2:
1955: The station goes live under the call letters WTHS airing a mix of original programming (such as ‘Postal Parade,’ a how-to show about mailing letters) and educational programs by the Dade County School Board.
1959: Powered by a new 100,000-watt transmitter, the channel extends its reach to Broward County.
1966: The station holds its first televised fundraising auction and generates $25,000.
1970: The nonprofit Public Broadcasting Service (PBS) begins to supply programming to its member television stations around the country. WTHS changes its call letters to WPBT.
1972: Full-time color broadcasts begin.
1977: For the first time in Florida’s history, cameras are allowed inside a courtroom to air the trial of Ronny Zamora, the 15-year-old accused of murdering his 83-year-old neighbor during a botched burglary.
1979: The Dade County School Board gets its own TV channel, WLRN Channel 17, and WPBT becomes a full-time PBS member station.
1985: Stereo broadcasts begin.
2001: Digital broadcasts begin.
2013: Dolores Sukhdeo becomes WPBT’s first woman president/CEO.
WPBT AT A GLANCE
Channels: WPBT2, WPBT Create (Comcast only), WPBT Vme (Comcast only, Spanish-language).
Full-time employees: 60.
Reach: 700,000 households/1.5 million viewers weekly from the Keys to St. Lucie County.
Annual operating budget: $12 million-$13 million, 75 percent of which is devoted to producing local content, acquiring films, licensing programming, community events and outreach.
Membership: Base of nearly 25,000, as well as individual donors, corporations and foundations.
Platforms: TV, cable, online, iOS and Android mobile apps, Kindle, Roku, Apple TV, Xbox, FireTV.
Five top-rated PBS shows: “Masterpiece” (“Downton Abbey,” “Sherlock,” etc.), “Antiques Roadshow,” “Nova,” “Call the Midwife,” “Last Tango in Halifax.”
Five top-rated, locally produced shows: “Changing Seas,” “Issues Reports,” “Check Please, South Florida!,” “art loft,” “¿Que Pasa, U.S.A.?”
Here is a list of some of WPBT2’s best-known shows, in order of years premiered:
1969 “Sesame Street”
1970 “Monty Python’s Flying Circus”
1974 “Masterpiece Theatre” (shortened to “Masterpiece” in 2008)
1975 “The MacNeil/Lehrer Report”
1976 “¿Que Pasa, U.S.A.?”
1976 “Jack Horkheimer: Star Hustler”
1978 “Nightly Business Report”
1979 “Sneak Previews” (with Gene Siskel and Roger Ebert)
1985 “The Benny Hill Show”
1986 “American Masters”
1990 Ken Burns’ “The Civil War”
1991 “Charlie Rose”
1997 “Antiques Roadshow”
2007 “Check, Please! South Florida”
2009 “Changing Seas”
2011 “Downton Abbey”
2011 “Haiti Journal”
2013 “art loft”
2014 “Issues Reports”