Endangered: 'Outdoor Idaho'

Eric Barker
February 18, 2010
Lewiston Morning Tribune

"Outdoor Idaho," the show known for beautiful photography, eloquent writing and profiles of the real people who live and play in the wilds of the Gem State, will be harder to find if Gov. C.L. (Butch) Otter's proposal to defund Idaho Public Television becomes a reality.

The half-hour show is one of the most popular produced at Idaho Public TV. But without state funding for the station, fewer episodes per year will be produced and fewer people will be able to watch them as the channel goes dark in many of the rural sections of Idaho.

"Currently, 'Outdoor Idaho' produces nine new programs," said Peter Morrill, general manager of Idaho Public TV. "We are estimating - based on what we understand to be the economic model of the proposal - being able to sustain hopefully four maybe five new episodes per year."

Those who don't live in the Treasure Valley or other semi-metropolitan areas of the state like Lewiston might lose access to the show altogether. Morrill explained if the state stops funding public television, a much smaller budget will force a layoff of as many as a third of the station's employees and curtailment of investment in equipment and maintenance.

As a result, some of the transmitters that beam the signal to surrounding areas and the translators that pick up the signal and bump it around the state will slip into disrepair. That means if you live in places like Potlatch, Grangeville and perhaps even Moscow, you will likely lose the Idaho Public Television signal.

Otter has proposed ramping down state funding for public television. After four years the network would have to rely mostly on private funds from viewers and corporate donors to stay on the air. Under a market-driven model, markets will determine where public television will stay on the air.

Morrill said the staff of the station would be forced to spend most of its time and energy maintaining and investing in equipment that sends the signal to the most populated sections of the state, where most of the private money comes from. Rural areas, where the population base is smaller, would lose out.

"If this proposal is embraced, those areas absolutely will be impacted," he said. "We operate 42 translators statewide and, under what we believe is a market-driven television service, 41 of the 42, over time, would be allowed to operate until they fail. Over the course of probably a year of no maintenance, these systems are going to malfunction and stop operating and we will not be able to repair them and return them to a functioning state."

Although the operating budget for the entire agency would be reduced, Morrill and the show's host and executive producer, Bruce Reichert, hope "Outdoor Idaho" would continue to produce the same quality of shows and cover the state from north to south and east to west as it does now.

"Based on our modeling, we are assuming the program would be given resources to continue to be 'Outdoor Idaho' as opposed to 'Outdoor Treasure Valley.' We would endeavor to give it the resources to go where the stories are, as opposed to saying we can't go farther than McCall," Morrill said.

It will be a shame if some people can't view the show or the station's other offerings, Reichert said, adding they try to make Idaho a smaller place by educating viewers about the state's diversity of terrain, people, economies and issues.

"We joke that Idaho has three capitals: Boise, Spokane and Salt Lake City. But it really does get at the challenges Idahoans face. We don't all think alike, we sometimes don't even frame the issues the same way. By exploring some of the state's big-ticket issues in depth, maybe we can help shed a light on what it means to be an Idahoan," he said. "Our geology and geography is so different. If Idaho were a small, square state I'm not sure there would need to be an 'Outdoor Idaho.' But Idaho is a big, broad state and because of that I think 'Outdoor Idaho' is an asset to this state."

With IDPTV dependent on raising donations under Otter's proposal, Morrill said he is hopeful but not optimistic that there is enough additional money out there to stay afloat.

"The idea that private contributions are suddenly going to be forthcoming for the large maintenance bill for a lot of our rural systems, I don't believe that is a realistic expectation. I think it's going to be very challenging."

IDPTV already outperforms its peers - other rural statewide public television stations - when it comes to private contributions, and Morrill said the recession isn't making fundraising easier.

On a positive note, Morrill said viewers in the Lewiston-Clarkson Valley will likely continue to receive a signal if the proposal is adopted.

"One translator we believe can continue to operate is the Lewiston transmitter. Lewiston has the fifth-largest population. We feel comfortable that is a sufficient population base that could voluntarily contribute money."

He is less sure the transmitter in Moscow will pencil out.

"It's a pretty little population base and I'm not sure the private support would be sufficient to allow it to be self-sustainable."

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Barker may be contacted at ebarker@lmtribune.com or at (208) 848-2273.


Originally posted at http://www.lmtribune.com/story/outdoors/504208/

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