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Barry Shapiro Authors, "The WLIW21/WNET Merger: One Year Later"

Feb 1, 2004Corporate Law

One year ago, more than a little attention was focused on the decision of the Boards of Directors of public television stations WNET 13 and WLIW 21 to operate jointly under a common parent, combining resources in what had the potential to be the powerhouse of public television. Fueled by rumor and some less than accurate news reports, viewers were concerned that WLIW would not only lose its character as a cutting edge, creative Long Island based television station, but that it might actually disappear. The Board of WLIW deliberated long and hard over the decision to join forces with WNET and did not take this step lightly, hammering out over many months, an agreement that provided significant benefits to WLIW and guaranteed not only its continued existence but also its growth. We knew that if the affiliation of the two stations worked as planned, the station and its viewers had everything to gain. Happily, one year later, I am pleased to report that, as Bill Baker, WNET’s President promised on more than one occasion, our expectations have been exceeded in every respect. In this time of tight budgets and reduced governmental and corporate support, other not for profit organizations should carefully examine this transaction and consider carefully whether affiliating with organizations with similar missions can allow them to achieve their charitable goals in a manner consistent with the best interests of their constituents.

WLIW today is a far stronger, more stable station than ever before, delivering services to our viewers that were, candidly, beyond our fiscal ability before the affiliation. With WNET’s assistance, we are beginning to give the WLIW broadcasting facility in Plainview a multi-million dollar technological facelift to make it one of the most modern digital studios in the nation, allowing the station to produce and broadcast high definition images bringing our viewers the incredible benefits of this new technology. The efficiencies resulting from the transaction have allowed us to augment our focus on Long Island in ways financially impossible before the transaction. At least four new programs dedicated to Long Island issues have been or will shortly be launched, including Act II with Newsday, Ticket, 21 Forum and Our Long Island. This is in addition to Face Off, our long running and award-winning political commentary, and three 90-minute town hall specials, focusing on critical Long Island issues.

One of the principal objectives of the affiliation with WNET was the opportunity for the stations to share infrastructure and facilities, avoiding unnecessary duplication and saving money that could be better spent on delivering programming to our viewers. These benefits have all been realized. The stations now share a state of the art master control facility in New York, saving WLIW millions of dollars and providing access to broadcast technology unavailable before the affiliation. Administrative offices have been combined for further savings. Fund-raising software, facilities and viewer solicitation are also being shared and coordinated leading to even greater efficiencies. Management has been integrated, with key WLIW personnel assuming senior positions in the new organization. New advertising campaigns to bring WLIW’s programming to the attention of our viewers have been implemented along with greater community outreach. Ratings of the two stations remain at or near the top, and sometimes exceed that, of commercial stations, a true testament to the quality of and demand for our programs.

In many ways, the transaction was a merger of equals. Today, WNET and WLIW are being efficiently co-branded as distinct public television stations serving the tri-state area and producing programming for distribution throughout the PBS system. WNET continues to focus on blockbuster features with both local and national interest. WLIW, in addition, focuses on regional programming, such as its renowned ethnic heritage series. Programming is coordinated between the two stations to maximize viewer accessibility. Members of the WLIW board serve in senior positions on the WNET board and are playing an active, enthusiastic role in shaping the future for both stations.

The affiliation of these two great public television stations was a major step for both organizations. The boards knew that we had a solemn responsibility to act in the best interests of our viewers by making the most efficient use of the resources entrusted to us. The affiliation was a novel approach, applauded by the Corporation for Public Broadcasting and one that has become a model for stations across the country. It has left the two stations, once formidable competitors, as strong allies, combining the resources and talents of the most watched public television station in the nation (WNET) with those of the fourth most watched (WLIW), a station which provided more programs for PBS around the country than any other. Here, for once, two plus two did equal five. Other charities should similarly take a very careful look at what we did and consider whether, in an era of fiscal austerity, they can best serve their constituents and achieve the purpose for which they were created by joining forces with other organizations with similar missions. Our viewers can and should continue to support both stations, resting assured that their dollars are going where they should go—into providing our viewers with a critical alternative to the ever declining quality and bizarre programming of presentation commercial networks.

Barry R. Shapiro, Esq. is Chairman of the Board WLIW21 and Vice Chairman of the Board Thirteen WNET.