Puerto Rico’s WIPR: adiós to PBS

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In San Juan, David Reyes hosts WIPR’s newscasts from a blue-screen virtual set. (Photo: WIPR)

The latest station to leave PBS is a production powerhouse, but one not fully integrated into the nation’s English-dominated public TV system.

Puerto Rico TV — WIPR, licensed to Puerto Rico Public Broadcasting Corp., which is controlled by the commonwealth government — dropped its PBS membership July 1.

The station in San Juan sometimes produces up to nine hours of content a day, including public affairs, culture, sports, music, talk and food shows, as well as the island’s only 24/7 news channel, all in Spanish.

It aired only the children’s shows from the PBS lineup, including the limited number with a Spanish SAP (secondary audio program) soundtrack. The station wanted Spanish versions of the rest of the PBS Kids shows. But PBS said it holds only English-language rights to its shows.

The station also was reluctant to continue paying PBS fees of $713,000 a year. “I can do a lot with that much” for local productions, said Pedro Rua, WIPR’s executive v.p. He said WIPR and PBS negotiated for about a year but could not reach an agreement to stay together.

A separate, much smaller station — WMTJ/SiTV, licensed to the private Ana G. Mendez University System — continues as the sole PBS provider on the island.

On the mainland, the system shakeout, aggravated by the recession, has already claimed three other PBS member stations this year. KCET in Los Angeles dropped out Jan. 1, and two Florida stations split from the network as of July 1 — Orlando’s WMFE-TV and Daytona’s WDSC-TV. Other PBS member stations now serve the Los Angeles and Orlando areas.

WIPR’s production ambitions are only rising. In May President Ray Cruz announced a move into drama production. He wants to transform the station into the “premier workshop for local actors.” The station is also completing a mainland distribution deal for its latest project, the Puerto Rico Network channel, according to Rua. It developed a web page in Spanish for autistic children, their parents and their doctors and plans to do the same for Alzheimer’s.

“We’re looking to do as much as we can in the time we’re given,” Rua said, since the commonwealth’s governor appoints WIPR’s board and president every four years, and the new president in turn names his own executive staff. “When you have limited time to implement a plan,” Rua noted, “you tend to do things today.” The current governor, Luis Fortuño, elected by island voters in January 2009, appointed Cruz.

 Spanish-language rights snag

With an annual budget of some $19 million, WIPR has about 196 employees and 150 contractors. Its primary channel is branded Puerto Rico TV. It also packages a news channel, Noticias 24/7; Kids TV; V-Me, pubTV’s Spanish channel imported from New York; and Echo, which airs retro and historic Puerto Rican programming. The radio side operates three channels, including the only all-Spanish jazz station, and jazz in HD.

The children’s TV channel has been “by far” the most successful digital multicast, Rua said, “sometimes with bigger numbers than the primary station.” Commercial stations also carry children’s programming, he said, “but it’s more like, Japanese animation with sword fights — not really appropriate.” Although only 50 percent of island households receive cable or satellite, most others receive DTV broadcasts using set-top converter boxes.

SiTV (for Sistema TV), the other PBS station, carries more than eight hours of PBS Kids on its primary channel. But only 10 percent to 15 percent of that content comes with a Spanish soundtrack — produced for mainland broadcasts over the SAP channel. “It has been an issue in this market, trying to get more Spanish productions,” said Margarita T. Millán, SiTV v.p. and general manager.

Spanish-language versions of PBS Kids programming are available to foreign broadcasters but not to WIPR or SiTV, which are considered U.S. stations for the purposes of program licenses. PBS explained that it has only the English-language broadcast rights for its programs. Discovery Latin America holds Spanish-language rights for many PBS Kids shows.

Rua said the station’s main goal with Kids TV is readying children for school, where they learn both Spanish and English — so the broadcasters want programming in both languages. A U.S. Census study based on 2005–2009 data said 85 percent of residents on the island reported they “did not speak English very well.”

Rua stressed that WIPR would like to return to PBS membership someday. “But [until] we get our relationship straight, we just couldn’t handle the fees.” PBS said part-time member stations where English is the second language can indeed reapply.

In fact, Rua would like WIPR to produce for PBS in Spanish. “There are millions of Puerto Ricans just in the New York City area,” he said. “In most states we have a population of hundreds of thousands — some in the millions. I think it’s the most important ethnic group that is not being tended to.”

PBS said WIPR submitted two production proposals for funding by the CPB/PBS Diversity and Innovation Fund, which received more than 200 submissions, but the programs were not selected.

Their niche: the island

Rua arrived at the station in 2009. Back then, it was TuTV (“Your TV”). “But the station had no marketing position, no identity,” Rua said. “It was primarily a PBS affiliate that broadcast mainly education programming” — very similar to SiTV.

The giant networks Telemundo and Univision dominate commercial TV on the island. “From the moment we came into the station, we knew our success was based on our ability to reflect the local culture of Puerto Rico,” Rua said. They rebranded as Puerto Rico TV and geared up production.

“We have robust production facilities and use them to the maximum,” he said. There’s an HD studio and four standard-definition studios, “and all except one are pretty sizable,” Rua said. One has virtual-set capabilities. Three production units cover many sporting events for WIPR and other stations.

The station provided the news pool feed for President Obama’s recent visit to the island. Its Noticias 24/7 channel — the only all-news channel in American public TV — has a full-time news anchor, two reporters, a sportscaster and five regular freelance reporters.

“All public TV stations are decreasing local programming,” Rua said. “But we identified two years ago that we could be successful in that niche, so we’re growing that.”

Mainland viewers already see some WIPR productions via satellite and cable on HITN (Hispanic Information and Telecommunications Network) and WAPA America. But the station’s “baby,” as Rua calls it, is the new Puerto Rico Network. He says the channel will soon have a mainland distribution deal.

SiTV, the island’s smaller PBS-member station, holds its own in production. Also based in the San Juan area, it has 45 employees and 10 contract workers with a budget of close to $5 million, provided by the university, CPB, grants and donations. It receives no commonwealth funding. After a few ongoing signal adjustments, SiTV’s lineup will reach more than 90 percent of the island over the air, Millán said.

SiTV has developed 23 shows over the past two years, with a heavy emphasis on education. The 13-episode Aventura Científica (Scientific Adventures) was produced in collaboration with the college’s Universidad Metropolitana School of Environmental Affairs and filmed on location, focusing on issues such as recycling and sustainable development. The university’s culinary arts school assists with a food show. Last year the station shot more than 90 hours of college sports.

It also does a weekday 30-minute news show, “but we don’t call it that, because we don’t cover breaking news,” Millán said. “We call it an informational show, and try to stay on the positive side.”

Although the two stations don’t collaborate, they have a cordial relationship. Rua said he’s received several letters from viewers who miss PBS Kids. “And I understand, the programming is excellent,” he said. “I’m happy to send them to WMTJ.”

But Rua is also focused on the future — and working as fast as he can. “Just today I was negotiating additional licenses to broadcast women’s and men’s professional volleyball,” he said. “It’s very popular in Puerto Rico. We’re retaining international rights and will put that on our cable channel as well.”

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