If you watch much TV, Channel 1 may have already lured you in. Perhaps you stumbled onto an acoustic performance by a local singer-songwriter. Or maybe it was jock talk about college athletics. Lovers of the arts might have latched on to the colorful discussions of visual and performing arts, while seekers of smarts may have found discussions of local and world affairs unparalleled in this market.
If you have recently discovered UCF TV, you're just one of the growing number of viewers who may be surprised, if somewhat confused. Channel 1 is easy to find, sitting in a primo spot on the Bright House Networks lineup, but the station ID reads "WBCC," the public station broadcast from Brevard Community College in Melbourne. WBCC has held the Channel 1 spot for years, and for years viewers have flipped past that station's stodgy educational coursework and crafting shows.
But all that changed a little more than a year ago, when the University of Central Florida took over Channel 1, without fanfare or fundraising drives, and flooded the airwaves with locally produced shows as well as new-to-this-market syndicated content from PBS and other providers. During roughly the same time period, public television station WMFE — one slot over on Channel 2 — virtually extinguished what was left of its television production department, saying local coverage is prohibitively expensive and expendable (though Lawrence Welk is not?).
So if we're all accustomed to diminishing returns when it comes to public television, how did this new station come along and, in one year, get it right?
The difference between UCF TV and WMFE-TV is not so much about the amount of financial resources as it is about mindset and creative strategy. While the leadership at WMFE-TV has been burying itself in a hole for the last decade, the people behind UCF TV have a plan for creative programming. And they are doing it with a modest $375,000 annual budget. That can't be directly compared with WMFE's $8 million budget, because that money also pays for radio station 90.7-FM, but clearly UCF TV is making do with less and producing more.
The two stations have completely different corporate structures and aren't considered competitors: WMFE-TV is a traditional public station, a nonprofit operating as Community Communications Inc.; UCF TV has grown out of the university and has capitalized on opportunities created by the analog-to-digital conversion.
Still, it's ironic that their respective facilities are located just around the corner from each other. WMFE-TV's cavernous studios on East Colonial Drive near Alafaya Trail echo with emptiness from the string of layoffs. UCF TV's still-under-construction studios in Central Florida Research Park, adjacent to the sprawling campus, are a cramped hive of activity with a sense of energy and enthusiasm in the air.
The strategy for UCF TV was at least five years in the making before its June 2008 debut. Key to the plan was the signal conversion, especially the addition of four subchannels for every station that converted.
In an innovative move that has not yet been duplicated by other stations, but likely will once the word spreads, UCF brokered a deal with then-analog station Channel 68, WBCC, leasing its 68.2 subchannel. The arrangement eliminated the need for UCF TV to file for its own public broadcasting license with the FCC, which likely would have been problematic because of the already existing PBS affiliates: WMFE-TV, WBCC-TV and WDSC-TV, operating out of Daytona State College. By aligning with WBCC-TV, UCF TV instantly received the benefits of being a PBS member, allowing it to broadcast syndicated content. But that wasn't all they were after.
"We are a young, vibrant, entrepreneurial, dynamic university, so we wanted the look of the channel to reflect that," says Richard Payne, assistant vice president of strategy, marketing, communications and admissions, who oversees the programming and operations at UCF TV.
UCF TV started as an obscure station that could only be found if you had a digital converter that could lock onto 68.2. Then, in September 2008, the university's business partnership with Bright House Networks led to a fortuitous gift: UCF TV got the Channel 1 position on Bright House's cable lineup. That meant that instantly UCF TV was available to more than 925,000 Bright House customers in Orange, Seminole, Osceola, Brevard, Volusia, Flagler, Marion, Sumter and Lake counties. The Orlando area ranks No. 19 in the country's top 100 TV markets, so that's a lot of exposure in exchange for a handshake.
The exact nature of the business relationship between UCF and Bright House is proprietary information, according to Bright House spokeswoman Sara R. Brady, except for the naming rights they purchased for the UCF stadium for $15 million and a 15-year contract, and the fact that they operate a retail store/lounge on campus. Michel L. Champagne, vice president of operations and general manager of Bright House Networks Central Florida division, says his company has no strings to UCF TV, other than letting them take over Channel 1.
"It's just a matter of supporting the local university, its alumni and the residents of Central Florida," Champagne says. "`UCF TV` does a good job of doing the programming, and we just wanted to support them. We don't have any plan to expand … that's the extent of our involvement." (He does say that he watches the two coaches' shows on the station, the George O'Leary Show and UCF Sports Today Basketball with Kirk Speraw, both produced on the campus.)
No research has been done to see who is watching what -— the station can't afford a Nielsen study -— but Payne says anecdotal evidence indicates people are tuning in. If a time slot changes, he says, they get phone calls.
There's another critical distinction about UCF TV's local programming: They cover only what's happening in their backyard. "There is so much happening here on campus at the moment that we can't get to it all; we don't have the resources to capture it all," Payne says. So for now, the school's own activities, from the football field to the new college of medicine, and the hundreds of researchers, writers, musicians and athletes on the faculty and in the student body are the source material.
Just a short walk from Payne's office in the SMCA enclave in Central Florida Research Park, tucked deeper into the complex, is the actual television studio. It's still under construction but houses three full-time staffers — Jerry Klein, Ed Heiland and William Dotson — as well as several hourly employees and interns. It's a small team and they each do a variety of jobs, because they have to and because their personal histories bring different strengths to the station.
What Klein, Heiland and Dotson have in common is that they are veterans of broadcasting. The experience they bring to the table is significant and explains how so much can be accomplished by such a small team. They have seen the demise of reporting on TV and are at UCF TV because they believe in what they do.
On his Twitter profile, executive producer and reporter Heiland, 56, describes himself as "an evolving journalist with a passion for integrating the tried with the new." He was a reporter for WESH-TV (Channel 2) for 16 years, covering the science and medical beat before he moved to a small market in Iowa and learned the production side of television news. In three years there, Heiland says he could "see some of the evolution in the news business and was very unhappy with what I saw as a demise in news on television."
When he realized that the news world wasn't going in the direction he wanted to go, he decided to move back to Orlando and get involved with UCF TV. "There was so much going on, and it was so positive, I decided that it looked like the kind of environment I wanted to work in; there were so many stories to tell." He's been at the station for five years now and is the executive producer of two shows: Money Talk$, hosted by UCF financial whiz Sean Snaith, and Zenith.
Heiland is also the host of Zenith, which explores the university's advancements in science, research and technology by interviewing the faculty and staff. "Richard `Payne` is emphatic that we have to reflect what is happening now," he says. And one of Heiland's personal satisfactions has been to report on the evolution of the College of Medicine, "from the time Lake Nona came up with the property to the time of construction." For a reporter today, he says, it's unusual to be able to be there at the beginning and see a project all the way through, "but we've been able to follow every step."
Dotson, 42, is the programming guru. "Bill's been here since March 2004 and he's really been the glue for everything," says Payne. "He's done a fabulous job, a super job, and a lot of the credit for the station's transition goes to Bill."
Dotson worked at Fox 35 and says he grew up watching an independent station in Fort Wayne, Ind., where a huge antenna outside his home brought in shows like Superman and Leave It to Beaver. "And I thought that was so cool," he says. "I always liked the idea of the independent, and that was before Fox. I like the idea of local control, someone making local decisions. You know your market when you are a part of the community."
As part of his daily duties, Dotson handles programming and traffic. He makes the weekly program schedule, so the station knows what it's supposed to play. "Every second has to be accounted for," he says.
"I think we are innovators with the type of programming that we are doing and the concept of having a university channel themed around our university. It just invites our UCF community to watch, and then it reaches out and becomes our Orlando community, and I think that is an awesome concept. I think other universities will be looking at us."
Klein, 62, completes the staff trio and also has a history with WESH-TV, where he was the assigning manager until 1995. He did some work with WBCC-TV and then moved into media relations at UCF for several years, before "the people from WBCC came to the university and said, ‘Do you want to lease a subchannel from us?' I rounded up the people who knew about TV and eventually things evolved to the point where I was able to do some shows."
One of his first shows still endures. "Faculty Lounge is really unique," Klein says. "We take faculty from different disciplines — like molecular science and biological science — and put them in a stylized setting, as if they were in a lounge, if they had a faculty lounge, and we let them talk to each other and we join the conversation in the process." He says it gets two people who don't know each other's fields to talk to one another.
The goal here, and with other long-form programs that Klein produces, is to give more time for the faculty to talk in detail about what they do and to get to know them as people. "It becomes clear that they have great stories to tell and care greatly about what they do here, both teaching and research."
Klein doubts there are large numbers of viewers jumping from reality shows on the networks to his station. But, he says, UCF TV attracts people who are "looking for idea TV, looking for more issues, to hear experts that come in and talk with people." And for a career newsman, that's a gratifying prospect.
The people responsible for UCF TV dream of bigger budgets, better sets and higher production values. But for now, the budget has been cut by $100,000 a year to $375,000.
Payne doesn't plan for UCF TV to be a competitor to the other PBS affiliates in the market. In fact, he and Dotson look for syndicated shows that are not carried elsewhere, that appeal to a younger generation and are representative of UCF's reputation for technology and entrepreneurial spirit. For instance, Make is carried on UCF TV, a television version of the magazine of the same name. The show, which debuted earlier in the year, is described on its website as "the DIY series for a new generation! It celebrates ‘Makers' — the inventors, artists, geeks and just plain everyday folks who mix new and old technology to create new-fangled marvels."
Also on the schedule is Theater Talk, produced in New York; that's what brought Henry Maldonado into the fold.
"`UCF TV` is catching my attention," says Maldonado, 60. The former WKMG-TV (Channel 6) general manager retired in March after seven years at the local station, but his roots go back to the early days of PBS in Chicago. As of Sept. 11, he became the president of the nonprofit Enzian Theater in Maitland, which complements his goal to make documentary films.
"UCF has come through some tight budget constrictions — they are all under the same thumb. But when you've got the freedom not to have to produce expensive television, you can concentrate on content and not necessarily the pyrotechnics of it."
Maldonado feels that public television in general got hooked on high production values that become too expensive to maintain, sucking away resources that could be put to more efficient use.
"So what you've got now is that the managers of public stations almost think like commercial television stations, and they are looking for the ratings and for the hits. … In some ways UCF TV is free of the necessity to give me fireworks, and I tune into it because I am lured by the intelligence of the content," he explains.
Perhaps one of the smartest shows being locally produced is Global Perspectives, which is titled after the department of the same name that's directed by John C. Bersia. Bersia, a journalist formerly with the Orlando Sentinel, won a Pulitzer Prize in 2000 for his investigation into Florida's predatory lending practices. His reputation and network are bringing speakers of national renown to the campus, whose talks are then taped and broadcast. Recent lectures include Abdul Kalam, the former president of India, who spoke on Oct. 22, and Ron Soodalter, abolitionist and co-author of The Slave Next Door: Human Trafficking and Slavery in America Today, who spoke Nov. 16. As with all locally produced programming on UCF TV, you can go directly online (www.ucftv.ucf.edu) and watch the archived productions.
Smart content without bells and whistles is what you get on Channel 1, along with a lot of promotion for UCF events and services. And it's not for everyone. In fact, for many the thought of listening to a couple of theater geeks discussing the quirks and characters of playwright Harold Pinter sounds ghastly. For everyone else, there's a new station in town.
Ten recommended entry points to UCF TV. See the station's website, www.ucftv.ucf.edu, for schedules.
1 The Gallery (local)
Focused on the arts. Told by the artists.
2 Acoustic Spotlight (local)
Musical flavors, acoustic setting.
3 Global Perspectives (local)
Simple and smart. Exploring global issues because we should.
4UCF Performs (local)
Symphonies. Recitals. Concerts.
Documents the development of 12 inventions and the stories of the people who invented them.
6 UCF SportsKnight (local)
All UCF sports.
7 Money Talk$ (local)
Sean Snaith's economic news you can use.
Tech cool meets craft ingenuity.
9 Roadtrip Nation
What do you want to do with your life?
10 Biz Kid$
Kids teach kids about business.