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The Florida Channel Faces Deep Budget Cuts

Amid a legislative session marked by leaders touting transparency, the Florida Channel, the Capitol’s eyes and ears for many Floridians, is on the chopping block, again.

The broadcasting service which covers everything from gavel-to-gavel floor sessions to obscure committee hearings, faces as much as a 10 percent cut in its almost $3 million budget – the third straight year of reductions that have already eliminated one-quarter of its staff.

“The demand for what we do is not shrinking,” Beth Switzer, the Florida Channel’s executive director, said Tuesday. “But it’s getting harder to do what we do with less and less.”

Switzer acknowledged that she occasionally hears complaints from lobbyists or legislators – among the channel’s most regular viewers – who wonder why a particular committee wasn’t broadcast or available via digital stream. The answer is simple.

“When you don’t have the staff, there’s a whole lot of meetings we’re just not able to show,” Switzer said.

The Florida Channel last year broadcast as many as 35 events daily, including those shown live, recorded or streamed digitally, and counted among them committee hearings, news conferences, floor sessions and other meetings at the Capitol and around the state.

But after absorbing the loss of another five staff members, this year’s session lineup has been reduced to between 20 and 25 events, she said. While the station had 52 staffers three years ago, that roster is now down to 38 videographers, engineers, directors and other positions.

Another round of cuts is likely this spring for the Florida Channel, which is an arm of WFSU-TV and independent of the Legislature. While the House in its education budget – which covers the Florida Channel and public broadcasting outlets – is recommending a $300,000 funding reduction, the Senate would trim $73,610 from the channel’s operations, a reduction of just under 4 percent.

Both chambers have recommended rolling-back equipment funding by $25,000 for the station, housed on the Capitol’s ninth floor. Switzer said staff at the channel have become adept at working within a tightening budget – creating their own “green screen,” with paint and leftover wallboard, at a fraction of the cost of buying the background used to project images.

“I’d hate to see them lose a lot,” said Carl Adams, president of the Florida Association of Professional Lobbyists. “Some of the larger lobbying firms with a lot of clients use the Florida Channel to monitor a committee every now and then.

“But I would think the legislators would want to maintain the programming, because the channel runs those bios and interviews with them. Legislators have more at stake than anybody, because you can’t buy that kind of advertising,” Adams said.

State law prohibits Florida Channel video from being used for political or commercial purposes. But lawmakers do get plenty of face time on the channel – for better or worse.

House budget chief David Rivera, R-Miami, acknowledged that cutting the Legislature’s main broadcast service is an irony at a time House Speaker Larry Cretul, R-Ocala, and Senate President Jeff Atwater, R-North Palm Beach, have taken steps to open the Legislature’s budget process to more scrutiny by making more spending documents available online and requiring that offers and counter-offers between the two sides be made public.

But Rivera said he didn’t want to say anything about measures that will be subject to upcoming negotiations between House and Senate budget-writers.

“I don’t want to prejudge anything,” Rivera said. “But certainly, the House feels strongly about providing public access to information.”

Florida’s 26 public television and radio stations also are facing budget cuts this spring like the Florida Channel, a third consecutive year that has seen spending reduced by close to 30 percent, according to Janyth Righter, executive director of Florida Public Broadcasting Services, Inc.

“We’re going to get cut – but who isn’t?” Righter said. “But it is important for people to see what’s going on in Florida. And this doesn’t make it any easier.”

A key request for Florida public broadcasters is to receive matching grants for federal funding to allow for new equipment purchases. With public television broadcasters recently switching to high definition digital transmission, the federal dollars are especially needed, Righter said.

The Senate earmarks about $600,000 for the matching grants, while the House would spend $117,000.

“I think everybody sees the value in what we’re doing,” said Switzer, of the Florida Channel. “But these are times that everything and everyone gets cut. But that doesn’t make it any easier.”

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