Executive Director, Liz Spencer, provides NCTV17 funding update

Jesus Cortez reporting the news for NCTV17
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“We’re the 4th largest city in the state and there’s a lot going on,” says Kevin Peterson, NCTV17 Board member. “It’s so great to have a resource (NCTV17) that one can go to and find out what matters to you in an unbiased way.”

Founded in 1987 as a 501(c)(3) nonprofit organization, NCTV17 is part of cable television’s PEG (Public, Education, & Government) network. When this cable network began in the U.S., the idea was to provide a local voice on television for municipalities across the country. Since 1987, NCTV17 has produced programming to fulfill the “P&E.” The City of Naperville produces programming for WCNC, its channel dedicated to covering the “G” – primarily city government meetings. In 2008, NCTV17 was asked to help the City manage its control room and technical hub operations for WCNC including staffing all city meetings. It was a natural extension for NCTV17 to lend its expertise in television transmission operations to the City.

Over its 37-year history, NCTV17 has grown from a small public access station primarily run by volunteers to a professionally run organization producing television content daily and distributing it on multiple platforms.

In 2007, as Naperville continued to grow into a key city within the Chicagoland area, NCTV17 began a major shift in how it delivered information to the community. It launched a weekly newscast, Naperville News 17, and a weekly sports show, Naperville Sports Weekly, focused on the local high schools. Both shows met a consumer need that the Chicago networks didn’t fill.

As NCTV17 news producer, Kim Pirc, states, “When news began here at NCTV17 it was a critical service. We had the Chicago stations covering a wide range of topics but not always Naperville-centric. This gave us the chance to hone in on what the concerns of this community were and really address them, share them, and tell them in a compelling and informative way.”

During this same period, as the public began leaning into streaming and digital media to consume their news and sports, NCTV17 led the way by launching its website and livestreaming the channel on NCTV17.org. The station also posted individual news stories and sports highlights on its website, newly launched YouTube channels, and social media accounts. That gave Naperville residents the ability to watch whatever content they wanted, when, and how they wanted it.

NCTV17 continued to innovate its programming as it brought the community together with live sports coverage of the annual Crosstown Classic football game and Naperville Marathon. NCTV17 also invited residents to share in a community-wide documentary of a day in the life of Naperville called “Our Story” to help celebrate the station’s 25th anniversary.

In 2016, NCTV17 recognized the community’s need for more daily news so created an e-news digest, NCTV17 News Update, which delivers the latest Naperville-area news headlines right to residents’ inboxes Monday – Friday.

Little did we know this daily email would prepare NCTV17’s team to pivot immediately when the pandemic began in order to meet the community’s need for hyper-local information. The station went from a weekly newscast to daily news and live breaking news; keeping the community informed about what was happening locally during those frightening times. The station knew it was making an impact as visits to NCTV17’s website quadrupled during that time with almost a quarter million visits per month as residents wanted to know what was happening in Naperville vs. Chicago.

As the viewing public moved away from traditional cable television and began cutting the cord and spending their money and time on the Internet and streaming sources, the funding model of the PEG television network was significantly impacted.

PEG channels receive funding from the cable companies as part of the Federal Cable Act. The local governments receive franchise fees from the cable companies in exchange for using public property to run their cable lines. The City of Naperville receives five percent of the cable television gross revenues for cable television in the Naperville area and one percent is passed through to Naperville’s community television station – NCTV17.

For many years, this funding represented a stable and sustaining revenue stream for the station. However, since 2018 NCTV17 has seen a 22% drop in the PEG franchise money which continues to decline at a steady rate of about 5-10  percent a year as cable customers cut the cord.

NCTV17 leadership recognized the decline and pursued other revenue streams to offset the PEG declines while also trying to keep pace with the growing demands of covering the fourth-largest city in Illinois.

The station offered sponsorships of its programming as well as paid TV appearances. NCTV17 used its expertise in television production and moved it to the private sector to offer video production services; creating and producing anything from gala videos to large-scale sports broadcasts. The station also began offering more digital advertising on its website.

A key source of revenue for those in the nonprofit sector is grants. However, as a news media outlet, NCTV17 most often finds itself on the outside looking in. A majority of grants are for social services and performing arts and NCTV17 is neither.

Instead, the station is a champion for other nonprofits in the community. Lifting up their efforts at no cost through news stories and a yearly appearance on the talk show, Spotlight. This media coverage helps the nonprofits communicate their mission and impact to the community.  The Rotary Club of Naperville has recognized the station’s efforts to support the nonprofit sector and has included NCTV17 in its annual giving. NCTV17 is honored and grateful for their support.

The other grant funding NCTV17 receives is from the City of Naperville’s SECA (Special Events and Community Arts) fund. This funding partially supports the station’s news and community event coverage.

Like many other companies and nonprofits, as the world emerged from the pandemic in 2021, NCTV17 found itself struggling to keep pace financially. With a highly competitive job market and rising inflation impacting everything from rent to salaries, the station saw a direct impact on the bottom line. NCTV17 had been managing its already lean budget over the last three years by cutting investment expenses and reducing staff. In 2019 NCTV17 had 21 FT employees. Today it has 13.5 employees.

In 2022, NCTV17 began looking hard at other revenue sources and launched a breakfast fundraiser, The Morning Show. This traditional philanthropy approach was not something NCTV17 had undertaken in the past and there was no one on staff dedicated to this revenue stream. Yet, with a growing national movement toward nonprofit journalism, NCTV17 knew it needed to look to donors as a new source of income. The first fundraising event was a success and the station has continued it. This is a good start but NCTV17 needs to quickly make headway into individual giving and corporate philanthropy.

This approach is underlined by the station’s belief that free access to news and information is essential to a thriving democracy. All of NCTV17’s content is free to watch and share. None of it sits behind a paywall so everyone, regardless of their ability to pay, has access to a trusted source of information that can empower and connect the community.

This current year is off to a rocky start for the station as two premiere production service clients and sponsors pulled back their dollars due to changes in their own financial situation and marketing strategy. This unexpected loss resulted in a $130,000 negative impact on the 2024 NCTV17 budget.

This loss coupled with inflation has put NCTV17 on its back foot. You may have read recent news coverage of NCTV17 asking its long-term partner, the City of Naperville, for financial assistance. NCTV17 is looking for new investment money to help stabilize the station which is currently significantly understaffed and provide sufficient ramp-up time to build a new revenue line in philanthropy. NCTV17 is looking for a multi-year bridge investment with a step-down process built in to ensure it emerges as a sustainable organization able to service our community well into the future.

This is a hard ask to make. NCTV17 has successfully balanced its budget for over 20 years. However, the last two years of inflation and a tough economy have put increasing pressure on the budget which can no longer be balanced through expense reduction as there are no more expenses to cut. Reaching out to the City of Naperville for support is the responsible move to make as they, too, are part of the PEG network.

NCTV17 has been a vital part of the Naperville community for the last 37 years. The City of Naperville needs a trusted source of local information that empowers and connects the community. As Naperville’s nonprofit TV station NCTV17 is committed to delivering relevant, authentic, community-centered journalism that fosters understanding, promotes civic engagement, and reflects the diversity of the Naperville area.

We hope you will lend your support as we go through this difficult time and emerge stronger and better able to serve the residents of Naperville – Liz Spencer