NJ Divests State Broadcasting Network

My colleague Leonard Gilroy recently included New Jersey’s plan to privatize New Jersey Network (NJN), the state’s publicly owned and operated broadcasting network, in his Friday Privatization News Highlights (6/17/2011 edition.) The Star-Ledger reports today the Garden State is finally concluding the NJN divestiture effort after a last minute effort by the state Senate to thwart the agreement failed.

[For those unfamiliar, this conversation began in earnest last December when Governor Chris Christie signed the New Jersey Public Broadcasting System Transfer Act (A3604) into law. For more context, see my previous post on A3604 here.]

State Treasurer Andrew Sidamon-Eristoff negotiated the five-year contract with WNET, a flagship PBS station based in New York, after considering at least four other applications. WNET created a subsidiary division called Public Media NJ that assumes network operations on Friday under the name NJTV. The deal with WNET will save New Jersey taxpayers approximately $11 million a year, according to the state Department of Treasury. Under the new contract Public Media NJ must produce a nightly news show, cover state and local elections and report on the ongoing political dialogue in Trenton and across New Jersey. Neil Shapiro, president of WNET, recently explained that Public Media NJ will air more national PBS offerings, provide WNET programming, increase children’s programming and offer a “dramatically improved” website.

The Star-Ledger also reports, “[Sidamon-Eristoff] negotiated contracts for the out-right sale of (New Jersey’s) nine public radio licenses. Those deals, with WHYY in Philadelphia and New York Public Radio, operator of WNYC and WQXR, did not generate opposition and are expected to be signed tomorrow.”

Some state lawmakers and U.S. Senator Frank Lautenberg (D-NJ), who is a member of the committee that provides funding to the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, have criticized the agreement despite the millions in savings realized for New Jersey taxpayers. In fact, Sen. Lautenberg recently asked the head of Federal Communications Commission to look into the deal.

Gov. Christie explains the divestiture agreement saying, “(The state needs) to have robust New Jersey public broadcasting, but (they) need to have it in a way that is not continuing to cost the state taxpayers and can be perceived as truly independent from state government.”

At the end of the day, it’s difficult to justify state owned and operated broadcasting services in a time of fiscal crisis, and moves like this allow the state to simultaneously maintain quality public service delivery and cut spending.