Salt Lake City-based television producer Chad Booth is the first to acknowledge that his weekly program “County Seat” doesn’t make for the flashiest TV. Episodes typically take a 30-minute dive into issues facing local governments in Utah, and they often get into the minutiae of policy, especially as it affects rural areas.
“It’s not sexy TV,” Booth said. “I mean, when you sit and talk about centrally assessed taxes for 30 minutes, there are going to be a lot of people who just aren’t interested. But it’s still a conversation that needs to happen.”
Despite its relativity niche audience, “County Seat,” which nets somewhere around 85,000 viewers weekly, has managed to stay on air with several Utah television stations and online for a decade, thanks to its unusual funding model: taxpayer support.
County governments have been the main sponsors, spending millions of dollars over the years to keep “County Seat” running in exchange for more coverage of local issues — taxes, roads, rights of way, mining, drilling and a host of other topics — which are often presented from a conservative viewpoint.
In his sponsorship pitch, Booth emphasizes the educational value of the program’s YouTube archive and its ability to reach decision-makers, noting, for example, that state Sen. Ralph Okerlund, R-Monroe, chairman of the Senate Natural Resources, Agriculture, and Environment Committee, often starts meetings with the question, “Did you see the ‘County Seat?‘”
But county support has been waning recently, according to presentations Booth made before numerous rural county commissions over the past few months. At its height, 24 of Utah’s 29 counties supported “County Seat,” Booth said, but half a dozen have dropped their sponsorships, and funding for the program could run out as soon as September, a trend not helped by pandemic-strained local budgets.
Booth, whose company is based in Cottonwood Heights, isn’t shy about evoking partisan leanings in his presentations to mostly Republican-controlled county governments. “I always am happy to get out of Salt Lake away from all of those BLM [Black Lives Matter] lawn signs — of course my hackles get up when I see that because I think of Bureau of Land Management, but that’s not what those signs stand for — and get out here in Trump Country,” he told the Iron County Commission in July.
Booth went on to argue that allowing the show to lapse now, when former Vice President Joe Biden is leading the polls, would be a mistake for Utah counties.
“What triggered this [program] was a hostile administration in Washington that was very unfavorable to the rural parts of America,” Booth said of the show’s origins during the first term of President Barack Obama, “and a lot of the actions of [then-] Gov. [Jon] Huntsman, i.e. his promotion of wildlands designations and some of the other things that really stood to damage or hurt rural Utah.
“I find it funny we come 10 years down the road and we’re looking at exactly the same situation,” Booth added, referencing a rumored Huntsman write-in campaign for governor.
It takes around $14,000 to produce an episode of “County Seat,” meaning the weekly show can cost more than $720,000 per year. (Booth said that a television station would charge about three times as much per episode, and that it would come with more editorial restrictions.)
Sponsorship levels vary among counties, with 950-person Daggett County paying $6,500 per year. Booth told the Garfield County Commission on Aug. 10 that he expects a $48,000 sponsorship from Kane and Tooele counties, and $22,000 from smaller Rich County. Private companies such as the engineering firm Jones & DeMille (Okerlund’s former employer) have also supported the program over the years.
San Juan County, which has the lowest per capita income and highest property tax rate in Utah, agreed to contribute $33,000 for the 2020 season of “County Seat.”
San Juan County had not yet committed to sponsoring the 2021 season of the show, but Commissioner Bruce Adams, a Republican from Monticello, said he will be urging his Democratic colleagues to renew support.
Adams said that when he was first elected as commissioner in 2004, people would often ask him what the job entailed. “I thought, holy smokes — as many people as that have asked me that question — people have no idea what counties do and what county commissioners do,” Adams recalled.
“I saw an opportunity for ‘County Seat’ to tell people what county commissioners do, why they do what they do, how they go about taxing people and spending tax money and the various departments in the county compared to municipalities,” he continued. “‘County Seat’ was trying to tell that story time and time and time and time again.”
But Adams said perhaps the show’s most important function is communicating information and priorities from rural counties to state lawmakers, citing a recent episode on poor road conditions and treacherous bus routes on the Navajo Nation featuring San Juan County Commissioner Kenneth Maryboy.
Not every county leader has seen value in expending public resources on the program, however. Aimee Winder Newton, a Republican member of the Salt Lake County Council, said Utah’s largest county by population pulled the $12,000 it was paying annually to support the program several years ago.
“The council cut it from the budget because we felt the reach wasn’t high enough to warrant the spend,” Winder Newton said.
“I think the show is a good one,” she added. “It just was hard to justify using taxpayer dollars for it. When we are taking taxpayer dollars away from critical services like mental health or public safety, a TV show is hard to justify.”
“County Seat” is not the only initiative of KirMag Inc. and Chadwick Booth & Co., the business entities behind the program, that receives support from public sources.
Last year, Booth entered into an agreement with the Utah State Parks Off-Highway Vehicle Program to map ATV trails across the state using a 360-degree camera that allows users to virtually visit trails in a format similar to Google Street View.
Booth’s company is working to map 50 to 60 trails per year for three years and hosting the 360-degree photos on the website Outsiders.Zone. The website is associated with Booth’s most popular TV program, “At Your Leisure,” which covers family outdoor recreation activities with a focus on ATV riding and RV camping.
To participate in the trail mapping program, counties apply for grants of around $10,000 through the state’s off-highway program, which is funded from OHV registration fees, and the grants are used to hire KirMag to photograph the trail system and compile information for visitors.
“It’s a great, great product and a wonderful service for our OHV enthusiasts and our OHV community across the state and those coming in and visiting from outside the state as well,” said Chris Haller, the state’s OHV program coordinator.
Haller said the program allows users to visually explore parking areas, turnarounds and difficult parts of the trail from their computer or phone before deciding whether to head out on a ride. He added the state parks would not be able to fund the program without private support, which comes in part from a travel plaza company and a Utah OHV dealer.
The public-private partnership allows the program’s budget to go further than a fully state-run program, Haller said. “That’s how we try to maximize the overall opportunity. This is state of the art. There is no other state, I believe, in the country that’s doing something like this.”
Booth called the arrangement with the state a “rather lucrative deal,” but he said he’s been diverting profits from the trail mapping project to keep “County Seat” afloat.
According to the state’s transparency website, Utah counties and the state government have paid Booth’s companies at least $3.8 million since 2014 for a number of projects, including the trail mapping program and “County Seat,” though the available data is incomplete and the total amount is likely higher.
An uncertain future
Booth said he’s asking for commitments from counties early this year to fund “County Seat” because he wants to know if it will be possible to keep it on the air for another season. He joked that it would probably be better for his company’s bottom line if he shut it down, but he said he believes in its mission, which is why he put $175,000 from other projects into “County Seat” over the past two years.
“If Washington fails you, it’s the local government that is still there and still keeps communities together,” Booth said. “And people need to understand what the challenges are that face local government and how it works, because it is the only one that they can really rely on.”
For 2021, Booth hopes to expand the function of “County Seat” as a public relations firm by offering to provide sponsoring counties a “virtual public information officer” service that would write news releases and field media questions for county governments.
But most of all, Booth said, he hopes he can keep shining a light on issues that are of importance to local leaders.
“When you have counties that go badly awry, it’s because nobody is paying attention,” he said. “When you get the communities to pay attention, the counties and their governments will be more obligated to properly discharge their duties.”
Correction: 5 p.m. Aug. 24, 2020. The website were the 360-degree photos of ATV trails is Outsiders.Zone.