When PBS unveiled its fall slate of primetime programs during its recent conference in Miami Beach, Fla., in May, many of the featured titles were notably missing one thing: presenting or producing stations that typically help shepherd series through the PBS editorial process.
While PBS has always purchased some national programs directly from producers, the volume of such acquisitions appears to be growing, in part because PBS’s program budget has been bolstered by ancillary revenues from its latest hit program Downton Abbey.
The windfall is a boon to both PBS and its member stations, but some of those who have financial stakes in public TV production question PBS’s strategy of taking a more active role in production.
In Miami Beach, Chief Programming Executive Beth Hoppe spoke of efforts to take “greater control of our pipeline and our fate.” The narrative accompanying PBS’s fiscal year 2014 budget proposal also described plans to continue to “strengthen core primetime series while experimenting with more efficient production models” and to tap new producers for shows that freshen the schedule.
Many public TV insiders said they understand that these activities support Hoppe’s goal of bringing more coherence to the national schedule. Yet they also cause worry because they test the limits of PBS’s traditional role as a distributor.
In recent months, members of Hoppe’s programming staff have told several independent producers that PBS prefers to work directly with them to bring their programs to air, rather than involving producing or presenting stations, according to several station and programming executives, each of whom requested anonymity to speak frankly. The arrangement gives PBS more influence in shaping programs and ensures that more money can be invested in raising overall production values. Each of the executives independently described what they had been told by producers who had met with PBS programmers.
If PBS pursues a more active role in production, the shift could undercut producing stations’ ability to participate in high-profile projects, the station execs said. And if the volume of productions going to PBS grows substantially, the change could eventually destabilize the business model for public TV production, said a senior executive from a producing station.
“It really is like PBS trying to act more and more like a cable distributor or network without seeming to have had the vital discussion around the relationship” with the producing stations, said the executive, who worries that the station infrastructure supporting the development of high-quality shows will crumble if PBS pursues this “end run.”
Hoppe and PBS President Paula Kerger denied that PBS is trying to cut producing stations out of their longstanding role.
“I would never encourage producers not to work with a station,” Hoppe said, refuting claims that PBS programmers are explicitly advising producers to work directly with them. “The stations are our clients. We wouldn’t want to cut them out of the process.”
PBS recently played the role of matchmaker, Hoppe said, by bringing New York’s WNET in as producing station on the special TED Talks Education.
Kerger also denied that any change is in the air. “The presenting-station concept is key to our system,” she wrote in an email. “It ensures that our programming includes a wide array of viewpoints and perspectives.”
Hoppe began her career as a producer, working at Boston’s WGBH, WNET and in independent production. She left to work at Discovery Studios, returning in 2011 as a deputy chief programmer. She was promoted to chief programmer last December after programs that she brought to the network — including Steve Jobs: One Last Thing and Call the Midwife — proved popular with both viewers and stations.
Primetime programs coming to PBS next season without a station partner range from Last Tango in Halifax, a British drama for Sunday night that needs little more than editing, to new shows that are being developed from scratch, including the American drama Alta California, which is still at script stage. Among the limited-run series on tap are Wes Moore’s Coming Back and Genealogy Roadshow.
Last season’s titles that came direct to PBS included the limited-run Sunday night Brit imports Call the Midwife and The Bletchley Circle, the Steve Jobs film and two films that aired as part of After Newtown, a special week of programming that Hoppe instigated shortly after her promotion as chief programmer. Hoppe won praise from stations for moving swiftly on the latter projects.
Power of the purse
Hoppe has been able to add more programming as chief programmer partly because she has more money to spend. Thanks in part to ancillary revenues earned from Downton Abbey DVD and streaming sales, PBS is investing $11 million more in new programs for this coming season. Hoppe has directed much of the money to series produced by stations, especially the icon strands, ordering extra episodes of WGBH’s Antiques Roadshow and Nova, and an additional six-part miniseries from WNET’s Nature.
Her spending decisions are sitting well with at least one station-based production exec. “I’d be the first to say I was concerned if PBS were to shrink established series in order to do more direct producing, but I don’t think it is happening,” said Stephen Segaller, programming v.p. at WNET.
For Hoppe, PBS’s direct engagement with producers isn’t new. “PBS doing programs directly with producers has been part of our history for a really long time,” she said, noting that many shows simply don’t need the editorial oversight of a station. If station execs perceive an increase in the volume of direct-to-PBS productions, she said, the change reflects the increase in new PBS content overall.
Some station execs who challenge Hoppe’s approach question whether PBS has the authority to engage so extensively in production. The PBS Editorial Guidelines state that “PBS does not itself produce any television Program Content. Instead, Program Content and often other content distributed by PBS is produced by people who are not employed by PBS.
An explicit prohibition on PBS’s involvement in production was written into its 1969 charter, which states that PBS “shall not engage in the production of broad cast [sic] programs.”
Has PBS given its programmers too much leeway to become involved in production?
“It’s in a gray area,” said one executive at a producing station.
“Stations send money to PBS, which acts as a clearinghouse and amalgamator of funds to produce programs,” said another executive. “The idea always was and has been that by and large the money would go back to stations to produce programs.”
Beyond PBS programmers’ more active role in managing the production pipeline, Hoppe’s team has also asserted more editorial control over programs, executives said.
“They’ve shown interest in getting far more involved in the sorts of details that producers have traditionally been involved in,” said Steve Bass, president of Oregon Public Broadcasting, from requesting a consistent videographer on every show to discussing incidental music. Hoppe’s ideas are generally good, he said, adding, “I think the lines between helping and guiding and providing input and making actual decisions becomes thin.”
Independent producers have also noticed a shift. “The main change from my point of view is a desire on the part of PBS to get involved much earlier in the producing process than they previously were,” said Michael Schwarz, founder of Kikim Media, which has three major projects in the pipeline, all coming through KQED in San Francisco.
In the past, Schwarz said, his company would send nearly completed programs to PBS for review. But more recently, “I’ve shown rough cuts that I wouldn’t have shown before and gotten feedback that I wouldn’t have before. That can be valuable.”
At the same time, Schwarz said he values the role of presenting stations, which smooth the way for wide carriage and bring another critical editorial eye to a project.
When PBS takes a production in-house, it can save the 6 percent to 30 percent of a show’s budget that presenting stations generally charge to cover costs associated with fundraising, editorial fact-checking, clearance, publicity and outreach efforts. Stations also assume the risk if a proposed project doesn’t raise enough funding to cover costs. If PBS has to hire freelance consultants or extra staff to handle those functions — money that will come from station dues — the savings that PBS expects may prove to be a “false economy,” said one executive.
“We add a lot of value,” said Bass. He questioned whether PBS has the capacity to handle all the work associated with bringing a program to completion, noting, “It’s not a platoon of executive producers and others that they have on staff to do this.” Bass worries that PBS will, as a result, acquire only “the easy stuff,” particularly British drama, that doesn’t need much oversight. “We have to be investing in our own production capability, and that takes resources.”
Hoppe, while insisting that PBS is “staffed up here to shepherd projects through,” said PBS is not adopting a cable model. “What we are able to do at PBS is look at the whole schedule very broadly; it gives us a perspective no individual producer has.”