A station CEO on the struggle to find public TV’s “driving force”

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Just as podcasts are disrupting public radio’s old-school distribution models, the growth of over-the-top platforms in television and video viewing is prompting stations to rethink their futures. After our own podcast The Pub explored the changing NPR-station relationship, host Adam Ragusea posed similar questions to leaders at three public TV stations. What’s the point of a local intermediary if viewers can get what they want on demand, and straight from the source? Steve Bass, c.e.o. of joint licensee Oregon Public Broadcasting, began by discussing the threat the arrival of cable television posed to public TV.

Bass

Bass

Steve Bass: What happened in the ’80s was at first it became a really great way to add viewers, because people got better signals than they did with rabbit ears. So that was a real boon. Then what happened as the digital compression technology came in and things like HBO got invented, it spawned a whole new set of competitors. And actually there’s a little-known thing that — I’ve been around now in this business for 35 years — that at one point PBS was trying to buy The Learning Channel before it was bought by Discovery. And the system kind of turned on them and said, “Thou shalt not do that. Thou shalt not compete with the stations.” And the rest is history, shall we say.

Adam Ragusea, Current: That raises a couple of interesting things. One, the distinction between PBS and NPR, which is that NPR creates its own content, and has always created its own content, and thus has arguably been in some measure of competition with stations for its entire existence, whereas PBS produces absolutely nothing.

Bass: That’s correct.

Current: And maybe that’s what makes the relationship a bit smoother. The other thing that it raises about PBS trying to buy The Learning Channel, it seems to me that as I look at the history of public television, it was things like The Learning Channel that started to cut into public television’s action. Cooking shows, travel, educational stuff, self-help: Those are the things that were solely in public television’s wheelhouse until cable TV got popular in the ’90s.

Bass: Absolutely. I got my start in Madison, Wisconsin, in 1979, and we used to have on Saturday mornings on WHA, as was known then, a whole lineup of old-time TV shows like The Twilight Zone. They were the number one shows in the market. Well, that kind of went on to become, I guess, Nick at Nite.

If you look at where public television was way back, it was a variety service. It spawned the first televising of tennis out of WGBH; I think that was in the ’70s. Julia Child, you could say, was the founder of The Food Channel and the whole food thing on television. But I think the problem is that we maintained ourselves as a variety service and didn’t figure out how to niche ourselves. And what we’ve seen in public radio is that in many markets now you have multiple formats of public radio — news and information, classical, jazz, Triple A — we’re able to serve audiences, but with individual channels. Public television has never really moved off of being a variety service.

Current: There’s multicasting.

Bass: Well, there’s multicasting, but the viewership of those channels is relatively low. And if people think of PBS, what they really think of is the so-called “main channel.” It’s about the NewsHour and Masterpiece and Nova and maybe a local show or two, but those things don’t kind of gel into a theme.

And the other thing in public television, as compared to the relationship with NPR: NPR, you could argue, is now a news organization, and many public radio operations are kind of aligning around that. We have a common mission. In public television, it’s a little less clear. What is the driving force of the enterprise? I think that’s something we’ve been struggling with for years. Clearly, kids are an important part of the service, but if you look at prime time, one might argue now that the driving force is British drama, because it’s been so successful.

Current: So here comes the big question, Steve. As over-the-air or cable television gets less and less popular, loses its primacy, and more and more people start wanting to access public television and all television through on-demand platforms — I show my kid Daniel Tiger’s Neighborhood on Netflix — what is the role for local public television stations that you envision?

Bass: In our case — we’re both a radio and a TV operation — the path forward is a lot clearer. We have here a large and growing news operation — we are in effect driven by journalism here — and we’ve got three very strong local series. TRAC Media just did a study, and you guys just did an article about this with David LeRoy in Current a few weeks ago, but not about this part of it — that 43 percent of our unique audience over a two-month period comes from our three local series, which is pretty amazing.

So when you’ve got that kind of content that is really resonating with people, if that goes off-broadcast, if all a sudden people are watching it on a laptop or a tablet or a phone, or it goes on a streaming thing, I think we’re going to be fine. The more difficult challenge to think of is what happens when people stop watching channels and start watching shows, which is kind of where they already are now. Even with public television, the average viewer watches maybe an hour or an hour and a half a week. And they don’t turn to it as a format; they turn to it because they like Masterpiece or they like Nova or they like Oregon Field Guide.

As we look at these services popping up, I firmly believe that what you’re going to start seeing is programs getting disassociated from networks, and that’s going to have a transformational impact on television in general. We’re already starting to see how Netflix, Amazon and other streaming services are changing the nature of television, and I just don’t see a linear-delivered television service being nearly as vibrant 10 years from now as it is now.

The other problem that public television has is that if you look at others that are operating in the broadcast world, the thing that is driving them more and more is live. It’s live sports — that’s why the NFL packages keep getting bid up and up and up — and it’s award shows. So what’s the PBS version of the live strategy? Haven’t really thought that through yet, but I think it’s something that we really should be paying some attention to.

Current: To the extent that public television and PBS in particular has been doing work in on-demand — with Membership Video on Demand, Passport, all that — they have, like public radio, worked really hard to integrate local-station branding into the users’ experience. Does that ultimately mean anything? Does that help anything? To me, I feel like this is kind of window dressing.

Bass: As they say, it couldn’t hurt, but I think the question is, is it sufficient? And my sense of it is that it isn’t. One of the problems that we have in the PBS world is that the service is largely undifferentiated from market to market. We have lacked almost since our beginning a vibrant local national model such as exists in public radio. And by that I mean, yeah, we get programs from PBS, we put them on the air, but it’s a producer-driven system so we can’t touch them, we can’t edit them. PBS wants us to run them at a certain time — they would love for us to put their branding all over it — but, as a result, what you get is an organized sort of system around the country with very little differentiation from place to place.

The other thing then that you’ve got going on that’s interesting is that some of these programs now are showing up on Amazon and Netflix because we need to get money to produce them by selling off the rights. That puts some interesting conflicts between Passport, which is a good idea, but we have to start thinking, are we going to make more money by selling off the streaming rights to Downton Abbey or Mercy Street — I think those went to Amazon — or are we better off holding onto that and building a more vibrant member-supported video-on-demand service? That’s an unanswered question.

But to your point, Adam, just putting the OPB brand up, locking it next to the PBS brand, is sufficient in terms of developing this as a partnership. What I would love to figure out is how do we deepen the local-national partnership. We’ve had opportunities over the years, and we’ve not been able to do it. I thought for years there would be a great partnership around what was the MacNeil/Lehrer NewsHour, now the PBS NewsHour, but for years folks there did not want local stations to be inserting content into the show. The view was, “This is our show, don’t mess with it.” To the extent that we have a system that is still built on that, we’re going to have a hard time figuring out what that local-national model is going forward.

Current: I will say, Steve, that I did love seeing your people all over the NewsHour during the whole east Oregon standoff story. That was pretty great.

Bass: And they were on the BBC and NPR, and we think that’s good, too. We’re not going to have a national story that the NewsHour is going to be interested in every day, but I can tell you that 10 or 15 years ago, if we had had the opportunity, like we have with Morning Edition, the ability to pop out a segment of a certain length and pop in something that would resonate here locally, I frankly think the journalism ecosystem in public television would be far stronger than it is today. And now I wonder if the opportunity has just been lost.

Current: What’s your most ambitious, most expensive local television production?

Bass: One of them, Oregon Field Guide, has been around for 26 years, and it is an outdoors program that does everything from things that are relatively tame to major expeditions. Today we’ve got a crew out on the coast; they’ve been doing a story about the Columbia River Bar Pilots, and they’ve been out on these little boats approaching these big ships. I’ve seen some of the video, and it’s kind of scary-looking. But that’s not as adventurous as they get; they’ve done things like explore an undiscovered slot canyon in central Oregon, ice caverns up on Mount Hood. It’s very, very ambitious.

Current: That sounds great. I imagined that you could, and probably do, already offer it to your audience on-demand in various ways. But the question is, could you afford to keep making that show if it weren’t in effect subsidized by the popularity of NewsHour and Masterpiece and everything else?

Bass: That’s a really great question, and I think the answer is right now, probably not, in that the monetization from those national programs is important to us. The dilemma we have, though, is when we see that 43 percent of our audience is coming from three programs that take up 10 percent of our prime time, the question for us is, if we’re forced to choose, what would we choose? I hope I don’t have to ever be in that choice, but it does make me wonder — and this is one of the things, working with PBS, that is always kind of frustrating. We buy a whole package of programs from them. There’s no choice; you’re either all in or you’re not in at all.

I do wonder over the long term, is that the best way things can work for us? If we could say, “Well, we’re not really interested in Genealogy Roadshow, for example. Rather not buy that, rather save the money from that and plow it into something else.” Right now we can’t do that, and that lack of that flexibility is going to be a challenge over the long term.

Current: We talk about how the interests of stations and the interests of NPR don’t always align, but they’re kind of stuck with each other because they have these deeply, deeply intertwined business and organizational relationships. What’s it like between television stations and PBS? Could PBS theoretically say, “Screw you guys, we’re going it alone” at some point?

Bass: I don’t think any time soon, and the difference is, by its charter PBS cannot own or operate FCC-licensed broadcast stations …

Current: As though that’s the future.

Bass: … nor can it be involved in the production of broadcast programming. So they don’t own the content, which is going to be a problem, so in the short-term monetization, without kind of being in that business, you’re kind of just a middleman. That explains to me why PBS has been very active in the digital world, which if you can’t own and control television stations, and you can’t create and produce content for broadcast — although I argue that that prohibition isn’t always being followed; witness copyrights for PBS on Mercy Street announcing co-production deals with the BBC — I don’t quite know how you can co-produce something if your articles of incorporation say you can’t produce anything, but I’ll put that aside.

But it does explain where they’re trying to head. Now has that monetization really, really worked? I think there’s a recognition that the critical part for public television, and public radio going forward, is the relationship with viewers and listeners. Clearly, that’s what’s funding our business model here at OPB. We just hit 130,000 contributors, an all-time high, and we’re still growing. The question is, if they went their own way, how would it be funded? Because much of their business model relies on the exhibition of these programs by stations, so there is a symbiosis there. But as broadcasting changes, particularly in television, where that’s headed is anybody’s guess.

Current: Yeah, it’s a symbiosis that’s still based on over-the-air or cable television. And what PBS does have — yeah, they can’t produce anything and arguably don’t produce anything, and they can’t own television stations — but they have phenomenal brand recognition. I could see them going it alone with their own Roku or Apple TV channel where people can get all of these different programs that they’ve been working with for years on-demand, and they could even do their own fundraising through that platform.

Bass: There’s precedent for this, Adam, because about five years ago you might recall that PBS embarked on an online fundraising initiative that had a number of us rather up in arms. It was the depths of the recession, things were not going well, and some bright people at PBS brought in some smart consultants who basically said, “We should really take over the membership business from member stations.”

Current: I did not know this story. So they did a national fundraiser?

Bass: Well, no, they tried, and it was incredibly ill-conceived and not handled very well and bruised a lot of feelings. I think now they’re in a better space, which is they’re trying to figure out how do they use these online tools to build member relationships at the local level. But it didn’t start in the right place, and there’s always been this sense at PBS that maybe life without the stations would be a better place. I can say that from personal experience, because I spent 10 years working at PBS in the 1980s. I know what it is like to be working in a system in which you have to deal with your member stations, good, bad and everywhere in-between. I think everybody, if they could be the master of their own fate, would certainly like that. The question is, is that possible? At this particular point in time, it’s probably not.

Current: Lastly, Steve, if you think there is going to be some kind of crisis point at which all of these underlying tensions are going to precipitate some kind of action, dare to guess when that might be? Ten years? Twenty years?

Bass: I think it’s probably going to be sooner, and I think it comes in cycles, because I look back six years ago, before Downton Abbey, and things weren’t all that rosy. As you might recall, prime-time ratings were down, PBS was trying to invent some new programming, it wasn’t really working, and thank God for Masterpiece and WGBH and bringing Downton Abbey along: It got a lot of people looking at public television again.

The question is, now how do we capitalize on that to move forward? I’m not convinced that American drama is going to be the affordable way to do that. Yeah, there’s an appetite for drama, but is that the strategy that’s going to lead us to the promised land? I don’t know, maybe it will, but here’s what I’m thinking a lot about.

March 29 was the date that all of the television stations around the country had to lock in whether or not they’re going to be part of the spectrum auction. We are now all going into a bunker for the next seven, eight months, and during that process we could see significant change in television broadcasting. We’re going to come up out of the bunker to see whether anything has changed. It’s possible that we are going to come up out of that bunker with a public television system that has fewer stations than we have now. It’s possible we’re going to see some organizations with more money than they had before. There are going to be a lot of new things that we’re going to have to deal with which could either strengthen or weaken the public television system. But I think either way there’s going to be an interesting thing that’s going to happen about eight or nine months from now, so I’d say, “Watch this space.”

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