No silver bullet to be seen
So CPB will focus on 3 initiatives to assist public TV

Coonrod talks with public TV station execs at a PBS meeting in February. (Photo: CPB.)

Originally published in Current, March 10, 2003
By Steve Behrens

Wielding a grim financial analysis of public TV by a big-name consulting firm, CPB has begun a campaign to glue together a consensus supporting three initiatives to end the stagnation:

  • catching up with other nonprofits in attracting “major gifts” of $1,000 or more from donors;
  • improving station efficiency, especially by consolidating operations;
  • using program research more effectively and taking other unspecified steps to re-examine public TV’s “approach to national programming.”

CPB President Bob Coonrod and Chief Operating Officer Kathleen Cox discussed the initiatives in a Current Q&A. Coonrod said the CPB Board called for the consensus building in its statement of objectives adopted in fall 2002.

Coonrod told station managers the three initiatives show the greatest potential for improved performance among some 30 possible efforts examined by the consulting firm McKinsey & Co. None is a “silver bullet” that could solve public TV’s money problems, he said.

Likewise, he doesn’t want to wait for such long shots as Congress endowing a public TV trust fund with proceeds from spectrum auctions. Hoping for a trust fund “deflects the focus from things that are wholly within the control of public broadcasting,” Coonrod said in the Current interview.

Coonrod launched the campaign for consensus in a presentation for station executives Feb. 24 during the PBS General Managers Planning Meeting and will continue with the first of five round-robin meetings across the country. Round robins will be held in Chicago on March 26, Philadelphia, April 1; Las Vegas, April 6; San Francisco, April 16; and Cincinnati, April 29.

To make the case that public TV must act decisively, Coonrod cited findings of McKinsey’s fiscal analysis of public TV.

For the first time since 1990, according to the study, all of public TV’s revenue sources are flat or declining when adjusted for inflation, which the consultant put at 2.6 percent a year. State funding was down very slightly over the examined 11-year period, 1990 to 2001, and 45 states are facing fiscal crises. Ordinarily there are bright spots to balance the dark ones, Coonrod said, but not now.

Though total pubTV station revenues have grown from $1.6 billion to $1.93 billion during the period, most of that gain has come through capital fundraising for the digital transition, McKinsey reported. If you exclude capital funding, station revenue grew less than 1 percent over the 11 years.

Public TV leaders have worried that stations’ number of members has been declining since 1993, but they have taken comfort that revenues from those members have kept rising. However, when adjusted for inflation, the report said, member revenues have been dropping slightly, 1 percent over the 11 years.

The field has built revenues fastest in the category of unrelated business income, 6.6 percent a year, followed by corporate and foundation underwriting, 4.9 percent a year, the report said. Indeed, total revenue from the entrepreneurial projects counted as unrelated business income doubled to $259 million by 2001.

Even so, if pubcasters allow trends to continue, Coonrod warned, revenues will stall or decline; stations will have to cut jobs, services and programs; and PBS will have to cut back on primetime programming “and take other steps that may blur the boundaries between commercial and public television.”

To Current's home page
For more about CPB's initiatives and the McKinsey study, read the Q&A with CPB President Bob Coonrod and Chief Operating Officer Kathleen Cox.
Related document: The CPB Board's Goals and Objectives, 2002.

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