The PBS president testifies in House on mailing list controversy.


Duggan withdraws from
'head-butting' arena

Originally published in Current, Sept. 20, 1999

By Steve Behrens and Karen Everhart Bedford

Ervin Duggan gave up what he had appraised as the best job in the country, ending five-and-a-half years as PBS president. He resigned Sept. 9, effective Oct. 31 [1999].

Observers and participants disagree over whether Duggan decided independently to move on, or was shown the door, or some combination of the two. He declined to speak with reporters.

Duggan had clashed repeatedly with various overlapping factions of the public TV system, often on the balance between revenues and noncommercialism, or between program-producing stations and program-using stations, or between priorities of the local stations and the national network.

All the while, he had worked to construct a coherent picture of public television out of conflicting ambitions and realities. He painted PBS as a "modern media corporation," while insisting that it had more in common with colleges and libraries than with Viacom or Discovery.

"Ervin was trying to build a mega-multimedia conglomerate," said Virginia Fox, executive director of Kentucky ETV and a past PBS Board member. "I don't know how you do that and remain a member organization. He's leaving because he passionately wanted to be both."

Joe Zesbaugh--head of the competing program distributor American Public Television--said Duggan had a tough mandate. Stations want PBS to be both a "red hot media company and also an association of members, collegially and democratically making decisions," he commented. "Those are two hard choices. They are not the same business, and to straddle that line is a hard place for anyone to be."

The PBS presidency so far has alternated between insider and outsider--station chief Hartford Gunn, then ad man Lawrence Grossman, station exec/APTS leader Bruce Christensen and FCC Commissioner Duggan.

"It's cyclical," observed Burnie Clark, president of Seattle's KCTS. "You go from a cycle where you want to put a lot of responsibility and authority in the president's hands, and then there's a period when you want PBS to be more responsive to member stations."

Now, Clark speculated, the system may be looking for "more of a rapprochement between PBS and the stations."

Clark and others recall that management consultant Peter Block told station execs, before Duggan was hired, that they really wanted a weak leader, adding, "That may not be what you need, but it may be what you want."

No, said board Chairman Colin Campbell last week. There's widespread agreement on the board that Duggan provided strong leadership, and the board wants strong leadership from the next c.e.o. Campbell praised Duggan's eloquent defense of public broadcasting in the 1995-96 political battles and his achievements in positioning the system for its digital future.

When Duggan leaves at the end of October, board member and retired insurance executive John Swope will step in as interim c.e.o., as he did locally at New Hampshire PTV during a transition in 1995.

Board Vice Chairman Wayne Godwin and member Marian Andersen will head a search committee to find Duggan's successor. The other board members on the panel are station execs Rob Gardiner, Dennis Haarsager, Susan Howarth and Sharon Rockefeller; and lay leaders Campbell, Sid Topol and Milton Wilkins.

Parade of projects

"[I]t is time to move on to new challenges," Duggan announced this month. "My principal objectives have been achieved."

Indeed, during his term, PBS rolled out an ceaseless parade of projects:

  • focusing money and attention on programming for preschoolers, bringing many back as viewers, under the banner of the Ready to Learn Service;
  • developing the PBS Kids Channel, the first of several anticipated services for stations to air through digital TV multicasting [earlier story], and cosponsoring the Harris/DTV Express touring exhibition to raise public awareness of DTV and of public TV's need for conversion funds [earlier story];
  • launching PBS into other media with PBS Online on the Internet [earlier story], Schedule X on DBS satellites, and PBS Records in compact discs [earlier story];
  • redirecting and increasing PBS efforts to promote both tune-in and the PBS brand, urging with mixed success that stations "co-brand," or virtually adopt the PBS name as part of their identities;
  • engineering what he called the "Station Equity Model," to systematically extract back-end revenues from PBS programming; and
  • creating the PBS Sponsorship Group with four major stations (now six), which coordinates sales of national program underwriting for producers, bringing in $31 million in its first year and $65 million the second.

These and other initiatives--along with the soaring national economy--helped PBS increase its revenues 70 percent in five years--from $182 million in fiscal year 1995 to the budgeted $309 million in fiscal 2000.

Within the budget, PBS is on track to keep Duggan's pledge to boost the national program purse from $115 million in fiscal 1996 to $165 million this year, according to PBS.

Duggan has been making "smart decisions as a media company," and "becoming much more aggressive and entrepreneurial," said APT's Zesbaugh, and that's necessary in today's competitive media scene.

More prominently, two years after his arrival at PBS he became the lead defender of public broadcasting in the funding crisis of 1995-96.

Duggan "has done a marvelous job of representing the system to the Hill, to the nation and at times to itself," said Vice Chairman Wayne Godwin of WCET in Cincinnati.

"Ervin brought an enthusiasm to this job that was really very unique," said David Dial, a board member from WNIN in Evansville, Ind. "When you heard Ervin talk about this industry ... you felt really proud about the things we did. I am sorry he's leaving. That view of Ervin was shared widely throughout the system."

Jonathan Abbott, Duggan's development chief until last year, said last week he had never before worked for someone "who is as forthcoming and concrete about what he wanted to accomplish and how we would measure success."

When Duggan was fresh from the FCC in 1993, PBS employees held mixed expectations for their new boss, said a programming staffer, but he proved himself "a true believer and a real positive leader."

"I really think it's tragic for the system in that he's done everything and more of what was asked of him ... five years ago," the staffer said. "He's as close to a strong and dynamic leader as we've had in public television, and because some contingent of the system doesn't like him, we lose him. ... Point to a PBS president who has accomplished more."

Why did he quit?

PBS has been fortunate "to get very good years" from its presidents, observed Wayne Godwin. "Then they had the wisdom to hand the reins to someone else."

The job seems to be "a grueling assignment," which "demands constant attention to the variety of viewpoints," said board Chairman Colin Campbell.

After five years on the receiving end of democratic input, would that be enough to drive Duggan away?

"I don't think it could have helped but have an impact," Campbell replied. "Ervin is not insensitive. I am sure that hearing these things, one wonders at what point is a new challenge more attractive than dealing with a condition you feel would be hard to change."

"Ervin came to PBS to be an agent of change," said a PBS source. "He knew that to bring that level of change would be hard work, and there would be a lot of head-butting. He got to the point where his view was, maybe, he had done as much as he could."

Godwin said he knows of no precipitating event, vote, conflict or individual that led Duggan to quit. "I prefer thinking about it as a decision in the best interest of himself, and in the longer term it will serve the system well. You pass that fourth or fifth year, and you have to feel that burden that you carry."

The decision to leave PBS was "primarily Ervin's own thinking," said board member Rob Gardiner of Maine Public Broadcasting. "He was perhaps made more aware of some concerns about what he has done ... ," Gardiner said.

Local/national tension has surfaced repeatedly during Duggan's term, as throughout PBS's three-decade history. At last fall's Member Meeting, it emerged in a dispute of pure symbolism, with many stations petitioning the network to take the name "PBS" back out of the familiar on-air underwriter credit line thanking "PBS viewers like you."

For Duggan, it was clearly disappointing that so many stations did not feel they were one and the same with PBS. In a speech at the Annual Meeting in June, he wished aloud that so many pubcasters did not live in a "culture of complaint," and that they would join him and "cheer all of our successes."

Duggan "has done an outstanding job as president of PBS," says board member Fred Esplin of KUED in Salt Lake City, but "his administration was less sensitive to the balance of local interests and national interests."

The president experienced his first major local/national blow-up in January 1995, a year after coming to PBS, when the PBS Board decided to encourage common carriage of national programs and discourage 30-second underwriting credits by imposing fines on member stations.

Though the board had tried to build consensus on the issues through a station task force, many stations objected loudly that PBS was usurping their home rule--at a time when Newt Gingrich was threatening another key revenue source, federal aid. Dozens of stations rebelled against the threat of fines [earlier story], forcing the board to back down. (It tabled changes in underwriting rules while hiring studies by consultants [earlier story] ; the issue will return to the board four years later, next month).

A few months after the blow-up about fines, in November 1995, Duggan unveiled the Station Equity Model, a key structural reform designed to let PBS manage back-end program rights for the whole system, and invest the proceeds in more programming. The announcement outraged a number of stations.

Godwin calls the Station Equity Model "a win-win-win scenario for using stations, producing stations and independent producers." It did indeed give smaller "using" stations a bigger benefit from program-related revenues. But larger stations felt Duggan was vacuuming up their risk capital--even though PBS started signing multi-year pacts with producing stations to give them financial security.

"There were times it may have shuffled revenue and assets from one pocket to another," acknowledged Abbott, "but all told, when you look at the investments in new progrmming ... it allowed us to grow the pie."

As part of the plan, PBS brought in private-sector media companies to invest in shared programs--notably, Reader's Digest Association (until it reversed course) [earlier story] and then Disney/ABC's Devillier Donegan Enterprises [earlier story]. Producing stations were alienated to see PBS playing the field, dealing directly with competing sources.

Flashpoint: DTV policy

Perhaps the most jarring collision between the stations' prerogatives and Duggan's came in a conference call early in February, this year. An APTS advisory group of station execs was preparing comments to the FCC in hopes that stations could earn some revenues from ancillary uses of excess DTV transmission capacity.

Based on his Washington instincts and opposition to commercialism, the former FCC commissioner opposed the stations' consensus, according to a PBS source. "He was very explicit about questioning the APTS strategy for virtually unfettered ancillary use of digital spectrum." The source denies that Duggan threatened to file conflicting comments, but several station execs heard it that way. A backlash rumbled through the system, severely damaging Duggan's standing, according to one of his supporters. The APTS Board objected to the PBS Board, and Duggan relented.

Within days after the conference call, complaints about Duggan mounted at a closed meeting of the PBS Board during its retreat in Rancho Mirage, Calif., according to a public TV source.

Some station reps openly questioned PBS management for paying too little attention to stations in presentations on a new PBS strategic plan, not yet published, the source said.

With strong national programs and local stations, "there is nothing we cannot accomplish together," commented George Miles, president of WQED in Pittsburgh, in an interview with Current. "That should have been the strength of the strategic plan. That was the piece that was missing."

In March, the board heard another presentation about the strategic plan, and again it had little to say about the stations, according to the public TV source. Though board members had previously found it difficult to confront their articulate president head-on, they did so in a closed session with him.

When the board next met, at the start of the PBS Annual Meeting in June, the convention hotel was awash with rumors. The well-liked chief operating officer, Bob Ottenhoff, was leaving abruptly--apparently dismissed by Duggan [earlier story]. This followed the recent resignation of chief programmer Kathy Quattrone, in May, and the earlier departure of development veep Jonathan Abbott, last fall.

The board also had to give up PBS management of its Business Channel corporate-training venture, which had lost its outside investor and was losing money. The board signed over control to a satellite training pioneer, National Technological University [earlier story].

Again, PBS execs made a presentation on the strategic plan, and again some board members were dissatisfied, said a source. When Campbell convened a closed board session to assess Duggan's performance, there were more critics and, this time, no defenders.

Did board members somehow indicate that afternoon that they lacked confidence in Duggan?

Campbell declined to reply. He said the board had met without staff present, "in order to keep conversations within the board," he said. "That's all I can say about that."

Duggan's contract still had a year yet to run, but he and PBS negotiated a settlement, PBS told the Los Angeles Times, and he resigned.







To Current's home page

Earlier news: Board conflicts with Duggan rumored as his No. 2 executive, Bob Ottenhoff, suddenly heads for the door, June 1999.

Coincidental story: Congressman's office sees link between Duggan departure and release of report on mailing-list controversy, both announced on same day.

Later news: PBS hires Duggan's successor, CNN producer Pat Mitchell, February 2000.

Current Briefing on conflicts within the public TV system.



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