Weary station execAs a national system, public TV struggles with weak decision-making processes


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For years, public TV broadcasters have said that their diversity in outlook and ownership is one of their system's strengths. Yet many in the field agree the same diversity is a great weakness, inhibiting them from becoming the effective national force they could be.

Now, two major efforts to improve its decision-making systems have been completed:

The latter Forum met for the first time in March 1998 to discuss digital TV plans, and set a priority of reviewing the relationships between the stations and their national organizations, primarily PBS.

The Forum was created by a vote of stations attending a November 1997 convention in Austin, Tex. [Text of charter.] A Council to guide the Forum will be elected and the Forum will hold its first meeting in March 1998. The group that proposed the set-up brought enthusiasm about the techniques of frank and fact-based "productive conversation" that they practiced in developing the draft charter. Many other managers, however, were wary of creating another organization that will hold meetings and seek annual dues.

The Austin convention completed Countdown 97, a review of the field's decision-making processes launched in early 1996 by America's Public Television Stations (APTS), the national trade association that lobbies for the stations.

After extensive interviews, the media management consultant hired by APTS--BMR Associates--reported in fall 1996 that public TV is too fragmented to respond collectively to challenges and that the factions seldom talk candidly about their problems. [Text of report summary.] In a study of decision-making in other industries, the consultants found only a few that were comparable.

APTS passed responsibility for the project to a Core Working Group of station managers, who stated the problem concisely in their "case for change" in May 1997.

Even as the group was beginning to meet, an array of system issues -- usually involving money -- begged to be resolved. The group called the "Convention of Stations" for Nov. 5, 1997 in Austin, Tex., to consider creation of the new Forum.

One of the few things that public TV stations agree about is "localism" -- a valued tradition in American broadcasting, with its separately licensed local stations. In public TV, localism sometimes means jealously guarded autonomy -- to venture from the crowd, to disagree with the majority, even at the expense of the whole.

The Countdown 98 process attempts to address public TV's perennial identity crisis. It's a collective of stations, many of whom prize their localism above all else. They work hard to raise 80 or 90 percent of their funds in their communities. They send big fees to PBS to support programming, but can't rely on the national system to save them in a pinch. Many pubcasters believe public TV remains one of the few media with local autonomy -- a hedge against autocracy.

But to many viewers, the stations' greatest achievements have been national: supporting and airing an acclaimed schedule of national programs, mostly through PBS. Here, the nearly 200 stations begin taking greater advantage of economic scale. And here they compete against cable TV, which is solely national and has even more advantageous economies of scale.

To lawmakers, journalists and other outsiders who have looked behind the PBS emblem of unity, the system is usually described as weak and fragmented, torn by disputes among local dukedoms and its national bodies.

Costs of fragmentation

The fragmentation prevents public TV from collectively seizing opportunities, and leaves disputes unresolved and festering for years. For instance:

Use of multiple channels: The stations looked on in the 1980s as cable TV developed specialized channels. Most stations operate only a single broadcast channel per community -- and never came together to develop new national channels. Even in the mid-'90s, the system put little value on the underused additional second and third channels that operate in many regions; larger stations regarded the latecomers as unwanted competition, even though multiple stations can prosper by counterprogramming. Attitudes are changing; in 1997, PBS joined in a study on developing a new national program feed for overlaps and other outlets, and planners envisioned a service with a somewhat younger audience than the main PBS network. But the stations have yet to invest major resources in developing a separate program stream; that question lies ahead.

A common legislative agenda: In response to attacks by House Speaker Newt Gingrich and others in 1995, stations split into factions. Some allied with a Gingrich-appointed House subcommittee chairman, Jack Fields, lobbying independently for a bill with very limited federal funding but extensive new elbow-room for stations to seek commercial revenue. Though APTS backed Fields' bill, the low-dollar legislation lacked wholehearted support from many stations and from legislators of both parties. Though Congress didn't "zero-out" public broadcasting in 1995-96, it also didn't agree on a bill to authorize future funding.

A new experiment with on-air advertising: There has been some risk that the system would split again over Lawrence Grossman's "PTV Weekend" proposal to raise production money by selling commercials two nights a week on participating public TV stations. A number of major stations want the option, while other stations range from skeptical or adamantly opposed. If proponents pursue the issue, the decision will be national in scope, since the proposed experiment would require permission from Congress and would affect both the revenue options and the nationwide image of all stations.

Underwriting credit length: Stations are split along similar lines about underwriting credits. Though the issue seems miniscule, it is the latest in a long series of battles to define what "noncommercial" TV is. Many big-city stations permit 30-second credits locally and want PBS to accept them nationally. But many other stations -- perhaps a majority -- draw the line at 15-second blurbs. When PBS leaders thought they knew the majority will in 1995 and adopted a financial disincentive (some called it a fine) for 30-second local spots, they faced open rebellion. Though the decision was not made by vote, the 30-second spot seems to have won out; even a new underwriting sales venture backed by PBS will offer local 30-second credits.

Common carriage: Though the system has made progress in coordinating schedules, national programs still can't be advertised for specific airdates. Key primetime PBS programs do appear the same night on nearly all stations, but there are exceptions because program directors at stations try to make the strongest local schedules. Under a compromise, most stations agree to carry at least 300 hours of nationally promoted programs a year on the days when they're publicized nationally.

Decision-making by PBS

Many contentious issues catch PBS and APTS in the middle. As the best-known and largest national organization, PBS has often been faced with resolving divisive issues. Gerald Baliles, PBS chairman since 1993, pushed PBS to tighten its governance so that it could move more quickly and definitively, and appointed a group of board members to propose changes, just as APTS was beginning a similar process.

Independent-minded station leaders argued that PBS lacks a clear mandate to speak or make decisions for the whole field, or a good governance structure for that purpose. PBS's own governance system raises the same questions of representation that required compromises in the creation of the U.S. Congress two centuries ago. Station reps on the PBS Board (like APTS) are elected on a one-station/one-vote basis like the U.S. Senate, while larger stations argue for some kind of proportional representation more like the U.S. House of Representatives, probably based on financial or audience size.

The PBS Board also had been broadened over the years to include so many people who are not station representatives that it isn't accepted universally as a Congress of stations. Before 1996-97 reforms, three-fifths of the PBS Board members were "laypeople" -- prominent corporate and civic leaders, mostly board members of stations. Recognizing the issue, the board in February 1997, changed its bylaws to increase the percentage of station managers from two-fifths to half and created a new annual station meeting to advise the board. Even so, the Core Working Group appointed by APTS is working to create a better-accepted decision-making forum.



Diversity in ownership of public TV stations

Unlike public radio stations, which are overwhelmingly licensed to universities and colleges, public TV license-holders (table below) are split among:

Though community nonprofits far outnumber the state licensees, the state licensees tend to operate multiple transmitters, usually as statewide networks with a single program schedule.

Stations Licensees
Nonprofit community organization 136 90
University 85 62
Local government 8 8
State government 123 26
Total 352 179

Source: CPB



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Documents tracing the creation of the National Forum for Public Television Executives.


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