Top priority for Forum talk: stations' and PBS's roles

Originally published in Current, April 6, 1998

By Steve Behrens

A top priority for the new National Forum for Public Television Executives is to clearly define the roles and relationships of the stations and their national organizations.

The topic got by far the greatest support when Forum members were asked to suggest issues for its future agenda at the Forum's first meeting March 25 in Arlington, Va.

It's a perennial concern for the more independent-minded stations, who are regularly rankled by PBS decisions, but the Forum now provides a mechanism with potential leverage through which maverick, moderate and pro-PBS station leaders could work out consensus on national plans.

Station leaders' frank talk was largely hidden from reporters; the Forum held the second half of the day's meeting in executive session, though several execs spoke their minds earlier.

Bill Baker of New York's WNET asked whether there was a way for the stations to coordinate their use of DTV channels, making them more valuable, while maintaining control over their use. He said he fears turning over channel capacity to PBS or a commercial partner, who would "take it away from us." He noted that "most new revenue" to public TV is coming in through PBS and is spent by PBS, which "makes some of us uncomfortable." With DTV, "we have a chance to start a whole new model."

A few minutes later, Burnie Clark of Seattle's KCTS returned to the PBS relationship, observing that cash revenue doesn't "trickle down" from PBS. "How can we make ourselves stronger at the local level, and still have access to national programming?" he asked.

In a hotel bar, the discussion might have evolved into a complaint session about PBS, but the Forum membership was diverse and intent on following principles of "productive conversation."

"I didn't hear any negative tone directed toward any national organization," says Lloyd Wright of WFYI, Indianapolis.

During executive session, 24 Forum members put this "talking point" at the top of their agenda for the next meeting (date so far undetermined): "Review the current business model for PTV and define it with the clear definition of local station roles and the roles and responsibilities of our national organizations and our relationship with them."

Topics were nominated from the floor; others amassed less support, according to a tally by Bryce Combs of WMVS, Milwaukee:

Dividing and using digital TV channels was the main topic in public sessions. University of Notre Dame economist Barry Keating and General Instruments technologist Robert Rast were invited by the agenda planners to brief the Forum and later serve as information resources during discussions. The Forum later endorsed some unsurprising positions on DTV [related story].

"Some said maybe we spent too much time with experts," says Mike Hardgrove of KETC in St. Louis, who served on the Core Working Group that proposed the Forum and was later elected to the Forum's governing council. "I found having them there quite helpful."

Mark Erstling of Penn State's WPSX said the meetings leading up to the creation of the Forum had already given station execs a better understanding of each other. "We're finding we like each other. It's gone beyond tolerance to appreciation."

Forum elects council that will set its agendas

The Forum installed 10 elected members of the 13-member council that will lead its meetings. The 10 were elected at-large from three station budget-size categories:

The Forum now includes 102 of the nation's 179 public TV license-holders, organizers announced. About 76 were represented at the meeting last month and about 60 voted.

Both the council and the Forum that elected it have relatively few reps from state-owned stations. On the council, all but Farmer and Pizzato represent freestanding community stations. The Forum is missing a number of state networks--Georgia, Hawaii, Iowa, New Hampshire, North Carolina, North Dakota, Mississippi, Oklahoma, Vermont and West Virginia. Also sitting out are prominent state university stations KPBS, KUED, WILL and WOSU; both Arizona stations, KAET and KUAT; and a few medium-sized community stations--Kansas City's KCPT, Cincinnati's WCET and Rochester's WXXI.

In the council election, nine were supposed to be elected, but 10 were seated because of a tie between Antoniotti and Onslow. This means that the council will pick three colleagues to round out the council before its first in-person meeting May 14.

The meeting will be held in Denver, home of two council members so far. Two others (Antoniotti and Clark) are partners in Lark International, a programming group. The Forum anticipated that the council would want to balance its membership. All council members so far are white folks.

Council members picked Pizzato to coordinate initially. He and Hardgrove were two of the Core Working Group that proposed the Forum in a process started by APTS in 1996. Most CWG members declined to run for the council after a demanding year of inventing the Forum, but six ran, and four were defeated--Carole Cartwright, WYCC, Chicago; Virginia Fox, Kentucky ETV; Al Jerome, KCET, Los Angeles; and Jim Pagliarini, KTCA, Twin Cities.


To Current's home page

Current Briefing on the creation of the Forum, and governance issues in public TV.

Related story: Pubcasters consider several aspects of the DTV transition in APTS and Forum meetings, March 1998.


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