Originally published in Current, July 5, 2004
Commentary by Larry Rifkin
The common refrain within public television is that we don’t have enough money to support our programming mission. I respectfully disagree.
I’ve worked my entire public television career at a local station, but I’ve come to the conclusion that only the stations can now provide the money we must aggregate nationally to reclaim audiences and innovate in national programming. We have nowhere else to turn.
We can see the magnitude of the need when producers can’t find underwriting and the PBS Board is forced to seek highly unpopular increases in the stations’ programming assessment to protect key primetime programs.
Isn’t it surprising to see, in stark budget figures, that this system, which spends close to $1.6 billion a year, is using less than $150 million a year of its own revenues on its major national programming service?
How did we arrive at this point?
Have you heard the one that goes like this? “It isn’t so amazing that public television executives get in a circle and shoot at each other. What’s amazing is how quickly we reload.”
For many years we’ve laughed more than we’ve cried over the system’s duplications, overlaps, fierce pride in localism, and tendency to defend local fiefdoms at this expense of the whole. I fear the last laugh will belong to companies selling the many cable channels, video games and digital gadgets that compete for viewers’ time.
Public TV is starved for new national programming initiatives. Cable channels
are copying our past programming successes, finding ways to make money in
genres that once had no marketplace value, and leaving us to boast only that
we still have the best of every genre.
So why go on?
We all know the perennial good reasons to go on, but it may appear from our actions that our primary objective is to maintain as much station staff employment as we can. It’s as if our stations are community employment agencies, paralyzed by inertia and not willing to call the question: Is the system’s present structure contributing to our demise? If so, how do we fix it?
Many of my colleagues languish in the illusion that it’s still the 1980s—that cable and satellite haven’t started chipping away at the halo of our public service system.
Our fate was sealed in the 1960s, when three things occurred. First, President Johnson signed the Public Broadcasting Act into law in 1967, proclaiming that in 1968 he’d figure out a permanent, reliable means of funding it with the necessary insulation from politics. Of course, by 1968, Johnson was a lame duck and little concerned with our funding future.
Second, as with many Great Society programs, members of Congress wanted tangible benefits in their districts, so we began building stations in every community inclined to activate a noncommercial frequency.
Finally, unlike public radio, we gave localism a stranglehold on the system by not allowing PBS to produce programming, lest it interfere with the efforts of major producing stations.
We began life overbuilt and underfunded. How did we survive in that perilous
condition for so long? When our programming was unique, generous individual
donors, corporate underwriters, state and local governments and educational
institutions all felt it worthwhile to step into the breach and supplement
our federal appropriation.
So what has changed?
Of course, the media landscape has been revolutionized. Where once we were the sole alternative to mass-appeal networks, now there are alternatives to the alternatives. Public TV professionals may appreciate the differences in both philosophical values and production values between our programs and the competitors’, but many viewers don’t see it. In a different era, we were the undisputed kings of the hill, but now it’s much harder to gain any significant membership or national corporate support.
The funding picture has turned from bad to worse. The federal government leaves our appropriations virtually flat year in and year out. Media buyers look at underwriting in terms of cost-per-thousand viewers reached. State governments are seized by mounting deficits and must cut deeply into their public broadcasting aid. Individual donors are awash in a sea of competing sorrows. Foundations increasingly tell us their mandates do not include funding TV and radio. Even when our colleagues and board members make their own charitable donations, does public television make it to the top of the list of worthy causes?
At Connecticut Public Television we have a payroll of well over 100 people—comparable to the national total for some of our cable competitors—but we act as if our state appropriation hasn’t been eliminated (it has) and our other funding sources are not endangered.
So, you ask, do these and other familiar trends herald the end of public television as we know it? Yes. Is it sentenced to death? No. But its survival will require a new vision of public broadcasting quite different from what we have now.
Our structure now allows for full station operations in remote places far and wide, but this overbuilt system is far too expensive to maintain. Most significantly, these operating costs are choking any new program development on the national level. Public television must consolidate operations in a much smaller number of facilities. Shedding jobs and paring budgets is hard and selfless work. But it will let us reinvest in new national programming that is the key to our future.
The most radical change must come in the way public television funds programming. Does it make any sense that public TV stations retain 80 percent or more of what we raise in our local markets while more than 95 percent of the programming comes from national sources? That’s a unique and unsustainable calculus.
In Connecticut, for example, we send $1.9 million to PBS out of an unrestricted budget of $14.5 million. Do we give Connecticut viewers services worth the amount we keep—more than $12.5 million? Are the benefits to local viewers a fair tradeoff for leaving PBS dependent on corporate favor to complete the funding of most national programs? For turning away from public television’s signature series as they shrivel? Are we following the right spending priorities when public television can’t afford to develop national program strands that would justify the public’s continued interest?
I’m not arguing that local programming must go away, by any means. However, a rational organization for public television would consolidate operations in some markets, just as the NBC and ABC affiliates in our state have pared down their local operations. Would anyone in Connecticut know or care that their broadcasts are assembled by computers across the state line?
Local station staffs of 100 will be a rarity, but they will still be able to communicate with our communities about our programming, fundraise in those communities and plan inserts of local programming, acquisitions and underwriting credits.
Instead of standing armies of middle-managers, producers, master control operators, technicians and crews, we will retain and retrain creatives who can write, shoot and edit on contract or outsource the job to independent video teams that exist in substantial numbers in our communities. I implemented a model of producer outsourcing in Connecticut in the 1990s that yielded some of the most compelling and decorated local programming in the country. It can be done.
Dare I suggest that chief executives of future stations will also act as development or editorial chiefs, depending upon their skill sets?
These streamlined organizations must exist to do three things: help generate funds in the viewers’ communities, contribute substantial amounts to maintaining PBS and APT for national programming and define strategic programming opportunities available locally.
This is not dissimilar to the present model for commercial stations—sales and news and that’s it. Streamlining operations need not affect service to viewers, as commercial affiliates have already discovered.
While we strive to send a greater portion of our funds to national producers, PBS must maintain our confidence in its judgment and stewardship. It must become more aggressive in creating or acquiring innovative programming and more responsible in controlling costs and adapting its own structure to assume these responsibilities. With the money to call the shots for more productions, it can put our producers back out on the limb, where they belong, to make adventuresome programs.
PBS could then sell more underwriting on a spot basis, priced to sell, rather than expecting producers to sign underwriters at per-season rates totally out of sync with the value of the credits.
With new national programs, we may be able to take back the initiative from our competitors. I’m tired of making our programs dependent on the whims of IBM, 3M or M&Ms. Our current practice gives corporate America an inappropriate degree of control over what’s on PBS. We need to resume responsibility.
So, who’ll make the first move? Probably not PBS, since it’s a creature of the stations.
In my judgment, CPB will have to initiate the process by changing the way it doles out grants. It will need to explain to appropriators that our present structure works to keep money off the screen and must be remedied. The message will not go down easily because members of Congress naturally favor local constituents.
To get the greatest impact from its funding, CPB will need to design a new metric for evaluating spending on local operations. It might assist local operations only where their productions provide measurable service in their communities. Otherwise, their operations should be shared with stations in other communities. The slogan might be, “If it adds value to local service, spare it. If you can share it, pare it.”
Some stations are already sparing, sharing and paring—developing programming collectives, studying automated master control functions and sharing the labor of pledge drives. Yet I fear some stations will let their vast investments in digital technology freeze them in their current configurations.
We must resist the temptation to hold on to the past. We may make short-term personal sacrifices for the long-term benefit of public television.
Despite our hopes for its future and pride in its past, we know this is not a case of foolishly trying to fix something that ain’t broke. This is a case of “If it ain’t working, fix it.”
Larry Rifkin is senior programming executive for national
productions at Connecticut Public Television. For nearly 20 years he has developed
programming for statewide and national audiences.
Web page posted July 8, 2004
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