The Public Broadcasting Service reached across the Potomac River and some bad blood to pick Jennifer Lawson, the Corporation for Public Broadcasting’s television program fund director, to become executive vice president for national programming and promotion at PBS.
The senior programming position at the Alexandria, Va.–based PBS has been open since October 1988, when senior vice president Suzanne Weil left PBS to become executive director of the Sundance Institute for Film and Television.
A quintet of senior PBS executives, including President Bruce Christensen, has since acted as a programming committee.
The new chief will develop a comprehensive program plan and take an active role “to get the PBS schedule into shape, so it can deliver the kind of program power that all of us believe will be the result of the changes we’re talking about occurring over the next few months,” Christensen said.
Lawson said there is “a growing consensus to have strong programming leadership, some details of which will be decided at the summit meetings” between CPB, the National Association of Public Television Stations and PBS. She said she will be able to “act more decisively and swiftly” than former top programmers at PBS.
“Some of the creativity and vision that could be provided by more centralized leadership has been stifled by the overabundance of decision-making groups to report to,” Lawson said.
Lawson indicated that details about how she will operate as a chief programming executive for public television will be determined by results of meetings between Christensen, CPB President Donald Ledwig and NAPTS President David Brugger.
Congress ordered CPB to work with PBS and stations to determine how to improve the national production funding process. A plan must be delivered to Congress by Jan. 31. The three presidents and their top assistants have been meeting since mid-July to resolve the issue. The most recent meeting was Oct. 25.
Rumors circulated that a settlement was near after Lawson’s hiring.
All programming positions at PBS will report to Lawson, and she will report to Christensen and a program board “that would have responsibility for policy oversight of the programming activities,” Christensen said, adding that the program board will “be the primary oversight committee for policy and financing.” The committee would include members of the PBS board of directors, independent and minority producers and other public television officials.
No details on program plans
One of Lawson’s most important functions will be to satisfy demands for a strong programming chief, sometimes called program czar, in an industry that prides itself on decentralization. Station managers earlier this year called for a chief programming executive with experience creating programs and a sensitivity to the internal politics of the public broadcasting industry.
“This is a terrific time for us to look at where we stand in the full arena of services that viewers have available,” Lawson said. She declined to speculate about any program plans.
Lawson, a CPB employee since 1980, has headed the program fund since June. She previously was associate director of the fund’s drama and arts program.
Lawson becomes one of two executive vice presidents at an organization heavy with senior vice presidents. Neil B. Mahrer is executive vice president and chief operating officer of the company.
As for becoming the ballyhooed program “czar,” Lawson said she’s not interested. “I read my history, so I know what happened to those czars and czarinas. I do not intend to be one; it’s not my style at all. I may be beheaded, but not for being a czar,” she said.