“When you basically cut the legs out
under the gang that’s gotten you to this point,
this has to mean something,”
said a prominent programmer,
“so the question is, what does it mean?”
Passed over for the top programming spot in PBS’s January reorganization, Jennifer Lawson resigned her position last week. Her deputy, John Grant, also quit.
Lawson joined PBS five years ago as its first chief program executive, entrusted with greater authority and more cash than previous PBS programmers to shape the schedule and bargain with producers.
The departures of Lawson and Grant will clear the way for executives hired by President Ervin Duggan to follow their own programming vision–a subject of much speculation and some anxiety among station programmers who met with PBS earlier this month.
Lawson’s and Grant’s resignations, effective March 11 , have been rumored since Feb. 1, when Duggan announced a reorganization that inserted an as-yet-unnamed programming executive in the organizational chart above Lawson. Duggan has been calling the position “editor-in-chief.”
The reorganization had been discussed for months at PBS, but Lawson and Grant said they learned from a January memo that she would be given a subsidiary role in the new structure. The two programmers discussed their situation but made separate decisions, they said.
“I was concerned for the future … I would not be able to make the kind of contribution I have been able to make in the past,” Lawson told Current.
Neither was willing to discuss distinctions between their program strategies or tastes with Duggan, though he has observed publicly that he did not appreciate the quiz show Think Twice or the Steven Banks comedy that Lawson approved in recent unsuccessful attempts to adapt popular genres to PBS. He has also disparaged past PBS management for failing to create a 1992 election project using a multimillion offer from the Markle Foundation.
Lawson, the executive v.p. who supervised all PBS programming operations as well as advertising and promotion, and Grant, who handled the National Program Service as senior v.p., had numerous audience successes: popular additions to the preschool lineup, two Ken Burns superhits, and forays into popular and ethnic culture that are remaking PBS’s high-brow image.
“I am quite proud we have been able to have so many highly visible limited series,” Lawson said. “It was a strategy we put into place, and it worked.”
Grant made much the same point: audience successes “don’t happen by accident.” His team developed successful scheduling stunts, including the practice of compressing major limited series into a single week, two hours or more per night.
He joined PBS in 1990 after more than 16 years at WPSX in University Park, Pa. Lawson came to the network the year before, after working her way up to director of the CPB Television Program Fund. Neither has immediate plans for employment.
What does it mean?
Who and what will follow Lawson at PBS? Station programmers watched and listened intently for hints during a Feb. 9-11  meeting near the network’s offices in northern Virginia.
“When you basically cut the legs out under the gang that’s gotten to this point, this has to mean something,” said a prominent programmer after the meeting, “so the question is, what does it mean?”
“Nobody denies [Duggan] has the authority and ability to reorganize PBS,” said Scott Chaffin, director of broadcasting at KUED in Salt Lake City. But, he adds, “it seems to have been done in a very capricious, almost behind-the-scenes mode.”
At one point in the discussion about the personnel changes, Chaffin recalled, Marc Weiss, executive producer of P.O.V., got applause for telling PBS executives that there was a lot of unexpressed “anger” in the room.
And at another point, he said, WNET program chief Ward Chamberlin stood up to defend the PBS president, saying the system has to get behind Duggan.
PBS Chief Operating Officer Bob Ottenhoff, who is supervising the programming area until a new executive is hired, told Current that the programmers were understandably trying to read tea leaves. “I understand why there would be this uncertainty right now, because we’re all uncertain. This is a high-anxiety time for all of us.”
PBS has not decided who will supervise its new “entrepreneurial” syndication effort, but it is writing a job description for the new position overseeing all programming.
“We have no intentions of making radical changes in programming philosophy or doing things in a unilateral way,” Ottenhoff added.
Not everyone was convinced. “People strongly believe, rightly or wrongly, that Duggan is trying to take all the teeth out of the service, and they’re pissed off and Duggan won’t talk to people,” said a major-station programmer.
“A theme that kept coming up throughout the network–the way it was expressed was, ‘We’re not the Vanilla Pudding Network,’ ” recalls David Othmer, station manager at WHYY in Philadelphia.
Duggan has said that public TV must meet the crises of the nation’s schools, its “coarsening” culture and its failing sense of citizenship, but hasn’t gone into detail about target audiences, genres, program forms or spending priorities. In a talk early in the meeting, he mentioned at one moment that PBS should build on its pledge successes and give viewers nostalgia, romance and melody, and at another point that it should make partnerships with Lincoln Center and other major arts institutions.
Othmer had the last words of the meeting, Feb. 11, according to Chaffin. The Philadelphia programmer read a list of Top 10 recommendations for Duggan. This is one recollection of the list:
10. There is no chasm between general managers and program managers. If there were, we’d all be unemployed.
9. We are already programming for old people!
8. We are a functional family–we disagree, but our agreements are far stronger than our disagreements.
7. We have never, we are not now, we cannot and we will not become the Vanilla Pudding Network.
6. If you are going to generalize from talks with general managers, talk with all of them and return their phone calls.
5. Address the real problems of the system, not the red herrings like Tales of the City, P.O.V. and Frontline.
4. On the question of museum programming, which Enola Gay–I mean Enola Straight–exhibition are you going to broadcast?
3. Trust your professional programmers.
2. Even better, talk to your professional programmers.
1. Like America itself, Erv, our diversity is our strength. Honor it, don’t exploit it.