Job description: watch your step, make magic

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PBS’s chief program executive is a high-profile job that comes with a salary cap, a heavy workload and no excess of resources. But for seven months the c.p.e. has been a high-profile vacancy; the network is still seeking a permanent successor for Jennifer Lawson, who left the job in March with her deputy John Grant.

Though many station programmers are pleased with the performance of the interim proprietors of the National Program Service, mainly former No. 3 programmer Kathy Quattrone, they eagerly await word that a new program impresario has been hired.

So much about the future of public TV depends upon the distinctiveness, noncommercial values and viability of the NPS, and the c.p.e. is largely responsible for safeguarding those assets.

In fiscal 1994, the NPS managed, reviewed and scheduled 1,645.5 hours of original broadcast programs. The total dollar value of all that programming was $267 million, with stations dues and corporate underwriting each covering about 30 percent of the cost (see chart, page 14). But the c.p.e. controls only a part of the total; in ’94, Lawson managed a budget of less than $114 million, the same amount her successor will have this fiscal year.

Despite all the difficulties that are written into the c.p.e.’s job description, it is “the best job in public television,” said John Grant, who oversaw the NPS for Lawson. “When it works, you’re able to create a type of program that isn’t being created in the commercial environment. You’re actually able to make a difference. The program decisions that you make are not made for economic reasons.”

Expectations of what new challenges await the next c.p.e. vary widely throughout the system. There’s a hope, borne out of the best intentions of its mission, that public TV’s top programmer can work magic. And there’s the cold reality that there’s limited money and authority to make magic happen on a regular basis.

In the late 1980s, PBS stations agreed to empower a chief program executive to make national programming decisions on their behalf because, under the old Station Program Cooperative buying market, production costs were rising rapidly and new programs were extremely hard to launch. Lawson and Grant came in expecting to “oversee a grand expansion and golden era of programming opportunities,” Grant recalled. “What we really oversaw was the downsizing of national programs.”

“Every year we were working with diminishing budgets,” he continued. Their efforts were often consumed with “constant fights over money.”

“I’m afraid, all the bold rhetoric aside, that’s the reality that whoever gets the job is looking at,” said Peter McGhee, v.p. of national programming for WGBH, Boston. “The only way to do new things is to liquidate existing things.”

“There is not a prospect on the horizon for new resources, which don’t already have a claimant, with which to make new programs or take some risks,” McGhee added. “Any new program executive comes into an increasingly risk-averse system with less and less latitude to do new things.”

Balancing act: new versus proven

The new c.p.e. will nevertheless hear repeated calls for new programming.

“The challenges that any new programmer is going to face are exactly the ones that early programmers faced–to fulfill the mandate of public television to provide alternative television,” said Alvin Perlmutter, independent producer. From its beginning, public TV has pioneered new approaches to programming. “Twenty-five years ago, there were no magazine shows, there was no Live from Lincoln Center.” The new c.p.e. has to find “still newer ways of using television, which is what commercial entities are not doing.”

“Whoever takes this job has to think about new ways of approaching what we are doing on the air,” said Byron Knight, TV director at Wisconsin Public Broadcasting and president of the Public Television Programmers’ Association. The new c.p.e. can adopt various strategies to accomplish this: through a process of soliciting proposals, or by making improvements on existing programs. “Jennifer and John stimulated a lot of discussion on Nova and how it can change, and it did,” he noted.

“I do think we need some new ideas,” said Ron Hull, associate g.m. of Nebraska ETV and former director of CPB’s Television Program Fund. He envisions those ideas coming out of “the research and creative minds of our best producers.”

“This person has got to make a splash,” said KVIE’s Susan Prince, a former member of the NPS advisory committee. “It doesn’t necessarily have to be by making broad changes. It can be by effectively presenting what we already do so well.”

Fat “squeezed” out already

The system’s yearning for new programs presents a Catch-22 dilemma for major producers such as WGBH. “Shall we sacrifice Frontline so something else can be created? Or Nova? Or American Experience?,” asked McGhee. “I’m afraid I’d have to argue that that wouldn’t be sensible.”

NPS’s $113.7 million budget for fiscal 1996 provides about two-thirds–$77 million–for continuing series renewals and $18.2 million for new program development. Another $10 million in the challenge fund will be spent on major series that both CPB and PBS agree to invest in. The balance of funds goes into fundraising programs and advertising and promotion.

Lawson’s strategy for freeing up resources for new programming–reducing renewal funds to existing series–may not be available to her successor. “We feel as if we’ve squeezed about all that we can,” said Quattrone. “A number of series have been reduced in episodes and budget. Most have had flat funding. It’s been very difficult.”

“We are always looking to make sure continuing series have the funds they need in order to be the foundation of the schedule,” she added. “Over the past few years they’ve done quite well and even increased or maintained their viewership.” Developing new programs and nurturing old ones is “always a balancing act,” she said.

“We continue to see the NPS as a variety service built upon the old continuing series and new things coming in. I don’t think that will be different in the next few years.”

Trust and respect

How the next program executive relates to producers will be crucial to his or her ability to do the job. The c.p.e.’s role as “the stations’ representative to the television production community” makes it “one of the most important jobs” in public television, according to Knight.

“It’s going to be extremely important for the new c.p.e. to have a relationship of trust and respect between she/he and the production community,” said Knight. Producers must feel that the program chief is treating them “fairly in terms of money and respectfully in terms of content. … Kathy and the staff done a good job but [producers] aren’t sure Kathy is the one they’re going to be always dealing with.”

In its 1994 NPS evaluation, the National Program Policy Committee, a deliberative and broadly representative group that annually reviews the NPS’s performance, repeated what has become a continuing call for the c.p.e. to articulate a programming “vision” to stations and the producing community. This year, it proposed that PBS “examine ways in which a more directed production process might be achieved.”

That suggestion was not received well by major producers. “There’s an anxiety abroad among some of national producers that PBS itself will become a producer, bypass WGBH and WNET and will somehow have higher ratio of success, be more responsive to station interests and will be cheaper and even more profitable,” explained McGhee. “I’m not smart enough to see how that would happen. It’s too hard to produce [programs] to think that it is merely an administrative rearrangement.”

McGhee rejected a suggestion that WGBH could pursue the option of eliminating PBS as its middleman and dealing directly with stations. “The middleman acts on behalf of the stations. It absorbs the politics of the system and converts it into something approaching consensus and system direction.”

Stations across the country serve differing missions and have conflicting views on such questions as whether public TV should compete with cable, McGhee explained. Amid all these differences, he said, “I think PBS is a reasonably sensible expression of consensus.”

“We believe in that consensus view, and what PBS stands for and has stood for for the last 25 years in the direction of programming,” he continued. For now it beats any alternative, especially the “anarchy model.”

Quattrone said PBS has not pursued the NPPC’s recommendation on becoming more directive in spending its production dollars. “At this point, we are functioning the same way as always–as a developer of the pipeline and a creator of the schedule. We certainly are being very pro-active in looking at the timing of projects and working more closely with producers,” she said, but NPS staffers have been doing that “since the c.p.e. came into being.”

Independence from Duggan

The precariousness of public broadcasting’s funding and its recent congressional battles have created two “insurmountable” challenges that the next program czar or czarina will have to deal with, according to a high-level program executive who requested anonymity.

“The first thing the new person has to establish is their ability to make independent program decisions without the political influence of PBS management and reestablish the c.p.e. as independent from so many political influences,” said the executive.

Shortly after his arrival at PBS, President Ervin Duggan explained why he must be involved in “strategic program decisions.”

“When a programming decision involves a truly major outlay of money, when it could have fateful consequences for the survival of the system, when there’s an agonizing choice to be made between this programming priority and that one, I feel I must be consulted,” Duggan said in a March 1994 interview with Current.. “I intend to be involved in such decisions because programming is what PBS is about.”

The programming executive said that political considerations in program decision-making have now gone too far. “Stations are reasonably comfortable with that because they’re having fewer fights with their legislatures,” the executive added. “I don’t think there’s a rallying cry out there to do much cutting-edge programming anymore.” PBS management “seems to be as comfortable with considering the politics of a decision as considering the value of a program.”

The executive described another change in how PBS makes program decisions. “Many program decisions are being based not on the program value they bring but as what kind of deal it can bring,” said the executive. “The programming department needs to refocus toward the mission of creating distinctive programs and away from creative business deals.”

The new emphasis on generating income from programs goes against the argument for the existence of public TV, the executive explained. “It needs to be a place where commerce isn’t the distinguishing reason why you do what you do.”

Quattrone denied that PBS’s program decisions have been compromised by politics, but described changes in how PBS considers the ancillary uses of programs.

“I think that we continue to operate under the editorial principles that we have [developed] over the years,” Quattrone said. “We continue to present full range of perspectives on contemporary issues.” The political pressure on PBS is the same it has always felt, both on the national and local level, she said.

Expanding the uses of programs, Quattrone said, is “one of the main differences” over the past five years in how PBS considers programs. Rather than looking at a new program as broadcast material from the outset, PBS is now starting “a broad discussion of all the possibilities that come with a project,” including ancillary products, “at the very beginning, when a project comes in the door.”

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