Spending goals, slowdown prompt 60 layoffs at PBS

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Anticipating the rollout of a new strategic plan and budget proposal,
PBS laid off 60 employees March 15.

Although the 9 percent cutback of positions was spread across the company,
the programming department saw some of the most significant changes in what
PBS describes as a “strategic realignment” under President Pat Mitchell.

Among the team of regional programming execs that Mitchell began hiring
last summer, Jacoba “Coby” Atlas and John Wilson were elevated as co-chief
programming executives. Atlas, PBS’s West Coast exec, now has responsibility
for all primetime and news/public affairs programs. Wilson remains in charge
of children’s content, fundraising and syndicated programs, and scheduling.
Pat Hunter, formerly v.p. of programming administration, was promoted to
senior v.p. and assigned project management duties.

Atlas, a former CNN colleague of Mitchell’s, will continue to be based
on the West Coast, but she will spend more time at Braddock Place, said
Tom Epstein, PBS spokesman. She will establish an office in a now-vacant
space on the sixth floor, on the same floor as Mitchell’s office.

The network also consolidated supervision of genre-specific content under
three senior directors: Sandy Heberer heads factual programming; Glenn DuBose,
performance and fictional programming; and Pat Nugent, children’s programming.

PBS’s education department is now part of the Member Affairs division.
Jinny Goldstein, senior v.p. of education, reports to Executive Vice President
Wayne Godwin, the station relations chief.

The restructuring precedes the PBS Board’s consideration of a new PBS strategic
plan and a proposed fiscal 2002 budget at Braddock Place, March 28-29. The
layoffs do not foreshadow “anything dramatic” in the budget, said Epstein.

PBS ordered layoffs for two reasons, Epstein said:

  • Fitting the staff to new strategic priorities, as in the restructuring
    of the programming office.
  • Responding to slowing revenue growth. In the Washington Post,
    Mitchell described a “shortfall in all our revenue-producing businesses
    and [at] our stations—everybody is feeling a squeeze in this economic

“It would be mistaken” to assume that the restructuring foreshadows a “dire
financial situation” for PBS, said Chairman Colin Campbell, who is president
of the Colonial Williamsburg Foundation. “In connection with a budgeting
and strategic planning process, you look at staffing issues.”

“It’s very important for PBS to make sure that its financial resources
line up with its strategic goals,” said John Swope, a lay board member who
was interim PBS president before Mitchell arrived. While he was at Braddock
Place, Swope had been concerned about the “growth in personnel.” PBS’s workforce
grew from about 500 employees in 1995 to 650 before the cutback, said Epstein.

There were other signs of fiscal caution. In January, PBS Board’s Program
Policy Committee tabled a recommendation on increases in PBS’s 2002 programming
dues. The committee’s annual programming report, a bellwether for changes
in PBS program strategies and dues, advised the staff to justify its fiscal
2002 dues request with a programming plan “designed to signal value” to

Campbell noted that recent increases in program assessments came after
dues had been frozen for several years. “My own sense in last couple years
is that people are feeling that programming has been too tightly budgeted,
and they’re willing to put more money here.”

Word of imminent layoffs spread through “hallway talk” at Braddock Place
on March 14, according on PBS staff member who said the cuts “came as a
surprise to most people.” PBS senior managers met with their divisions on
March 15 to formally announce the layoffs.

“In the staff meeting I sensed some real pain on the part of the executive
staff that they had to make cuts they didn’t want to make,” the staff member
said. “From everything I’ve read, heard or seen, I would say they did it
very humanely, with real care and sensitivity for those affected.”

“I talked to a number of those who were laid off and heard no bitterness
or rancor,” the staffer added. “From that I take some solace that at least
people I respect … were treated thoughtfully and kindly with respect for
their contributions to PBS.”

PBS offered “very generous severance packages” and continuing benefits
to the affected employees, said Epstein. They were given until the close
of business on March 16 to leave their offices.

The network has not imposed a hiring freeze, and employees whose jobs were
cut were invited to apply for open positions for which they were qualified.
Dozens of jobs are open, including some vice presidencies, Epstein said.

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