National Forum for Public Television Executives: Phase I of creation

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Phase I: Overview of Conclusions and Their Implications

Early in the year-long process of founding the Forum, the facilitating consultants, BMR Associates, prepared this summary of findings, released in October 1996.

The goal of Phase I was to lay the foundation for Countdown ’97” as described in our project proposal. Phase I consisted of 49 interviews with public broadcasting industry leaders and managers, plus two facilitated workshops and two focus groups.

As defined in the RFP, the project included all of public broadcasting. However, midway through Phase I we determined that we should focus our efforts on public television because public radio did not exhibit the same level of need for changes in governance and organization.

As a result of our fact finding during Phase I, we reached two basic conclusions:

  • That public television is neither an institution nor a community, but a pluralistic society consisting of different voices and perspectives. Accurate labeling is important because these definitions shape our thinking about the most effective and appropriate ways to co-exist. Those labeling PTV an “institution,” for instance, may consider it disloyal or dirty politics for interest groups to form in order to advocate their agendas. In pluralism, this is legitimate, if done within agreed upon ground rules.
  • That fundamental challenges confront this pluralistic society, but it lacks adequate mechanisms and protocols to explore and resolve these challenges.

Public television: an institution that never was

Public television is not a single organization or institution.

One of the problems initially defined in this project was that the institution” of public television needed to act in a more timely manner to address issues that confront it. Not only did we find this problem, but we also found a deeper one: Public television is not an institution in the traditional sense of the word.

Some general managers argue that there are, in fact, two systems,” consisting of educational non-profit stations and commercially oriented non-profit stations. Others believe there are multiple systems within the system.” Still others argue that there are only independent licensees, with nothing more binding them than their traditional reliance on taxpayer dollars and a common interconnection system.

Public television has multiple missions, goals and strategies. These are often in conflict.

There have always been differences among types of licensees and differences among stations because of market size and other factors. Historically, educational broadcasting began with the local licensee. With the development of the NAEB and NET, and with the legislation, organizational structures and funding that followed the first Carnegie Commission Task Force Report, there evolved a sense of national vision, mission and purpose.

Our present hypothesis is that, as time has passed, this sense of national mission and purpose has slowly eroded and local licensees have tended to revert to the time when they felt less allegiance to the national institution.” As a result, local licensees today feel less responsibility for the welfare of the national phenomenon we know as public television.

This trend toward reduced allegiance has been acknowledged, but the consequences of it are not being fully examined. This is a crucial and fundamental issue.

While PTV professionals talk about their differing views on various issues, they rarely sit down and face together the likely consequences of their views–or the consequences of their inability to agree.

For example, stations long have claimed the right to control their own air and to provide programming that’s appropriate for their local needs. This has spawned such diverse perspectives as:

  • “Our purpose is to deliver instructional/education programming as an integral part of the education infrastructure in our area.”
  • “Our role is to produce signature programming. We think it is reasonable for local stations to respect underwriting and common carriage guidelines to ensure the continued investment in quality programming.”
  • “Our broadcast license gives us the right to air whatever programming we think will attract an educated, upscale audience from whom we can raise money in various ways.”

A common value — localism — has resulted in potentially conflicting goals. But these conflicts, and their consequences, often go unacknowledged or are papered over.

National organizations have unclear mandates and fuzzy lines of authority.

Unclear mandates at the national level often result in duplication of effort or outright competition, rather than cooperation. In addition, PBS and CPB respond to the lack of an institutional voice by attempting to confront the many national problems and make decisions on behalf of the system.” This leads to further mistrust and division, both between the central organizations and between the national organizations and the general managers, who disagree on whether this is an appropriate role for PBS and/or CPB.

Public television: multiple voices in a process of fragmenting

There is an increasing tendency for general managers with differing viewpoints and perspectives to become less active in the national arena out of pessimism and frustration.

As existing interest groups become more and more frustrated by the failure of conventional means to deal with these issues, there is an increasing tendency to form splinter groups.

One of the problems initially defined in this project was that there are multiple and often competing perspectives within public television. Not only did we find that problem, but we also found a deeper one: The interest groups change as issues change, and existing organizations may not even represent their own membership. This vastly complicates any attempt at representative governance.

There is neither a unifying vision nor a set of stabilizing forces to unify PTV.

Internally, there is no clear over-arching vision around which the various perspectives can rally. There is no unifying voice, nor is there even agreement on whether there should be such a voice.

In the past, certain external forces — most notably, the almost universal need for federal support — exerted a steadying and unifying force. The threatened absence of federal funding as a unifying issue exposes PTV’s underlying instability.

In addition, the national organizations, rather than exerting a moderating influence, also amplify these differences. As these pressures build on each other, the instability increases.

There is a failure to come to grips with this fragmenting of PTV or to acknowledge the implications of this growing trend.

Public television: in search of a decision-making forum

There is an inadequate response to PTV’s business problems.

Serious business issues confront public television stations today. These include the threatened loss of taxpayer funding, the high cost of new technology, and increasing competition in PTV’s traditional programming niches.

To be dealt with effectively, these issues may need a coordinated PTV-wide response. Yet the countervailing forces within the industry make such a coordinated response increasingly difficult to achieve.

There are issues of national interest with no appropriate forum.

There are fundamental issues that are not being productively examined. One reason is that there is no appropriate forum for some of them. Such forums currently exist within the national organizations, but each of these is increasingly an entity unto itself with its own goals and agenda. This leads to two important problems:

  • There is no purely “neutral” forum to engage in dialogue over contentious issues;
  • There is no process for determining which issues, if any, warrant such a forum.

There is a failure to understand fully the competing logic among various perspectives, resulting in a tendency to demonize opposing views.

The existing ad hoc decision-making processes rarely produce a broad-based recognition of the fundamental differences between the various perspectives. While task forces and subcommittees seek input and make legitimate efforts to consider all positions, many managers never gain a thorough understanding of complex issues. This lack of understanding and recognition leads to a tendency to demonize the other camps and spawns a cycle of reactive and self-defeating behavior as groups which should or could have an affinity for each other instead become increasingly alienated.

There is competition and mistrust, rather than cooperation, among the national organizations.

Historically, PBS and CPB have struggled over control of program production funding. CPB’s recent contribution of $1 million to APS is viewed as a deliberate attempt to weaken PBS. While there is less mistrust and competition between APTS and the other two organizations, there is still competition among the three organizations over which entity represents the interests of public television before Congress and which should handle planning and research functions.

There is a lack of accepted rules and protocols supportive of constructive dialogue.

Station managers tend not to discuss serious, divisive issues in legitimate forums. Instead, disputes are either hushed up or aired in smaller settings, where there is less chance to develop industry-wide consensus. PBS and CPB are hostile toward one another in public forums. This further poisons the environment for constructive dialogue among opposing points of view. It’s hard to imagine that this doesn’t also negatively affect PTV’s relationships with Congress.


Entering into this project, we expected to find agreement about the issues and questions confronting public television — and disagreement about solutions. But what we found instead was a need for all stakeholders to define and understand more clearly the underlying issues and questions themselves. There are fundamental questions that need to be asked which have not been asked.

For example, station managers know the critical business forces they face, and many are devising strategies to meet them. But they are less clear of the probable consequences of how they are responding to those forces. They have examined and debated some of the core issues, such as relaxed underwriting rules. But they have not examined the probable consequences of their inability to reach agreement and common action.

As we see it, the first step toward real change is to get this more complex view of the situation understood by a critical mass of television managers, who can then agree on: (a) an appropriate way of stating and communicating the problem(s) to the rest of the managers and lay leaders, and (b) how best to proceed toward resolution. We envision that this will lead to structures and processes better suited to dealing effectively with current and future issues confronting PTV.

Working first with a series of discussion groups and subsequently with a core working group, we intend to build the momentum for change with station managers. We will work with each group of managers to explore the implications and potential consequences of the current reality — and the consequences of doing nothing about it.

As change-management experts, we know that if people agree that those con- sequences are significant, and if they confront that fact together, then there is likely to be a fundamental shift in their willingness and ability to resolve issues together.

Through facilitated discussion, these managers will be guided to:

  • Verify the complex diversity of views and survival strategies (pluralism) and examine the implications.
  • Recognize the underlying patterns: politicking, jockeying, and splintering into isolated groups that waste energy and yield questionable results. Examine the underlying causes and implications of those patterns.
  • Identify the range of issues common to everyone in the industry that could be candidates for resolution.
  • Acknowledge that there is currently no acceptable process for deciding which of these issues needs to be addressed, nor a forum for dealing with them effectively. Explore the possible consequences of this weakness. Begin to identify the specific issues that fall into this category.In parallel, BMR Associates will coordinate and conduct other activities to sustain the momentum toward change:
  • It will analyze relevant outside organizations that meet specific performance and structural criteria in order to understand their forms of governance; it will present those models to the discussion groups and core working group; those groups, in turn, may “borrow” from those models in developing a new organizational structure and decision-making process.
  • BMR will conduct periodic surveys of station managers and lay leaders on key factors of proposed governance frameworks — such as how to define the various affinity groups–so that manager feedback can be incorporated into the deliberations of the core working group.
  • BMR will facilitate Town Meetings so that larger groups of PTV managers can gather to discuss the proposed elements of a new governance framework.
  • It will coordinate ongoing communications to ensure that PTV managers and lay leaders are informed about the progress toward change.

In sum, the continuing work toward developing a new decision-making process and governance structure for public television will proceed on several fronts, all with the aim of reaching a final set of recommendations that can be submitted to a binding vote in the fall of 1997.

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