National Forum for Public Television Executives: Q&A on creation

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As public TV’s Core Working Group worked to build consensus around creation of the Forum in 1997, it published this Q&A, both on paper and on its web site. “Countdown ’97” was the group’s name for its consensus-building process.

Questions and Answers about Countdown ’97

Here are questions typical of those we’ve heard general managers and others in the public television community ask about Countdown ’97, along with answers from John Hershberger, Senior Associate with BMR Associates, the San Francisco consulting firm guiding the Countdown ’97 process. Countdown ’97 will conclude with a Convention of Stations in Austin, Texas, on Nov. 5.

Q: I’m aware of Countdown ’97, but frankly, I haven’t tuned in to it. In one minute or less, what’s the goal?

A: “The goal of Countdown ’97 is to design a framework and a process through which public television stations can engage in productive discussions of key issues and reach collective decisions when necessary.” That’s the official goal statement adapted by the Core Working Group.

In Phase I of Project ’97, one of our key findings was that public television has neither a neutral forum nor an effective mechanism for PTV licensees to deliberate major national issues in an objective way and reach good decisions — decisions that stick, decisions that everyone will support because of the integrity of the process by which those decisions are made. [Phase I overview.]

Q: What about changing our existing national structures? Is that part of the goal?

A: The Core Working Group’s top priority is to focus on creating an effective mechanism for making good decisions on major issues. Inevitably, that leads to a discussion about how such a mechanism would relate to the existing national organizations. The CWG envisions creating a national body of licensee CEO’s to drive and control the destiny of public television. Its features, while not yet fully fleshed out, are expected to be the following:

  • a formalized process for groups from all perspectives to be heard;
  • a neutral forum for discussion of ideas;
  • a research and data-gathering process; and
  • a representative Council of CEO’s to oversee all of the above.

The CWG is sensitive to the need not to form another national organization, and is looking for efficiencies while contemplating a new structure.

Q:You haven’t mentioned APTS. Aren’t they sponsoring Countdown ’97?

A: The project was initiated and funded by APTS in the spring of 1996 on behalf of all of public broadcasting. The purpose evolved based upon our interviews in Phase I with 50 public broadcasting leaders representing the broad spectrum of interests that make up the public broadcasting landscape. Subsequently, we conducted a series of three discussion groups with PTV station CEO’s around the country, once again making certain that the diversity of perspectives within public television was represented.

While APTS continues to be the fiscal agent for the project, the Core Working Group is now responsible for results and controls the process, with guidance and assistance from BMR Associates. CPB also is participating in the project now, supporting a portion of the CWG’s travel costs and making funds available to stations where necessary for travel to the Convention of Stations in November.

Q:Who is the Core Working Group and how were its members selected?

A: From the beginning we recognized it would be essential to the success of the project that responsibility for outcomes shift from APTS to the stations themselves. From the 37 participants in the three discussion groups, BMR selected six managers to form the nucleus of the Core Working Group (CWG). They in turn chose seven more managers so that now the CWG includes:

  • Carole Cartwright, WYCC;
  • Bryce Combs, WMVS/WMVT;
  • Trina Cutter, WNIT;
  • Mark Erstling, WPSX;
  • Ginni Fox, KET;
  • Dennis Haarsager, KWSU;
  • Mike Hardgrove, KETC;
  • Al Jerome, KCET;
  • Bill McCarter, WTTW;
  • George Miles, Jr., WQED;
  • Jim Pagliarini, KNPB;
  • Al Pizzato, WSRE; and
  • Mel Rogers, KOCE.

Assisting the CWG is the Circle of Advisors, a group of 38 individuals including 33 licensee CEO’s and five others selected for their wisdom and perspective.

Q: If APTS initiated this project for all public broadcasters, why isn’t radio represented on the CWG or the Circle of Advisors?

In Phase I, we interviewed national leaders in the public radio community, numerous joint radio/tv licensees and a number of other managers of local public radio stations. What we heard indicates a greater sense of urgency and need in public television, and we decided to focus our initial efforts there. We are keeping in touch with the radio community and the door is open for them to join the discussion.

Tom Thomas, head of the Station Resource Group, is a member of the Circle of Advisors, and we continue to provide information to the national radio organizations. Also, several members of the CWG and Circle of Advisors represent joint radio/TV licensees. We anticipate the decision-making processes and structures that will be recommended by the CWG will be readily adaptable for radio or a joint radio/TV collaboration.

Q: Where does BMR Associates fit into the picture?

A: BMR Associates is a management consulting firm, based in the San Francisco area, that serves media companies and organizations. Our role has been to provide direction, research and facilitation for the project. We were chosen for the project by the APTS Board of Trustees in a competitive selection process.

The BMR project team includes four senior associates; Peter Kiers, company president and overall project director; Eric Douglas, project manager; John Hershberger, veteran public broadcasting professional, and Ken Macher, a leader in helping organizations improve their decision-making and governing processes. In addition, BMR has the assistance of a Senior Advisory Panel consisting of four organizational and change management specialists:

  • Linda Applegate, co-chair of the Harvard Business School MBA program;
  • Dee Hock, founder of VISA International;
  • Bill O’Brien, retired CEO of Hanover Insurance Companies; and
  • Ray Miles, dean emeritus of the Walter A. Haas School of Business at UC Berkeley.

Q: What do you expect to happen at the Convention of Stations in Austin this November?

A: This summer the CWG is framing its recommendations for public television licensees. Following multiple opportunities to review and amend the recommendations, licensees will be asked to ratify the recommendations at the Convention of Stations.

Right now, the CWG is working its way through some very tough questions. Who will decide which issues will be decided with the new process? What authority will a new decision-making process have? If votes are taken, how will licensees be fairly represented? The process requires money and people in a structural framework. Where will the money come from, and what will the structural framework look like? These are the kinds of issues that will be addressed in the CWG’s recommendations.

Q: When will I see what the Core Working Group is recommending? When will I have opportunities to provide input to the CWG?

A: The CWG initially will use the Circle of Advisors as a sounding board for its preliminary recommendations. After that, sometime in September, all PTV station licensees will receive a draft copy of the recommendations. A systematic feedback and input process will follow in order to get the best thinking of the entire public television community. In the meantime, any licensee CEO who would like to become more involved in the work of the CWG now should contact a member of the Core Working Group.

Q:Did anyone look outside of public broadcasting for decision-making or governance models we might learn from?

A: Yes, that was part of our original assignment. In Phase II, we researched more than two dozen organizations that shared some important characteristics with public television and that seemed to make effective decisions. We looked for organizations with autonomous, locally owned units with varying missions and with internal sub-groups or factions.

Twelve organizations met all or most of the criteria. They included such diverse entities as Visa International, the National Association of Broadcasters, the Constitutional Convention of 1787 and the National Basketball Association. You may want to look at our report, “Phase II: The Search for Paradigms,” which provides greater detail about nine of the selected organizations and insights gleaned from our research.

Perhaps the most important insight is that people with very different perspectives and priorities can and do make effective major decisions together when it is in their collective best interest to do so.

What hope is there that Countdown ’97 can help public television change the way it does its business?

A: We think there are several reasons to be optimistic. First, in our Phase I research we discovered a deep-seated, gut-level feeling among many of those we interviewed that the status-quo was not acceptable. Second, they said they were ready to take action to make things better.

A third reason for optimism is that most people who have been exposed to what we call the “principles of productive conversation” are convinced that those principles can be applied successfully to help address some of public television’s most difficult disputes.

Q: Seems to me you’re putting a lot of weight on the principles of productive conversation. Why is that?

A: You’re right. We are putting considerable emphasis on using productive conversation to address public television’s major issues. For companies and organizations, it represents an effective way to reach lasting agreements. It’s especially useful in situations where competing factions have their own internal logic. Going back again to our Phase I research, it became clear to us that stations needed a better way to make collective decisions in their own best interest and that there were many “competing logics” making collective action difficult.

Productive conversation can be a powerful tool, changing how individuals frame difficult and contentious issues in their own minds and then take effective action together with other individuals who have very different perspectives and priorities.

It’s not a “touchy-feely” sort of thing at all; rather, it uses the best objective data available to reach high-quality agreements and decisions on important business issues. As with any significant change in human behavior, making good use of the principles of productive conversation requires training and practice. The CWG is using the principles in their own deliberations. We encourage you to talk with members of the CWG to get their impressions about the technique.

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