Downton Abbey may be the best thing to happen to public TV in many years, but if public media people are looking to use it to justify their ongoing taxpayer subsidy, good luck. So says one of the four Republicans currently serving on CPB’s board, which is bipartisan by law.
“We have the golden age of American original drama — which public television originally contemplated supporting — we’re seeing an incredible flowering of that in the commercial marketplace,” Howard Husock told me on The Pub.
“I think in that context, it’s appropriate for public media to think about what roles are not being filled,” he said.
Husock, whose day job is serving as vice president for policy research at the conservative Manhattan Institute, thinks the role that public media should focus on — the one that is increasingly not being filled in the commercial marketplace — is local journalism.
In an article for the journal National Affairs, Husock suggests ways that public radio and TV stations can increasingly redirect their resources away from acquiring national programs and toward local journalism. As he tells me in conversation, this is a topic near and dear to Husock’s heart — in a former life, he was a local TV reporter at WGBH in Boston.
Also on this week’s show:
- Newsroom consultant Judith Smelser on why it’s so hard for stations to find a good news director these days
- I explain my slogan, “Authenticity is the new authority” in media, with the help of deputy TheAtlantic.com editor Matt Thompson, who previously launched NPR’s Code Switch blog
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While I generally agree with Mr. Husock regarding the role we can play in local journalism, I take issue with a couple of points raised during your discussion with him.
First is the suggestion that the “gaps in the marketplace” that public broadcasting was created to address are largely being filled. We need to take that argument out behind the barn and put it out of its misery.
It *might* have been true in the early days of A&E, Bravo, Discovery, History Channel and IFC, but every last one of them has subsequently abandoned its “mission.” Read last week’s TIME profile of Discovery CEO David Zaslav (http://time.com/3768613/david-zaslav-the-cable-boss/). This is a guy dedicated to making TV an ever-vaster wasteland.
Where are the in-depth documentaries on science and history? Where is the arts programming? The long-form investigative journalism? The independent films? (Okay, maybe not on WNET.)
My point is that we are filling a variety of gaps in the marketplace *right now*, and we need to stop sadly nodding our heads when someone suggests that we are no longer relevant.
We can and should do *more*, of course, and local journalism seems like a good growth area.
In addition, his assertion that airing “non-mission-driven programming” during pledge drives “tells us something about what they think of the popularity of their core programming” wasn’t just wrong, but offensive.
Let’s not mix apples and other, non-apple fruits. Radio and TV pledge work differently. With radio, you can more-or-less stick with the regular schedule and do very well. The same is not true for TV.
What our airing of “non-mission-driven” programming during pledge should tell is that we have *tried* pitching core–many, many times–and that the results have not been where we need them to be. (I mean, come on, if it was that easy, wouldn’t we be doing it? I’d love to never again explain to an angry viewer why NOVA wasn’t on.)
There are exceptions; for example, my station has generally been successful pitching “Masterpiece,” even prior to “Downton Abbey.” But I can remember nights in the studio making the case for “Antiques Roadshow” at the height of its popularity and hearing crickets rather than phones.
The fact that PBS is currently engaged in a multi-year test (in select markets) of a core-like national pledge schedule should speak volumes about the difficulty of pitching mission on TV.