Ron Hull, a former director of the Program Fund, reflects on the value of buffer from partisan politics
Jan. 2, 1979 — Robben Fleming, a university president and an authority on (labor) negotiations, comes to CPB as its third president. Also in January, the politically appointed CPB Board suspends its committees to reevaluate their roles. This decision shelved the board’s Program Committee, which traditionally had voted aye or nay on national production proposals for public TV. Even before Fleming arrived, the CPB Board had been rethinking this process.
Ron Hull, a leader in Nebraska public television since the 1950s, recommends that CPB consider reinstating the semi-autonomy of its grantmakers in TV programming. That was how CPB’s Television Program Fund was set up in 1982 when he succeeded Lewis Freedman as the fund’s director. Hull bases this commentary on a chapter of his new book, Backstage: Stories from My Life in Public Television, published in October by the University of Nebraska Press. When CPB’s Television Program Fund began operating with a measure of autonomy, it inspired “an outpouring of heartfelt creative ideas from myriad producers, both independents and those at PBS stations,” Hull writes.
During the 1980s I was the fortunate guy in the right place at the right time when the CPB Board appointed me director of the CPB Program Fund for public television.
CPB’s big America at a Crossroads initiative 20 independently produced documentaries on aspects of the post-9/11 world, at a cost not wildly above the predicted $20 million. [This list tracks the 21 grants to producers and the resulting 20 broadcasts. See also <em>Current</em>’s related 2009 article and timeline.]
Costs of the project’s major phases:
$2,520,724 — for R&D on proposals from 36 producing teams, the first cut in the grantmaking process,
+ 12, 629,507.— for production of the final 20 selected projects, and
+ 5,644,158 — for WETA’s work as “Crossroads entry station” including packaging and promotion of the series and outreach efforts. = $20,794,389 — total cost
Here’s a boxscore counting the productions. Links go to pages about the programs on PBS.org.
Could CPB have avoided the public collision of wills over one of the America at a Crossroads documentaries that tainted its $20 million project in 2007 about the post-9/11 world? Determining that, in effect, was the assignment that Cheryl Halpern, then chair of the CPB Board, gave more than two years ago to the corporation’s semi-autonomous inspector general, Kenneth Konz. Back then 10 members of Congress also had asked CPB and its IG to determine what kept the program, Islam vs. Islamists: Voices from the Muslim Center, from airing among the first batch of Crossroads shows on PBS. The lead producer of the film, Frank Gaffney, a defense think-tank president and former Pentagon official, had gone public with his dispute.
Pat Mitchell, then president of PBS, delivered this talk May 24, 2005, at the National Press Club, in the midst of escalating news coverage of the conflict between public TV and Kenneth Tomlinson, then chair of CPB. Mitchell was preparing to announce recommendations for public TV’s future, but the Digital Futures Initiative report was delayed until December 2005, after Tomlinson had quit CPB and the dust was clearing. Since becoming president of PBS, I’ve often been at podiums like this one, with audiences like this one, although perhaps not as well informed or well prepared as a National Press Club gathering or one with so many familiar faces, those of friends and colleagues in public broadcasting. I appreciate the presence of national and local leaders of this great institution of which we are the current caretakers, and along with them, I am grateful to have this opportunity to make the case for the value and relevancy, and in fact, essential need for a vital and viable public broadcasting service in a democracy. Leading PBS at any time comes with bragging rights to be sure.
Suddenly, pubcasting is in for a severe talking-to, if not a whupping. The House subcommittee that held such a congenial hearing on CPB’s long-overdue reauthorization a fortnight earlier is now preparing a second hearing July 20 to take pubcasters to task for swapping donor mailing lists with the Democratic Party. House Republicans were angry last week when they learned that Boston’s WGBH did it this spring, and angrier when they heard there were other times. And tempers will rise as similar reports come in from other stations. WNET in New York and WETA in Washington told reporters late last week that they’ve traded lists with both Democratic and Republican groups.
Nearly three decades of observing CPB close-up have convinced me that only an essential change in the way CPB Board members are selected offers some prospect of achieving the bright future projected for the organization by the first Carnegie Commission and the Congress in 1967.