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Mitchell’s first PBS changes move toward airtime

Originally published in Current, March 12, 2001
By Karen Everhart Bedford

Shortly after Pat Mitchell joined PBS as its fifth president one year ago, her station relations chief Wayne Godwin coined a nickname for his new boss—"Our Lady of Perpetual Motion."

Mitchell did what one would expect of a new PBS president: she went on a "listening tour" to numerous stations, speaking eloquently about the value of services they deliver. As the first producer to lead PBS, she also quickly grasped her mandate to reinvigorate PBS's primetime lineup and pushed forward aggressively in ways once considered unthinkable.

In April [2001], for example, PBS will present American High, a docu-soap about teenagers coming of age in a predominantly white Chicago suburb. Produced by R.J. Cutler, a hot young producer of observational documentaries, the edgy, fast-paced series had an aborted run on Fox last summer. Its presence on PBS marks a commitment to serve an audience that public television had largely written off, and a willingness to invest in content from new sources.

Under Mitchell's direction, PBS has asked its biggest program supplier, WGBH in Boston, to reinvent Mystery! as a showcase for American, not British, detective stories—an exciting but very expensive proposition for a series that stations prize as a generator of pledges and memberships.

The network also recently reduced funding for WGBH's Nova by 10 percent and its American Experience by 7 percent, according to Peter McGhee, the station's v.p. of national productions. The two series will have fewer new episodes per year under the two-year contract. Frontline funding was kept at its previous level.

When Mitchell came into the job last March, she took on an incredibly difficult set of challenges. She pledged to reverse PBS's declining primetime audiences and membership rolls, and to distinguish its schedule from look-alike cable services. She embraced the local/national structure of public TV as an asset, not a hindrance, and began outlining a strategy for drawing viewers to public TV whether they're watching broadcast or digital TV, via a personal video recorder or broadband connection.


"One of the things I think is terrific about Pat is she doesn't know what can't be done," said John Wilson, senior programming v.p., whose initiatives to pilot-test a revamped primetime schedule (story at right) and develop new programs continued apace after Mitchell became his boss. "When people say, 'We tried that 10 years ago,' she doesn't know that and won't hear of it."

"She's created an atmosphere and environment here where we can push forward," he added.

As for new programs, PBS optioned the rights to future seasons of American High, and commissioned Life in Bold (working title), a biographical magazine series co-produced by Oregon Public Broadcasting and ABC's Nightline. PBS also invested in the national launch of WNET's arts magazine, Egg. Both Egg and Life in Bold will include contributions from stations around the country.

Mitchell recruited Frontline executive Mike Sullivan to develop a proposal for Public Square (working title), a concept for "must-see TV" that PBS hopes to launch next January. "If this is done right, this will be the single biggest initiative that will really break out for public television," said Mitchell. "It will really make a statement about distinctiveness and differentiation, and our unique way of delivering value."

In her year at Braddock Place, Mitchell has fostered the conviction among her station constituents that stations and PBS can waste no time in remaking themselves.

"I believe," said Kathleen Pavelko, president of WITF in Harrisburg, "there's a deeply felt and long incoming realization that public TV must change significantly if it is to thrive and survive" in the digital environment. "This is not a matter only of tinkering with the program schedule or individual program streams. We are prepared to follow a strongly articulated and appropriate new vision for public service television."

"If we had listened to the people who were fearful about change, we wouldn't have even gotten the pilot schedule," said Mitchell. "You've got to take risk to grow and increase support."

Taking on the big guys

Mitchell is getting rave reviews from station executives for her energy, enthusiasm and willingness to push aside chronic handicaps of public television—fractionalism and funding shortages.

"She's asking the right questions and showing all the right signs of handling the presidency as it should be handled," said Rob Gardiner, vice chairman of the PBS Board and president of Maine Public Broadcasting. "It is a very complex job," and requires a mixture of both "listening to and prodding people."

"I've sensed in her company that she is an extraordinarily quick study," said Bill Marrazzo, president of WHYY in Philadelphia. "She reads a room really well, and doesn't shy away from the difficult stuff."

"I applaud her leadership as a spokesperson for PBS on the national level," said Mary Bitterman, president of KQED in San Francisco. Mitchell is particularly adept at "clearly reminding people of the important role that stations play."

Mitchell last summer began reorganizing PBS's programming division with the goal of opening up to more producers [related story]. Bitterman described this change as a "big step in the right direction" to acknowledge the diversity of the country and "make the participation of stations in every geographical region possible."

"She has guts," said Fred Schneider, executive producer at WTTW in Chicago, commenting on Mitchell's campaign to expand PBS's production base. To big producing stations, this particular change is as threatening as term limits are to incumbent politicians, he commented.

Responding to a Boston Globe critic who recently ascribed her motivations for this to political correctness, Mitchell said a more diverse production base is "critical" in achieving "diversity in points of view and perspective" within PBS programs.

"Our communities are very diverse, and our programming does not look enough like the communities that we're serving," she said, adding that she heard this complaint "a lot" on her tour of stations.

While the majority of PBS member stations appear to be solidly behind Mitchell on this point, one producing-station executive noted with frustration that PBS money is going to Fox for American High, ABC News for Life in Bold, and Steven Spielberg for repeat national broadcasts of Schindler's List. The executive expressed uncertainty about what lies ahead for the system's biggest producing stations.

Many of the stations aspiring to contribute more to the schedule got out of the national production business during the 1980s because the economics were difficult to sustain—and remain so.

"You subsidize national productions as the cost of doing business with PBS," commented Sharon Rockefeller, president of WETA in Washington. "At best, you break even."

"She's shaking up a lot of 30-year-old foundations," said Ward Chamberlin, production executive at WNET, referring to the changes Mitchell seeks for PBS's long-running signature series. "What else in television stays the same for 30 years?"

"The questions we have here at Thirteen are, 'Can we maintain the quality of programming we think is our hallmark in a changing world? Can WNET compete? I think we can, but we'll have to reinvent ourselves to do it. We can compete with anybody, as long as we don't have different scales of quality."

Assets that "nobody can buy"

"PBS, to my mind, is an extremely fragile entity—it's more fragile than most realize because it's chronically underfunded and doesn't have much running room," said Rebecca Eaton, executive producer of Masterpiece Theatre and Mystery! for WGBH. But the network does have two assets that "nobody can buy" in today's over-hyped media environment — viewer loyalty and brand integrity. "You have to be very careful when you try to renew and revamp and refresh that you don't dilute either of those things."

Eaton is particularly concerned about Mystery!, which PBS stopped funding as a series of British-produced whodunits. Eaton proposed folding American detective stories into the mix. But Mitchell—who is enthusiastic about adapting Tony Hillerman's detective novels—asked for a complete makeover. WGBH is working on it, and research has turned up some "very exciting things," Eaton acknowledged. "But they cost a lot of money."

Even if the producers succeed in remaking Mystery!, she added, there will be no more British mysteries after next January, unless stations support them independently.

"I'm very concerned about how expensive it will be—and retiring a successful brand that's taken so long to build." Mystery! has "an enormous loyal audience—most critically among the members who support local stations."

PBS provided roughly 80 percent of Mystery!'s production budget, or $5 million annually, according to Mitchell. "As you add that up, we are talking about $35-40 million over a period of time. I am sure we can find the resources to invest that same kind of money in American mysteries, if we put our heads together and be innovative and creative—and that's what we're doing."

As a package of British imports, Mystery! did not pass the test of "differentiation and distinction" that PBS is applying to primetime series, Mitchell explained. British mysteries are available to viewers "lots of other places."

"Among the things I heard when I was out visiting stations was that there is too much British drama and not enough American drama," she added.

"We have many important strands of programming that don't come from PBS," particularly British comedies, noted Tom Howe, executive director of UNC-TV. "From our perspective, the loss of Mystery! on PBS won't mean its loss on UNC-TV. "We hope another supplier will make it available to us." Indeed, WGBH may syndicate the British mysteries to stations.

"We cannot have WGBH and WNET feel from the decisions made at PBS that they're out there all alone," said Mary Bitterman. "It is incumbent on those of us who benefit from their programs to be of assistance to them."

"We will not lightly let Mystery! go away."

Pilot schedule adjusted for continued testing

Antiques Road Show will go back to its Monday night timeslot and Nature will return to Sunday evening in a revised primetime pilot schedule that PBS and seven stations continue testing next month. The fine-tuned lineup gives American High the same timeslot on PBS's pilot and regular schedules , Wednesdays at 10 p.m.

"These are not gigantic adjustments," acknowledged John Wilson, senior programming v.p.; nor are they a "one-to-one blueprint" of the new primetime schedule that PBS will roll out nationally in the fall. In its fall 2001 line-up, PBS will introduce another new series Life in Bold, and will continue its new teen strand with Senior Year, a documentary series set in a Los Angeles high school.

In pilot sked 2.0, Antiques Road Show moves from its Sunday 8 p.m. slot to Mondays at 8 as a protective move. The hit series from WGBH helped build Sunday audiences at the experimenting pilot stations, but it drew even more viewers for control stations airing it on Mondays. In its Monday pilot slot, Road Show will lead into Masterpiece Theatre.

Sunday nights in pilot 2.0 will start off with Nature at 7 p.m., a timeslot that PBS doesn't traditionally program. "We've had luck programming it on the pilot stations compared to themselves and to the control stations, and it seemed worth trying," said Wilson. A repeat of a science program follows at 8 p.m., leading into American Experience or American Masters. On Fridays at 8, Nature's previous pilot slot, a repeat of Road Show will lead into the "Ws" block, Washington Week and Wall Street Week.

Looking ahead to changes for the fall, Wilson plans to schedule Life in Bold in the first hour of primetime. "It think it would make a nice pairing with Frontline," which is "enjoying" its pilot slot, Thursdays at 9. Wilson does not plan to drop any of PBS's ongoing series from the fall schedule.

PBS and stations in seven markets began testing the pilot schedule last fall, trying out counter-programming strategies to make its line-up more "viewer-friendly."

Wilson said that research on the pilot schedule shows "some improvements" in broadening PBS's audience, with increased viewing by three demographic groups: men 18-49 and 50-plus, and women 50-plus. Viewing by women 18-49, an audience that commercial networks die for, is down for both pilot and control group stations. But for the other three groups, "we positively affected the demographics without adding any new programming," said Wilson. TRAC Media and PBS Research are working up an analysis of whether these viewers spend more time watching PBS.



. To Current's home page
. Earlier story: PBS hires Mitchell, first producer (and first woman) to become its president.
. Related story: Mitchell, herself a former independent producer, orders procedure changes to streamline relations with indies.
. Later news: PBS plan sets goals of reversing declines in stations' audiences and membership.

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