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Expect ‘survival of the fittest’
PBS execs warn funding shortfalls will push some series off the air

Revised from Current, May 10, 2004
By Karen Everhart

With some producers failing to find underwriters, a top PBS programmer predicts public TV will see "a certain amount of survival of the fittest" among its national programs.

PBS has lost 32 percent of its corporate underwriting over the past three years, according to PBS. [PBS President Pat Mitchell originally said 47 percent, but PBS later corrected the figure.]

"We will be seeing some draconian cuts," said Jacoba "Coby" Atlas, the network's co-chief programmer, "because we just don't have the dollars to make up the difference."

Some series will fall out of the schedule, PBS leaders told station programmers last month, even if stations endorse next year's proposed 7.5 percent increase in program dues. They asked attendees of the Public Television Programmers Association Conference to trust them with decisions about which programs to keep. PTPA met in Atlanta April 29-May 1 [2004].

Genres with smaller audiences or high costs face the most intense problems. PBS execs floated the idea of moving the network's main public affairs block from Friday evening to Sunday daytime and announced that the drama American Family will end after this season.

The network plans to use most of the proposed dues increase to sustain two popular mainstays, Masterpiece Theatre and Antiques Roadshow, and will have little left over to develop promising concepts that could win back the younger and lighter viewers that have left its audience [earlier article].

Since agreeing to cover underwriting losses for Masterpiece Theatre and Antiques Road Show, PBS's programmers have turned down similar requests from other producers, said Atlas.

’GBH sees underwriting losses even if it can fill empty slots

Originally published in Current, April 26, 2004
By Steve Behrens

Ameriquest Mortgage Co. of Orange, Calif., joins the Chubb insurance group, filling two of the four underwritng slots on Antiques Roadshow, WGBH said this month.

And when Chubb’s contract ends in December, the station expects to have a replacement, says Lance Ozier, v.p. of national marketing.
But market prices have fallen and the replacement won’t pay as much, according to Ozier.

Similarly, Exxon-Mobil’s successors as sponsors of Masterpiece Theatre are likely to pay less as a group than the $10 million a year the oil company reportedly paid for full sponsorship.

Ozier says he’d love to have sponsors sign for more than $2 million each. The drama series has three slots. One firm may be interested in qualifying for 30-second credits by paying $2.5 million or more.

"Frankly friends . . . we either have to decide we're going to invest in having a strong National Program Service or we are not going to be able to stay where we are now," said Mitchell. "Things will start to drop off the schedule and good things will not come back."

PBS's proposed budget asks stations to invest $127 million in the National Program Service next year — $8.9 million more than they paid last year. The PBS Board will review station feedback before approving the fiscal 2005 budget in June.

PTPA scheduled time for programmers to question presenters during each session, and the format lent itself to frank exchanges over spending priorities.

"We have some realities that we're dealing with too," said Steve Graziano, p.d. at Nebraska ETV. "There isn't more money available to us." To send a bigger check to Braddock Place, Nebraska ETV will have to cut spending on local programs. "That's a producer we can't hire," he added. "Those are programs we can't produce that keep us from being anything other than a PBS repeater." The state network has cut $5 million from its budget since 2001 and must trim $1.2 million more next fiscal year, he told Current.

PBS and member stations don't have enough money for either national or local programs, Mitchell acknowledged. "The National Program Service has been mortgaged for the last 10 years, mortgaged — not moving forward — going in deeper and deeper with less and less money to spend," she said. "Here we are at a time when we need to be coming up with new formats and new ideas, confronting new technologies with you and we have less money than ever."

Suggestions aplenty

Although PBS proposed a 7.5 percent increase in program dues, the amounts that stations will pay vary widely. WVIZ in Cleveland will be charged 21 percent more for PBS programs next year, said President Jerry Wareham, chairman of the PBS Board Content Policy Committee, which recommended the dues increase.

The committee, which met for the first time in January after a reorganization of the PBS Board's working committees, has made stabilizing NPS funding its top priority, Wareham said. The PBS dues request is "what it will take to do that."
"This is a suggestion and something that was sent to the system for comment," Wareham added, noting that in the past two years the PBS board has reduced proposed dues increases after hearing from stations.

Programmers also questioned whether PBS is spending enough on its development slate. The proposed budget allots $1.3 million for program development, and the list of titles vying for those dollars includes the popular Tony Hillerman mysteries, new public affairs series Flashpoints and Tavis Smiley, and an animated adult cartoon series based on NPR's Car Talk.

Colonial House, the time-travel reality series debuting May 17, was on that forlorn list until last week when three companies signed on as underwriters. The sponsors are Bob's Red Mill Natural Foods Inc., Coldwell Banker Real Estate Corp. and the publishing company Rodale Inc., according to PBS publicist Jan McNamara.

"As I look at the teeny tiny amount of money that you have to purchase new programs in the next year, it seems to me that having an extra million bucks for program development compared to the news breaks might be something you want to look at," said Joseph Campbell, a Phoenix programmer recently hired by WLIW in the New York City area.

The PBS/NPR Newsbriefs launched nationally in January; 67 stations were carrying them as of March.

"I don't think the essence of PBS is a news brief," said Kevin Harris, station manager of WETA in Washington, D.C. "I don't think the essence of NPR is brief news."

John Wilson, PBS's co-chief programmer, defended the network's plan to continue the primetime newscasts. "They're good, the talent is good, and I think the association with NPR is smart," he said. "I hope stations can see their way through to use them." PBS will consider whether to extend the briefs from 30 seconds to 40 seconds because some stations have complained that they are too brief.

"There are others in our community who think they're enormously important," Mitchell said of the newsbreaks. "They give us a live and real feel to our air" and help joint licensee stations connect their television and radio services in viewers' minds.

"Recognize that if we're going to continue as a community of independent community-based stations, we are not going to be able to equally serve everyone with the same decisions," she said. "On the big decisions, we've got to agree — at least I hope that you would agree — that we've put people in place to make those decisions on behalf of the whole enterprise."

Web page originally posted May 11, 2004
The newspaper about public TV and radio
in the United States
Current Publishing Committee, Takoma Park, Md.
Copyright 2004


Where does PBS production money come from?

PBS's dues increase may be used entirely to losses of underwriting for two major series, April 2004.

PBS programmers say they'll cancel some programs if they don't attracted expected audiences, 2004. See also: extensive Q&A with programmers.


Public affairs programs, which draw smaller audiences than other PBS genres, may be moved from Friday night to Sunday daytime, PBS execs say.

Drama programs, expensive to produce, are being cut back. American Family won't have a third season, PBS announces.