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Plans crowd Mitchell’s last months at PBS

Chairman: Buster flap didn’t drive her away

Originally published in Current, Feb. 28, 2005
By Karen Everhart

The day after Pat Mitchell told station executives that she will leave the PBS presidency when her contract ends in June 2006, she outlined what she hopes to accomplish in the next 15 months: to launch new digital services, update PBS’s approach to public affairs, aggressively reassert PBS’s role as a leader in educational children’s content, and help secure new funding sources for public TV.

Her speech to public TV station managers Feb. 14 [2005] was like others to her constituents. It laid out an ambitious agenda that would be difficult in the best of circumstances, without dwelling on the perennial conflicts within public TV that could block progress.

The upbeat talk set the tone for the annual PBS Members’ Meeting, which became a Valentine’s Day lovefest despite three petitions from stations challenging PBS policies (Current, Feb. 14). The petitions, seeking changes in the makeup of the PBS Board and questioning Mitchell’s advocacy activities, were blunted with friendly amendments. If station leaders had worries about PBS’s future leadership or Mitchell’s effectiveness as a lame duck, they would be addressed privately in the hallways and bars of the Ritz-Carlton Hotel in Washington.

Mitchell’s decision to leave after she finishes six years at the job played very differently in the national press two days later. Many reporters tied her exit to the Postcards from Buster controversy ("Mitchell probes Buster's detour into controversy," Feb. 14, 2005) and pounded PBS for cowardice in withdrawing an episode of the children’s program that featured Vermont kids with lesbian moms. The bad press came as station leaders visited their members of Congress, asking for support of public TV’s federal funding requests and a proposed trust fund to back new digital content.

PBS Board Chairman Alberto Ibarguen and three PBS Board members denied Mitchell is leaving because of the Buster incident.

"Pat told me as far back as August of last year that it was highly unlikely she would seek an additional term,” said Ibarguen, publisher of the Miami Herald. Mitchell came to the decision recently, he said, but not in reaction to the Buster flap or ongoing conflicts with stations, he said.

It’s a high-stress job, Ibarguen said. “You can do it for a period of time and then you’ve got to let someone else make a contribution.”

Mitchell will be the third PBS president — the others are Hartford Gunn and Ervin Duggan — to have lasted five to six years. The two longevity champs thus far are Lawrence Grossman and Bruce Christensen, each with more than eight years on the job.

The board will discuss how it will fill the job at its March 29-30 meeting at PBS headquarters, he said.

"We knew what the term of her contract was,” said Patrick Fitzgerald, g.m. of WBGU in Bowling Green, Ohio, and a PBS Board member. “People had a sense that she wasn’t going to be there forever — that she wanted to accomplish as much as she could.”

By revealing her plans to step down, Mitchell eased tensions with stations over governance and other issues, said Rod Bates, Nebraska ETV executive director and vice chairman of the PBS Board’s Nominating and Governance Committee.

Bates said he was surprised by the timing of her announcement, although he recognized, as many others did, that six years is about as long as anyone can be expected to stay in the job. While her plan to leave could help station leaders work out their differences with less conflict, it could also be dangerous, he said. “I’d hate to see her treated as a lame duck.”

Mitchell wouldn’t stay on the job in a reduced capacity, Ibarguen said. “Anyone who believes that hasn’t taken into consideration her considerable resolve to drive these things forward.”

Robust as it needs to be

Mitchell’s to-do list gives high priority to two projects initiated last year — soliciting mega-gifts for the new PBS Foundation and running with the recommendations of the Digital Futures Initiative that she announced in December. The citizen panel will issue its report next month. [The report came out in December 2005 instead.] She will also push forward with plans for Public Square, a new public affairs service [PBS announced funding to launch the channel], and a pilot restructuring PBS’s Friday-night public affairs shows.

She briefly sketched plans to bring in some extra revenue to match the extra costs of PBS’s expanding program output. She wants to expand pubTV’s video-on-demand offerings, and she floated the idea of offering the PBS HD channel to stations as an additional “tiered” service for an extra fee.

Mitchell confirmed earlier hints that PBS will package a new children’s service designed for school-age kids that stations can put on DTV multicast channels. Many of its broadcast offerings for the younger pre-school set will have reruns on a previously announced PBS Kids channel to launch this fall in partnership with key producers Sesame Workshop and Hit Entertainment and cable giant Comcast. [In the 60 largest markets, 45 PBS stations affiliated with the PBS Kids Sprout channel to publicize it, PBS said in an April release.]

PBS must reassert its commitment to children’s programs that “address the many new challenges that confront America’s education system and American families,” Mitchell said. PBS will rethink its “entire approach to Ready to Learn,” the grant program of the U.S. Department of Education that assists PBS Kids programming and outreach activities of local stations.

The department plans to divide Ready to Learn funding among several grantees instead of giving a single grant that PBS divides among producers and stations. But the department has not yet spelled out its new RTL grant criteria; it again postponed release of its request for proposals last week. [PBS ended up sharing the RTL money with CPB and Chicago's WTTW.]

It’s unclear whether the Buster flap will undercut PBS’s bid in the next competition for RTL funds.

Mitchell told station managers that PBS was working with APTS and CPB to draft the strongest possible RTL grant proposal. “Whether or not we receive any, all or part of this Ready to Learn funding, PBS intends to keep Ready to Learn, a program we earmark and own, alive and well,” she said.

The PBS Board sidestepped public conflicts that could have arisen with three petitions backed by dozens of station managers and put forth by Steve Bass, president of Nashville PTV.

The station managers accepted friendly amendments modifying the petitions. The revised resolutions ask the PBS Board to consider:

Web page posted Jan. 11, 2006
Copyright 2005 by Current Publishing Committee


For the first time, a producer leads PBS, February 2000.

Independent producers' complaints resonated with Mitchell, 2001.

Women gain a larger role in pubcasting.

Mitchell's first PBS changes move toward airtime, 2001.

After criticizing pledge drives, Mitchell says she'll pipe down, 2002.

Q&A with Mitchell: PBS scouts digital options, February 2005.


Mitchell reiterates the case for public TV, speech at National Press Club, May 2004.

Fundraiser Cheri Carter joins PBS as president of new PBS Foundation, April 2005.


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