"We must, in geopolitical terms, live together
as the United States of Public Television and not the Balkans of Broadcasting,"
Baliles told the station managers.

How can public TV escape governance gridlock?
PBS adopts honor system for common carriage

Originally published in Current, July 3, 1995

By Geneva Collins

Meeting in the nation's capital to present a united front to Congress, public television's general managers demonstrated in private sessions that, on matters of common carriage and underwriting, they are still very much a house divided.

The issue of governance--how to emerge from the management gridlock that has paralyzed the system for years, with PBS Board authority challenged after every unpopular decision--was the dominant topic at the June 19-21 [1995] summer planning meeting.

"I, like some of my friends from the corporate world on this board, am quite puzzled by how this system operates," PBS Board Chairman Gerald Baliles told a standing-room-only crowd of general managers packed into the meeting room during the board meeting that opened the planning session.

"Because the system operates horizontally, it's very difficult for it to grapple with issues and decide them in a timely way," said Baliles, who was just elected to serve a third term as chairman, a post he's held since 1993. "Given the exploding pace of change, the ability of the Congress and corporate underwriting world to make decisions that affect us, we can't take two to three years to debate an issue. ... The future of the system depends not only on funding but on governance."

In remarks later in the day, Baliles proposed initiating a process--probably a task force--in the fall "that would include interests from both within and outside of public television [and] would be aimed at reexamining and changing how PBS is governed."

"We must, in geopolitical terms, live together as the United States of Public Television and not the Balkans of Broadcasting," he said.

More than half of the PBS Board's five-hour open session was devoted to handling the organized protest in which 40 station managers, representing 20 percent of total membership, amended their fiscal 1996 commitment forms in May over common carriage and underwriting strictures.

Many of the g.m.'s who objected did not question the need for common carriage--carrying designated programs on designated nights--but they challenged PBS' authority to impose a stiff penalty on members who refused to follow the carriage requirements.

The penalty, equal to 20 percent of a station's membership dues, had already been suspended after an uproar over underwriting requirements. The commitment forms sought voluntary compliance in creating local underwriting credits that followed national guidelines.

Beth Courtney, head of the PBS-appointed Task Force on Program Pricing and Membership Policies, which had hammered out the controversial penalty mechanism to prevent erosion of national underwriting money, recommended that the Board suspend the penalties pending further task force review.

She asked the board to give the task force six months--until the Board's next meeting in January--to try to develop "incentive-based approaches that will reward desired behavior" in lieu of the unpopular penalties.

PBS, meanwhile, would send out revised commitment forms asking for voluntary compliance to common carriage and the task force would monitor the results monthly.

The PBS Board voted 31-2 to give the task force the requested time. Related recommendations were passed unanimously, including upping the number of hours a station could deviate from common carriage requests from 35 to 50, out of a maximum of 350 hours' programming for which PBS would request common carriage annually.

The two Board members voting against the measure were Fred Esplin of KUED in Salt Lake City and Chuck Allen, of KAET in Phoenix. Both said later that their votes indicated frustration with the system's inability to close issues and move on.

Will an honor system work?

Although PBS has asked stations to voluntarily carry programs on other occasions and failed, this is the first time station executives have been asked to sign a document to that effect, and some seemed to think this honor-system experiment might achieve greater success.

Courtney predicted that "nearly 100 percent" of the members would sign the revised commitment forms, based on an informal poll of most of the 40 g.m.'s who had objected earlier.

In a discussion before the vote, PBS President Ervin Duggan said, "Even churches have rules for compliance. ... I don't have a particular [enforcement] mechanism to recommend, but you can't leave enforcement to fairies."

Rick Breitenfeld of WHYY in Philadelphia, one of two general managers to make formal statements to the board during the debate, shot back: "The honor system is an important American institution. The monitor, Mr. Duggan, will not be fairies. It will be honor."

Breitenfeld argued that peer pressure alone would guarantee compliance to policies. Courtney said later that peer pressure takes too long to work and a more immediate compliance mechanism was needed.

Both Breitenfeld and Courtney gave presentations the next day on the topic of governance, as did Rob Gardiner of Maine Public Broadcasting.

Gardiner, who said he wasn't sure why he was asked to address the subject because he hasn't been particularly vocal on it, made three points in his talk.

The first was that although bylaws may require only a 51 percent majority to take action, in issues such as program purchasing [under the old Station Program Cooperative system] a much larger majority is needed. "If 20 percent of members choose not to go along with a policy, the cost to the remaining 80 percent increases so dramatically that the package fails for everybody."

His second point was that the system needs more hard data, not just anecdotal information, "to understand the choices in front of us"--data such as the common carriage compliance rate for individual shows, or precisely which underwriters are unhappy, or the actual amount of revenue threatened.

Gardiner's third point was that underwriters, who provide a larger and larger percentage of revenue coming into the system, "must be represented in our deliberations. If not, we shoot ourselves in a far more vulnerable place than the foot."

"Diversity is a strength, not a problem"

In his remarks, Breitenfeld argued that public broadcasting "resembles American higher education more than it does a commercial broadcasting network. We are independent community institutions, with strong local ties and roots. We differ in many ways--we are large and small licensees, public and private, rural and urban. We differ in ownership, mission, revenue sources, budgets and style. That diversity has always been our strength, not our problem."

Breitenfeld said after he delivered his remarks, Baliles "pulled me out into the lobby furious with me. He was extraordinarily put out at my statement, said I had cast aspersions on the board, that I was resistant to change, and that although I was an architect of the system it was time to let it go."

Baliles, when asked to respond to that characterization, chuckled and said, "We went looking for a cup of coffee. We talked for 10 minutes. I thought our conversation was a two-way street. I had never met Mr. Breitenfeld before and was delighted to meet this man I had heard so much about. He's the aggressive one. I'm the mild-mannered one."

After the presentations, the general managers divided into discussion groups and reported some suggestions to Baliles, including weighting votes in place of the one-station-one-vote system now in place, and requiring a "super-majority" instead of a simple 51 percent majority for some issues.

The general managers held a separate presentation/discussion session on underwriting, advertising and corporate support. Courtney's task force has also been assigned that issue, which most feel is far more complicated and divisive than common carriage.

She said later that the task force is asking the Community Stations Resource Group, whose big-city members include managers who both favor and oppose relaxed underwriting standards, to discuss the issue internally and make recommendations before the pricing task force starts looking at it.

"I thought I would be able to retire, but now I'm on this task force that will not end," she lamented during the PBS Board meeting.



To Current's home page

Current Briefing on decision-making in the public TV system.

Later news: PBS Board concludes governance study with bylaws revisions giving more votes to station managers.


Web page created July 26, 1997
The newspaper about public television and radio
in the United States
A service of Current Publishing Committee, Takoma Park, Md.
Copyright 1997