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Dear Impresario: Put the money into high-impact programs, but play hard-ball with budgets

In 1995, Current asked three of public TV's highly regarded program-makers to write "Dear Impresario" letters to the next chief programmer at PBS--a position then vacant. John Lindsay is vice president/director of television productions at Oregon Public Broadcasting, Portland. Originally published in Current, May 29, 1995.

John Lindsay

"Stand up for what you believe in. I'm one of those people who admired your predecessors. Jennifer Lawson and John Grant took risks."

By John Lindsay

When I was first asked to write this note advising the future PBS editor-in-chief of programming, it sounded like fun. But after I found that I was supposed to write about things like the audience segments PBS should target, the levels of "brow" PBS should aim for and how the programming impresario should spend discretionary money, the assignment began to sound kind of dull.

So I came up with a solution. I decided to do what producers traditionally do under circumstances like these. I'll ignore the commissioning editor (Current) and write about the things I'd want to write about. Some traditions deserve to be protected.

So, Mr./Ms. Editor-in-Chief, you're moving to Washington and you're thinking about four things: (1) the funding crisis in the system, (2) the clarity/lack of clarity of the PBS "vision," (3) how to gain the respect and cooperation of all the disparate factions vying for programming dollars, and (4) where to buy a house in Alexandria. Given (1), (2) and (3), I have one piece of advice about (4): rent ... don't buy.

While my station (Oregon Public Broadcasting) does produce some shows for the national schedule, I don't feel I have the level of experience to provide you with the kind of advice you're going to get from people working at stations like WGBH, WETA or WNET. But OPB is representative of a number of stations that contribute to a fraction of the schedule. So, in addition to advising you on your real-estate options, I do have a few serious pieces of advice.

First and foremost, I hope you'll put as much money as you can into high-impact primetime strands and a few extraordinary limited series. The primetime schedule, in my opinion, is where we most need to focus our system's image and identity. Please spend your money on the best of the best, regardless of where those programs are produced. Please also see to it that PBS promotes the hell out of those top-notch shows. The problem is, of course, your scheduling selections will be influenced by PBS politics.

About three months ago I took my 11-year-old son to a Jim Carey movie called Dumb and Dumber. For some strange reason, I began thinking about PBS politics in the middle of that movie. As a person who's spent most of his career outside of public television, I'm fascinated and appalled by the turf fights within the system. The various factions seem so obsessed with maintaining their own prerogatives that a kind of system-wide self-paranoia seems to have developed.

I'd really like to know how you see your role in the midst of all these warring factions. I'd also like to advise you to pay great attention to the production budgets for those high-impact/high-priced shows you'll be asked to fund. I hope you have had personal experience as a television producer or director. If you've been down that road, there's a chance you recognize waste and inefficiency when you see it. I'm not suggesting that you "cheap-out" production budgets in a way that reduces the quality of programming. I am, however, suggesting that there are millions of dollars to be saved by distinguishing production fat from production muscle. Given that you're going to face smaller NPS budgets in the future, you will miss an opportunity if you don't tackle this issue head-on.

Playing hard-ball with the budgets could gain you a lot of dollars to invest in other high-quality productions. I'm also hoping you'll fight to enforce a uniform primetime schedule. While some progress has been made in this area, there's still great resistance at the station level. While much of the argument for schedule continuity has centered on fundraising, I believe a uniform, reliable national primetime schedule will make it much easier for you, as editor-in-chief, to create a focused national identity for PBS.

It would also help those of us trying to produce shows for the national schedule to know how you're going to define programming success. Is it ratings? Is it demographics? Is it mission? While it's obviously a blend of all three, producers will do a better job of getting you what you need if you know what it is. Finally, don't program by compromise. Stand up for what you believe in. I'm one of those people who admired your predecessors. Jennifer Lawson and John Grant took risks. They weren't afraid to experiment. They had a focused vision of PBS. Some of their decisions turned out well. Others didn't. But they were true leaders. I miss them. I want to be able to say the same about you someday.



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Why public broadcasting?: Commentaries on its purpose and reality.

Related commentary: Rights & Wrongs producer Danny Schechter advises the future PBS impresario: switch from old series to a new "citizens' channel."

Related commentary: KTCA program executive Catherine Allan urges the future PBS programmer to retire some PBS genres and invest heavily in a new primetime strand of programs.


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