Why public media?

Local programs: our niche, and it’s a mile wide

The evidence suggests investing in, not reducing local production

Commentary by Jack Willis

In the spring of 1991, a management consulting firm advised public TV to shift its spending from local to national programs. Current asked Jack Willis, president and c.e.o. of KTCA, Minneapolis/St. Paul, to revisit that suggestion.

The Boston Consulting Group (BCG) study was meant to be provocative, and there is much in it that I find worthwhile — the challenge to the status quo, the need for a qualitative rating service, a reexamination of resource allocation and the call for joint ventures. But I believe the report’s most fundamental and controversial premise was wrong — the notion that local production, with few exceptions, is not valued by our viewers and should therefore be sacrificed for the national schedule.

This premise is not supported by BCG’s own data, which measure value by ratings and pledge donations. The ratings are clearly fallible. Both Nova and The Atlantic magazine have produced exposes on the Nielsen service — particularly its audience measurement for lower-rated shows. If one took last year’s ratings information with a grain of salt, we should take this year’s with a salt mine.

The other measure of value — pledge donations — is also unreliable. BCG admits that it doesn’t fully understand why donors give and that any determination about motivation is ”very subjective.” Yet, the study goes on to base very strong conclusions on this inconclusive data. We can verify from previous studies that most public television viewers do not make donations on the basis of one pitch — some may pledge on the basis of premiums; beyond that, we really don’t know much about why they pledge. Is it a cumulative experience with a public television station? Are those experiences made up of both local and national shows? I don’t know for sure. Neither does BCG.

Isn’t that the point? If we’re going to base sweeping decisions on the value of our shows, let’s first figure out how to directly measure that value, rather than guess through indirect and unsubstantiated means. PBS should invest the necessary money to come up with a values-rating system. There was talk of this several years ago, but for some reason the activity stopped. (KTCA is working with a local foundation to determine the reach, value and impact of our community affairs programs.)

Finally, [audience analysts David and Judith LeRoy of TRAC Media] put out a study last year that further undercuts the BCG analysis. Their analysis of 1987 data demonstrated that ”local programs got higher member ratings than most national shows did” (Current, April 5, 1991). For example, in Phoenix, two local programs ranked first and sixth of the 158 programs in the KAET schedule. At KTCA, four local shows ranked second, third, ninth and 13th among 160 programs. And when we compared our local primetime shows with the national primetime schedule from September 1990 to June 1991, our local shows equalled or exceeded the national programs in audience size.

Whether or not these local shows affected people’s decision to become members can only be inferred, but the inference is undeniably strong. It’s clear that, at the very least, members find local shows worth viewing.

I believe most station managers would agree that it’s the combination of local and national production that provides the value for public TV in the community. Yet BCG recommends hitching our wagon to the national star. If you take a savvy strategic look at the media as a whole, especially after the dramatic events in Los Angeles, the case for a major local public broadcasting presence is very strong.

First, let’s look at the big picture. Viewers all over the world are mesmerized by the ease with which images from remote places are brought instantaneously to their living rooms. We’re thrilled with ”being there” every time a government falls. In response, the media is globalizing. At the same time, we can choose from hundreds of movies at our local video store.

Meanwhile, traditional media continue to move toward generic service — anonymous and uninvolved. Economics are forcing American television to redesign and restructure. Network affiliates and independents are doing less and less community programming. In fact, as the Big Three or Big Four networks desert their affiliates for direct access to the audience via cable, fiber optics or direct broadcast satellites, we can expect a number of commercial stations to go under, leaving the local scene even more barren.

Public TV, the original ”niche service,” not only can survive but can thrive in this new environment. As education falters, the environment is put at risk, urban infrastructures crumble, the number of homeless continues to grow, the hungry queue up at food banks, and the greatest immigration since the turn of the century changes the face of America, the need for public TV is overwhelmingly strong. Not only are these national issues, but also grassroots issues. It’s at this grassroots level that public TV can have the greatest impact.

We are in the unique position to provide timeliness, feedback, in-depth analysis, context and follow-up. We are the only broadcasting entity whose mission is to serve the well-being of our constituency. For this alone, we can have an enormous impact.

The question we should ask ourselves every day is ”what can I do to help?” I’m sure this impulse inspired KCET to not only cover the events in the aftermath of the King verdict, but also to open up its phone banks in conjunction with other social organizations to organize a call-in crisis intervention center. I know that is why WTVS [in Detroit] focused its resources on the welfare of children and race relations, and began the Nitty Gritty Cities Group. And this desire moved KTCI to produce a series in the Hmong language to help empower this group of Laotians to deal with issues they thought important, and to train them in television production so they could take over their own show.

Local public TV not only provides information and involvement, it provides a sense of identity and roots. Local stations are ideally situated to portray local history and provide a platform for local artists who can entertain, educate and celebrate the rich diversity of our communities. As Bill Moyers said, public TV is the only television service whose goal is to create citizens, not consumers. To do this, we have to accept a more active role in the community, be willing to act as a catalyst for change, and make a conscious effort to include more of the people who are underrepresented on television. For now more than ever, communities need assistance in building bridges, solving problems and having a forum for the underrepresented to be heard.

The money is there to accomplish this. In the past two years, KTCA has received more than $500,000 for a community affairs unit — a production team exclusively created to produce shows that deal with people of color and other underrepresented groups in the Twin Cities. Our sister channel, KTCI, has raised $200,000 to produce a series exclusively devoted to the Hmong population in our area.

The experience of the Twin Cities is not unique. Foundations all over the country are taking a more active interest in solving community problems.

Are these shows valued? Yes! They perform as well if not better than the national schedule with the KTCA audience, and they are valued by the foundations and corporations that fund them. On a per-show basis, local production at KTCA outperforms national shows in attracting underwriting dollars. In addition, local programming cements our relationship to the community. When we aired an emergency show for 10 straight days during a fatal measles epidemic in the Hmong community, the parents who learned how to get inoculations for their children were extremely grateful to the station.

The need for a strong local commitment from public broadcasting is clear. It also makes strategic sense. In the 100-plus-channel media environment, local programming is the key that differentiates us from the PBS look-alikes among national cable networks. Virtually all of the local commercial broadcasters seem to have given up local production except for the news, and these newscasts have abdicated the responsibility to do any serious analysis on local issues. Thus, we have a niche a mile wide, an opportunity in current media environs that is rich with promise. To give up or diminish this truly unique strength (per the BCG report) would be terrible.

Instead of abandoning our special niche, we should strengthen our local stations’ ability to produce high-quality local shows. One way ”to save our future” (BCG lingo) would be for PBS to hire some of local television’s best producers and send them out to stations to assist and train local staffs. This PBS brain trust could develop formats for local productions that could be replicated throughout the system.

I agree with BCG’s recommendation that local stations should share resources to create ”greater-than-local” programs. However, these collaborative efforts should never replace productions that are focused on the distinct needs of particular communities. Our job is to strike a balance between mission and financial stability. We have many publics — our viewers, boards, staffs, foundations, schools, corporations and government. And we know that our viewing audience and members are made up of many publics, too. The key is balance — balance between the big-rating and little-rating shows. We cannot let the big fundraising shows drive out the no-fundraising shows, for to allow that would be to lose what makes public TV unique.

I believe the PBS national schedule is crucial to our future. At its best, PBS is our national playhouse, our national history teacher and storyteller, our classroom and forum, and the nation’s largest museum. The station can play these roles locally as well. A local symphony can reach more people in one broadcast than in several years of its live performances.

If we serve our individual communities and respond to their needs, we will certainly be valued and our future will be ensured.

Willis thanked KTCA colleagues Gerry Richman and Cindy Browne for their help with the article.