PTV Weekend proposal by Lawrence Grossman, 1997

In May 1997, former PBS President Lawrence K. Grossman put forth results of a study backed by the Markle Foundation. He proposed a compromise on corporate support: Public TV would be permitted to raise needed production money by selling on-air advertising two nights a week. James A. Fellows examined the issues in an analysis published by the fledgling Hartford Gunn Institute. Current also carried several news stories on the project’s origins.

Current‘s June 23, 1997, issue described the PTV Weekend (a.k.a. P2) proposal and featured a debate on the experiment between two station leaders. Mike Hardgrove of KETC in St. Louis favored the proposal and Fred Esplin of KUED in Salt Lake City opposed it. The proposal didn’t gain enough support to go forward.

This is the text of Grossman’s proposal:

Introducing PTV Weekend

A New National Public TV Program Service Designed Especially for Friday and Saturday Nights; Bringing a New Generation of High Quality Programs to America’s Public Television Stations

PTV WEEKEND plans to present a powerful eight hour schedule of original, high quality programming on public TV stations every Friday and Saturday night. This new generation of outstanding national programs, produced specifically for public television, will be financed by revenue from the sale of advertising during limited time periods on public TV stations that become associated with PTV WEEKEND.

The very point of launching the PTV WEEKEND experiment is to enable public TV stations to carry exemplary programs that meet their own needs and priorities rather than those of program underwriters and funders. Thus, public TV’s limited advertising would be clustered in natural breaks only, with no artificial program interruptions, using significantly less advertising time than is carried on commercial television stations.

Revenues from public TV’s limited advertising experiment will pay for the production of vitally needed, fresh programs that will be consistent with the mission and character of public television. To paraphrase a statement of principles for the magazine, published in The New Yorker “Talk of the Town” column in 1986, if PTV WEEKEND:

“could be everything we want it to be it would unfailingly combine thorough, accurate, fresh, inspired reporting with fiction that runs deep and says something that hasn’t been said before; it would be funny as frequently as possible; it would contribute something of worth to the national discourse; it would cast light; it would be well-wishing; and it would be humane. In an age when television screens are too often bright with nothing, we value substance. Amid a chaos of images, we value coherence…And if any single principle transcends all the others and informs all the others it is to try to tell the truth.”

Those will be the guiding principles of the PTV WEEKEND experiment. Like many not-for-profit and for-profit media that have a strong and clear sense of their own mission and that also accept advertising, PTV WEEKEND programming and advertising will operate in carefully defined separate realms. The New York Times, New York Review of Books, The American Scholar, MIT’s Technology Review, National Geographic, Smithsonian as well as numerous other quality media products carry advertising without in any way compromising their editorial integrity, lowering their standards, or undermining their reason for being.

If successful, the PTV WEEKEND experiment will substantially enhance public TV’s programming budgets, and help its associated stations earn the means to make the tough transition to the multi-channel, digital telecommunications age.

The PTV WEEKEND experiment is modeled to a large extent on the extraordinary longterm success of Great Britain’s highly regarded Channel 4, which, though supported by advertising, is by statute a “public service broadcaster” that exists “to appeal to tastes and interests not generally catered for” by Britain’s commercial broadcasters. Britain’s Channel 4 has a special mandate to broadcast innovative programs and is charged by Parliament to provide “competition, choice and quality.”

A study last year, commissioned for PTV WEEKEND, examined Channel 4 as a possible example for American public TV. It concluded, “The UK’s Channel 4 appears to have squared the roundest of circles: an advertiser-supported public broadcaster which features innovative, worthwhile programming and makes a handsome profit. Channel 4 has shown that an advertiser-supported broadcast network…(with) quality programming is not a contradiction in terms. It’s an approach that…reconciles respect for the audience with a challenging, hip attitude that produces sophisticate original programming.”

Like Britain’s Channel 4, PTV WEEKEND will have no production staff or program facilities of its own. With guidance from its public TV station partners, a small group of PTV WEEKEND programmers will be responsible for commissioning and acquiring all of its programs from public TV’s traditional production centers and from other quality producers throughout the world. To augment PTV WEEKEND’s production budgets, many of the programs it commissions will be co-produced with other quality broadcasters, cable and satellite networks, and syndicators in this country and abroad.

Since PTV WEEKEND will operate outside the hours served by the PBS National Program Service (from 9 pm to Midnight on Fridays and from 7 pm to Midnight on Saturdays), it will enable PBS to concentrate more of its limited resources on its own programming efforts. Also, because PTV WEEKEND’s participating stations will not have to pay for its eight hours-a-week of quality nighttime programming, they should have more money to spend acquiring programs from PBS and others for their schedules.

A few examples of the kinds of major productions that PTV WEEKEND might commission include:

  • Playhouse 98, an original weekly two-hour Saturday night theatrical event, featuring important stars, talented writers and substantial production budgets, from the nation’s most respected Broadway, TV and cinema producers;
  • Report from Earth, a weekly “off-the-planet” satirical look at the current social and political mores and foibles of life in America;
  • Intercollegiate Mastermind, an up-to-date broadcast and Internet version of the BBC’s long-running, highly successful, brainy game show that will feature intercollegiate champions competing with ordinary people in fascinating, entertaining weekly battles of the mind;
  • A sophisticated multi-faceted arts and entertainment review–an opinionated two-hour weekly TV public affairs magazine show “with an attitude,” originating by satellite and Internet from all over the country. A 21st century, new millennium variation of public television’s legendary Great American Dream Machine.

PTV WEEKEND AUDIENCE AND INCOME GOALS

The PTV WEEKEND goal is to earn a 2.5 to 3.0 rating for its two-nights-a-week weekend schedule, somewhat above the 2 rating that PBS now averages during prime time. With its fresh, high budget contemporary programming, accompanied by strong marketing and promotion PTV WEEKEND will seek to attract a broad audience of adults to public TV stations, including a larger audience of young adult viewers than public TV has ever been able to reach before.

The introductory PTV WEEKEND advertising rate card of $10-$15 per thousand viewers, together with its distinctive, programming and influential viewer profile, should make PTV WEEKEND an inviting buy for quality national advertisers, especially those in automotive, computers, travel, telecommunications, financial services and package goods.

Unlike the cable networks, every viewer in every market with a PTV WEEKEND station will be able to tune in to its program schedule. With its realistic audience goals, its projected level of national advertising sales and its global partnerships, PTV WEEKEND should be able to budget between $250,000 per half-hour and a million dollars an hour for appealing, new public TV programming. Its anticipated annual programming budget of $60 million to $100 million, to fill just eight hours of programming a week, should make PTV WEEKEND a critically important new source for a new generation of quality programming on American public television.

THE PTV WEEKEND BUSINESS PLAN

PTV WEEKEND introduces a new approach to financing major original public television productions, an approach designed to supplement and enhance public TV’s existing private and public program funding sources.

PTV WEEKEND will seek Congressional approval to launch a five-to-seven year experiment that will permit limited advertising on public TV stations that wish to participate in this new programming initiative. The plan is to ask Congress to give the FCC authority to grant a waiver to public television stations that wish to participate in the experiment, allowing them to carry a maximum of seven minutes of advertising per hour, for a total of 8 hours on Friday and Saturday nights.

Advertisements on public TV stations would be clustered in natural breaks, with no artificial program interruptions.

In the new, multi-channel digital environment it is essential for public television to pursue major new sources of private sector funding for the production of innovative, high quality programs capable of benefiting all the American people. The most immediate and practical new funding source for public TV is paid advertising, which under the PTV WEEKEND plan, would be restricted to weekend nighttime hours on public TV stations.

Until now, public television stations in the United States have never been authorized to carry paid advertising. Many stations, however, driven by deepening financial need and steeply declining state and federal funding, are becoming ever more dependent upon “expanded” underwriting. In an effort to overcome their financial problems, some stations, with FCC approval, are carrying 30-second spots that promote their corporate programming patrons.

If public TV stations were allowed to run limited advertising, they have the potential to earn considerably more revenue for the production of national programs that reflect the stations’ own priorities than can be earned from expanded underwriting, which appears to viewers exactly like paid advertising but does not produce nearly the same level of income. In this new, highly competitive telecommunications climate, the addition of limited advertising under strictly controlled conditions can serve to close public TV’s growing quality programming gap.

Understandably, many have feared that advertising on public TV would lower the content and quality of its programming service. In recognition of that concern, the FCC waiver should be granted for this experiment, with the clear understanding that PTV WEEKEND will fill stations’ advertising-supported time exclusively with programs that comport with the traditional mission and standards of public TV. Under no circumstances should PTV WEEKEND advertising sales be linked to its programming content. Nor will PTV WEEKEND, whose schedule will be restricted to nighttime hours, provide any advertiser-supported children’s programming.

Under the plan, which was carefully developed with funding from the Markle Foundation, PTV WEEKEND will be owned by its public TV station partners, other interested public television organizations, and by a small, select group of distinguished strategic financial partners who share public TV’s high ideals and vision of quality programming. PTV WEEKEND’s strategic partners will provide the necessary start-up financing, business expertise and management experience, and take on the financial risks of launching such an enterprise.

The PTV WEEKEND participating stations will be represented on its board of directors and play a key role in setting its policies, priorities and standards. In return for agreeing to carry PTV WEEKEND’s clusters of advertising messages, each public TV station-owner will have the exclusive right to broadcast PTV WEEKEND’s eight-hour weekly program schedule in its own market. The public TV affiliates will pay nothing for their broadcast rights to its programs and will also be given significant marketing and promotional help. All PTV WEEKEND advertising sales will be conducted under rigorous standards and guidelines worked out jointly with its public TV station-partners.

PTV WEEKEND participating stations will also be compensated for the use of their airtime on Friday and Saturday nights, based on their market size. The plan calls for the net advertising revenues from a portion of the time sold by PTV WEEKEND to be dedicated to station compensation. As limited partners in PTV WEEKEND, the public TV stations will also share in any profits the company may earn while bearing none of its financial risks or possible losses.

SUMMARY

Public television urgently needs major new growth funding for a new and continuing source of strong, imaginative and compelling programming. Existing sources of funding are proving to be increasingly inadequate to maintain current programming efforts, let alone to support the strong infusion of new resources that are required in the expanding telecommunications environment.

PTV WEEKEND offers a plan to secure significantly greater revenue from the corporate community through the use of limited advertising. Such revenue will support the kind of quality programming that should once again mark public television as a trailblazer and innovator.

*PTV Weekend is a working title for demonstration purposes.

Coverage of the proposal in Current:

Disclosure: Current took no position on the PTV Weekend proposal. James Fellows, its founder and chair of its publishing committee, facilitated discussion of the idea. New York station WNET, which administered Current, opposed the idea.

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