Let’s do it: PTV Weekend is worth trying

By Mike Hardgrove

A debate on the proposed PTV Weekend experiment for two-nights-a-week advertising on public TV

For the plan, below: Mike Hardgrove, president of public TV station KETC in St. Louis.
Against the plan: 
Fred Esplin of KUED in Salt Lake City.

Mike HardgroveWhat could have motivated Larry Grossman, a man with unimpeachable credentials in public television, to propose a programming scheme for the industry based on that most despised of funding sources advertising? Could it be that he acquired, as a result of his tenure as president of NBC News, a disregard for the dangers of unbridled commercialism? His record at NBC argues to the contrary. Has he been away from public TV for so long that he no longer has appreciation for its unique and fragile nature? No, just the opposite.

In PTV Weekend, Larry Grossman reaffirms his respect for public television’s mission and its distinctive role in the, American communications mix. At the same time, he recognizes our vulnerability and offers his help. His very distance from the day-to-day hubbub of this business has given him perspective, his experience with network television, confidence that advertising can be molded in support of public television.

Grossman’s proposal was not put forth in a cavalier fashion. Rather it is the result of considerable thought capped by a six-month-long study conducted by the Hartford Gunn Institute. The review was carried out by Institute President Jim Fellows and involved interviews with numerous PTV executives. In a report, “PTV Weekend, Notes on Questions, Concerns, Strengths and Benefits,” issued at the recent CEN/EEN Conference, Jim discusses such issues as programming (“new ideas … are not routinely pursued”), revenue sources and outlook (“current financial forecasts show no real prospect of any significant improvement”), the “Federal Factors,” and the “Slippery Slope.” While Jim stops short of endorsing the Grossman plan, he calls for continued fair, open-minded, thoughtful exploration of the subject. Indeed, he concludes:

Like any other big idea, this one requires an openness to new perspectives, a willingness to establish and promote new norms and expectations, and a persuasive competence in dealing with the questions that any proposal to depart from past practices will inevitably generate. Given the importance of the idea, it’s all the more appropriate that any questions about this proposal continue to be addressed effectively through information, objective consideration and appropriate refinement of the plan.

Unhappily, Jim’s wise advice is not being followed. Instead, if comments reported in the media are correct, there is a rush to see how quickly the Grossman plan can be buried. Government communications policymakers ought to, by virtue of office, feel a mandate to fully examine new ideas. Instead they have given Grossman a big loud “no.” That an unwillingness to even consider Larry’s proposal carries over to industry leadership is especially hard to understand when you remember, as Fellows points out in his report, that virtually every now traditional and accepted funding mechanism in public broadcasting was initially labeled either ineffective or dangerous.

Industry opposition to PTV Weekend, or any scheme that involves advertising for that matter, rests on two assumptions: That it would change the nature of public television, and that it would have a negative influence on other funding.

With respect to the former, it appears that many of the harmful consequences associated with advertising are already taking place (and are more annoying than evil). For example, the New York Times‘ Walter Goodman, in a column critical of ads, opined that they would mean “more nature shows and travel shows, no doubt with network personalities playing host.” Well, we already have that, and so what? Then he asked, “And won’t needy or greedy stations be tempted to lure ever more advertisers with ever more crowd-pleasers? The Three Tenors every three hours?” Has he never witnessed a pledge night when the tenors are on a roll? Many more examples could be cited.

Concerning the fear that ads would drive away other money, Jim Fellows reminds us that: “This is not a new argument. It was offered when underwriting was first introduced and offered again when expanded underwriting was introduced. It is offered again in the context of accepting 30-second announcements which meet today’s FCC standards.” Suppose advertising did cause other revenues to decline? The solution is “simple enough,” Jim says–”modify or discontinue the experiment.”

Further, the advertising that would support PTV Weekend is envisioned as a supplement to federal funds, not a substitute. Is it not possible that a Congress that promotes self-sufficiency over federal largess would applaud and reward public television for taking steps to fund itself?

Goodman’s column followed a well-balanced story on the Grossman plan by Times reporter Lawrie Mifflin. Her article has brought immense media attention to the question of advertising on public TV. I’m glad to see that, more and more, observers are taking a balanced approach to the ad question. For example, in an earlier Chicago Tribune op-ed piece, Craig LeMay of Northwestern University wrote:

Of course, the FCC’s fear about the corrupting effects of advertising is justified. The history of American broadcasting is rife with advertiser abuse, deception and, where children are concerned, outright exploitation. But that does not mean that advertising is by definition inimical to public service, or even that there is any relationship between the two. Throughout the world the so-called equality press–including this newspaper–earns most of its revenue from advertising, not subscribers. Conversely, many subscriber-supported media, such as the National Enquirer, are not typically listed among the great instruments of public discourse.

To insure that advertising is not in conflict with public service, Larry Grossman has built a number of safeguards into his plan. There would be no intrusive interruption of programs, for instance, and a Code of Standards would be developed with the assistance of participating stations to set limits on the length and content of advertising messages. Larry has made it clear that his advocacy on advertising does not extend to children’s, educational or public-service programs.

In the Mifflin article, KUED’s Fred Esplin argues that we do not need additional commercial channels. Instead, he says: “We need one that continues to use excellence in public service, education and culture, not income, as the guiding principle.” I do not disagree. My only question is: Where will the money come from to pay for public service, education and culture?

In some really big markets, sheer scale may make traditional underwriting quite productive. For many state and university licensees, tax money provides at least a firm foundation. For these, maybe there is no need to consider change. Yet there are a number of stations caught in the middle–perhaps 30 to 40 stations, principally community licensees–that are squeezed severely. Public service, education and culture are endangered. The stations are, therefore, quite willing to try something new–to take a risk if that’s what PTV Weekend amounts to. Further, the people who manage these stations are confident that means can be found to run PTV Weekend without harm to nonparticipating stations and without forcing any station to do something its management does not want to do or is proscribed by state law.

On what basis do we assume that distinctive television programming and advertising support are mutually exclusive? They are not in Great Britain, where the advertiser-funded Channel 4 is widely recognized for the excellence of its programming. Significantly, Larry Grossman’s plan for PTV Weekend is modeled not on American commercial television, but on Channel 4. Larry points out in his proposal that British law requires Channel 4′s programs to “contain a suitable proportion of matter calculated to appeal to tastes and interests not generally catered for … and that innovation in the form and content of these programs [be] encouraged.”

That sounds good, but can they really do it? I can tell you that last fall I had a chance to visit Channel 4 and was immensely impressed. Their new headquarters building in south London presents an extraordinary visual experience — avant garde to the max. The personnel, the programming, the atmosphere bring to life a creativity that U.S. public television longs for. And it’s all paid for by advertising. More to the point, Larry Grossman asked Jonathan Crane, former head of the BBC’s New York office, to look at Channel 4′s relevance to American public TV. Crane 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.” Accepting that there are vast differences in television between the two countries, he continued: “That said, Channel 4 has shown that an advertiser-supported network that makes profits from quality programming is not a contradiction in terms.”

As I understand it, Channel 4 was chartered by the British Parliament and created by Independent Television (the ITV network) to be responsible for the programming they did not want to do. ITV initially underwrote the network and received its ad revenues. In essence, ITV subsidized Channel 4 to take care of public service obligations, but did not control it. In the best of worlds, this is what Chairman Tauzin has in mind when he talks about excusing commercial TV from public-service obligations in return for a contribution to public TV. (I don’t think it’s what he has in mind, but we’ll have to wait and see.) In the best of worlds, both commercial and public television would find a great business plan for the U.S. in the ITV-Channel 4 model.

Still, ITV is probably not particularly pleased with Channel 4 today. Spun off as a totally independent company in 1993, Channel 4 arguably now bites that hand that fed it. Which suggests that the NAB will be wary of any similar plan in this country. And the government regulators? Well, they’ve already been heard from. So it’s up to us, as public television broadcasters, to decide whether we think an advertiser-supported programming component has merit in this country. If we think it does, then we must prod the Congress and the FCC to authorize — and the NAB to accept–an experiment with PTV Weekend.

Yes, an experiment. An experiment that lasts long enough to be truly meaningful; a duration of, say, five years. The capricious way out of the challenge Larry Grossman has given us is to ignore it and hope it will go away. The easy way out is to order up another study. But ads on PTV have been studied ad infinitum. Pick your position on advertising — a study can be found to support it. The only reasonable answer to the dilemma is to conduct a real-world experiment.

An experiment, a test, a try-it-and-see-if-it works project. I don’t know if Larry Grossman’s PTV Weekend idea is appropriate for American public television, Larry himself doesn’t know, no one knows. We owe it to ourselves — and to the viewers we serve–to make a sincere effort to find out. The one thing we do know is that money is in short supply and our traditional funding sources are pretty well tapped out. How can we ignore this possibility?

I urge everyone to read Larry’s proposal [text online] and to read Jim Fellows’ report [text online], and I call upon Current to print both in their entirety.

As president of PBS, Larry Grossman was adamantly opposed to advertising on public television. If this man of great principle can change his thinking, the least the rest of us can do is listen without prejudice.

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