Let’s not do it: PTV Weekend is a bad idea

By Fred Esplin

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

Against the plan, below: Fred Esplin, general manager of KUED in Salt Lake City.

For the plan: Mike Hardgrove, president of public TV station KETC in St. Louis.

Fred EsplinIf we take up Larry Grossman’s proposal for PTV Weekend, we will do to ourselves what Newt Gingrich tried but failed to do: commercialize public television. This is a bad idea that won’t work — and shouldn’t.

That we need to re-think the way we finance our national program schedule is clear, but the fact that a few public TV stations are prepared to abandon a fundamental principle in the process tragically may demonstrate how desperate we have become.

PTV Weekend proposes that we fund new programs by creating a company to sell commercials during our Friday and Saturday night schedules. This, of course, will require an act of Congress, but if it works, Grossman projects we could generate between $60 million and $100 million annually. If we’re prepared to sell our public-service birthright for a mess of commercial pottage, the only thing that stands between us and a bundle of cash is the U.S. Congress and the NAB.

These two bodies, I expect, will be the reason PTV Weekend will never happen. Rep. Billy Tauzin (R-La.), chair of the House telecommunications subcommittee, is very clear in declaring his intention to stop public TV’s drift toward commercialism. And, he’s on the record as being committed to find a way to create a trust fund to help public television. The act of Congress required to allow us to engage in this five- to seven-year experiment must begin by winning over Rep. Tauzin — and that doesn’t appear likely.

Let’s suppose for a moment, however, that the House telecommunications subcommittee is prepared to take up this issue; what might the reaction be at NAB headquarters? Would they greet PTV Weekend as an innovative way to nurture a vital public institution, or would they load up and take aim at what they might see as a 300-station camel sticking its nose in their commercial tent? Bang!

But let’s suppose we could overcome the opposition in Congress to the idea and withstand the full frontal assault that PTV Weekend will surely receive from the NAB if it ever is taken up by Congress; why would we want to do it in the first place? In addition to the reasons why PTV Weekend won’t work, there are at least five reasons I think it shouldn’t:

  • It would put at risk much larger revenues from existing local sources, including membership income, state and federal support, and underwriting. Despite the protestations of the advocates of PTV Weekend, there are a number of national studies which demonstrate that if public TV becomes commercialized, current funders will withhold their support. The Paul Bortz study for APTS showed this, the Temporary Commission on Alternative Financing (TCAF) concluded this after an earlier ad experiment in the early ’80s, and numerous local surveys show this as well.Among the sources put at risk would be national underwriting for programs that stations consider essential to their schedules. If we’re listening, we can hear national producers telling us this is happening already with the sale of 30-second spots by some stations. This situation will only get worse if PTV Weekend happens. For example, consider why American Express is no longer a national underwriter on The American Experience, but is buying spots on those stations that sell them. This may appear fine if you’re one of those stations, but it’s the rest of us that end up paying for it, either by a diminished national program schedule or by an increased cost to us through our investment in the NPS.PTV Weekend also undermines our case for a national trust fund. If we are to succeed in convincing Congress of our case for a national trust fund to replace annual appropriations, we’re going to need to be singing from the same hymnal. It’s going to be a tough enough sell if we’re all pulling in the same direction, but if a faction among us is pitching commercialism instead, it undermines our case and gives Congress a good reason not to create a trust fund.
  • It weakens our market position. Several national studies clearly demonstrate that among our distinguishing features in the minds of those we seek to serve is our public service, noncommercial position. Take that away, even if we can sustain a reasonable level of quality in our programming, and there is less to distinguish us from the cable look-alikes. Building a strong image and market position, and differentiating ourselves from the competition, takes time, effort, and consistency. And, it’s a process that’s becoming more difficult, not less, as viewers have more channels to choose from. If viewers see the same commercials on our air that they do on the commercial stations, including within the programs, we’ve lost a major positioning asset. And market position isn’t just some aesthetic abstraction, it’s vital to our attracting audience and support.
  • It takes us further down the road to becoming completely commercialized. If we start down this road, we’d better understand where it leads, because that’s where we’re headed. If we’re prepared to completely abandon the principles upon which we were founded, perhaps this is okay. But, it seems to me folly to think we can move any further down this road and expect to stop short of its ultimate destination. The road to full commercialization is a slippery slope and once we find ourselves having to compete with other broadcasters on a cost-per-thousand (CPM) basis, the necessity of attracting larger and larger audiences, especially if we undermine our other sources of income, will drive us inexorably toward a commercial model. This is problematic for several reasons, beginning with its effect on program decisions but including the probability that production costs will increase as we lose the preferential rates we now enjoy for many production expenses.
  • Moving to a commercial model will dumb-down our programming. While it wouldn’t happen overnight, the CPM engine of the commercial model would gradually drive down the quality of the programming and scheduling decisions we would make. The evidence of this effect in commercial television is so abundant as to need little illustration, but perhaps one example is in order. The proponents of PTV Weekend cite Britain’s Channel 4 as the model for their service and as an economic model it might be a good one. What bears examination, however, is what commercialism has done to their programming decisions. While it’s true that they produce and broadcast several outstanding programs, their bread and butter, including their primetime schedule, consists mainly of American dramas, sitcoms and movies (their highest rated program in June was ER). Melrose Place, The Simpsons and Total Recall have their place on TV, but probably not as examples of where we want American public TV to end up.
  • It’s labeled an “experiment,” but its effects can’t easily be undone. PTV Weekend is being proposed as a five- to seven-year experiment which can be dropped if it doesn’t work out. The problem here is that the damage will have been done in that time and wouldn’t likely be reversible. The erosion of traditional sources of support, the blurring of market position, and the effect on our programming would all have made their mark in that amount of time, perhaps with devastating consequences.The proponents of PTV Weekend suggest to those of us who don’t like it that we don’t have to participate, but that we should allow them to go forward with it. This begs the question. For better or for worse we’re inextricably linked together if this “experiment” proceeds. There’s no way for those of us who choose to abstain to avoid the consequences that would befall public TV if several large-market stations pursue commercialism. We’re seeing the effects of the sale of 30-second spots on the system already and the same thing inevitably would happen if PTV Weekend is approved.

Despite my criticism of PTV Weekend, I feel we owe Larry Grossman a debt of gratitude for his continued interest in advancing public TV. While I disagree with his proposal, I share my colleagues’ widespread respect for what Larry did for the industry while he was president of PBS, for his thoughtful contributions to the work of the Twentieth Century Fund Task Force on Public Television, and to his continued advocacy of public television as evidenced by this proposal. I just disagree with his proposal.

What makes the proposal especially troubling to me, is that I’m not convinced a more commercial strategy is necessary to attract growing support from the private sector. Many stations, including KUED, are seeing substantial growth in underwriting income without lengthening credits, let alone selling commercials. Our own research and experience shows us that companies recognize the value of the noncommercial, uncluttered opportunity that conventional underwriting presents. We’ve conducted a number of focus-group interviews with both viewers and underwriters on these issues and it’s clear they both recognize and value keeping a commercial free environment on public TV. Corporate support is a vital part of the mix of funding for public TV, now and in the future, but we needn’t commercialize ourselves to secure it.

Our own experience in generating increased underwriting income, while using a conservative interpretation of the PBS underwriting guidelines, squares with that of other stations who are doing the same: the money is there. In fact, KUED consistently is ranked among the top stations in underwriting income and won the PBS underwriting award last year.

Furthermore, there is reason for optimism about seeking production partners who are willing to invest in quality national programming without commercializing public TV in the process. The $75 million investment by the Readers Digest Association and the $3.5 million investment by Devillier Donegan Enterprises next year alone give reason for optimism that more such partnerships can be found.

Another potential source of new income will be the opportunities presented by digital television. While it’s early in the game to know for sure what shape they might take, it appears likely that there will be income opportunities — perhaps substantial ones through the lease of some of our digital broadcasting capacity.

And, finally, we should look internally for a part of the answer to the need for a greater investment in our national programming schedule. Although the results of the Boston Consulting Group study were unpopular within our industry, they were right. We are investing far too little in national programming — 8 percent of total station revenues at the present time. If we’re willing share more resources among ourselves and revisit our internal priorities, I’m convinced we can and should increase our investment in national programming. We must find a way to break out of the modest inflation-rate increases that we’re making in the NPS and put a greater percentage of our resources into that part of our schedule that our viewers value most.

It seems to me that what is ultimately at play in this proposal, and in the internal debate over commercialism we are undergoing as an industry right now, is a battle for the soul of public television.

For better or for worse, public broadcasting is the last best hope for at least one institution in this country committed to the principle of using the media for public service rather than profit. America has a robust and diverse commercial television industry that is the envy of the world. The last thing we need is another television network engaged in the pursuit of eyeballs for advertisers and that is where PTV Weekend will ultimately lead us. What we desperately need is at least one television system that continues to use excellence in education, culture and citizenship–not income — as its guiding principles.

As stewards of the public trust called public television, we should reject PTV Weekend as a well-intentioned proposal which is unacceptable and we should continue to pursue those sources of funding which allow us to preserve, on behalf of the people we seek to serve, a television system committed to public service and driven by the desire to enrich American culture.

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