Public Media Policybase

PTV Weekend: Notes on Questions, Concerns, Strengths and Benefits

Text of May 1997 report by James A. Fellows

James Fellows, long active in public TV’s national leadership and founder of Current, analyzed the PTV Weekend proposal, when it was published in June 1997, on behalf of the Hartford Gunn Institute, a fledgling organization he was trying to launch as a planning agency for the public TV system. See also the PTV Weekend proposal and Current‘s coverage of it.

The Hartford Gunn Institute is an independent entity that is interested in analyzing and encouraging promising opportunities in public broadcasting and telecommunications. It has no organizational or financial interest in the outcome of the research work which it undertakes.

At the request of Lawrence K. Grossman, former President of the Public Broadcasting Service, The Hartford Gunn Institute was commissioned to explore with key leaders in public television their questions and concerns concerning the strengths and benefits of what has come to be called PTV WEEKEND. This review was carried out by Jim Fellows, President of the Institute, in meetings with public television executives in many different organizations throughout the country.

The results of research over three months identified several factors that required attention. The conversations yielded not only helpful questions about the plan, but often suggested approaches for responding to them in a constructive and effective manner.

A Growth Plan for Programming

The PTV WEEKEND concept was developed to bring to public television new initiatives and approaches to national programming. It is not a criticism of the current efforts, which by any fair test are exemplary and widely respected. Rather, it recognizes that for a variety of reasons, new ideas in national programming are not routinely pursued.

It is fair to say that the current state of public television programming reveals the limitations of the traditional and present approaches to national program funding. Wherever one pursues opportunities for innovation and invention, what turns up is a lack of funding and a practical need to stay with what is relatively familiar and affordable. Exceptions occur, but they should be the rule.

The major program financing, producing and distributing organizations in public television are the first to recognize these circumstances.

  • There is little assured continuity in funding from year to year, even for continuing series.
  • There is a strong dependence on corporate underwriting.
  • There is virtually no reliable program development funding.
  • There are limitations and restrictions on program producers regarding the ownership and earning power of the work they produce.
  • The current financial forecasts show no real prospect of any significant improvement.

If there is one phrase that captures the current situation it is to say that the resources and the expectations for national programming for public television are scaled far too low. The PTV WEEKEND strategy intends to address this shortcoming.

Managing and Optimizing Revenue Sources

Public television has shown a determination and a competence to extract substantial resources from each of its traditional revenue strategies. No currently available revenue source is ideal and each can bring with it a range of opportunities for either overt or veiled interference. To a very large extent the “downsides” of particular revenue sources have been relatively few.

However, public television’s efforts during the past thirty years have built each of its traditional revenue lines to a point where it is reasonable to conclude that most of them, for all practical purposes, have reached a plateau.

It is reasonable to work toward higher allocations from tax-based sources but these prospects are bleak for the foreseeable future due largely to economic and political factors that have little or nothing to do with public broadcasting.

As for viewer contributions, foundations, corporate underwriting and various forms of institutional support, it is considered an achievement when from year to year revenue from these sources does not decline. Moreover, the cost of raising such money is rarely calculated, so the net benefit to particular organizations is inevitably lower than it appears.

It is important to be honest about these realities.

The conclusion is inescapable. There is no growth money to preserve and expand the quality, appeal and creative energy in public television’s future programming.

To address this problem, the financing strategy described for PTV WEEKEND anticipates a new, enhanced private sector relationship, generating revenue from the placement of advertising messages.

This strategy was recommended because it offers an opportunity to test the one familiar approach to revenue generation that has not heretofore been thoroughly examined and tested as an option for public television. In reality, however, through the approaches of corporate underwriting, public television already incorporates corporate involvement but as some have said, “gives away the store.”

It was also recommended because, to a large extent, public television has a commendable track record in managing its non- corporate revenue sources in a manner that optimizes the financial reward while minimizing any negative effects. This successful experience suggests that public television should have the competence to perform as effectively in managing corporate revenues for optimal gain with minimum risk. With respect to advertising revenues, this objective suggests that there should be a Code of Standards, there should be no intrusive and artificial interruptions of programs, and the managers of this initiative should continue the high standards of programming with which corporations wish to be distinctively identified. To do anything less, would involve direct, pointless, and predictably unsuccessful competition with traditional commercial operations.

Impact on Other Revenue Sources

Though it is not possible to prove or disprove the hypothesis in the abstract, some express concern that acceptance of even limited advertising messages will result in a reduction of corporate underwriting, viewer support, tax-based support and other revenue sources.

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 (in lieu of two 15-second announcements) which meet today’s FCC standards.

There is at least a theoretical possibility that, no matter how carefully constructed, defined, limited and segregated the introduction of advertising messages on public television, even if confined to clusters between programs of a distinct and distinguishable weekend service, would cause viewers and other contributors to walk away in great numbers. It is more likely that they won’t. In a worst case situation, however, one “remedy” is simple enough: if acceptance of advertising causes revenues from traditional sources to decline, then modify or discontinue the experiment. That is one of the chief reasons to consider an experimental framework for this initiative.

It should be possible to influence these outcomes by positioning of announcements, by explaining the framework of acceptance for new corporate messages, by maintaining high program quality and by informing viewers about the overall strategy and limits of the expanded marketplace approach to corporate sponsorships. It is also quite possible that with the fresh, quality programming and larger audience the experiment is designed to provide, more funding from other sources could be anticipated, rather than less.

In Chicago, the one location where there has been extensive experience with running longer form (FCC acceptable) corporate announcements, viewer support, corporate underwriting, and other revenue sources have grown. Contributors have expressed appreciation for the station’s efforts to build other revenue lines, noting that “you’re making our dollars go farther.” If limited advertising is to be tested on a large scale through the PTV WEEKEND concept, its managers would do well to examine the Chicago experience with “enhanced underwriting” for insight into useful strategies for increasing revenues from traditional sources while introducing more aggressive pursuit of corporate revenues.

Nothing can be guaranteed, of course, but experience should prevail over anxiety and the public television tradition of maintaining high and demanding standards for program quality should apply as well to standards for advertising messages.

The Federal Factors

Public broadcasting stations exist as licensees of the federal government and are dependent for some of their basic support on a Congress and an administration that approves federal appropriations. These circumstances are not likely to change.

For PTV WEEKEND to become a reality, therefore, it is necessary to secure federal approval, first from the Congress and then from the Federal Communications Commission. This will set the limits and the terms of what is proposed as a 5-7 year experiment.

Congress has regularly recommended that public broadcasting look toward other forms of revenue. Over the years public broadcasters have done just that. But limits are now being reached and new options need to be tested. While public broadcasting wages a strong case to maintain the federal financial participation, it should also argue that need for substantial growth in that support could be ameliorated if the Congress approves this experimental strategy and it is demonstrated to work.

Concerns About The “Slippery Slope”

Another concern which must also be taken seriously, is what is typically called “the slippery slope.” If limited advertising works, the argument goes, how will you be able to stop from becoming commercial altogether?

Four responses may be appropriate:

  • If the PTV WEEKEND financing strategy works, it will work because the producers of high quality programming services, and the corporations that want to reach the people who watch them, share a common interest.
  • Reducing program quality in order to reach larger audiences would be self-defeating. Such an effort would make public broadcasting competitive with commercial broadcasters seeking relatively larger audiences, and they are clearly better at it.
  • From the start, it is proposed that the PTV WEEKEND strategy will observe strict limits on number of hours and number of announcements. PTV WEEKEND is not proposed to replace any existing lines of revenue so it does not bear the burden, as some previously suggested approaches may have, of replacing federal money – or any other money. This is to be a programming growth strategy.
  • Should they develop, any efforts to trade off new revenue for old should be opposed and resisted. Such prospects are sometimes forecast but they need not, however, impede this experimental development.

Risks of Viewer Confusion

The concern expressed is that some viewers will be perplexed to see that the public television channel, once free of any corporate messages, already has corporate underwriting and might also contain advertising messages in a limited experiment.

Consider the public television viewers. They are able to deal with the complexities of international affairs, the intricacies of reducing the federal deficit and achieving a balanced budget, the sophistication of opera, the range of literary drama, the high comedy of British television, the civic affairs in their own communities and the social challenges of building a fair and equitable life for America’s citizens.

Is it likely they will have real difficulty in understanding the realities of public television funding? In situations where there might be some confusion (e.g., children’s and educational programming), the PTV WEEKEND financing strategy does not apply.

In situations where viewer confusion is a plausible concern, informational announcements could remind viewers of the salient points: “It costs money to run this service; most of our traditional sources – including you and people like you – are not growing at the rate of our expenses; so more money is needed to maintain quality and do better programming. PTV WEEKEND would be experimenting with advertising in a limited way, while rigorously upholding the tradition of quality standards.”

Who Are The Strategic Partners?

The strategic partners are producers and companies that have experience in managing major programing and production initiatives. To be financially realistic, programs shown on PTV WEEKEND will, on terms authorized by the Board, be shown through broadcasting organizations in other countries, and as appropriate through cable systems domestically.

The Role of PBS

PBS has expressed an interest in exploring the possibilities inherent in this new program and financing plan. No formal agreements have been sought or offered. These will be reviewed at the appropriate time. PBS could well be actively involved as a minority owner and limited partner in PTV WEEKEND, which would be organized as a separate, independent organization.

The Big Idea Factor

In worldwide terms, American public broadcasting is one of a kind. It is neither government operated nor commercially driven. It is in every respect a “big idea” in the field of broadcasting, embracing a broad public purpose with a combination of private and public funding sources – never enough.

Within this framework there have been other relatively big ideas (e.g. Sesame Street as a daily program for pre-schoolers; The MacNeil-Lehrer NewsHour, a daily digest of current and public affairs; The Public Television Outreach Alliance; The Adult Learning Service; PTV Ready to Learn–to cite only a few.)

Each one of these initiatives, now an important component of the public television service plan, was actively resisted when introduced. Some ideas, such as The Voter’s Channel, were not kept alive long enough for their merits to be understood and adapted.

PTV WEEKEND is another “big idea” and it is important that it be carefully advanced for its benefits to be understood and for any problems that may exist in the initial concept to be corrected.

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, its all the more appropriate that any such questions about this proposal continue to be addressed effectively through information, objective consideration and appropriate refinement of the plan.

The Hartford Gunn Institute is an independent entity that is interested in analyzing and encouraging promising opportunities in public broadcasting and telecommunications. It has no organizational or financial interest in the outcome of the research work which it undertakes.

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