PBS President Pat Mitchell: ‘I think I’ll be learning every day of the year’

Interview by Karen Everhart Bedford

Current Q&ASince she was hired as PBS president early in February [2000], Pat Mitchell has met with 60 or 70 of public TV’s managers, and station board leaders as well, in trips to stations and at the APTS Annual Meeting. To oversee station relations, she hired the network’s former board vice chairman, Wayne Godwin, away from Cincinnati’s WCET (he starts work this week at PBS). And she’s expected to announce further initiatives starting next weekend at the PBS Annual Meeting in Nashville.

Mitchell, a longtime producer in commercial TV, was previously head of Time Warner’s CNN Productions, based in Atlanta. She still has yet to pack her household and move to the D.C. area. Now she’s living in a friend’s guest house after finding a hotel suite claustrophobic.

Current Associate Editor Karen Everhart Bedford interviewed Mitchell in the president’s corner office at PBS headquarters, now decorated with rows of Peabody and Emmy awards won by Mitchell’s programs. Though Mitchell is carefully attending to her station relations, she talks admiringly of risk-taking. On the colorful new couch there’s a dark blue pillow needlepointed with the motto, “If you obey all the rules, you miss all the fun.”

Current: You recently hired Wayne Godwin as executive v.p. of member affairs. Are you elevating the importance of station relations within PBS? Will this allow you to focus more of your attention on programming?

Mitchell

Mitchell

Mitchell: Yes to both questions. One of the first things I recognized in this job was that PBS is a membership organization, so we really do need to put that first and foremost in everything that we do. Bringing Wayne in and elevating that position of membership services to directly report to me, to a top senior-staff-level position, is saying to our membership that that is the case. They are a priority, their needs, their desires, their interests are a priority for us. Having Wayne — someone who’s so experienced and so respected in the system, who’s been here, who’s been a station manager, he really has exactly the right experience and perspective to make this work.

And, yes, it does give me some more time to focus, not only on programming, but really all of the ways that PBS responds to what we need to be doing.

Wayne’s appointment to head a new combination of departments hints that you have broader reorganizational plan in mind as you complete your leadership team. What are the executive positions you are now looking to fill?

One that’s open that I’m trying to fill as quickly as possible is the communication and branding position, because that’s a very important part of what we do too — positioning and branding PBS and its member stations and our programming. I’d like to fill that as soon as possible, but I don’t think I’ll have an announcement on that by the meeting. I’d certainly hoped to.

It’s a challenging one because Carole Feld left a big hole. I want to make sure we can fill it with someone who can carry forth what she has done.

In addition, programming is a place where I feel I can bring some experience to bear, and I’m working on a reorganization of the programming division. I’ll be announcing the specifics on that at the annual meeting, but I can tell you now that it’s going to involve a rather bold and new approach to the way PBS Programming operates.

Here’s how it evolved. I spent a lot of time listening to the producing stations, and the non-producing stations, about what they expect from the National Program Service, and how we can as a system address the needs of a cluttered marketplace. I want to make sure that everyone feels they have access here, that we are the place the creative community — both at our stations and in the independent creative community — think of first. In a lot of ways we are — I just want to make sure that we continue to be the No. 1 choice, not only for them but also for the audience.

In order to answer both the needs of the audience and the creative community, I felt we needed to look at a couple of areas. We need to streamline the way we identify and accept proposals and act on them — what we call the “green light” process — and make it more effective.

And then the way that we work with our producing stations and our outside producers, as well as always evaluating the kinds of strategic partnerships that will yield more and better content for us — both on television and online. I never think of programming now in a television model only. I always think of it in terms of distribution, wherever that may be — multichannels, digital channels or online.

Are you looking for a programming chief and a head of learning ventures? Or is it possible that those two positions could be somehow combined?

We are undertaking an analysis of some of our operating units, so I’m not going to announce all the reorganization plans at the annual meeting. There will be some that will come a bit later, particularly around the Learning Ventures area.

One of the things that John Swope said he found in his four months as interim president here was that PBS Programming executives often gave producers a tentative green light and then much later the PBS Business Affairs people opened a whole new set of hard questions on contracts. Are you going to try to turn that into one process rather than two, or change the point at which Business Affairs gets involved?

That’s a really good question. In my mind, you have to look at every project from the approach of a team now. And that team includes the development executives, the Business Affairs executives, the Online division. Everybody who is going to touch the content in that project needs to be involved in it from the beginning. So yes, Business Affairs is going to work much more closely with programming, as is Online. So that when we are involved with a producer or producing station in a project, we are moving forward on a united front.

And the question of how producers feel about the process has a lot to do with our being very clear on two things: clear on what we want in terms of proposals — in other words, targeting our development. I think we could get better in that area. In addition, we need to be really clear about what kind of rights we’re looking for, and making that clear up-front, too. That’s going to clear up a lot of that confusion and concern about the process itself.

What were you most surprised to learn in your first weeks on the job?

How much time do you have? [She laughs.] There have been a lot of surprises because I think all of us who were outside the PBS system probably think we know a lot more about it than we actually do, and there are just things you don’t know until you’re inside. There are all kinds of aspects to a membership organization that are really very different than any other model in the media landscape. Then there are also a lot of things that are very different about public service media.

I feel like every day I’m still learning something — which is not bad, by the way. I like to think of myself as a lifelong learner, so I probably took just the right job. I think I’ll be learning every day of the year.

You’ve been listening to station leaders and developing a strategic plan for PBS that you plan to unveil soon. Of the many challenges that face PBS and its member stations, which ones do you intend to tackle first?

I have already tackled the first thing, and that’s how we serve our membership. I felt that was really top priority, coming in to this job. And that was the purpose of the listening tour: to go around and meet with as many stations — not only the staffs but also their boards — because I want to know what the communities are feeling and thinking in which these stations are situated. That’s been very revelatory and helpful. So that was No. 1.

The second thing would be programming, of course. What we have in the pipeline is extraordinary, but after the annual meeting I want to spend a lot of time looking at areas of need. And looking at new ideas and new formats that will make the National Program Service stronger than ever. That’s certainly my next front.

On your listening tour, how often did you meet with the board members — and was it the whole board or just the chairperson?

In some cases, it was just the chairperson or another board member who happened to be available and wanted to spend time. In a couple of cases, Los Angeles and San Francisco, I met with entire boards. In San Francisco, it was an extended family of support in the community. In Boston, I met with two or three separate board members. I’m going now to San Antonio and meeting with a board member; I’m meeting in Pittsburgh with the board, and other ones. I have like five trips scheduled.

I try to schedule them around board meetings because I think that’s part of what we have as a system — these stations have such strong community roots — and we at PBS need to understand those, too.

Is what you hear from the board members different from what you hear from station executives?

No, but what you hear from them is the ways in which they expect their station to serve its community. Now when you take that as a model for what they’re doing on the local level, and bring it up to what we can help them do on the national level, it’s helping us construct more of these local-national partnerships that we’ve been talking about.

I’m seeing how we can do those partnerships. I’m there, on the ground, seeing what the stations are doing, talking to the community about what is working and why certain programs have a resonance in a community, or where they think they need to do more. The boards are pretty outspoken about why they’re involved and what they’re expecting. And I’m bringing that back here, so that we can look at our national programming model, we can look at all other ways in which we can leverage that asset of having a national connectedness with our community, our local roots.

At your first press conference in February, we asked whether PBS was going to move deeper into commissioning programs. Just before that there had been a National Forum of Public Television Executives meeting. Some of the managers thought PBS should be more aggressive in commissioning programs, and others said PBS should lay off and not take any role approaching that of a producer.

I think that concern has arisen from the fact that a lot of stations look at the National Program Service and feel they haven’t had enough of an opportunity to produce for it. We have a pretty good balance between independent productions and station-produced programming. But probably system-wide we need to reach out to more stations for producing.

So when I talk about targeted development or commissioning, I’m talking about finding really good ideas that fit the needs of our schedule, and then possibly finding the right producing station. Or sending producers who come to us with good ideas to our stations. That’s not to say we’re not going to work with the independent community, because we will, but I think it’s the balance that you were hearing the conversation about.

Stations pay their funds to the NPS so that we use it wisely on their behalf. But we have a lot of resources in this system, a lot of talent. We just need to make sure we’re looking there, too.

It will help make the programming dollars go a lot further if we work with a very great awareness of what our audiences are looking for and how to develop towards that.

In the past it seemed that the impetus for major series has come from stations and other producers. They develop them; they may get a tentative green light from PBS, but PBS wasn’t publicly dictating, “This is what we need for our schedule in 2003.”

Recently, it’s been more targeted than that. When I came on board, [programming chief] John Wilson had already identified a need that worked very well with a local/national model and a concept that everybody thought was good. So then it was sent out to the stations with the questions, “Is this something that would interest you? Would you like to be a part of this?,” and stations have submitted proposals.

At the end of the day, they’re interested in the best programming on the air with the best producers doing it. And if it’s clear that everybody has equal access to that, it’s going to be better over the long run than 2,000 proposals coming in over the transom and PBS trying to find ways to broadcast them that are impactful. And I think that’s been the complaint, too — too many programs, too little time for them.

But it’s a partnership, like everything in this organization. It’s about finding the right balance of what ideas stations want to pursue and want to produce, and which ones are going to work for the National Programming Service.

You recently told the PBS Board that public TV leaders should stop describing the system as a dysfunctional family and talking frequently about its problems. But not talking about it doesn’t make the family functional. So, let’s say we’re not taking about dysfunction — but what needs to be done?

I do think that changing the language does change the reality. I’m convinced that if you stop talking about how dysfunctional you are, that you do stop thinking you’re dysfunctional. That was a big head start, in that I actually now find people stopping in mid-sentence and saying, “Whoops! I can’t use that word.” So if they’re saying that, then hopefully they’re also not thinking that way.

It was a surprise to me — how often this description was used, both by people inside the system and people outside. I actually don’t think it’s an accurate description. We’re just different than the other media companies that are organized around a different model. We are a membership organization. Everything we do is mission-based, and it’s about citizens, not consumers. There are a lot of things that differentiate us. But “differentiated” is a different word than “dysfunctional.”

I think the differences arose over some of the distribution issues. We clearly have some issues now facing the system, such as DBS, that we need to work very closely on together. The urgency of all those questions — and the digital conversion issue that faces each of these public television stations — has given us a lot of motivation for functioning very well together, closely together.

At the APTS meeting, you offered some ideas about live programming and other changes on the air. Have you gotten any feedback or moved ahead on any of those ideas?

I’ll tell you one thing, we’re working on; it’s truly a work in progress: I really do want to do a live election special. I think it’s within our mandate and mission, and very much something we can do that no one else can do in quite the same way — construct a live national conversation around the issues of this election.

Would this be on election night?

No, sometime before — close before. We’re just starting to get the parties at the table to discuss it.

We reach 100 percent-plus of the American public, and we can give them total access to a conversation about what’s at stake here.

Is this one that should include the candidates themselves?

Should and hopefully will, but if it’s so close to the election that they no longer want to risk it, then we’ll do it with surrogates from their campaigns. Or maybe we just do the issues. We’ll certainly know by then where the candidates stand on everything.

You know, all the polls are indicating this is going to be a hugely undecided population in this election, unless something pretty dramatic happens. I think if it’s undecided, it’ll be even better to do this program: if people are undecided they’ll still be trying to figure it out.

Frontline always does that wonderful documentary, “The Choice,” and that comes out in October. The response every year, I’m told by the Frontline producers, and certainly I’ve always watched it, is that it’s really helpful in defining the choice about the candidates. We could follow up with the choices based on the issues.

I want to do it. It’s not an easy thing, and we’re not trying to be CNN. There are issues that we have as a system that are different, but there’s also an opportunity we have that’s different. Because, again, we can go live from different parts of the country and have that local connection with our communities in a way that I think is unique and important.

You’ve suggested that PBS may have to move more quickly to revamp its primetime schedule than the one year that’s been set out for the pilot schedule project. Can you fast-track that effort and still make sure the resulting national schedule is based on solid research?

Yes, we can. We met this week with TRAC Media, and the seven stations involved in this pilot program. We’re still in the process of evolving the schedule. But I think everybody agrees that we can put this on a faster track.

How much faster?

Probably somewhere in the six-month range, running from fall to early spring. We’ll get a couple of ratings books, plus we’ll be able to track in the areas that we planned to do anyway. I think it’s going to provide us enough factual data to go back to the system and say, “Here’s what we learned from this, and based on this, do we want to move forward?”

And you would move forward in the spring if you had that consensus?

That would be my hope. That would be a decision the system has to make together.

What two or three things about the schedule tell you that it needs revamping?

After such a long time with no changes in the schedule, almost no one you speak with would say it isn’t time to look at how we can both better serve the signature series as well as build some new audience.

Masterpiece Theatre is in a really tough time slot at 9 o’clock on Sunday nights. There’s so much stiff competition. Also, Masterpiece Theatre has this hugely loyal audience, but maybe we should allow some new people to find it, too.

Every one of our signature series has such a loyal following, we have to think very carefully about moving anything. You certainly don’t ever want to disappoint that loyal group or have them be concerned. So we would never do it without a lot of back-up.

I think our audiences will agree with us, that to take a good hard look at where things are and whether they are where they can deliver the largest reach, the greatest impact, not just for all the PBS stations, but for the audiences in those communities. I’ve found great support for at least taking a look at this and looking at it this way, factually. Backing it up with research.

What if the pilot schedule doesn’t meet its goals of improving audience flow and time spent viewing? Will that mean that the content needs the dramatic overhaul?

I think those are questions we’ll have to take a look at. That’s why it’s a pilot schedule, because we really don’t know what the result will be.

I’m hoping that it will yield new audiences for the series that are there — our great icons — and it will help us identify programming areas where we can move and capture an audience looking to be part of a PBS audience that we’re not capturing now.

When you look at what PBS is spending on programs versus the budgets you worked with at Turner/Time Warner, is PBS spending enough per hour, or too much, and is it spending it well?

I probably don’t have a complete answer to that question right now because I’m just starting to delve into the programming budget and how we’re allocating our resources. But if you look at what the result is — it’s so top-quality, it wins all the major awards. The best producers are eager to work with us, so I think we’re making really good use of our dollars.

You’ll never talk to anyone in my position who feels there’s ever enough funding. Because you always want to say, “If we just had another couple of million, we could launch another family drama series,” or something. But I think we’re making pretty good use of the dollars we’re spending. Certainly the results indicate that.

National Geographic Specials left PBS five years ago when the series lost its underwriter and PBS presumably was unable to pay enough to keep those blue-chip specials on its air. This fall, they’ll be returning. What changes in the business of television have made this possible? Is it that the costs of natural history and science programs have been driven down by the flood of material now available, or that PBS is willing to invest more in retaining its natural history franchise, or that National Geographic has become convinced of PBS’s value as a broadcast venue? Or some other reasons?

I’d like to say I brought that one back with me, since I had National Geographic Explorer at Turner for all of those years. But the deal was done when I walked in the door.

I certainly think National Geographic would say they recognize that PBS is the right home for their Specials. Even when we were running National Geographic Explorer at Turner, which they liked because it reached a different audience, they were very happy to have the Specials on PBS. So they feel like they’re coming home to an audience that appreciates their Specials and has always been there for them.

Has the television business changed? Well, yeah, a lot of things have changed. They have their own channel now. They have all kinds of different strategic partnerships that they didn’t have five years ago. So they’re finding ways to put their funding packages together, and they also have different asset management, if you look at their channels.

And the new deal also involved being able to rebroadcast past National Geographic Specials, which is a great boon for us and for them.

Everybody is looking for new ways to keep doing the programming that matters, the programming that their audience cares about, and finding ways to afford to do it.

Nature and natural history are really a genre PBS invented in this country. It’s still a place where, when I think of blue-chip natural history, I think of PBS, and I think the audience does, too.

It’s a crowded field, and it will be more crowded with National Geographic’s channel coming on as well. But it seems to be one for which there’s a sufficient appetite. So as long as the appetite exists, what we will do in that area will continue to be distinct and very top quality, as the series Nature and the National Geographic Specials exemplify.

PBS is working on updating its image with a new tagline. In 1995, the slogan “If PBS doesn’t do it who will?” resonated as the right message at exactly the right moment. But some number of stations never adopted it, and members of Congress and some TV critics continue to question the need for public television. PBS also emphasized quality in the tagline, “Experience the Best,” but similar claims were made by its competitors. Can you share with us what the new tagline is going to be?

No, I can’t, because we want to share it with our membership first. So we’re going to roll it out at the annual meeting.

Taglines are interesting in this cluttered market we’re a part of. They’ve taken on new meaning, because people start to quote taglines instead of channel names sometimes. I think they’re meaningful if they help the audience, particularly the new audience, understand what your schedule’s about. When you’re a variety service as we are — when you’re offering the best of performance, drama, documentaries and news, etc. — you have to have a pretty all-encompassing tagline. It’s really got to say to the audience why choose PBS tonight when you sit down at eight o’clock or ten o’clock.

How did you settle on a tagline? Did you have many to choose from?

I came in at the end of the process.

Tom Epstein, PBS communications v.p.: Fallon McElligott did a creative brief first. They laid out the general idea and came back with the creative execution, and I think they came back proposing a single tagline.

Mitchell: I only saw one tagline, but I came in almost at the end of their work. They did a lot of focus group work and a lot of research before they started constructing the tagline.

HBO has been winning awards for documentaries and critical praise for The Sopranos. Are they tough competitors for quality?

I really admire what HBO does; but they have such a different audience. First, they’re pay-cable. Second, their audience is largely male and skews considerably younger. And it’s much smaller — in terms of households reached. I don’t mean in terms of numbers, because they have high peak numbers.

I really admire their commitment to taking chances and doing risky stuff. Sopranos was a big risk, and it’s not the kind of program that we would probably have done for a lot of reasons. It’s hardly family-oriented programming. But dramatically, and in execution, I certainly admire the risk-taking. They do fine documentaries, too.

I don’t consider them a competitor, though, because we really are serving different needs. We may do similar work from time to time, but overall, when you’re a pay cable outlet, you’ve really got to be driven by different concerns.

Through your relationship with the Sundance Institute, you’re said to have an especially good relationship with independent filmmakers. How were you involved with the Institute, and are you continuing in that role as PBS president?

I’ve been on the board of the Institute since ’92. Yes, I do plan to continue. It’s one of the most rewarding nonprofit and off-my-job experiences that I have. I work very closely with the independent community through the Institute’s labs and workshops.

Coming here, I was happy to find out the extent of PBS’s support for the Sundance Film Festival, but also a new documentary program that Sundance began this year, a festival called the House of Docs. PBS was one of the first sponsors to sign on. Going forward in our Producers Academy work, we want to bring them in as one of our alliances, because they have great experience in working with young, independent filmmakers, helping them to find the right mentoring relationships.

It certainly has given me a wide knowledge of the independent filmmaking community, not to mention that I’ve also been commissioning work from them for a long time.

Do you intend to bring more independent work to PBS? How important is that to your vision for PBS?

My vision is that our programming always has to be first and always has to represent the communities we serve. If we’re producing that kind of programming, then we need to rely on the diversity of talent that’s available to us — either through our member stations or through our associations with minority consortia, ITVS. We have a lot of mechanisms set up to work with really good independents.

You also have a stable of producers at stations around the country who are champing at the bit to bring something new to the air. Where do you see the best opportunities for PBS to refresh its lineup and to which these producers might focus their creative energies?

I would want them all, if we had 100,000 hours a day to program. Our challenge is, we’ve got an awful lot of talent and resources, and not enough airtime. With multicasting, we’ll get some more of that.

This pilot schedule is going to help us to target our development. And wherever we find that need, it’s certainly is part of my plan to find a station to be part of producing that for us. And if not, an independent who’s perfectly right for it. Or maybe it’s a combination. Maybe we put them together or suggest a coming together. We have to be open to all possibilities, and I believe the stations agree with me on that, on finding the absolute best programming.

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