Forum urges strong role for public TV in education

By Steve Behrens

If the National Forum for Public Television Executives has its way, public TV will:

  • raise an additional $200 million a year by loosening underwriting guidelines (notably, by airing 30-second credits), freeing up stations’ funds by making the PBS national schedule self-supporting,
  • develop educational and local services equal in impact to PBS’s national programming, and
  • restructure PBS, APTS and its other national organizations under a new board of station managers.

The petitions come up Tuesday, Oct. 24 at the third annual PBS Members Meeting, where the Forum will ask all PBS member stations to endorse resolutions to the PBS Board.

It’s the conclusion of an annual three-day policyfest. On Sunday, PBS will report to stations on big price increases for Nielsen ratings [story], and the strange new world of personal video recorders, digital cable and electronic “walled gardens” controlled by media conglomerates, according to Executive Vice President Wayne Godwin. On Monday, after a CPB presentation at breakfast, PBS President Pat Mitchell is expected to discuss a streamlining of the network’s hurry-up-and-wait process for “greenlighting,” or program approval.

Also Monday, stations will urge PBS again to stop feeding the same program schedule to DBS companies that it sends to them. The large licensees in the Community Station Resource Group don’t want their viewers picking up the PBS feed from DirecTV or the Dish Network–and missing the local programs (and pledge breaks) from their hometown stations. Time-shifting of programs isn’t enough, says Maryland PTV President Rob Shuman, speaking for CSRG.

Similarly, the CSRG stations want the option of routinely airing their own web addresses instead of www.pbs.org. The link would reinforce viewers’ connections with the local station, Shuman says, even if they click through to a program-related page on PBS’s server.

The Fall Planning Meeting ends Monday night with a reception honoring and roasting David Brugger, departing president of APTS, and a presentation on Internet II, the faster infohighway for university use.

Where the petitions came from

The main business of the next day’s two-hour Members Meeting will be the petitions from the Forum, worked out during its Oct. 2-4 meeting in Dallas. About 40 of the 170 public TV licensees had reps there, and 30 more were represented by proxy, according to Jim Pagliarini, chairman of the Forum and president of KTCA/KTCI, Twin Cities. Starting with three models for public TV’s future, developed earlier this year by Forum leaders, the group drew elements of each to develop three parts of the petition released late last week [text of the Forum petition].

Organizational change: “Modest” changes in public TV’s national organizations are not enough, the Forum declares. It asks PBS to join with leaders of APTS, the National Educational Telecommunications Association (NETA) and other national groups to consider reorganizing themselves to operate more efficiently and with more accountability to stations, and to generate new revenue and ownership equity for stations.

The field not only spends too much money on duplicative organizations but also loses opportunities, explains Pagliarini. “We miss opportunities because of how cumbersome and confusing we are to the outside world.” Program executives also need a clear focus on programs and shouldn’t be distracted by member services, he says.

Under the Forum’s plan, the functions of existing organizations would be shuffled into two new ones — one (still similar to PBS) would handle program content and marketing, as well as technology and program distribution. The other (apparently absorbing APTS) would provide other services to licensees, and do planning and advocacy for the public TV system. Both organizations’ boards would be appointed by a board entirely composed of station managers, though the subordinate boards would draw one-third of their members from outsiders.

The change would reduce the role of nonmanager board members at the top of public TV. Half of the PBS Board members are now “lay” directors.

Educational strategy: Public TV should “commit itself to a national vision for a coordinated, appropriately funded education and local service strategy equal to its National Program Service,” the Forum recommends. It asks PBS, APTS and NETA to appoint a “blue-ribbon commission” of leaders from public TV, education, business and the arts to propose ways public TV’s assets can serve the country’s educational goals.

“Education and localism are public television’s last remaining differentiators in an ever more fragmented media environment,” wrote a team of Forum leaders.

The objective is shared by a CPB study already underway. On Sept. 11, the CPB Board allocated $1 million to pursue the study.

New business models: The Forum endorses loosening guidelines for underwriting (“further enhancing” it) and developing new revenue streams from digital TV so that PBS’s National Program Service can support itself. It asks the PBS Board to hire independent researchers and create a task force to investigate business models.

In a priority-setting exercise, station execs in the Forum clearly rejected a proposal from some members that public TV seek permission from Congress to carry commercials, said Forum council member Trina Cutter of WNIT, South Bend, Ind. A guest of the Forum, APTS Vice President Marilyn Mohrman-Gillis, “hit the home run” by contending that a Capitol Hill fight for commercials would swamp every other legislative objective, Cutter said.

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