Managers’ forum builds a consensus: Goodbye!

By Steve Behrens

Five years after setting it up as a way of helping public TV make decisions with new decisiveness and agility, members voted decisively and nearly unanimously this month to shut it down.

The National Forum for Public Television Executives, which never had a full-time staff and is folding with 87 public TV licensees — about half of the total number — as members, had held useful discussions but never proved itself indispensable, leaders said.

Fifty of the 55 member stations voting in a recent ballot favored closing the forum, said Chairman Gary Ferrell last week. The forum’s governing council decided to call for the vote in June. They modeled the vote after a “sunset” vote required by the forum’s charter after its first year. That time, the forum survived.

Ferrell, president of KERA in Dallas, credited the forum for heeding the stations’ will and dissolving.

When asked in a poll whether they were “generally satisfied by the direction the forum has taken,” member and nonmember managers gave the forum an average 2.1 score (“somewhat disagree”) on a scale of 1 to 5, according to BMR Associates, the California consulting firm that helped develop the forum’s structure and process.

Famous for their disagreement on basic issues in public TV, station managers didn’t share the same hopes for the forum. When they voted the forum into being in 1997, some managers hoped to remake public TV as a nimble competitor in the multichannel world. Others wanted to reign in PBS, which was then feeling its oats under President Ervin Duggan.

Many enjoyed being able to let down their hair and talk with peers at forum meetings, said Wick Rowland, a council member from KBDI in Denver. “But when it comes to taking action, it appeared the forum was unable to deal with any of the major issues.”

The diverse interests of stations prevented them from agreeing on how to change their shared national services or how commercial public TV should become, Rowland said.

Different circumstances fostered different views. Some stations were subsidized by state government and had mandates for work in education, while others had to earn nearly all their income from the private sector, said Dan Schmidt, president of Chicago’s WTTW.

“The forum was unable to affect significant change in some of the systemic issues,” says Schmidt. For example, it couldn’t reach agreement on policies to increase efficiency and reduce redundancy among stations, he said.

Even if the forum were to reach consensus, Schmidt said, it lacked staff and resources to develop ideas and make things happen, he says. The forum’s spending peaked under $250,000 and dropped to about $50,000 when it cut dues last year, according to Skip Hinton, president of National Educational Telecommunications Association (NETA), which handled the forum’s meeting logistics and limited staff work.

Schmidt said he had highest hopes for the forum at a January 2000 meeting in Biloxi, Miss., when a number of managers wrote issue papers proposing major changes in public TV. “At that time, everyone came together with the notion that we were going to come out of that conference with a couple of new business models, new system structures that we could work on.”

For instance, Schmidt’s paper argued that public TV could stick to its mission if it remained nonprofit but dropped the fiscal disadvantages of noncommercial status. He pointed to the performance of WTTW’s own sister station, the nonprofit commercial classical WFMT.

At the same time, the paper by Sharon Rockefeller, president of Washington’s WETA, opposed the nonprofit/commercial idea that Schmidt put forth and focused on dismantling PBS so that it would not work “at cross purposes” with stations.

“People put a lot of energy into that process,” Schmidt recalled. “Then nothing happened. Virtually nothing happened.”

When the station leaders left Biloxi, Schmidt said, “there was no organizational structure or serious followup possible.”

Staff work was a key part of the plan for the forum when it was conceived by a core working group of station leaders after an elaborate year-long study of public TV’s decision-making problems. APTS hired BMR at a cost of more than $500,000 to do the study and develop the forum.

The deliberative process laid out by the consultants required staff work to make sure assumptions were based on facts before the forum debated policies.

“From the beginning the core working group knew what they were creating would call for a bold departure for public television,” recalled John Hershberger, a former station manager who helped start the forum as a BMR consultant. “It would require a sustained commitment of time and resources.” Among other things, it would need a strong executive director to drive the process and keep in touch with everybody, he said. But the initial budget adopted by the forum in 1997 was too small to cover a fulltime staff.

The forum did host symposia on Britain’s Channel Four and alternative revenue models, changing audience demographics, digital TV planning and congressional advocacy. And it backed some useful reforms, according to council members.

Working with PBS, the forum demonstrated how it could propose a reform—namely, a more comprehensible PBS budget format—and see it adopted without a fight, several forum leaders noted.

Boogeyman: PBS under Duggan

For many managers, a major appeal of starting the forum was that they could set their own agenda for meetings rather than following one devised by PBS or another national organization, said Hershberger. “That gave them a freedom to speak with candor. That felt empowering.”

In 1997, when stations voted to create the forum, numerous stations were at odds with PBS, then under Duggan, over commercialism, common program schedules, ownership of program rights and other issues.

“There is not as much consensus today that we need huge, systematic changes anymore,” said Ferrell. Duggan’s successor, Pat Mitchell, has attended to stations concerns and “settled the system down a bit” since coming to PBS in 2000, Ferrell said.

“When Pat Mitchell arrived at PBS, a lot of those galvanizing issues dissipated,” Schmidt agreed. “PBS has turned a corner and a lot of good things are happening.”

“A lot of people thought the forum was about trying to fix PBS,” recalled Maynard Orme, president of Oregon Public Broadcasting, a council member who wanted to keep the forum going. He valued the sharing of thoughts with his counterparts. “I thought it was to look inside ourselves and try to understand how this new world is going to work.”

After the forum is gone

To pick up where the forum leaves off, public TV has no shortage of organizations with experience renting hotel meeting rooms.

Hinton said he’ll propose that NETA volunteer to convene systemwide meetings if needed. NETA handled meeting logistics and some staff functions for the forum. NETA’s summer board meetings sometimes could be expanded to reps from all stations, just as the association is holding a systemwide meeting on education this month.

Groups representing narrower slices of public TV, such as the Major Market Group and the Organization of State Broadcast Executives, will continue to operate, Ferrell noted.

Though the forum is going away, public TV’s problems aren’t, says Schmidt.

“There’s a growing consensus that we really at a crossroads now, and it’s bordering on a crisis.”

With the failure of the forum, who will lead public TV?

CPB has responded with regional meetings of station leaders and initiatives to help public TV, said Schmidt. “There’s a strong possibility that CPB will actually be able to exercise that leadership.”

The forum is supposed to go out of business by Aug. 15 and bequeath its bank balance to APTS. NETA will maintain an archive of its papers.

RELATED LINK

Key papers of the forum on Publc Media Policybase.

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