‘Public trust is the rating that matters most to PBS’

by Pat Mitchell

Pat Mitchell, then president of PBS, delivered this talk May 24, 2005, at the National Press Club, in the midst of escalating news coverage of the conflict between public TV and Kenneth Tomlinson, then chair of CPB. Mitchell was preparing to announce recommendations for public TV’s future, but the Digital Futures Initiative report was delayed until December 2005, after Tomlinson had quit CPB and the dust was clearing.

Since becoming president of PBS, I’ve often been at podiums like this one, with audiences like this one, although perhaps not as well informed or well prepared as a National Press Club gathering or one with so many familiar faces, those of friends and colleagues in public broadcasting.

Pat Mitchell 2004I appreciate the presence of national and local leaders of this great institution of which we are the current caretakers, and along with them, I am grateful to have this opportunity to make the case for the value and relevancy, and in fact, essential need for a vital and viable public broadcasting service in a democracy.

Leading PBS at any time comes with bragging rights to be sure. I seldom tell people what I do and not get a smile or a thank you.

But it also comes with the extra scrutiny applied to all organizations that have public in their name and that use public funds; particularly something called public media.

Public media. Public trust. They are as interlinked as free press and democracy, as Thomas Jefferson so famously observed.

We have that trust. For the second year in a row, Americans have named PBS as their most trusted national institution.

This is equivalent for PBS to winning the May sweeps for our commercial colleagues.

Public trust is the rating that matters most to PBS.

Trust, like reputation, is hard to earn and can be lost in a moment of misjudgment or misrepresentation.

Trust is the currency on which we build our future and we are vigilant about protecting it, preserving it, defending it.

That’s why I am here — to answer your questions and to make the case that you and millions of other Americans benefit from the programs and services of PBS and 170 public television licensees serving 348 community stations

Let me anticipate at least two questions:

“Do we still need PBS in a media landscape of hundreds of choices” and “is PBS still an independent media service, free from the influence of funders or politics?”

The answers are “yes” and “yes.” More than ever.

In a media environment where everyone seems to be selling something and everything is for sale, our noncommercial model is more important than ever.

In a time where ownership of media consolidating into bigger businesses with fewer owners, our national/local model with autonomous, community-based media institutions is more important than ever.

And in a time when media seem increasingly partisan and the public’s trust of it lower, our independence and diversity of perspectives is more needed than ever.

Let me ask you some additional questions:

Name the media enterprise ranked sixth out of 300 channels for largest viewing audience.

Name the third largest dot-org site in the world.

Name a media insitution that reaches 70 percent of American households each month or potentially 99 percent of Americans at any given time.

Or name which broadcasting network of stations leads all others in preparation for the digital future

The answer to each of these questions is PBS and member stations.

Even if we were just another television option and not a multimedia national/local service, how do we stack up as a choice for just viewers looking for good television? In terms of viewers, PBS programs attract on any night of the week twice the number of viewers as the cable options most mentioned as viable options for our programming.

Here are a few examples of those viable options this week:

  • On the Arts & Entertainment Channel, you can see not one, but two episodes of Dog, the Bounty Hunter.
  • The Learning Channel, yes The Learning Channel, presents SUV Rides from Hell.
  • And the History Channel features History Hogs. I think that’s about Harleys and not Hampshires or Hormels.
  • And of course, there is tonight’s big vote on Fox’s American Idol.

Will it be Carrie or Bo?

I watch from time to time, enjoying the competition, but the fact that more people between ages of 18 and 34 go online and vote for their American idol every week than have ever voted in a presidential campaign concerns me somewhat.

Of course, there is a place on television for Idol, for reality shows and sitcoms; room for television dramas that take their storyline from the news, and even room for news coverage that often seems like its taking cues from television dramas; there is probably even room for another CSI spin-off.

The business model of commercial media demands programs like these that get ratings and make profits.

PBS is not a business.

We are a media service, a public/private partnership, unique in this country’s media landscape. Supported in large part by the volunteer contributions of citizens writing checks.

The value for them is, at least in part, is their dependence on our independence.

The trust and credibility comes from being accountable to them, the public, and not to a marketplace or a corporation by any name.

And to them, we stand accountable for delivering programs on television and services beyond television, all designed to have value long after broadcast, all intended to meet specifics needs that others are not:

The need: for educationally based children’s programs; 9 hours a day that teach the concepts and letters needed for literacy, the numbers needed for math and science, getting them ready to read, ready to learn. To support parents and caregivers, particularly those most disadvantaged, with books, learning materials and training that helps them help their families: by teaching English to our newest families; by retraining workers with skills that sustain America’s competitive edge.

The need: to preserve and celebrate our nation’s culture with programs that no other broadcaster is doing, the best of theatre, music, opera, ballet. To document our nation’s history with filmmakers led by Ken Burns capturing the American stories … from baseball to jazz to the history of Congress and the national parks.

The need: to deliver investigative journalism that goes beyond the headlines and to the frontlines, even before they are headlines; to provide news and information that takes on the critical, complex issues, not easily handled in seven-second sound bites and to meet the need for a more informed and engaged citizenry with a daily hour of news, the News Hour with Jim Lehrer, consistently ranked No. 1 for trust, reliability and objectivity.

And to do all this with national programs, local programs, national service, local services, at a time when public television and public radio are often the last locally owned media in a community.

And to do all this with a deep and abiding commitment to pursue the truth without regard for the consequences. This can cost us friends.

From time to time it even leads some people to question our motives, to suggest an agenda. And that’s okay, especially since it comes from all sides.

But because the public’s trust in us is our most important asset, I want to respond directly to any suggestion from any source that PBS has an agenda, belongs to any one political party or point of view or can be defined through one program, one person or viewed from one political perspective.

Programs in the public interest, dealing with the issues of our time, come in different formats with different voices, and altogether these programs make up less than 30 percent of the total number of hours of program distributed by PBS. It’s an important 30 percent, but doesn’t tell the whole story. Neither does the national schedule alone tell the whole story of the spectrum of public television’s commitment to news and information.

At the national level, from PBS, our programs about issues to inform and engage citizens, a core component of our mission, includes the respected voices of Gwen Ifill, Paul Gigot, David Brancaccio, Charlie Rose, Tavis Smiley and, returning to PBS this summer, Bill Moyers.

On local public television stations, equally diverse and respected local voices … some with daily reports of state legislatures, some with long-form interviews with elected officials, some providing coverage of local elections, and all illuminating in thoughtful, civil discourse the issues that matter in their communities. Communities as different as Biloxi, Miss., and Boston, Mass., and all others served by public television. Together, we are the nation’s public square — a marketplace of ideas where all points of view are encouraged, where voices not heard on mainstream media speak freely, and where hundreds of hours of independent documentaries bring additional points of view and diverse perspectives.

Because of the depth and scope of these programs across a schedule, it is clear that PBS does not belong to any single constituency, no one political party or activist group or foundation or funder or serves an agenda of any kind.

Our editorial standards ensure this and public opinion polls verify it.

As it is the public’s opinion that matters most, PBS commissions audience surveys every year, and every year they confirm exactly what the public opinion survey commissioned by CPB (whose results were finally made public), confirm: that an overwhelming majority of Americans from all political affiliations perceive PBS to be without liberal bias.

Conservative viewpoints, welcome. Liberal viewpoints, welcome. And everything in between. We don’t belong to a blue or red or purple constituency.

For 35 years, political pressures have been directed at PBS. There is nothing surprising or new about that.

President Nixon tried to cut off funds for public affairs programs after the Watergate hearings were broadcast on PBS.

During the Carter administration, there were attempts to suppress a Frontline program [correction] on the execution of a Saudi princess.

During the Clinton years, other Frontlines and a Moyers investigation into money and politics riled the Democrats.

And over the three decades of a largely constructive, collaborative relationship between CPB and PBS, there have been differences of opinion about PBS programming.

And for as many years, PBS has maintained a steadfast resolve to never give in to any pressures, and that resolve is as rock solid today as ever.

But we will be criticized from the left for being too right and from the right for being too left and that probably means we’re getting it mostly right. … free from bias, an open forum.

The only demand we make on our producers is to seek out all sides and tell the most accurate, compelling and richly detailed story they can.

PBS will not short sell stories or abridge accounts, and we will support the contributions of a range of personal opinions and perspectives as different as those of Bill Moyers and Paul Gigot.

We cannot afford, quite literally, to engage in destructive allegations, based on personal perceptions clearly not shared by the growing numbers of Americans listening to NPR and watching PBS.

Our base of support is widening and must continue to do so. And we are resolved to work constructively and collaboratively with CPB, NPR and stations going forward to ensure that neither political pressures or personal attacks distract us from delivering on our mission and working together to identify and secure the resources to do that now and in the future.

And beyond political balance, there are other kinds of balance in media that we need to work on together, with all our colleagues in media.

The balance of entertaining TV and educational TV; of inspiring, not just distracting — a balance of what matters along with what merely amuses.

The balance between what we need to know to be engaged citizens and what will get the biggest audience, sometimes with misinformation or high-volume debate that obscures thoughtful, constructive discourse and hardens the divide.

We need to pay attention to that balance because of the power to harm if we don’t.

PBS’s defense against the decline in trust for all media is to listen to the public above all other voices, to stay closely connected to what they want and need from media. And with 348 local stations and a national service holding the line for editorial integrity and an open forum, we are best positioned to do just that, to use media as the beginning point for a conversation that can engage an entire community and country.

But to keep Sesame Street open and Elmo happy and Oscar less grouchy and PBS and stations able to pursue a very innovative agenda for the future, we are going to need to find new resources. And it is that challenge, far more than any political machinations or personal conflicts, which is the greatest challenge to public television in America today.

To give you a frame of reference of how other countries pay for their own public broadcasters: In the U.K., British citizens pay an annual $200 license on their televisions to support the BBC.

In Japan, it’s $240 per household.

In America, we pay $1 per person, per year for public television.

Altogether, federal dollars account for about 15 percent of the funding for the public television system. The rest comes from significant support from foundations, corporations and “viewers like you.”

If it is just 15 percent, you may ask, can’t you find that money somewhere else? The answer is no, because it’s not just the money, it’s the principle here:

A democracy needs a public broadcasting service and public money invested in it …just like public money goes to public parks when there are plenty of private ones … and even with bookstores on every corner we still need public libraries, supported by public funds.

Additionally, that funding is critical. Stations can’t walk away from $300 million, the annual appropriations from Congress that go to sustain and build their community services.

PBS works hard to ensure that the dollars spent at PBS are spent wisely and efficiently. To give you an idea of our programming budget, PBS has about the same amount to invest in the entire national program service — from Frontline to Nova to Mystery and Nature, and 2,000 other hours — as HBO had to promote, not produce, but promote, The Sopranos.

For every dollar of public money PBS invests, funds that comes to PBS from station assessments, producers leverage another 3 or 4 dollars of private money.

Remember, we were set up to be public/private partnership, and that’s a delicate balance to maintain as well.

So here’s our challenge: We’re highly valued but under-resourced to meet the needs and the opportunities ahead.

Which leads to my final question I have for you today:

Are we, as a democracy, dependent upon informed and engaged communities, willing to commit additional resources to ensure a vibrant and viable independent public service media enterprise now and in the future?

Eight-two percent of Americans who were asked rank PBS as the best value for their tax dollars, second only to national defense. And most agreed that we need more funding, not less.

But we’re not just looking up Pennsylvania Avenue for increased appropriations. We recognize the Solomon’s choices in front of the appropriators and we want to help them meet the great needs in education, civic engagement, issues of health and national security.

And we’re taking initiatives on our own to bring in new resources at PBS to address our funding needs and reduce the reliance of the national organization on local stations so that more of funds can stay in the communities.

Nearly $45 billion in charitable giving last year was directed to arts, culture, and educational organizations.

Clearly, public television was leaving a large share on the table at a time when we needed it most.

To make it possible to solicit the kinds of major gifts from individuals and private foundations that enable us to launch new national and local initiatives, to invest in more content, to fully optimize this content with new technologies, we set up a PBS Foundation.

We are very grateful to have just gotten our first grant of $10 million from the Ford Foundation, whose support of PBS throughout the years has been essential and appreciated.

With this new commitment direct from the Foundation’s CEO, PBS and 14 other public-service organizations will help build capacity for public media in the digital future.

It’s a future that will bring transformational change to all media, and I’d rather be PBS than CBS.

They have more resources and like most big media, own at least one of every kind, but as consumers move towards media on demand, PBS has the advantage.

Trust and credibility are the primary assets in the TiVO world.

PBS.org already has created a leadership position in the digital world — 35 million visitors a month, more than 150,000 pages of content, and an increasing number of broadband users watching PBS programming on demand, at home, in the classroom, and in the office.

And all of this seamlessly linked to local station’s websites, which extend the value with local content and information.

Along with stations and producers, we envision a future of enormous opportunities to fully engage our valued content, our legacy of innovative use of technology to meet consumer expectations for content when they want it, how they want it.

Consider these possibilities: Before your first cup of coffee, you turn on your mobile media manager for the PBS menu of content options:

  • view last night’s NewsHour or, if rushed, get the news summary or search for the specific story of interest;
  • download to your mobile audio device the music from the American Masters profile on Bob Dylan, and you can purchase the DVD of the biography, too;
  • transport Nova to the office computer for lunch time viewing and, if motivated, join the bloggers on the subject.

Your attention might go to Frontline World‘s story on a Chinese dissident and online you’ll find the filmmaker engaged in an interactive chat about what happened after the story aired.

Or you can search the PBS portal on any subject and access an archive of hundreds of hours, and depending on what you want and how you plan to use it, access it on your Blackberry, PDA, cell phone, in whatever length and format you need.

If you’re a teacher, you know the routine, along with hundreds of thousands of other educators a year, of reviewing the 4,500 free lesson plans on PBS.org/TeacherSource. You download the clips, the curriculum materials customized to state standards and you’re prepared to distract students from IM-ing.

That’s why PBS video is already No. 1 in classroom and with home-schoolers.

And in the future, if there were an emergency in your town, city or state, natural or otherwise, you will know to go to your local public station for first responder instructions, evacuation routes and direct links to emergency care institutions.

Some of this is possible now through PBS and 348 local stations, and all of it is possible in the digital future.

To help us envision this future and create a blueprint for new services, PBS put together a small group of business and policy leaders, the Digital Futures Initiative.

Funded by the MacArthur Foundation, the DFI is led by former Netscape Chairman Jim Barksdale and former FCC Chairman Reed Hundt, and includes colleagues from stations, APTS, CPB and NPR.

The panel’s report will be the beginning, not the end, as we will launch a national dialog to share the vision of how the trusted, valued assets of public broadcasting will be fully optimized to connect with the needs of citizens of all ages in every community.

And to do this, we are going to need additional sources of revenue.

So, the strategy going forward: build the case and the ideas for funding will come … from coalitions of other public service groups, from partnerships with businesses, from the high-technology companies, from new alliances with cable and satellite, from the huge base of supporters we have now in every community and the ones to come in the future as we realize fully the value of an American public service enterprise that is local, national and global.

There is one possibility for new revenues that must be mentioned: a new bill was introduced last week on the Hill to secure some of the projected proceeds for public television from the analog spectrum auction.

With the leadership of John Lawson and APTS, public television has joined forces with the Digital Opportunity Investment Trust coalition of cultural institutions, libraries, schools and public television stations.

PBS supports this important move to capture a level of new funding that will provide much needed investment in public service in this country and for helping public broadcasting’s digital future plans become public broadcasting’s future reality.

PBS, with all our colleagues, begins a campaign for that future today and from here over the next year, to Iowa, Mississippi, Alaska, Rochester, Ohio, Georgia and every other community served by a local PBS station.

The future of this institution is at stake and all of its caretakers and stakeholders need to make the strongest case possible for a public broadcasting service that has the resources to deliver on its mission, now and in the future.

And essentially this is our case, our mission, our meaning, our value:

In a media landscape transformed by technology, consolidating in ownership and power, this country needs one media enterprise “where education comes first; where fair and balanced isn’t just a slogan or a goal, but a way of life; where partisanship is checked at the newsroom door; “where independence from all influence to buy or sell is essential and intact”; where parents know that what their children watch on PBS is preparing them to learn and teaching them values of tolerance and respect.

This country needs a public service media institution with national reach and impact; a community of public service stations meeting community needs, and an institution in all its parts that measures its value and relevancy by how many minds we open, how many lives we change, how many ways we strengthen communities and how well we serve this democracy.

Correction: Not a Frontline program, but produced by Frontline‘s executive producer, David Fanning.

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