Back to the future: Here’s a way public TV can ramp up local news

Those calling for more local news from public media — and those experimenting with new ways to provide it — should examine a business model devised for commercial television more than 30 years ago.

PM Magazine was an evening primetime news and entertainment show produced by a central cooperative with members from 100 independent television stations across the country.

In the 1980s, it was the highest-rated syndicated show in America. At its height, about 2,000 people worked on the program full time — the largest information-gathering staff of any domestic television organization at the time. That PM’s workforce was devoted to local coverage is still impressive, considering that the Associated Press employs 3,000 journalists today to cover the whole planet.

By employing PM’s business model, public broadcasters would have a chance to fill the void left by the collapse of domestic journalism while satisfying the numerous calls from academics and journalists for CPB to make local coverage a core part of public broadcasting’s mission. While PM focused on news features, human interest and entertainment, a public television version could aim for a blend of hard news and cultural affairs more in line with public broadcasting’s mission.

The program, known in some cities as Evening Magazine, was created in 1976 by Westinghouse Broadcasting, then a major station operator, in part to fulfill the requirements of the FCC’s primetime access rule. The rule, then newly enacted but now defunct, stipulated that the networks had to give up control of some of their primetime hours to local stations in the 50 largest markets. Most local stations chose to fill this added airtime with cheap content made by their national parent companies because airing game shows or sitcom reruns was easier and cheaper than making original local programming.

PM Magazine was the solution to this problem for Westinghouse, and through syndication it became the solution for stations owned by many other companies. It was a way of getting affiliates to produce good local content even when they lacked the money, resources and sometimes the institutional will to produce a full half-hour on their own.

The system shares some characteristics of public radio’s long-evolved system of cutaways in NPR newscasts and newsmagazines that allows stations to insert variable amounts of local and state reporting into a popular national vehicle.

PM’s business model could be an instructive option for public TV stations under the combined pressure of low budgets and increased calls for local journalism.

The structure was flexible enough to suit stations with vastly differing budgets, audiences and needs. Affiliates were free to use as many or as few of the nationally distributed segments as they chose. Some bigger stations produced two-thirds of their daily PM broadcast while some smaller ones produced material for it only once or twice a week.

The program’s major innovation was its shared production facility in San Francisco. Producers there reviewed all the segments made by the local stations, selected the best material, brought it up to uniform editorial standards, and assembled it into daily reels that were sent back out to the affiliates. All of the nationally distributed content originated at local stations.

The resulting program had a truly local flavor, yet it was also, in contemporary parlance, scalable, remixable and rich in user-generated content—all qualities that media leaders are asking public media to attain (Current, Oct. 13).

The two factors that could prevent American public broadcasters today from duplicating PM Magazine’s success are funding and some PBS member stations’ reluctance to cooperate with other stations in the production of content.

When PM went national after three years, some local producers were leery of consistently carrying content they didn’t have control over. As in any large media collaboration, there were also the usual turf wars and ego battles. It was PM’s immense ratings success that eventually made it so widely carried. Since PBS stations around the country have a shared sense of mission and are free of many of the pressures that assail commercial media, it’s likely that the battle to establish a program like PM won’t be as intense.

Production cost was rarely an obstacle in the spread of PM’s syndication, but the pricetag could impede the creation of a PBS version. Stations that want to carry the show will need to find the money to support three or four new production staffers, and editorial resources at a major producing station would need to be allocated to create a national clearinghouse for content and the maintenance of production standards.

In this time of slashed budgets and plummeting donations, stations understandably will find it difficult to come up with the extra money on their own. However, federal aid or a special CPB allocation is well within the realm of possibility. Because commercial media are in their worst shape in decades, they are unlikely to put up resistance to this kind of service.

Cost-effectiveness would be a major selling point. Not only will station facilities become more productive but the shared production facility will multiply the audience for the stations’ best output.

Today’s video equipment is also a better fit with the PM structure. Wide-ranging coverage and long-distance collaboration are no longer hindered by the expensive and barely portable technology of PM’s era. If Westinghouse made the business work in a pre-digital era, it is certainly possible to replicate it successfully today.

The project would also give resources and a noncommercial, quality-oriented outlet to a large new generation of media-makers just starting their careers. PM helped train a generation of new talent on both sides of the camera. In this era of sharply diminished job prospects for younger media professionals, a single new venture of PM’s size could have a significant impact on journalism. Especially in the broadcast world, the creation of a few hundred new jobs would be significant.

A PM-style venture could also provide a framework for systematic, long-term collaboration between public TV and public radio. Print, video and audio news content could be distributed across all platforms under a single brand — one that viewers would come to associate with American public media as a whole. This could begin to establish a BBC-style cohesiveness without massive organizational restructuring or funding increases.

Most important, by creating a program devoted to serious local news in the public interest, and giving it national reach, PBS and NPR could fill huge gaps in local coverage that existed in commercial news even before the industry’s recent dramatic declines. This would be a powerful new way for public broadcasters to fulfill their ongoing commitment to public service.

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