Current Thinking

A proposal to abate viewer confusion

Commentary by Andrew Walworth

That’s what some network cues say between programs. But who’s responsible for the next program or for this channel in general? (Composite illustration by Steve Behrens, adapting Currier & Ives.)

PBS Ombudsman Michael Getler wrote recently in his online column about what he views as a problem: that public television viewers are confused about where programs on public television come from and assume that everything on public TV originates at PBS.

What the PBS ombudsman wrote

On Dec. 29, 2009, Ombudsman Michael Getler wrote that “viewers are very often, and understandably, confused” when he explains that shows like Ideas in Action are on public TV but did not go through PBS. He said “PBS and its affiliates ought to figure out some way to flag viewers on the screen about programs that are not developed, approved and distributed by PBS.” When the show premieres this month, Getler expects more complaints about the co-production with the Bush Institute, which is “perceived as a political entity.”

The ombudsman has written about this before, and his most recent example of the misunderstanding arises with the new series Ideas in Action with Jim Glassman, a weekly half-hour program co-produced by my company, Grace Creek Media, and the George W. Bush Institute, a new think tank based in Dallas. The series is distributed by Executive Program Services, not by PBS.

Getler suggests that the solution is “to figure out some way to flag viewers on the screen about programs that are not developed, approved and distributed by PBS.”

I agree.

Public television, like all media, is in a period of great transition. With the advent of digital multicasting, each PBS station can now broadcast two, three, four or more channels simultaneously. Public television stations have an opportunity to better serve their audiences with a greater variety of programming. To do this, they need more high-quality programs. Where will these programs come from?

As Current readers undoubtedly know, virtually all nationally distributed public television programs are supplied by independent producers and by a handful of stations that either have in-house production teams or partner with independent production companies.

PBS itself, as its name implies, is a programming service, not a network, and has no internal production capacity; rather it channels its member stations’ funds to producers (both independent and at stations) to support specific programs that it distributes by satellite as a service to its members.

PBS’s economic woes are well-documented elsewhere. It is unlikely that PBS alone is going to be able to provide the volume and variety of programs that will keep public television vital in the years ahead.

Luckily, PBS is not the only source of programming for its members. There are three other national distributors of note, each with its own staff of experienced professionals:

  • American Public Television has been providing programs to public television stations for almost 50 years. APT distributes about 300 series and specials in a wide variety of genres annually, including 52 of the 100 top-rated public television shows of all time.
  • The National Educational Telecommunications Association delivers 1,000 program hours a year. NETA says on its website: “We believe that program diversity is Public TV’s greatest strength” —welcome words to any independent producer.
  • Executive Program Services (EPS), a private company founded by PBS veterans Alan Foster and Dick Hanratty, provides stations with more than 250 hours of programming a year.

And any producer can purchase satellite time independently or distribute tapes to stations.

In short, there have always been many ways programs reach stations, where the local programmer ultimately decides what goes on the air. This is good for stations and for public television viewers.

It is also good for producers, who can navigate among these distributors depending on the needs and design of a specific project. I’ve worked with all of these distributors over the past 25 years.

Our series Think Tank with Ben Wattenberg, which just ended, was distributed by PBS for 14 of its 15 years on public TV. We chose APT to distribute our lifestyle series Wine, Food and Friends.And EPS is our distribution partner for an ambitious 39-part series Closer To Truth, just completed, that looked at God, consciousness and the cosmos.

Each distributor has its own business model, cost structure and timetable. Each has its own strategy for serving both producers and programmers. But in my experience, they all set high standards and all follow the same PBS and FCC guidelines regarding underwriting and editorial matters. As a result, I’ve found that stations trust all of them equally — again, a good thing for both producers and programmers.

I’ve also produced for 11 cable networks, with their own advantages and disadvantages for producers. One problem with them is that cable executives move around quite a bit. You and your work may fall out of favor. There is no alternative path to get your program on the History Channel or Discovery. There is only one door to go in.

Which brings me to Ideas in Action with Jim Glassman. Mr. Getler received some questions about the series even though it isn’t distributed by PBS.

Christina Mazzanti (Grace Creek’s v.p., with her own extensive background in public broadcasting) and I had decided early on to distribute Ideas in Action through EPS.

In December, EPS introduced the project to public television program directors. As we expected, they asked a lot of good questions. We showed them two early programs. Jim, Christina and I made ourselves available to anyone who wanted to talk.

We know that each program manager makes his or her own decision as to whether to carry our programs. When they agree to carry Ideas in Action — and many already have — they are entrusting us with something very valuable. We respect and honor that trust. We hope that Ideas in Action will have a long and successful run and will bring new viewers and support to public television.

Would public television enjoy the same diversity of programming if, like cable, there was only one gatekeeper for entry into the system? Would programmers have access to as many choices — representing so many different viewpoints? Would producers continue to bring their best work to public television? I don’t think so.

Mr. Getler has, I believe, correctly identified a trend — that in a world of multicasting stations and shrinking PBS resources, an increasing number of programs that appear on public television stations will not be distributed by PBS. He is worried that viewers will sometimes confuse these programs with PBS offerings and bombard (or congratulate) him by mistake.

However, the solution he suggests — that somehow stations should share in the responsibility to make it clear that these are not PBS shows — is exactly backwards.

A better fix would be for PBS, as a program distributor, to take the necessary steps to make it more clear to viewers which shows are theirs. A simple solution that PBS could undertake tomorrow is to make a minor change to the system cue that immediately follows the programs they distribute. Currently the voiceover says “This is PBS” or some variant of the phrase.

To clarify that the announcer is talking about the program that immediately preceded the credit, PBS could simply change the script to read “This has been a PBS program.”

A second change would be for each distributor to reinstate the practice where programs carry a short producer’s credit at the beginning that identifies their provenance. (Twenty years ago this was standard practice, but these three-second IDs were dropped to cut down on “clutter.”) I would also add a short ID that identifies the distributor.

These small changes would address Getler’s concern, help alleviate the common misperception that PBS is a “network,” and more accurately reflect the reality that PBS is only one distribution service among several that provide programming to public television.

Andrew Walworth is president of Grace Creek Media, based in Annapolis, Md. E-mail: info gracecreek.com.

RELATED LINKS

Website of Ideas in Action with Jim Glassman, a non-PBS program.

George W. Bush Presidential Center., including the official archive of the Bush presidency, a library and museum and the Bush Institute, a think tank that is co-producing Ideas in Action.

In January, a Dallas Morning News blog reports on plans of the George W. Bush Institute, including the program Ideas in Action, produced by Andrew Walworth.

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