There is only one way to justify the public money that comes to Frontline — and it has been considerable over the years, an extraordinary commitment by public broadcasting to this series and this idea — and that is if we keep making something that is both smart and excellent.
That’s the test we should be applying to everything we do in public broadcasting. Excellence. Sadly, we often fail at that. There is really too much second-rate work that gets by. If it finds funding, it often gets broadcast.
That’s the most profound challenge to public broadcasting, I believe: that while we argue for increased funding, for more accessibility, for new programs and innovative applications in the multiplatform world, we have to consider the decision-makers, the programmers and the gatekeepers — the leadership of this enterprise.
They have to demand excellence. Frankly, they don’t deserve more money, until they do. Of course, there are some smart and dedicated people who want excellence, but it’s often risky stuff — and many more are in positions where they have learned to protect their flanks, and to look over their shoulders at boards, and university presidents, to noisy station members (or member stations) and choose the easy way. Take the safe programming, the anodyne, the familiar. It’s educational isn’t it?
Sometimes the problem lies simply in the way in which they see their jobs. Is it to bring the best and smartest and most provocative programming we can find — or afford — or is that just too subjective and complicated a quest? Or maybe, it’s just easier to try to get an audience at any price. Not long ago I visited a station, as a favor to speak to their major donors. I was picked up at the airport by the program director, a nice and enthusiastic lady who had worked at the station for 25 years. She was a big supporter of Frontline, she said, and programmed it right next to Nova at 9 p.m.… But, she said, she doesn’t program those other documentary programs after Frontline — POV, Independent Lens — because, well, they sometimes have odd lengths, and that disturbs the scheduling of the “Britcoms” she has on afterwards… And besides, they generally cause a lot of phone calls from unhappy viewers who don’t like the politics.
So out they go — off to the alternative channel where, “anyone who wants them can find them.” Oh, and Charlie Rose — he’s on at 6 in the morning… The station does no local news. It does produce pledge programming.
This was perhaps not as disturbing as the station I spoke at last year for their annual fundraising dinner in their studio. I stood at a lectern against a backdrop covered in logos for Nova and Masterpiece Theater and Nature and Frontline … I told them why this endeavor is important, how valuable their support for this station is, and for Frontline, and urged them to keep donating.
Then, I went back to my hotel, and lying in bed, I was scrolling through the channels when I came across a shopping channel with a dubious doctor selling nutritional supplements. I was interested in a perversely fascinated way as he promised all sorts of remedies, including — and I’m not exaggerating here — results for cancer sufferers. And then the shot changed to a woman with him who said that if you bought these supplements you’d be making a donation to… yes, the public television station I’d just left. And there, in the wide shot, was the backdrop I’d stood before that evening… Nova, Nature and Frontline…
This is our deepest embarrassment as public broadcasters. I have heard the arguments, and I understand the imperatives, but to think that, hucksters aside, we spend more of our energy and on-air promotional time, pushing programs that have nothing to do with our mission, is shameful. I won’t get into a rant about pledge. You know it; we’ve all complained about it for years. It is the curse of public broadcasting, especially public television, and it doesn’t seem like a subject worth analyzing for an erudite audience at a journalism school. And yet, it goes to the heart of the issue about funding.
Is this an endeavor that keeps an important station on the air for the people of the community, or has this station become a vehicle for raising money for its own existence? And what’s inside the bricks and mortar, the fancy new buildings we’ve raised with so many capital campaigns? I wish I could be more hopeful about them being places that encourage new young producers to try out their talents and bring some verve and risk to the local programming….
As we move more and more onto this new platform, the symbiotic relationship between our reporting and our broadcast will keep being in tension. Each feeds the other, and drives audience. Where we can distinguish ourselves from most of the rest of the online journalistic endeavors is not just our broadcast megaphone — which gives us a very powerful competitive edge — but a commitment to keep making high-quality work. The demand has to be: keep doing better — keep the bar high.
That bright line of narrative has to be vivid enough to keep attracting — and holding — an audience increasingly distracted. That’s our challenge. And don’t do anything that doesn’t rely on Intelligence and Excellence.
I have one caution about our new public broadcasting ventures on the Web. I am particularly concerned about a threat to our essential public identity. This is already happening. They’re called “sponsorships,” but they are essentially commercials all over public broadcasting websites, local and national, radio and television. I’ve argued strenuously that we are threatening our special status as noncommercial media.
I’m told that in surveys the public doesn’t notice them, and is not offended. No wonder, we all swim in a sea of commercialism, and that’s precisely why we need to keep ourselves clean of it. One day, I’m afraid, when most of our work is experienced on the Web, we will wake up and the public will say we’re no different from the rest of them. Why should we give you our membership money? And why should the government give you our tax
Soon, I’m told, PBS will be generating ads to fill the banners and boxes we are being instructed to design into our website at Frontline. When I object, I’m told that it’s because PBS is under financial pressures from the stations, who don’t want to pay for all their web efforts. So to pay for the pipes, we will take ads?
I don’t get it. Setting aside the real question whether these ads will even generate enough revenue, do we want to sell our birthright so cheaply? Isn’t this the essential infrastructure for the new public media platform? Once, we built a satellite delivery system for broadcast; now, we should have all the bandwidth we need to build the new ideas we have to develop to thrive in the future. That’s a necessary investment in the future.
I hope there’s a place for Frontline in that future — that it will be able to continue to do what it does best, and that we can adapt and grow. But I also believe that can only happen if we start to think seriously about the reinvention of public broadcasting into public media…
There are a lot of ways in which that could happen, and there are proposals floating around, but I think at their heart we should be arguing that the best hope for this whole system is to build it around a mission for journalism. Radio is already doing that; television has to get better at it….
PDF of the entire talk.
Copyright 2010 American University