CPB to review strategies for a digital future that's different and better

Current Q&A: Bob CoonrodThis edited transcript of an interview with Bob Coonrod was originally published in Curren, March 16, 1998. Coonrod, president of CPB since October 1997, was launching three reviews of CPB policies and plans -- a strategic planning process led by a new executive v.p., Cindy Browne, in addition to the annual but wide-ranging reviews of grant policy for radio and TV. He ousted Lillian Fernandez, former top lobbyist and general counsel, as soon as he took office, and continued top personnel changes with the departure in March 1998 of education/programming chief Carolynn Reid-Wallace, a former Bush Administration education official. In April, he would name a documentary producer to handle the programming side of Reid-Wallace's job [story on personnel changes]

A career U.S. Information Agency foreign service officer before coming to CPB as executive v.p. six years ago, Coonrod has the graying beard and manner of a professor who might actually like talking with students. In his new corner office looking out on the rear of the FBI Building, he talked with Current Editor Steve Behrens.

Cindy Browne from KTCA, Twin Cities, is starting work here as an executive v.p., and last week Carolynn Reid-Wallace had her last day as head of programming and education.

Bob CoonrodCarolynn is going to take some extended leave and she'll be working on a special project for me for a while. Peggy O'Brien is acting in her absence.

What departments will Ms. Browne oversee and which will Fred DeMarco supervise as the other executive v.p.?

We're going to go through a serious strategic review. It is premature to say how the reporting lines are going to work, because I wouldn't want to preempt the process of discernment we're going to go through. Fred will continue to oversee what he's overseen up to now and Cindy's going to help us on the content side and with administrative issues.

The real issue now is where we come out some time hence. As I said at the CPB Board meeting in January, if we're the same organization a year from now that we are today, we will not have succeeded in our effort to renew CPB.

This is an opportunity to help redefine the role of CPB as public telecommunications makes its transition to the digital era. I think it was [former FCC Chairman] Reed Hundt who said everything is going to be different, or words to that effect. What we want to focus on is Yeah, it's going to be different, but it ought to be better, too.

Part of that is leading by example and part will be providing services that are relevant to stations in the digital era. The other thing is to look at digital content -- what is the content we will provide in the digital era? We're going to start with that question. And the subset of that question is what should CPB do to assist public broadcasters. Cindy will be primarily responsible for heading up that part of the strategic review.

Shortly after that we'll begin the second phase, looking at revenue questions. What can we be doing to help stations succeed in this new environment?

Also, all not-for-profits have to find more effective ways of doing business.

Are you aiming to have some answers by the time you ask Congress for funds or legislation?

No, it's not linked to the legislative calendar. It's taken me longer to get this launched than I would have liked, but I saw it as the need.

I wanted to make sure Cindy and Fred were both in place; I see them as the hub of the new team. If you look at the experiences each has, they complement each other very well.

When we begin brainstorming, we will develop some timelines for the planning. Obviously, the sooner the better.

It's going to require consultation with a broad array of people inside and outside of public broadcasting.

So the digital era will be different. How can you make sure it's better?

There's at least the danger that we just take what we now do and transfer it to the digital world. But there are real opportunities in digital, and it's highly desirable to build them into our thinking. Like the possibility of sending data along with your picture. This offers educational possibilities that far exceed what the present captioning system or VBI can deliver, for instance.

The issue that's most on my mind is how we take the declarations of purpose in the Public Broadcasting Act and actually realize them in the digital world. And not just continue what we've been doing, which was a splendid job, but do it even better. I'm finding that a lot of people in public broadcasting share that goal.

We need to focus our energies on those kinds of questions as opposed to, "I think CPB's got too much discretion," or "PBS is doing this or that wrong."

The board is very supportive of what I'm trying to do. Their goal is to help public broadcasting improve. That's not always been the goal of CPB Boards in the past. The relationships among the national organizations have improved, and the station relationships are working pretty well. We have the ingredients in place. The question is, how do we apply those principles in the digital era.

Public TV and other broadcasters already are looking at leasing out some of their DTV capacity to make money rather than provide their own broadcast services. What will you think if public TV has four or five multicasting channels and leases out two, three or four of them?

I think when we really look at this, we're going to find out that the services we can provide to our communities on those channels will have greater value to those communities than using spectrum as a commodity to generate revenue.

I'm not suggesting that people shouldn't look at those options, but what's unique is the services that public broadcasting can provide. Everybody who's got a broadcast license is going to have spectrum to offer. There will be a glut, and companies with deeper pockets. So why shouldn't we maximize our advantage, by building on the unique relationship stations have with their communities?

What we said in our case to OMB, which was endorsed by everybody in the field's Digital Steering Committee is that we're going to be providing more services than in the past. Some of those services have revenue potential, others must be tax-supported, but they're all services that are valuable to the public.

Are there shorter-term changes you'll want to make at CPB before the strategic plan is finished?

We want to do a better job of making routine those responsibilities that are important to the stations -- how we process Community Service Grants, for instance -- and use electronic means when possible.

Also we want to do a better job with our research capacity, in making the information available. So many stations are preparing funding requests, our data can be valuable to them.

I want everybody who works at CPB to have a clear sense of how it functions. We're going to be doing more with a relatively small staff by operating more efficiently. I want to make sure people have the skills they need and that they understand the new era at CPB.

You said that you yourself will be overseeing the function of talking to Congress. Have you already had some meetings on the Hill? Is Congress focusing on the amounts of appropriations or on other concerns and possible amendments?

Generally, everyone I've spoken with has indicated they feel we will get a 2001 appropriation. Some said they will work to increase the amount; others said not to look for increases. The general tenor has been very positive.

When it comes to funding for digital, there are a lot of questions, but people say this is important, we're going to work with you.

The Clinton Administration recently endorsed a big subsidy for public broadcasting's digital conversion, but it's only about a quarter of the $1.7 billion that the field estimated that it needs. Is Congress looking at Clinton's number as a ceiling, or is there a prayer that they would improve on it?

Coonrod at announcement of his appointment, 1997There's always a prayer. I wouldn't say it's likely they'll take it as a ceiling. Stations have demonstrated that when they're unified about their request and specific about what they're trying to achieve, they can be quite effective.

If we put together a case that public broadcasting is not only going to survive in the 21st century, but it's going to be vibrant and better than in the 20th century, you have a real opportunity.

Have you talked with members of Congress about the occasions when executive salaries at PBS, NPR and CPB have, on the surface, exceeded the statutory salary cap of $148,400? [Earlier story.]

I have not.

How serious is that issue? How wide and deep is the concern in Congress?

I've had five or six meetings with members of Congress in the last 10 days and none have raised it with me.

The organizations' responses to inquiries from House Commerce Committee indicate that PBS executive pay has exceeded the cap a number of times in recent years. Two or three employees at NPR and two at CPB, including former President Don Ledwig, were also over the pay cap. Were there lapses in compliance with the salary cap?

There's a consistent, 20-year interpretation. Annual compensation is your annual rate of pay. Everybody has a salary. There are occasions when the PBS Board or NPR Board determined that employees, in a given year under extraordinary circumstances, should be compensated above that. That does not de facto violate the salary cap. The salary cap is your annual salary, not what bonus you merited for doing something extraordinary.

The question would be what if the bonus becomes a predictable part of compensation. So far we haven't seen that.

There were, however, three PBS employees who got bonuses two years in a row, and there's a danger they will continue to do a good job.

I'm sure that's an issue PBS is dealing with right now. The PBS Board's rationale in one year was not the same as in the second year. CPB has never violated the pay cap. In the case of Donald Ledwig, the CPB Board gave him some severance. There's no reasonable interpretation that severance is annual compensation.

The larger point for me is, we have so many important things to address over the next several months. If we can allow others to distract us over technical salary cap questions, we are really missing the point. If I were to spend more than two or three minutes in this interview on the salary cap, I would be putting it out of proportion to the time it deserves. Which is not to say we should violate the law. We should take seriously our oversight responsibility, and we're doing that.

A lot of people would agree with this, but if people on the Hill choose to make this a big issue . . .

If we're not able to deal with this issue effectively on the Hill, then shame on us.

When will the field have its legislative agenda for this season?

We're working with the other national organizations on that. The request for digital conversion is more problematic because it's significantly less than we suggested, and the Administration proposes that it roll out over a five-year time period. And we're concerned about the time period.

Six principles supporting aid for digital transition

Pubcasters are developing their case for digital transition aid around six principles enunciated by the APTS Legislative Advisory Group in October 1997, according to Coonrod.

  • Free, noncommercial over-the-air nationwide coverage.
  • All transmitters of CSG-qualified licensees eligible for match [federal funds to match local fundraising for DTV transition].
  • Provision for hardship (e.g., sole service).
  • Local control/locally responsive.
  • Maintain current flexibility for public/private partnerships for sustainability.
  • Provide incentives to increase effectiveness and productivity.

We've gone back to the six principles the APTS Legislative Advisory Group [LAG] articulated last October, and we want to develop a funding justification around those. We want to have a dialog with Congress to try to see how high we can raise the ceiling -- keeping in mind that support of the Administration is very important, and assuming an approach consistent with its overall approach.

You look at those LAG principles and you say to yourself, can we do it with $450 million, or would it take a larger federal match? We had originally projected a 45 percent federal match, and the Administration's request would be roughly a 26 percent federal match. So, what would you get for 26 percent and what would you get for 45 percent? We would try to build in some of that analysis so a stronger case could be made.

Capitol Hill Day will be an important time for stations to get valuable feedback from the members of Congress about what the concerns are.

Most of the Administration's aid for the digital transition, $375 million, would come through CPB, but there's another $75 million proposed to be appropriated through NTIA over five years. But counting the NTIA funds might be exaggerating what the Administration is willing to spend on digital, because they don't seem to have removed any of NTIA's other obligations -- replacing old transmitters and so on. Those costs are not going away. Isn't the only new money the part that's proposed for CPB?

For the first time in memory, though, there's an Administration on record supporting appropriations for PTFP. That's a significant breakthrough.

Now, there's a good case to be made that the amounts of money aren't adequate, but you want to build from the fact that you have Administration support.

In its legislative goals, APTS was favoring the de-funding of the Independent Television Service (ITVS) not long ago. When you took the job last October, you said you were open to support their funding. Does the field have a consensus on what should happen with ITVS?

It's certainly not on my legislative agenda when we go to the Hill, to change it in any way. And I don't see that it's on anyone else's agenda. We have a productive relationship with ITVS.

It's been several years since CPB's congressional authorization expired, and Congress continues making appropriations anyway. Will Congress take action on an authorizing bill this year?

No, I don't think so. One would hope that they will, but if you look at just the telecommuniations agenda that Congress has before it, and the number of legislative days it has for hearings and legislation, I would doubt, realistically that there would be time to have an authorization bill considered.

Won't it be the same problem next year and the year after? Some people on the Hill like authorizing bills.

An authorization bill respects the legislative process and it's a confirmation that Congress has made a positive affirmation about support for public broadcasting. I would much rather have an authorization bill than not have one. But given the circumstances, it's not realistic to expect one this year.

Among the potential authorizers in the House at least we detect strong support, so it's not as if there isn't support.

Rep. Billy Tauzin, of course, is one of them. Is there any life in his idea giving deregulation to commercial TV in exchange for subsidies for public broadcasting?

I think there's life, yeah. It's one of the issues out there that eventually will get debated.

The Gore Commission is talking about variants of Tauzin's proposal, among other things. How will their report this summer fit in?

Once again, it's not realistic in this session of Congress, but some kind of proposal from the Gore Commission could be taken up in the 106th Congress. And a lot of Commission members are looking for some sort of win-win proposal on public-interest obligations.

The Tauzin tradeoff idea could lead to the supposed holy grail -- a permanent funding source -- but public broadcasters don't give it much support in public. Is that because the field has mixed feelings about it, or because they can't risk a shooting war with the NAB?

It's both of those and more. What we need to do is secure some sort of long-term public support for public broadcasting, to keep the public in public broadcasting.

Right now I think we can make a strong case for a larger appropriation than we currently have. Last year, Congress felt we made a case for a 20 percent increase.

Any other proposal has to be viewed in light of that fact. I have not seen any financial projections that would secure long-term support at the level we have now. In the absence of those projections, this is a hypothetical debate.

I could come up with four or five formulas for financing a trust fund, but unless there were a coalition supporting one of them, it would be just my idea. Until we begin to see something more concrete, we look at this in light of the fact that we have turned a corner, we are growing the appropriation, and there seems fairly solid support for continuing annual appropriations.

Last month, at a Senate Commerce Committee hearing on confirmation of Winter Horton's nomination to the CPB Board, Chairman John McCain (R-Ariz.) said cable TV programs often are "in many ways superior" to PBS's and preferred by educators.

You know, the chairman's statement about educators is inaccurate. He's being provided with information that will correct the record. The School Use Study is crystal clear on that. Teachers prefer PBS programs by a large margin, as do general audiences.

Sen. McCain is an independent thinker, for sure, but it's conceivable that he'd heard these points made persuasively by cable TV companies. In public, cable companies like Discovery and Liberty Media speak as friends of public broadcasting, but they are in fact competitors, as Bill Moyers has pointed out. Do you suspect they wear velvet gloves in public and carry sticks in private?

(Laughter.) If you look at how the telecommunications industry works, they're driven by a clear motive. If it makes more sense for them to work with one of their competitors, they'll do it; if it makes more sense to kill their competitor, they'll do that. We need to be aware of that.

Are there circumstances where working with them is to our advantage? There may be, and we need to look at those instances.

In 1995, CPB gave itself a little more discretionary funds and ability to influence the direction of the system by setting aside $11 million for the Future Funds. How well is it working?

That's one of the questions for the CSG Review. We just inaugurated the review in TV and will start very soon in radio.

Based on the information we're compiling for the review, and on anecdotal evidence, I would argue the Future Funds are working extremely well. But I don't think it's up to us to make that kind of judgment. We have to go through a serious analysis. We've tried to put together committees that have people who genuinely represent the variety of views that are relevant to public broadcasting.

What are you hearing anecdotally about Future Fund projects?

I think we've been successful in getting the Future Fund grants out broadly. One of our objectives was that there would be projects that would be relevant or useful for nearly every station. In television, 160 licensees are participating and in radio, there are 172 stations, but the radio fund started a year later.

The PBS Sponsorship Group is a significant success. If all of the projects were half as successful, we'd be in great shape. If you talk with people in Florida about the various collaborative projects, you hear how it's improving their business. When you talk to people who are excited about benchmarking, you say to yourself, I think we're onto something.

It's a little too soon to determine if the projects overall are achieving the financial results that were projected. Some clearly are.

One of the other TV Future Fund projects, involving the Program Resource Group and PBS, is helping public TV face what might be a difficult change of mindset -- thinking about and putting money into more than one channel. They're going to be going from one channel to, conceivably, 10 channels, if the system chooses to supply two stations per market for multicasting. Will that be a hard shift to make?

It's going to be challenging, sure. You've got two different but related things here: the PRG/PBS second service proposal and the larger question of multiple DTV channels.

Let's talk about the second-service proposal. If the feasibility study shows that a planned, differentiated service either brings more people to public television or has people viewing it longer, then I would argue that a second service is an idea well worth pursuing.

The concern in an overlap market, obviously, is whether you'll take viewers away from one public TV station. If you'll just be competing with yourself, it's a different question. But everything I've seen so far indicates we can come up with a plan that will grow the audience. If that's what the study shows, then we'd want to go in that direction.

That's a little different from the whole question of multiple DTV channels. If you're a commercial broadcaster, the whole issue of multiple channels drives you nuts, because all it does is splinter your audience and your advertising base.

But if you're a public broadcaster, you actually see opportunities here that didn't exist before. You can do a Ready to Learn service, an ITV service and general-audience services at the same time. Some of that programming is already available now at a relatively low cost, and it has the possibility of generating revenue.

A historical question: how did the idea of freeing up some money for Future Funds arise? Were the first advocates inside or outside?

It goes back to early '94. That was when we were scheduled to get a $312 million appropriation for fiscal year 1996 [Congress later cut the sum to $275 million]. There was no crisis in federal appropriations, but the stations' nonfederal revenues were flat, flat, flat. This was an opportunity to see whether there was anything CPB could or should do to help stations grow their nonfederal revenues.

We put together a committee, but by the time it met in December 1994, the election had changed the congressional majority. The situation became more acute. Nonfederal revenues were flat, but now the federal revenue stream, which had been growing, was threatened as well.

CPB's appropriation is now supposed to be going up again -- a year and a half from now, by $50 million. What kind of boost will that give to CPB's discretionary spending, and what might you do with that money.

That's precisely why we want to do this strategic review. There will be more programming dollars available. We need to have a digital programming strategy in place to say how that money should be directed. Are we talking about new initiatives at PBS that CPB might support, about high-impact programming, about directing some programs to nonbroadcast formats? Those are the kind of questions we need to consider.

A year ago the minority consortia asked CPB to consider reviving the 1994 "principles of partnership" that would have approximately doubled their funding. Will CPB be able to do that?

The strategic review is an opportunity to look at the best way to support programming that reflects the diversity of this nation. Things are going to be different; the status quo will no longer prevail. But the CPB Board is strongly committed to the objective of suport for diverse programming.

Even though the appropriation will be larger, the irony is that we may be in worse shape because the CARP [Copyright Arbitration Royalty Panel] proceeding has started. If ASCAP and BMI get anything near the amounts they're asking for, nobody will have to worry about CPB discretionary money. We think we have a strong case in the copyright proceeding, but that remains a possibility.

Back to the subject of programming: why is Carolynn Reid-Wallace leaving?

She's taking time off. You'd have to talk with Carolynn about her plans. She has worked here long and hard, for five years. She has accumulated some well-deserved leave time, and is entitled to take some time off and think about what she wants to do.

Will CPB hire a successor or executives under Cindy Browne?

We're looking to recruit some additional people. We may have word on that soon.

A director of programming?

Somebody who will work on programming, right.

CPB reportedly has agreed with PBS to pass on the Ready to Learn grants to PBS, or give them more discretion in spending them. Can you clarify what's happening there?

It makes sense to have operational responsibility for Ready to Learn in a single location. It was in three locations, two at PBS and one at CPB. While I have no complaints about the way CPB operated our portion, it just is not efficient. So when PBS combined its parts into one office, it made sense to put all of the responsibility there.

We're an organization of fewer than 100 people and will continue to be. We are therefore not operational. If we're effective, we're effective by stimulating other people to do good work. Our good work is to get other people to do good work. Here's a perfect case of that. Long-term, if PBS is committed to RTL, the children are going to be better off.

At one point, CPB was developing a quarterly Ready to Learn magazine for parents and PBS was developing a monthly, and it seems they were hardly talking with each other about it. Was that the kind of situation you are hoping to avoid?

Those two magazines are now shrink-wrapped together in the mail. Does it make sense to have separate editorial processes? No, we don't have that luxury. That's for [CPB's] Peggy O'Brien and [PBS's] Sandy Welch to look at.

Carolynn Reid-Wallace was developing a series of adaptations of great American fiction to help fill public TV's drama gap. What's happening with that?

We hope to have a plan in place with PBS, soon. We're going to support PBS's efforts in drama.

Do you think the sun has set on public TV drama? Will there be a return to a commitment on the scale of American Playhouse? Is it appropriate to get into this, with all the drama on commercial TV?

Boy, if you talk to people in public television, there is a need for good stories. Drama is a natural for public television. Kathy [Quattrone, at PBS] and the folks here have been doing a lot of strategizing.

To wrap up, what have you been enjoying on the air lately?

My favorite show is This American Life. I missed most of it on Sunday, but I caught the end of it. It was about how to drive. Ira Glass's father was on -- "Don't ride with my son, don't ride with my dad," that kind of thing. I think that's a terrific show.



To Current's home page

Earlier news: Coonrod succeeds Carlson after five years as No. 2 at CPB, 1997.

Earlier news: Members of Congress concerned with alleged PBS and NPR violations of salary cap, 1998.

Outside link: CPB's web site.


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