An open letter about America at a Crossroads from
the Public Television Programmers Association
Stuck with CPB at same old Crossroads
This commentary was written on behalf of the board of directors of the Public Television Programmers Association by Garry Denny, president of the board. Denny is associate director of programming at Wisconsin Public Television.
Since 9/11, American viewers have come to understand that we live in a dangerous and troubling world. No amount of television programming, public or commercial, can make the world less dangerous or less troubling. As broadcasters, the best we can hope for is to provide intelligent, reasoned and accessible content that informs and engages the communities we serve.
For PBS, that hope was realized on and after 9/11. We are now beginning to glimpse the outlines of CPB’s largest programming initiative of recent years, America at a Crossroads, funded because of 9/11. As public television professionals, we must ask whether it will be money well spent.
In the days and months following the attacks, it was PBS and its member stations that gave the American people something more than simple answers. We provided historical, political and religious context. Through our core series and specials, we provided the nation’s television viewers with in-depth examinations of not just the events of that day but also historical and contemporary perspectives that illuminated the roots, evolution and beliefs of Islam — a faith that is practiced by more than 1.3 billion people worldwide.
PBS and its member stations went beyond sloganeering, jingoism and flashy presentation to bring our viewers information and stories that few other media bothered to explore: from rebroadcasts of Islam: Empire of Faith and Frontline’s “Hunting Bin Laden” to the moving ceremony in America in Healing at Riverside Church. We aired the brilliant Moyers in Conversation, the ongoing analysis on The NewsHour with Jim Lehrer and Washington Week, the haunting science of Nova’s “Why the Towers Fell,” Wide Angle’s “The Saudi Question,” P.O.V.’s “Afghanistan Year 1380” and Frontline’s “Faith and Doubt at Ground Zero.” PBS gave the American viewer a broad and rich perspective of 9/11 and the world after 9/11. PBS programming was by far the most thoughtful on television.
Fast forward to March 1, 2004, when CPB announced the America at a Crossroads initiative to the public television and producing communities. In its news release, CPB framed the $20 million initiative as a means of producing television programming that explores “. . . the nature and direction of international terrorism, the war against it, the use of American power against states that harbor or sponsor terrorists, America’s image abroad, radical Islamic movements, pre-emptive military action, unilateralism, regime change, conflicts between homeland security and civil liberties, and other still-emerging questions resulting from the 9/11 attacks.” On its face, no reasonable person could find fault with funding and broadcasting programming that broadly examines such a complex topic while also serving the core mission of public television. There is merit in nearly everything we do. However, as public television professionals, we are duty-bound to look beyond the face and evaluate the value of the entire body of work.
In reading through the descriptions of the 24 program proposals that have received research and development funds from the initiative (www.cpb.org/tv/funding/ crossroads), we are struck with a profound sense of déjà vu. There is no doubt that each of the proposed films meets the criteria of the initiative with respect to topic and narrative (some more loosely than others), and we are certain that the producing experience and talent represented could yield quality, thoughtful programs.
Nevertheless, the programs funded to date have themes, topics and narrative voices that are similar if not completely repetitive of programs (or program segments) that already aired on PBS and public TV stations in the wake of 9/11. A quick scan of the NPS inventory of programs would generate a list of titles from Frontline, Nova, P.O.V., Independent Lens, Now with Bill Moyers, Wide Angle and numerous PBS specials, as well as local stations’ productions and acquisitions, that have covered the same ground that America at a Crossroads seeks to explore.
In the March 1 press release, Michael Pack, CPB vice president for television programming and lead executive for the initiative, said that with the Crossroads funds CPB seeks to “. . . bring in new voices who will advance and enrich the discussion, not rehash the same old conversation.” Given the subject matter sought by Crossroads and the information we have about programs funded to date, it is not premature to infer that rehashing may indeed be exactly what we get.
Moreover, as proposed and described, none of the programs under consideration — or even the initiative itself — answers two essential, fundamental questions: Would this programming fill an unmet need, and would it be worth the investment of available program funds in the current resource-poor environment?
The PTPA Board of Directors answers a resounding “no” to both questions. We on the board want to be crystal clear that our assessment of the America at a Crossroads initiative is not based on an ideological view of public television programming. This is not about politics. This is about serving the public with accessible, enlightening, informative programming and ensuring that every available dollar in the public television system be put to the most productive use possible.
While we firmly believe there should always be funding and room in our schedules for new voices and perspectives, America at a Crossroads does not appear to be achieving that. Instead, an examination of this program investment leads us to ask whether CPB is following its own priorities based on its extensive primetime research. Those priorities are clear and profoundly on point. CPB’s recently published Framework for a Public Television Primetime Strategy (http://stations.cpb.org/npsresearch) lists seven priorities toward which “. . . resources should be applied first” to realize the strategic vision for the PBS National Program Service: increase accessibility; expand the science and nature footprint; strengthen the core offerings; reinforce Masterpiece Theatre and Mystery; develop new broad-appeal programming; fill knowledge gaps in history and performance genres; and expand knowledge on usage and impact of limited series. The framework goes on to reaffirm, "First consideration for funding and other kinds of public support will be given to proposals which have a demonstrable connection to these priorities and the segment-specific goals that they have designed to reach.”
While we understand PBS and CPB are applying some funding to these goals, it is clearly not enough to sustain the very excellent core series and truly new initiatives under development at PBS and its stations. One could also assert that the Crossroads initiative will yield new broad-appeal programs; however, as programmers we know from experience that the disjointed nature of non-series delivery and scheduling would most likely result in nominal audience. If a strong program emerges from the initiative, we believe its most productive use would be as material for the existing core series (e.g. Frontline, American Experience, P.O.V., Independent Lens, Wide Angle), to extend their seasons and capitalize on their brand equity, maximize station carriage and attract audience. Even so, this program spending is far from ideal.
The NPS is in bad shape and needs help. Stations cannot afford higher dues. Stalwart series are going begging. Granted, more money will not cure the NPS’s deficiencies, but we can all agree it would be a good start. The $20 million earmarked to fund America at a Crossroads is going through the wrong funnel and would be better spent as an investment in the core series and future specials in the NPS. Further, the seven priorities outlined in CPB’s recently published framework leave little room for interpretation, and it would appear that programs birthed from America at a Crossroads do not serve those goals.
A public broadcaster could reach similar conclusions about CPB’s other $20 million initiative, American History and Civics, which will, by design and intent, yield very little for stations’ prime time schedules while focusing on teens who rarely watch public television.
Spending $40 million to duplicate existing programming and produce nonbroadcast media is a disservice to viewers and stations alike. NPS programming desperately needs help, and we suggest that these initiatives be thoroughly re-evaluated according to CPB’s stated guidelines before further funding is committed to projects by either initiative. Think what $40 million could do.
posted June 6, 2005
Copyright 2005 by Current Publishing Committee