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Mitchell’s pledge remarks enrage public TV troops

Originally published in Current, Jan. 28, 2002
By Karen Everhart

It just came like a slap in the face." That's how one public broadcaster reacted to PBS President Pat Mitchell's comments about on-air pledging published this month in the San Diego Union-Tribune. An e-mail criticizing Mitchell for "denigrating" pledge drives circulated widely among station development veterans.

In an interview published Jan. 10, Mitchell appeared to agree with Union-Tribune TV critic Robert Laurence that public TV stations broadcast "shlock" when appealing for viewer contributions. Mitchell was "too polite to use that word herself," Laurence acknowledged in the column, but he quoted her directly as she questioned local scheduling practices and wishfully asked if public TV could "just get out of the on-air pitching business."

"Is there any way for the national PBS organization to ask local stations to meet standards of quality in their pledge programming, and stay away from infomercials?" Laurence asked.

"It's a goal," Mitchell said. "It may be a pipe dream."

Laurence had wished that PBS would "put out some decent programming during pledge" in an earlier column, and he heard from a lot of readers who agreed with him, he told Current. "There's a huge feeling running pretty deep that they hate it. People stop giving because they can't stand it." His column described pledge stars Wayne Dyer and Suze Orman as "hucksters."

The column was based on an interview with Mitchell after a Television Critics Association press tour session Jan. 7 [2002], during which Mitchell and co-chief programming exec John Wilson emphasized public TV's financial needs. Laurence omitted their explanations of pledge practices from his column and quoted only one other source — Doug Myrland, KPBS g.m. — who agreed with Mitchell.

It wasn't the first time a PBS president hired from outside the field questioned the tactics that stations use to generate viewer contributions, and not the first time that Mitchell has discussed her concerns with the press.

Ervin Duggan, previously a longtime public servant in Washington, D.C., expressed discomfort about New Age self-help gurus Gary Null and Deepak Chopra in a 1998 e-mail exchange that was leaked to the Washington Post. The exchange, and the news stories generated by it, prompted a re-examination of editorial standards in self-help pledge programs. [1999 article.]

Mitchell, an experienced TV producer, talked about reforming pledge in an Atlanta Journal-Constitution feature last summer: "We've got to think of a new way. It's not working," she said. She pressed for systemwide changes at a summit on station membership issues last spring. [2001 article on membership problems.] Summit participants talked about revitalizing and broadening public TV fundraising efforts and ways to make the case for member support throughout the year. At the PBS Annual Meeting last June, Mitchell introduced the motto "we are all in development" to spread responsibility for fundraising to everyone in the field.

Rebels in the trenches

Mitchell's wish that public TV could find an alternative to pledge drives, and her willingness to openly criticize it outside the public TV family, angered Lamont McLoughlin, president of Channel 10/36 Friends, who raises funds for WMVS/WMVT in Milwaukee. After McLoughlin saw the San Diego column, he dispatched an e-mail taking Mitchell to task.

" . . . I find that the leader of [PBS] publicly denigrating the efforts of all of us is improper and damaging," he wrote. McLoughlin's comments, attached to a copy of the column, stirred up reactions among pledge veterans. It was forwarded to Current and others outside public TV's national e-mail system.

"Stations feel that this is a tough thing that they have to do every three or four times a year, and they would like to feel that these efforts are supported at the highest possible levels," said Niki Vettel, executive producer of the Dyer pledge specials. Mitchell's comments "didn't seem to take into account what the folks in the trenches really are struggling with."

Dyer's pledge specials, which first began airing on stations in 1998, "have been a very good reflection of public television's mission programs," she added. "He draws from literature, history and poetry to make his point."

"I thought it was a low blow to call him a huckster when all of his premiums are developed to maximize the dollars coming into stations."

"This reminds me of the kind of thing you hear from high-level donors who don't want their regular programming interrupted," said Mary Ann Donahue, director of on-air production at WNET in New York. "They're not cognizant of the kind of business we have to do."

Mitchell responded to McLoughlin's e-mail in a Jan. 24 message to stations. "While I can't control how reporters frame their stories or which quotes they use, I can assure you that I have the greatest admiration and appreciation for the tireless work and dedication of my station colleagues, especially those who, like Mr. McLoughlin, are charged with raising funds that are so vital to local stations' survival."

Burden of high expectations

Development leaders agree about the need to reform on-air fundraising, but most view the idea that public TV can or should drop pledging as a bad one.

At a CPB development workshop in Las Vegas this month, participants packed a session dubbed "Pledge: Fix it or Nix it?" When asked who favored nixing it, only a couple attendees raised their hands.

"Membership and pledge in particular is a great strength of our business," said Cynthia Dwyer, v.p. of development at WNED in Buffalo. Stations' ability to speak directly to viewers is "a great advantage that we have. We need to find ways to do it wisely."

If there were other ways to get people to give money to public broadcasting, stations would have found them by now, said David LeRoy of TRAC Media Services, a research firm that studies viewer responses to pledge.

He contends that some station managers overburden pledge by expecting it to generate large amounts of cash, leading to aggressive pledge drives that turn-off some viewers and long-term donors. "It's really a management problem."

"There are problems with pledge," acknowledged Malcolm Brett, director of Wisconsin PTV. "Viewership isn't like what it used to be. The demographics are of some concern, and the nature of philanthropy is changing" as the generous World War II generation passes on. But his shop views pledge as a good thing. "We don't have any expectation or desire to move away from pledge."

Mitchell acknowledged in her message last week that pledge "remains a vital part of public television and offers an important opportunity for stations to connect with viewers and potential members."

"But in today's competitive environment, we need to look at everything we do—from local and national content to funding models—to maintain and grow the value of public broadcasting," she wrote. PBS has set goals to integrate its regular programming with pledge fare and is developing viewer support messages, several of which are already available to stations, to air throughout the year.

Dyer: a successful pledge fundraiser called "huckster" by TV critic
To Current's home page
Earlier news: Membership decline and criticism of pledge drives prompt PBS summit, 2001.
Outside link: Robert Laurence's column in the San Diego Union-Tribune.

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