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Current Q&A John Wilson and Jacoba Atlas

Wilson & Atlas interviewed at PBS

As cume slips, duo aims to keep PBS ‘relevant’
Programming co-chiefs John Wilson
and Jacoba Atlas devise minimum ratings, seek ‘format’ series

For the past four years under PBS President Pat Mitchell, the network has had two chief program executives — at headquarters in Alexandria, Va., John Wilson, a veteran public TV programmer who came to PBS a decade ago from KAET in Phoenix; and in Los Angeles, Jacoba (Coby) Atlas, a news and documentary producer who previously worked with Mitchell at CNN.

In this interview they describe for the first time a new formal practice of using minimum ratings, along with other factors, to judge the success of programs. They also discuss brainstorming with producers to create new programs and the tight budgets that limit how many new things PBS can try.

Atlas and Wilson spoke with Current editors Karen Everhart and Steve Behrens at PBS headquarters and again later by phone. This transcript is edited.


Setting ratings floors

In your programming plan in the PBS budget for next year, you talk about establishing a new set of goals for judging programs. What factors will you consider?

Atlas: We will set them out before making decisions. Some people say we have used measurements of success that we didn't express going into programs. After they air, as we joke, we could declare victory with almost any program.
All of our programs are excellent, are educational. That’s a given. Where some of our programs are not as strong as we’d like is in their ratings — a highly contentious issue in the system.

We think the right thing to do is to create a ratings floor for all of our programs [related article].

Will there be a different floor for each one?

Atlas: Absolutely. We won’t expect Nova to have the same audience as Now with Bill Moyers or Live from Lincoln Center. Every program will have its own decision. It’s important to do this before a program airs, so that everybody's clear about the measures we'll use to judge a particular show.

How important will audience size be in your analysis?

Wilson: That’s where the art comes into the science — weighting these different measures. For a long time we’ve tracked multiple measures of success — Points of Impact Beyond Broadcast. But so far that’s been a rear-view mirror. It hasn’t been used to forecast or set goals.

We need to say a given show is in the schedule for a certain reason—therefore it has to achieve certain benchmarks across these multiple measures, of which ratings will be one. For some shows, the audience size will be weighted more heavily than in other shows, where we will weight the amount of publicity or attendance at outreach events that we expect it to engender.

We might put a show in the first hour of primetime because we think it will perform above average. If it doesn’t, you know you missed your mark.

Atlas: If a program has been on the schedule for a long time, performing at a certain level, and then we see it diminishing and diminishing, we have to say, “Should that program remain on?”

You are sticking your neck out again, as Pat Mitchell did a while back, pledging to increase the primetime average [earlier article]. Why?

Wilson: We hear all the time from our stations — they want us to use audience estimates as part of our criteria for green-lighting shows or continuing them. We’re now looking at audience on a title-by-title basis, which is more precise than the broad, hard-to-move average for primetime.

Will you have audience floors for children’s programs, weekend, pledge programs?

Wilson: We’re really focused for this exercise on primetime and the common-carriage-designated programs. If we’ve asked stations to play these shows in primetime, those are the shows we should hold up to this scrutiny and accountability.

Atlas: This is not a matter of pulling the trigger on things three weeks into the season, before they’ve had a chance to find their footing. We’re going to do this in a responsible, PBS-like way.

But NPR made its decision about Bob Edwards in what it thought was a responsible NPR-like way, and they got totally trashed in the press [earlier article].

Atlas: I bet we will, too. If you change any program, there will be people who say, “That’s my favorite program. Why would you take it off?” It’s never going to be easy. Any program on PBS has its defenders.

We have to make sure the ratings floor makes sense and that we have the buy-in from the producers.

For us to be relevant, to thrive, to reach out to broader audiences, we have to be able to make some changes.

Sometimes when new standards are applied, there’s some hope they will cause the producers to change what they’re doing so they will have a better audience. Do you hope for that sort of effect?

Wilson: Absolutely. We'll have the new CPB research, which will help us create a roadmap to make these shows more viewer-friendly, engaging and consistently scheduled.

Will producers have time to make changes before it’s too late?

Wilson: It’s going to vary from title to title. In some cases, we made multiple-year commitments to series. They’ll have time to fix things. This is going to give Coby and me much more solid footing on which to base renewal decisions.

Degrees of reality

In January you invited a selection of producers and others to brainstorm about programming ideas at the Sundance Institute in Utah. We heard you talked about trying new kinds of reality TV appropriate to PBS. Is that discussion going anywhere?

Atlas: I think it’s pretty clear that reality television on the networks has been an incredible [audience] success.
What we’re talking about now is variations on the House franchise [earlier article], which has really worked for us. It’s incredibly good programming, engaging, educational, right on mission — it’s experiential history.

We plan to keep the House franchise going. We’re already talking with WNET about the next two.

We heard there’s some discussion of an opera version of American Idol or something along those lines.

Atlas: It was a huge hit for Channel Four in the U.K. It was called Operatunity. WNET is bringing us a reduced version of that program—they did four hours in the U.K. and we’re doing 90 minutes.

We’re not looking to do more of this with opera, but we’re noodling around with other areas of performance. WNET has a wonderful relationship with the world of Broadway musicals that are a big part of the American culture. Maybe that’s the next one to do.

Do you see positive things coming from reality TV?

Wilson: The commercial networks apparently do. They feel like they’ve struck gold because it has been enormously popular and it’s also reasonably low cost compared to making ER.

Our concern is that they will burn up the format while we’re still trying to do something substantive and meaningful with it.

Atlas: The only other fear I have about it is that the baseline is so manipulative.

That’s not a place public broadcasting would want to go. I loved Survivor right from the beginning, and I’ve become ad-dicted to The Apprentice. But they manipulate the storytelling more than any of us would be comfortable with. That ratchets up the expectations for this kind of drama, where people are really cast to play certain roles. That’s not what PBS does.

Wilson: When we talked at Sundance, we kept coming back to the emotional appeal and the transformations that seem to occur. Look at what the kids on Frontier House learned, comparing their own lives in the 21st century to the hard work of kids in the 19th century. That transformation engages people. We’re using that as an organizing notion for what we want to see next.

Atlas: We’ve been talking a lot about the next House series. All of us think the ’50s would be fun because of the clothes and the music. But where’s the challenge? We need something intrinsic to the time, that isn’t artificial, that they really have to overcome.

We think we’ve found it for the next two House series—one from the U.K. and one homegrown.

Is there some middle ground between what the networks do and the straight observational docs like Frederick Wiseman’s and David Sutherland’s?

Wilson: Absolutely, and it’s the House franchise, for now. We clearly create this environment, put people in it and cause them to live a life they wouldn’t otherwise be living.

David Sutherland doesn’t do that. He doesn’t want to affect the subject. We don’t have people vote each other off the island. We have them live in the shoes of someone from another time, to actually live history. That, to us, is on the good side of the line.

Did you consider surprising the settlers in Frontier House by having them fight Indians at the end?

Wilson: We were very purposeful when we placed these programs in history. The time period of Frontier House was 1883 [earlier article]. That’s post-Indian Wars.

We’ve talked intensively with WNET, Wall to Wall [the production company] and Channel Four about how we could do something as provocative and surely controversial as a “Plantation House” would be. Slavery is the very deep scar in America’s history. How do you treat it in a way that isn’t just brutal to watch? How do you simulate history in a way that’s honest to the real violence of the time and still have something an eighth- grader can watch?

Atlas: The conclusion is that you can’t do it. It’s inappropriate to try to take something that horrific and try to turn it into television.

How did that idea come up?

Wilson: Channel Four has talked about it. We’ve talked about it. WNET has talked about it.

We’re not trying to soft-sell history. Formats have certain limits, strengths and weaknesses. We can do the history of slavery as a straight documentary.

Atlas: In fact, we have a big series coming up on slavery. PBS has dealt with slavery and we will continue to deal with it. But it’s inappropriate for the House franchise.

As you work with producers, what you decide not to do is almost as important as what you decide to do. Lots of ideas get discussed and eliminated, but you want that free flow of ideas.

What other things have you decided not to do, for example?

Wilson: We looked at the future. Can you put people in “Space Station” and see how they cope with the reality of the future? When you begin forecasting, it’s tricky. We haven’t figured out what the "House" would be, or what the challenge would be.

Another thing is that we have to rely on partnerships. We don’t have the resources to fully fund these enormously expensive series by ourselves. We rely on U.K. broadcasters for a significant part of the budget, so we have to find topics that would have audiences on both sides of the Atlantic.

You had some talk at Sundance about docudramas on contemporary subjects. Where does that idea stand?

Atlas: We have talked a lot about how much drama we should try to do. Some cable and broadcast networks do it very well. We’ve weighed whether we should compete in this area.

We’ve decided that we should. People are drawn to drama. We’ve talked with our partners at CPB about their interest in drama and we decided docudramas, which deal with history but engage you on a different level, would be a good kind of drama for us to do.

A couple of really strong docudramas on other channels have made us envious. The Gathering Storm, about Churchill, and Conspiracy, about the Nazis’ “Final Solution,” were both on HBO. We would have been proud to have had either of those.

They weren’t even crossing our radar because you have to cause those programs to happen. We want to tell the creative community that we’re interested, and see what results from it. But we have real parameters for it. Again, we probably will need a British partner, because the programs are pretty expensive. We want them to be 20th-century dramas. They have to be factually correct, as much as you can be. They can’t be really speculative about what happened.

The first thing we need to do is firm up this alliance of public television — PBS, CPB and the U.K. — to identify the initial money.

Wilson: We hope to be open for business by late spring.

Bolstering the cume

Coby, when you came to PBS were you shocked by the low ratings that PBS gets for really good, handsomely produced shows?

Atlas: Honestly? Yes, I was surprised when I got here, and four years later I still am.

I know from seeing these programs myself, and later hearing focus groups of people who watched them, that more people love them than the ratings reflect. These programs deserve to be seen by more people — and I don’t mean they’re some kind of medicine that people should take. These are wonderful shows. More people would enjoy them — no “shoulds” here.

What’s the ratings situation?

Wilson: The primetime average was 2.0 in the 1999-2000 season. We were holding steady at 1.8 through the fall. In February the primetime average notched down to 1.7.

There’s no doubt the erosion that has hit all broadcasters continues. It feels like a law of physics we have to endure. Established cable networks are feeling the erosion as new cable networks come up behind them.

I don’t know whether to be more disturbed about the average rating or the cume.

For a long time, public TV had half of all households tuning in during an average week.

Wilson: The full-week cume was at its highest in 1993-94, when it was 59.2 percent. In 2002-2003 it was 47.

The average household used to have about eight available channels and now has 75. The audience for those channels has to come from somewhere. A lot of viewers come from the broadcasters.

Why is the cume important?

Wilson: The cume used to be incredibly stable, even when the average audience number flexed up or down. You still had a lot of people sampling public television.

Now we’re seeing less sampling of public television. You can’t have both the rating and the cume go down, because you’re headed toward irrelevancy in viewers’ minds. We believe, as our stations do, that a healthy cume means a lot of people are checking them out. That is an indicator of how valued they are and their worthiness for support.

Atlas: We want to bring in different kinds of programs to get more people to sample us. That’s the way we’ll also get more people to watch series we’ve had for a long time.

So are you pursuing more broadly appealing shows for 8 o’clock, like Antiques Roadshow or History Detectives?

Wilson: Would that it were so simple. One of the things we’re looking at is the mix.

Post-9/11, because of the events stemming from that, we launched a number of public affairs vehicles—Now, Wide Angle and Flashpoints.

But that means we’re doing less of other things that might attract larger audiences. So that’s had an effect on the cume.

We know 8 o’clock is a place where we’ve got to continue to invent. We just came from a Challenge Fund meeting at CPB and we put this subject on the table: Cume is the thing we’re most sensitive to in terms of scheduling.

Atlas: We’re definitely looking for programs like Antiques Roadshow [earlier article] with formats that people can readily understand. They know from week to week what they’ll get. That was important for History Detectives.

Most of our programs, as you know, are anthologies. Topics change week to week.

We’re actively looking for more format shows. We’ve let producers know that’s what we’re looking for.

We’re looking at kinds of programs we’re not doing. We have the in-depth documentaries. They aren’t going away.
We’re trying to find out exactly what people like about History Detectives. Educators have told us this is their new favorite program. They love it, so it’s absolutely hitting our mission.

It presents content in chunks. If you have only 20 minutes to give to Antiques Roadshow, you can get something. You won’t feel like, “I don’t have two hours to give tonight. I’m not even going to start.”

It’s more like NPR’s newsmagazines.

Atlas: Yes. But we wouldn’t want a whole schedule of Antiques Roadshow and History Detectives. That wouldn’t make sense. So we’re always looking for balance.

What do you regard as public TV’s successes, judging by either its ratings or other measures?

Wilson: It’s easy to be concerned about the fact that our average audience has gone from a two-point-something to a one-point-something. No one should make light of that.
At the same time, we still have to remind ourselves that our audience is still on average easily 50 to 100 percent larger than any cable competitor’s. The Discovery Channel had a 0.9 for years, then 0.8. We remain one of the bigger dogs on the block, relative to the cable competitors.

Atlas: We’re incredibly proud of The Forgetting, in January. It reached an enormous audience for that kind of program and had incredible outreach — follow-up community programs and the web component. It worked on every level for us. It has created 150 million impressions, and still counting.

Forsyte Saga II was the best of that genre. The last episodes were amazing — they reminded me how good traditional British costume dramas can be. They also touched a chord with the audience.

Tony Hillerman’s Coyote Waits was strong, and we’re looking forward to seeing The Thief of Time.

Wilson: What’s most encouraging about the Hillerman mysteries is not just the sheer size of the audience, but its diversity. They really achieved the goal of being watchable and popular but also appealing to viewers who watch public television less frequently. It did really well in Hispanic and African-American households as well as with the general population.

Atlas: Just as the House programs do. They bring in a fresh bunch of viewers who don’t traditionally watch us as much as we’d like them to. That shows up in the cume.

What are you doing to extend the Hillerman franchise?

Atlas: This is one of our definite goals.

Wilson: There’s no shortage of books. There’s a shortage of funds.

Atlas: The good news is, Tony Hillerman is completely happy with what Rebecca Eaton and Robert Redford have done with his books [earlier article]. They’ve made some changes: The Emma character — Leaphorn’s wife — died early in his books. But we loved the actress and the relationship, so she’s battling cancer and she’s going to stay alive. Tony loved that and thought it was terrific.

Are there series of books by other authors you could adapt? Will you want to create another franchise?

Wilson: We’d love to, but we haven’t exhausted Hillerman yet. Nor do we feel so flush with capital that we can pursue Hillerman and fire up another strand at the same time. We’re staying fairly dogged here because we found success and we’ve got the right team behind it. Having WGBH and Robert Redford’s company, Wildwood, and Granada behind this has been a great mix of talent, foreign investment and everything else.

We’d love to see this turn into a serial — a series of hours — but for the moment that appears to be out of our reach. We’re hearing from our international partners: “probably not.”

Was that the idea of the six-hour story arc?

Atlas: It’s still our goal. Lucky Gold has written the “bible” over six hours, using three books. For each two hours he uses one book. The emotional lives of the characters would play out over six hours, through three mysteries. This gives us a little bit of wiggle room. If we can fund all six hours, that’s still our goal. If it turns out we can only do four, that would work, too.

Public Square channel

You assigned some folks at Sundance to talk about the Public Square channel that you’re developing with funding from the Knight Foundation [earlier article]. What ideas for the channel sound most promising?

Atlas: We have a really wonderful project manager, Teya Ryan, who came from CNN [article in Atlanta Business Chronicle]. She not only ran their news programs, but she also developed some of their appointment television. We’ve gotten a lot of good ideas, but we’re still trying to formulate the need we’ll fill and the best way to do it.

We can say now that the channel will have an interactive quality. We don’t want a digital service that just talks at America for hours. With the new technology, how do we bring in the voices of America so the service becomes a conversation?

What sort of interactive things could you do? Online polling always seems so sleazy because it’s not representative. How would the programs be interactive?

Atlas: There are things like what NPR does with Talk of the Nation. Whenever I get depressed about the way America is going, I tune to that program. There are a lot of smart people asking really smart questions. So the interactivity could be as simple as e-mails and phone calls.

We need to find out from the technological geniuses what the next thing will be. How do we ratchet that up for even greater engagement? There are all these chat rooms — is there a way to turn that into a program? Also blogs. We’ve talked about using video blogs as interstitials.

Wilson: You can do deliberative polling, like what Dan Werner of MacNeil/Lehrer Productions has been doing. You take real people, ask them what they think about a topic. Then you let them get smart about it over a period of time and check them again. I think that’s interesting—maybe even useful for Public Square.

Atlas: The process [in deliberative polling] is really interesting to the people who participate. But do I want to watch you learn something? I’m not sure.

When PBS got the Knight grant, Coby, you talked about how you’d use some of the channel to time-shift programs from the main PBS schedule. How much of the channel could be new material?

Atlas: We’re figuring that out now. We have great programs that aren’t seen enough. So simply time-shifting them would be great.

But we also talked about doing things like the extras on DVDs, such as the filmmakers talking about the films. We talked a lot about how we’d do that with Frontline. Marty Smith did wonderful diaries on the Web when he was producing for Frontline in the Middle East. Is there a way to turn that into something for the new channel?

Since C-SPAN’s 25th anniversary in March, it’s gotten a lot of appreciative comments. How would you compare Public Square with C-SPAN and channels like CNN?

Atlas: CNN is a news channel and C-SPAN points cameras. If they do a program, it’s one person sitting there talking to another.

We’re envisioning something much more in keeping with what public television producers can do — Frontline, Wide Angle and documentaries like Avoiding Armageddon. We don’t want to duplicate what’s already on television, but there is a world of informational programming that is not available on either CNN or C-SPAN.

We also want to make sure our local stations are a huge component of this. We could take some of their local productions and show them to the whole country.

We could also give them a half-hour out of every two hours, like NPR does with its breakaways for local news. It’s optional and totally integrated when they do it.

So when you finish the proposal, will it go to the PBS Board and to Knight and the stations at the same time?

Atlas: No, our obligation is to turn it into the Knight Foundation at the end of June.

Wilson: We hope they’ll endorse it and say, “This is great. It’s exactly what we were imagining, too.”

And put up more money?

Wilson: They’d put up some, but mostly what they are going to do is go, hand-in-hand with us, into the foundation world saying, “We endorse this. We helped make it happen and think it’s smart, and now we hope to engage others in the foundation world to help make it happen.”

Can the foundations recognize this as a project that would need ongoing funding rather than a grant they drop in three years?

Wilson: They’ll have to acknowledge that, to a degree. We don’t see this as a commercially supported thing. Nor do we expect stations to suddenly pick up the tab.

Atlas: If this is going to happen, it’ll be because some foundations see this as the big bet they want to make. This is really a way of having a conversation with America, and they will want to place their bet there because it’s important.

Are you talking with NPR about the public affairs channel?

Atlas: We are. I’m happy to say that Jay Kernis is on our advisory board, and we hope that they will be a major partner in this.

How are the PBS/NPR Newsbriefs going?

Wilson: Well. They look great. I’m really pleased with the talent — they’re journalists, not just talking heads. Each of them is a one-person shop, basically. Having carriage on 67 stations, reaching almost half the country, is good for something that just had its hard launch in January.

Do you intend to renew the Newsbriefs?

Wilson: Yes, they continue in our ’05 budget. When you offer stations something to air in their breaks, it takes a while for them to figure out how to work it in logistically. We knew it would be a phased rollout — but so far, so good.

Where are you in deciding on the future of Now?

Atlas: Bill Moyers has told us he’s retiring. We’re disappointed that he’s made that choice, but it is his choice.
We hope Now will stay on the air with David Brancaccio as host and John Siceloff as the executive producer. That’s certainly their intention and our intention. They have some major fundraising to do. We’re encouraging them to stay on the air with David, who is very strong.

What sort of decisions are pending? Might it be a half-hour?

Atlas: It might be a half-hour. While Bill was there, an hour made a lot of sense. We think without Bill, a half-hour makes more sense. They’ve heard this from us, so it’s not a secret. They are working to figure out how the show would morph into a half-hour and what it would be, and what it will be like without Bill.

Will you want a co-host?

Atlas: They have some correspondents who could become co-hosts, but I’m not sure with a half-hour that they need a co-host.

But you do need other correspondents. A lot of what they’ve done is work in the field. Good reporters want to be there—they don’t want to come in and read a script.

How will you schedule it in relation to Tucker Carlson’s program [earlier article] ?

Wilson: I think they’ll both be on Friday night. Tucker is coming in this summer and to some degree it makes sense that two half-hours could occupy the space of what was once an hour.

Money

On March 23 the PBS Board proposed a 7.5 percent increase in the program dues. If it’s adopted it will be the largest increase in recent years. How much more will you have to spend?

Wilson: $8.9 million. Unfortunately, most of it goes to a commitment we already made to help shore up Masterpiece Theatre and Antiques Roadshow.

If these projections hold, a small amount of it, $1.3 million, will go to program development. We can at least put some extra money against things that we’ve already reserved money for. We did this with Colonial House. The producer couldn’t begin until they found the rest of their budget. We said, “We’re going to guarantee the rest. When you find that corporate underwriter, we’ll recoup it. But get to work.”

Did you recoup the money in that case?

Wilson: No. It’s really frustrating.

Atlas: Colonial House is coming up in May and doesn’t have underwriting.

Wilson: So anyway, we’ll have this $1.3 million to put against a list — not just a dream list — of $35 million in priority needs for programming.

If we had more, we could put our foot down on the accelerator on the next House or the next Hillerman.

It looks like you’ll have fewer millions for Masterpiece Theatre, compared to the $10 million ExxonMobil was putting in [earlier article]. Does that mean you’ll have to reduce episodes next season?

Atlas: The fall season has what it needs.

So ’05 is when Masterpiece might be affected. But there’s some time before then.

Wilson: Not much.

Atlas: Somebody’s got to produce all these programs. You’ve got to make a commitment and not let them to go to A&E. WGBH is looking hard to find an underwriter. The program can’t sustain itself forever with the reduced money we have. It’s a lot of money for the National Program Service. We haven’t had to fund it in the past. Some hard choices are going to have to be made.

Are the ongoing series having to cut back episodes? Their costs will be going up.

Wilson: Obviously, we’re helping two ongoing series in a big way — Masterpiece Theatre and Antiques Roadshow.

In past years’ budgets, we dedicated amounts to helping ongoing series. If you look at 1998 and 2004, the amount of NPS money we put into ongoing series went up by $14 million. But when you divide up the new money against all those titles, it’s not a significant amount of money per episode.

Over the years, we’ve had to ask some series to do fewer episodes. We’re anxious that series like Nova and American Experience have too few new titles.

Atlas: Nova does 18 to 20 new episodes a year, with a footprint of about 40 weeks. American Experience does 12 to 15.

But money isn’t the only reason we don’t add episodes. Even if we could give more money to American Experience, do they have the cast of producers who can do more of the incredible work they do? Can they do that? They need to tell us that.

In the past, John, you’ve called for more repeats to bring more viewers to every episode. This seems to go in the opposite direction of adding episodes. There’s something rational about running American Experience episodes more than once.

Wilson: There’s no doubt about that, though not every program merits being repeated. You find out on the first play.
It’s almost an immutable law: If the first play does a certain rating, the second play does 60 percent of that. You step it down from there.

What we’re talking about is repeating a program while the iron’s still hot. That’s a page from cable’s book we’d like to borrow. We have a glorious rights package with unlimited plays within a week that count as one release. That’s a great position to be in.

And that’s the one you never use?

Wilson: It’s the one that we never use in the national NPS schedule. But the stations often use it.

Risk capital

In the budget document last year, you warned PBS was backing away from risks in its program choices for limited series and specials that are important for building buzz and cume. What progress have you made on that?

Wilson: We are facing a similar predicament now. When you don’t have risk money for program development, you place your bets on sure things — the tried and true.

We’d like to be able to put seed money out there to bring in new ideas, see them on paper and then maybe pilots.
Then we’d do a very un-PBS thing — throw away the bad ones. Instead, we make so few bets, we end up having to put all our money into those few programs, whether they’re wonderful or not.

Over the summer we had a small example of this when we did Second Hand Stories [earlier article] and a special called The Strategic Humor Initiative. It was easy to make those bets because they weren’t expensive. We test-drove both programs and let stations give us feedback. One clicked and the other didn’t. We’re putting money into Second Hand Stories to make it a series and we’re walking away from the comedy initiative.

Atlas: But you don’t have the money to re-tool the comedy initiative and keep experimenting. Because you don’t have the money to risk and possibly fail.

There’s a whole new kind of program we would love to develop with one of our stations, but it’s very risky. We so want to do it, but it doesn’t feel like a sure thing the way a history documentary feels like a sure thing.

PBS has started a new green-lighting system — considering proposals twice a year, in April and October, for new specials and series. Why did you move to this system?

Atlas: What we wanted to be able to do was compare and contrast proposals. When you’re green-lighting projects throughout the year, you may be happy with a proposal and go with it. Two months later, you see a similar proposal and it’s the one you wanted. But you’ve already committed to the other one.

This gives us that luxury of really looking at options. It lets us say, “This is what we need in the schedule” rather than responding randomly to producers.

We do make exceptions. If there’s a timely story we have to get, we’re not going to be stupid and stick to the process.

Wilson: I think the process helps producers as well. Now they know when we’ll make decisions.

In the past, we were striving to be open 365 days a year. We never wanted to be like a foundation that has rigid rules. We wanted to be much more permeable, and I think we achieved that, almost to a fault. Submissions were streaming in constantly. It was impossible to know when you were done.

Atlas: We do give feedback all the time. We meet once a month to talk about proposals.

Wilson: We say no all the time. [Laughter.]

Atlas: We don’t make people hang around if their proposal isn’t appropriate for us, or if the budget doesn’t make sense or the length is wrong. And we ask them to come back, so the proposal can move along.

How do the meetings work? Do you come in with lists of things you want?

Wilson: We spend a lot of time talking about this. Coby and I are on the phone a half-dozen times a day when she’s not here. We talk with [PBS programmers] Sandy Heberer, Steven Gray, Glenn DuBose and Cheryl Jones. It’s not like everyone keeps their own lists.

We try to help our own staff by saying, “Look, here’s what we need. So it’s all well and good that you loved thus and such, but we’re not looking for that right now.”

Atlas: We ask ourselves certain questions: what is the educational value, how much does it meet standards of diversity, in storytelling and ethnicity?

We’re not making judgments with the sole purpose of getting huge ratings, but we do ask, “Where is the audience for this?”

Wilson: We also ask whether we could imagine taking a show to the press tour. We have tests we ask ourselves. Can you imagine this being a pop-out? [One of the five to seven programs a year given top priority for promotional spending.]

Do you have a certain amount of money to work with for each round? Tens of millions?

Wilson: No, single-digit millions when we’re flush.

Co-chiefs

Four years ago Pat Mitchell gave you both the title of co-chief program executive. There’s often friction when two people share responsibilities. But you don’t seem to have generated smoke or fire. How do you work together? Do you have a territorial divide?

Wilson: A little bit. I’m responsible for PBS Kids in a bigger way.

Atlas: And I’m doing the digital Public Square. But on the rest of it, we work together. We divide some things naturally because of the coasts we’re on. We talk all the time. We are not competitive with one another.

This is a huge job. Quite honestly, where PBS is now, I don’t know how it would be possible for one person to manage all of these things.

But with all the volatile questions you handle, all the ambiguities, it’s hard to imagine that you handle them without differences of opinion. What do you argue about?

Wilson: It’s rare that we’re 180 degrees completely out of sync. It’s partly because I really like and respect Coby.

Atlas: And he bullies me. [Laughter].

Wilson: I think the differences of opinion are actually the healthiest part.

And you resolve your differences without taking them to Pat Mitchell?

Atlas: She would say, “Why are you asking me? Go figure it out yourselves.”

Wilson: No, we’ve never had to go to our “parents” to solve a problem.

In all sincerity, the thing we do is just stay in touch. And it is pure luck — I’ll put it there. Coby could have been an awful person —

Atlas: And John could have been an idiot. [Laughter.] It was luck.

Wilson: The “co” thing was something we came up with. We saw Pat needed to appoint someone, to put a person in place. She was struggling with the yin and the yang. I had the station experience and PBS experience. Coby has a great commercial news background and experience in documentary producing. I think there’s a line from Smiley’s People by John le Carré where he talked about a partner: Together, we make one hell of a person.

Atlas: I do find it amazing that—in a world where everyone’s goal is to collaborate, to have honest differences and then come to consensus—that people are so skeptical when it’s actually working.

Web page posted May 3, 2004
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