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Q&A Pat Mitchell

With Buster on a slow boil, PBS tends station allies, scouts its digital options

Originally published in Current, Feb. 14, 2005

Mitchell and LawsonDiversity cut both ways last month as pubTV split on whether to air the “two mommies” episode of Postcards from Buster. Whether stations aired it or not, the system took flak from both the advocates of lifestyle tolerance and the defenders of parental prerogatives.

The unwelcome furor joined a complex web of problems facing the field and PBS President Pat Mitchell. In interviews this month, she discussed several of those issues:

Current editors Karen Everhart and Steve Behrens interviewed Mitchell by phone and e-mail on Feb. 2, 7 and 9. This is an edited transcript.

We’ve heard PBS assigned a team to review the decisions that led up to the controversy over Postcards from Buster. What questions are you asking?

I’m beginning this inquiry internally. It’s an opportunity to look very carefully at our review process, how we work with producers and how we work with a partner like the Department of Education. I asked the programming team at PBS — everybody who touches children’s programming — to go back over this, step by step, and lay out the process and look at where we could have stepped in to prevent an unfortunate situation like this. I’m expecting a report by Feb. 18 and I may have it reviewed by an outside panel for their recommendations, along with the ones made by staff. I want to make sure that going forward, we have clarity on expectations, process and accountability.

I’m also in conversations with three people whose opinions would be highly respected here to give additional outside opinions.

Was diversity of the public an important objective of the contract to produce Postcards from Buster? Did the department understand that diversity might include same-sex mothers in Vermont?

I think it’s fair to say that certain elements of the department did not interpret diversity that way. The actual mission description for Postcards from Buster certainly emphasized diversity—specifically, geographic, ethnic and economic diversity. It did not say diversity of family structures. [WGBH contends its approved series proposal does address family structure—separate story.] I think that the Department of Education now believes very strongly that taking up an issue that is politically charged and controversial was not within the mission of this program. Our concern, at PBS, was whether such controversy would obscure the real objectives of our children’s programs and violate the trust of parents and children.

It’s important that you know that all subjects for all 40 episodes were reviewed many months ago by the Ready to Learn team, which includes WGBH, PBS programming and the Department of Education. The subject of visiting gay families in Vermont was apparently on that list and apparently approved. It was not raised as a red flag of any kind by anyone at that meeting. That was why WGBH went forward in producing the show.

Presumably the Department of Education
representative was a civil servant and not a political appointee?

I don’t know who it was. I don’t think that’s important.
What’s important is that partners in this relationship — the department and PBS and the producers — have been working together for five years with great success and nary a controversy. Our programming department received a copy of the live-action portion of the episode in September but saw no reason to think the episode was outside of the scope of the mission of the series.

Then, in early November, WGBH apparently informed the PBS children’s programming team about concerns over the episode. Someone, I assume someone looking through Buster’s blog on our website, saw a reference to a civil-union family in Vermont. This person had contacted WGBH, and the department, to question what this issue was doing in a children’s program.

We received a rough cut of the episode in late December, a week before the Education Department received a rough cut of the program from WGBH.

Once the department saw the rough cut, they felt strongly that the episode would step outside the mission of Postcards from Buster and the Ready to Learn grant that had paid a small portion of the funding for the program.

When did you see the episode and did your view of it change before PBS decided to withdraw the program?

I first saw the episode in mid-January.

I talked with John Lawson, [CPB President] Kathleen Cox, station leaders, the PBS Board chair and the PBS Executive Committee as well as WGBH about it. I was personally comfortable with the subject matter per se, in the same way that apparently the Education Department, PBS Programming and WGBH had been as well. But I expressed concern that we were putting into some jeopardy our trusted position as a safe haven for parents. What “safe haven” means to me is a place where parents can actually leave their children and not worry that they will be bombarded with commercial sales pitches, violence or antisocial behavior or issues that parents may or may not want to tackle with their children, or if they do want to, they would prefer to handle in their own time and not because a PBS program forced them to. Six- to 8 years old is the target age, but we know younger children watch these programs.

There was no way you could watch that episode and feel it wouldn’t raise questions and issues with children—issues that are politically charged.

I talked with WGBH President Henry Becton about my concerns. He and the producers agreed to go back and address it.

Can you recall the major changes you requested?

There were some very direct references—“What’s it like to have two mommies?,” a reference to a civil union, a comment by Buster that seemed to be editorializing on the subject. That was the rough cut the Department of Education saw. The references were edited out by WGBH before any broadcasts.

The changes made us a lot more comfortable, but it still felt like the program had the potential to violate the safe haven, the potential for causing great distress at the local level with many of our stations, the potential for distracting from the real purpose of this program. That clearly seems to have happened.

All of that weighed heavily on our decision to pull the episode from the national schedule—a decision we made after a weekend of more than 100 consultation calls of one sort or another with member stations, national colleagues, the producers and people within PBS, to find the right decision for this community of stations.

The way it has worked out, WGBH offered the opportunity for stations to run the “Sugartime!” episode. Is this a good outcome? Did you consider offering the episode as an optional soft feed through PBS, letting stations play it if they chose, instead of leaving that to WGBH?

Of course we considered that, because public television is fundamentally a local institution. In every decision about the national program schedule we try to think how it will impact all of our communities. We always know that the local decision is the one that matters. If a station doesn’t want to air a program, it doesn’t have to.

Here’s why we decided not to distribute it as a soft-feed program. We didn’t do that because stations asked us not to. The majority of stations said, “Please don’t put that jeopardy on us,” because they would be left to deal with it as a community issue. If we are saying that the PBS Kids brand stands for “safe haven” and this would jeopardize parents’ trust in us, then we wouldn’t want to put it out with the PBS brand and logo behind it.

Our satellite system is owned by our member stations, so if WGBH wants to offer it to other stations, that’s within their rights. They can use the distribution system because it’s their distribution system.

For us, the decision had to be what is right for the majority of our stations. They said, “We don’t want this on the national program schedule.” We agreed with them that it shouldn’t be.

The fact is, this subject should have been seen to be potentially inappropriate, given our mandate on all children’s programs at PBS to be a safe haven for children. Action could have been taken to work with the producer and talk with stations at an earlier point, and to bring in the Education Department in a more constructive fashion.

Because that wasn’t done, we ended up having to make judgments very quickly, late in the process, in a reactive mode.

You said people from the Department of Education, PBS and WGBH had reviewed the season plan, including the gay moms, and okayed it. But this didn’t set off any warning signals at that point?

It didn’t. You could second guess as to whether there would be a different feeling now than a year ago. Has it taken on a different political nature?

Isn’t appropriateness a gray area?

There’s no question that people have different opinions on this. Some stations felt it would be OK in their communities. But I have to look at what’s best for 170 licensees that broadcast in 349 communities. And what I heard overwhelmingly was: It is not appropriate to put this highly charged political debate inside a children’s program.

However I personally feel about the subject, and no matter how comfortable I may feel about the subject with my own grandchildren, that’s not the point. I’m not making those decisions for me. I’m making the decision on what’s best for the stations PBS serves.

We use our children’s programs as a place to teach children very basic learning skills, teach them social skills, teach them tolerance and respect. But we have never taken politically charged issues of any sort and put them in children’s programs.

In primetime, we do it every night of the week. That’s the place for it.

We did the right thing for the stations we serve and for the parents who trust us — by not putting them in a position of having to handle any subject with which they are uncomfortable, or that they would want to handle in their own ways.

This would be a different issue if “Sugartime!” were broadcast in the evening?

We did think about broadcasting it in the evening—a decision that some of our stations have made.

The executive team at PBS considered whether to air it in primetime with a discussion around it. I think this is a good idea, and just the right way to handle it locally. But if PBS had done it, we would have created the same situation for many of our stations that, quite frankly, don’t want to deal with this issue in any context around children’s programs.

How does the controversy over Buster’s visit to Vermont change what PBS will have to do to win another five-year Ready to Learn contract with the Department of Education?

I’m not sure that this controversy changes anything about our relationship with the Department of Education in terms of the Ready to Learn grant. We were already at the end of this five-year grant and had already begun to work with the department on how they want to structure Ready to Learn going forward.

They decided some time ago — in consultation with APTS and our Ready to Learn team — to look at dividing Ready to Learn into separate programming and outreach grants. Now they’re saying they may do as many as two programming grants and one outreach grant, and I think they are still in the process of defining the details.

We had already begun to see that as an opportunity to strengthen our case as the programming grantee as well as the outreach grantee along with our stations.

As we see in the present situation about one episode of Postcards from Buster, which had some support from Ready to Learn, is that the producers, PBS and the Department of Education need to be in total alignment — up front — on the purpose of the series and how it achieves its objectives. I would like to see clearer ways of defining the expectations of our relationship with the Department of Education.

Showing an image of mixed-race parents was once controversial in much of the country. Is this image of two mommies on Buster something public TV will someday be able to put in front of children without violating trust?

It’s a very difficult question to answer. We all spend a lot of time thinking about the role of media in an increasingly polarized world, where the need for a place of independent voice is critical.

In primetime we’re going to make sure that issues get an airing, no matter how controversial. I’ll fight for that with every breath I take.

We are serving this public today. Our stations live in this world. We have to uphold one thing we know we have, which is the trust of parents and children.

It was not an easy decision to come to, for many reasons. WGBH is one of our most valued producers — very thoughtful, smart people whose work you respect. I found it personally difficult with these Vermont families. They let us into their homes and trusted us.

None of that feels good. But at the end of the day we had to make the call — what was best for the largest number of communities, represented by our stations.

Channel for school-aged kids?

Moving on to children’s programming more generally: Since completing your PBS Kids agreement with Comcast, Sesame Workshop and Hit Entertainment [earlier article], what’s your next development priority for digital services?

We will continue trying to put our children’s programs on multiple platforms, making the programs available to parents however they want them. Our next move is to try to find funding for a channel for school-age children to be offered to stations for digital multicasting.

We feel these children, ages 6 to 10, are an underserved group, and the block of programming we’re offering as PBS Kids Go! increased our audience by something like 50 percent in that age group. With that we’d have the genesis for what could be a very powerful multicast service for our stations. It’s going to take some time to get the rest of the content together, because we haven’t been focusing on this area. John Wilson and his programming team are looking at that now.

You have about four half-hour series for school-aged kids. How much of an increase in production will you need to have?

You could probably do it on a six-hour wheel to start. Many plans for multicast channels follow that model. Of course, we will review programming that is already produced by stations or acquired in the system to see if it’s appropriate.

The real issue is funding. The PBS Kids channel that has been available to stations for multicasting did not have a sustainable business model. It was largely paid for by DirecTV, which is ending that payment. The stations were contributing only a very small amount — around $1,000 a year — for a 24/7 children’s service.

Please excuse a question that may be naïve: Launching a multicast channel doesn’t necessarily require you to buy more rights, does it? You have unused broadcast rights for a core of programs already on the air. It’s become so much easier to package a channel with automated equipment that stations in Syracuse and Milwaukee, as well as New York and Boston, are putting their playlists into computers that spit out channels. Why is it difficult to develop a multicast channel?

Let me just clarify a couple of things. Where stations are broadcasting their own digital channels, they’re doing it with the rights that PBS conveys to them in the broadcast window as currently defined by our rights package.

That doesn’t include any new material, or anything outside the standard seven-day window for repeats, or any promotion, marketing or interstitials. For new material, the digital rights are not necessarily available. In the long run, we need these rights to compete among digital channels. We cannot have digital channels that only repeat what we air on other schedules.

You are right that digital channels are less expensive to operate than the main National Program Service. That’s the great opportunity that digital represents. But public television will have to find business models that allow us to invest more with our producers up front so that we can manage and use those digital rights for a longer time.

Also, video on demand is playing a bigger and bigger role. In San Francisco, about 50 percent of the cable viewers in KQED’s market already have VOD capacity. With every program they broadcast, they are thinking, “what are the video-on-demand packages and rights?”

PBS and stations have got to figure out how to invest up front in rights for VOD and stations’ digital multicasts.

Do you see much opportunity to earn revenue on demand for many PBS programs, or only from very rare blockbusters?

The cover story from Wired magazine that’s getting so much play — “The Long Tail” [by Chris Anderson at Wired.com]— indicates that you don’t have to have only a blockbuster Ken Burns series to earn revenue anymore. This is a big part of our conversations with producers these days. Everybody sees it and gets it. They’ll not only have the television audience, but they can count on video sales, DVD sales and uses on computers and other platforms. But to date, no one’s come up with a mature revenue model.

We just announced that we will make some of our content available through Google’s new video search feature. It’s a pilot test with limited material right now. If you searched with Google for President Bush’s inauguration, and the NewsHour or Frontline had done something on that, you would get a listing of broadcast times and still images from the coverage. In the second phase of the pilot, you’ll be able to watch a 10-second clip.

Talk with Discovery Education

Another proposed service that needs investment to take off is Digital Classroom, a video-on-demand project for teachers that PBS proposed with WGBH (story, June 2004). Your board set a Dec. 31 deadline to raise funds for the project. Did you find the money, or is the idea on the shelf?

We didn’t raise the money to take Digital Classroom forward on the timeline we originally proposed. But when the board’s newly reconstituted Education Committee met recently for a two-day workshop and retreat, it concluded that it’s such a good idea to aggregate content for a new high-end digital service for K-12 that we are continuing to apply for funding. Cindy Johanson [PBS senior v.p., interactive and education] and her group are looking at how it might be incorporated with TeacherLine activities. We haven’t given up on the concept.

Many public TV stations are now helping sell United Streaming and a similar service from AIMS Multimedia — classroom video services bought in the past two years by the parent company of the Discovery Channel (story, September 2004). Discovery may decide someday to put its brand on the services more prominently. Is this arrangement between some PBS stations and one of their biggest primetime competitors a routine, mutually desirable deal between media companies? Or would the appearance of the big Discovery brand on all of those teachers’ screens undercut the claim that PBS is giving educators a public service?

I recently met with the head of Discovery Education as well as the c.o.o. of Discovery Networks to have just this conversation. They have already created quite a substantial presence for Discovery Education on the website and in their overall strategy. But they are absolutely aware of the pre-eminence of the PBS brand as an educational service to the classroom. United and AIMS, both services that they purchased, are marketed to schools primarily through local public television stations.

Discovery insists — and one can only take them at their word at this point — that the relationships between public television stations and the educational institutions in their communities are what drives their success. They didn’t seem to have any intention to do anything other than to optimize the value that public television brings to their foray into these educational services.

Whether or not we can work with them and resolve some of our funding needs, our asset of primary importance is the legacy of 35 years of experience with teachers and being their most trusted choice for video material. We’ve opened the door with Discovery Education because stations have relationships with their service at the community level. Now we have to figure out how to work together to continue to deliver the best to America’s teachers and classrooms.

Would you want Discovery to distribute PBS classroom video materials through public TV stations?

Our dominance in the education arena is based on our stations’ relationships with educational institutions in their communities. I don’t think Discovery or anyone can supplant that. Like politics, all education is local. Our stations excel in these services. I think Discovery recognizes that and will be doing what they can to strengthen that, not to try in any way to interfere with it.

So you don’t anticipate that PBS would make an exclusive deal with Discovery to distribute PBS classroom videos through their computer system to the stations?

I don’t anticipate that. I can’t rule out anything in this technological environment, but there’s nothing in that scenario that sounds like something we would need or want to do.

Morphing “Public Square”

In programming for home reception, PBS chose to offer the PBS Kids channel for preschoolers as a direct-to-cable channel instead of stations’ DTV multicasting. Is PBS considering offering other program services directly to cable?

It’s hard to say, because no one is sure what will be sustainable. When we looked at what could bring in revenues to strengthen the program service, children’s programming was our No. 1 asset. We had to move quickly to protect that asset, so that the programming didn’t go somewhere else and build value for a distributor other than public television.

As we move into digital media, I’m convinced that stations, producers and PBS will find it extremely valuable to have our experience, our brand and the public’s trust in educational children’s content, and we’ll find ways to serve specific age groups using innovative teaching technologies.

For instance, we’re looking very specifically at how our preschool programs can help get children ready to learn, whether we can focus our programs for school-age children on other needed skills, and so on, potentially up to teenagers.

Civic engagement is another area where commercial cable companies and networks are just not going to go. Look at their record over the last 10 years. They offer cheap screamfests instead of thoughtful debate or real candidate analysis. We demonstrated our opportunity in the last election year by covering the conventions in a different way, covering local debates and candidate races in a different way. We proved that the audience is there for it.

Look at what our stations are already doing with digital technology. About 14 of them are turning their coverage of state legislatures into real public affairs channels. We’re working to find funding for a national Public Square service to enhance that.

Do you see direct-to-cable as one option for Public Square?

Probably not, at this point. I don’t see cable going that way for public affairs programming. It’s not the most attractive genre for corporate underwriting. Look at the fact that we can’t get corporate underwriting for Frontline.

I do see Public Square as the best place to use new technology. Full-time news channels have been successful because people want their hit of news or opinion when they want it. They know which radio and television talk show hosts to tune into. If we can put our public affairs content out there on-demand — via cell phones, Blackberries, computers, televisions — we can deliver it whenever and however they want it.

Using our deep archive and our ongoing commitment, I believe that’s the win for our producers, our stations and our whole community. We are clearly committed to doing that in a different way.

Is there a chance that foundations will give either start-up or permanent support to the Public Square concept?

Yes. The Knight Foundation gave us the planning grant that allowed us to develop this idea [story, January 2004]. Now we have a follow-up grant proposal in front of the Foundation for $3 million. That will help us do a couple of things. It could partially fund an effort to take Friday night as a kind of pilot for Public Square, working with the Friday-night public affairs series. It would also help us look at a couple of other ideas that are missing on the media landscape in public affairs.

Are these new concepts for programs?

Yes. We would look at creating content of a kind we don’t offer now. I can’t discuss details yet because the proposal is being considered.

Would it help your case with foundations if you had a funding model that didn’t rely on substantial or permanent foundation support?

Yes, of course. They don’t want to launch something and then be in the position of having to come back over and over again with sustaining funds. That’s not what most foundations do. We have also made applications with other foundations. What we’re looking to do here can’t be done with just one foundation or one grant.

The good news is that there are two or three foundations in this country that are very committed to this area of citizenship. They do see us as a very important player, perhaps the only player. But, perhaps this is an area where we should join forces with C-SPAN or WorldLink and the Independent Television Service, which we already work with. We could pool our interests in informing the public on crucial issues and find new ways to work together.

I don’t have the answers on how any of this would work, but I’m intrigued by it and believe that these conversations will begin to take place. There has got to be a way to fund it.

How satisfying is the mix of public affairs programs now on PBS?

Well, I’m never satisfied with much of anything, and I’m always pushing us to do more and be more. Our Friday nights have become stronger with the addition of Tavis Smiley and Now. David Brancaccio’s debut [as sole host of Now, after Bill Moyers' retirement] did extremely well in terms of viewers. I really have great hopes for David and that show as they’ve reconfigured it. I like moving Tavis into primetime. For a lot of stations he’s bringing a different demographic. Washington Week has had a strong year.

We are engaging a larger portion of the public than anyone else with this kind of programming. But there’s opportunity to grow, and some of it has to do with the way we present ourselves.

If we want to inform and engage the public about issues of importance, we probably should find new ways to do it—not only on new delivery platforms, but also new ways to present it on television, which is still our most compelling medium.

I’ve asked [top programmers] Coby Atlas and John Wilson to work with producers of the Friday-night shows, as well as producers of our documentary series and others. We’ve started these conversations to try to figure out the very best way to strengthen our public affairs programming on the National Program Service and as we think about other platforms going forward.

We’ve heard that PBS is interested in the idea of re-formatting the separate Friday-night shows into segments of a longer, continuous block. Where did that idea come from and what would it achieve?

The idea originated with the Public Square planning group. As we talked about what consumers would need in the future and our options for delivering that, it became clear that the more the content is formatted to fit current consumer tastes and expectations, the better off we would be—even if we started doing it now on our analog service.

Instead of having the separate half-hour programs — Washington Week, Now, Tavis, Tucker and the Journal Editorial Report — viewers could find all of the interesting people and the shows’ specialties in some sort of umbrella program. We would say to the audience, “Here’s your Friday-night Public Square. Stick around for an hour-and-a-half or two hours and we’re going to cover the markets, we’re going to cover community races in Idaho, poverty in Argentina. We’re going to cover issues that matter to these people.” All of the same journalists and producers would be involved, though some would have more time on one Friday and less on the next. Time would be allocated by what was important that week.

It’s an evolution of the original concept of the networks’ morning shows, Good Morning America, with two hours of comprehensive coverage, hosted by a couple of people and presenting specialists on the topics. We know audiences are comfortable with the format.

But, as a skeptical station manager told us, it wouldn’t have the advantages of independent fundraising, promotion and editorial responsibility that the present shows have. Viewers would not know when to tune in for their favorite hosts. Do the advantages outweigh these factors? Are you sold on this idea, or is this just an option?

I’ve thought about the potential of this format, but we haven’t tested it yet. Those are some interesting points. The consistency issue could be dealt with by having an onscreen menu at all times, so you’d know that David Brancaccio, for example, is coming on at 8:20 with a report from Des Moines.

Bolstering pubTV’s audience

How much of this is driven by the desire to not have people tuning out at the half-hour?

The number of people we lose in our program breaks is pretty astounding. We just gave the PBS Board and member stations some research from [PBS promotion chief] Lesli Rotenberg. Our producers have the handicap of nearly starting from scratch to build an audience every half-hour or hour, because we have such lengthy breaks and we don’t promote during them or transition with content. We’re looking at ways to deal with that over our whole schedule.

CPB’s recent audience research has found that many Americans have limited time and interest in tuning in for multipart series. Are you discouraging producers from making multipart series or programs that demand prolonged attention?

We’re asking producers to think how many hours they actually need to tell their stories as opposed to how many they can get funded.

Would you fund an 18-hour series on baseball [as Ken Burns did in 1994], for instance?

If Ken Burns made the case that he did—that he needed 18 hours to tell the baseball story—and he told it really, really well, as he did, I don’t see any second-guessing on that one. But with his national parks series, we are asking, “How long do you think you really need this to be?” Ken is being very thoughtful about that.

Are you concerned that a PBS survey of stations showed that satisfaction with the program service is lagging? We understand that last year the average satisfaction level for primetime programming was 3.9 on a 5-point scale.

That does represent some slippage, but it’s not hugely significant. In fiscal 2003 it was 4.2 and in 2002 it was 4.5.
I would like the program service to be the absolute tops on their satisfaction chart, but I don’t think that it ever will be for the very reason that we have 349 very different communities. There is just no way that the same programming is going to be as satisfying and as popular in Biloxi, Miss., as it is in San Francisco, Calif., or the other way around.

Excuse me for venting a bit, but what’s interesting is that you sometimes find that the stations that give the lowest marks are the stations that are attracting audiences with the National Program Service that are 40 to 50 percent above average. Sometimes you have to step back and say, “I don’t get that.”

Is that true of the Southern stations? Some of them were complaining on that point last spring.

It’s true of some Southern stations.

The Southern stations have expressed their concerns very clearly. They feel a lot of the National Program Service doesn’t perform as well with their audiences as it does in other places—or as well as they need it to perform. We’re going to sit down with them and figure out the best way to address this. Is it for them to acquire more material that works better, or to be sure their voices are represented in all station advisory groups?

Maybe you could have a series called This Old Stock Car.

[Laughs] How about Survivor on the NASCAR Track?
No, these are serious concerns. Obviously, we want a National Program Service that tops the list with station managers, just as it tops the list with viewers. What really matters is what they deliver to viewers and how the viewers feel about it.

Petitions to rein in PBS

A petition to be considered at the PBS Members’ meeting this week deals with board composition. This issue also came up last June during deliberations over the PBS budget, and the PBS Board agreed to examine new models for governance. Can you describe the work that’s been done in this area?

The Nominating and Corporate Governance Committee, under former Education Secretary Richard Riley and Lloyd Wright of WFYI, who retired from the board in October, made some changes that have already made a significant difference.

First, we now pair a lay director with a professional director as chairmen and vice chairmen on each of the PBS Board committees. Secondly, each lay member of the board is affiliated with a station and PBS has set up ways to foster closer relationships between them. For example, we are inviting station managers and their PBS lay directors to a board dinner in March, and we’re asking these station managers to also invite the chairs of their boards. We’ve also added a diversity task force to look at ways to recruit a more diverse set of lay and professional directors.

At a meeting last fall in L.A., the board had a working session on the topic of governance. The top recommendation was to reduce the size of the board while keeping the same balance between lay, general and professional directors.

The PBS Board has 35 members. It is an operating board, not a fundraising board, which typically would be large. Believe me, as someone who governs with this board, it is too big.

We have a unique opportunity this year to reduce the size of the board. Through a quirk of terms, eight directors will retire from the board in October. The board is proposing to amend the PBS bylaws to reduce the board by not electing anyone to those seats. The board will introduce the proposal at the Annual Members Meeting and will hold an informational web conference for general managers later this spring. The proposal must be approved by member stations to take effect.

The petition at the Members Meeting recommends that only people who have served on a local station board within the last five years be eligible to serve as PBS lay directors.

This is not a surprising petition, and it comes from a thoughtful position. However, the board could lose very valuable people by establishing a hard and fast rule. For example, Mary Bitterman—the vice chair of the PBS Board—might not be eligible for the board because, although she was a local station manager, she has never been on a station board.

Another membership petition calls for PBS to stop its work in advocacy. Twenty-five years ago, APTS was formed to separate public TV advocacy from program decision-making, but PBS has continued to do “education” work with policymakers on its own. Why should PBS keep at it?

It is very important for us continue in that role. When the Hill wants to hear the case to be made for public broadcasting, especially for what we do systemwide, they like to talk to the president of PBS. We have been up there together with APTS and CPB, and we recently had the best hearings on public broadcasting that we’ve had in years. That is an indication that we’ve had strong impact.

I hear from senators and congressmen all the time who don’t want to talk with me about program decisions, they just want to talk to the president of the national organization. I go armed with, “Here’s what your station is doing in your community,” and when possible I like to go with the station manager from that area.

APTS is our “education” advocate, representing PBS on the Hill and at the Department of Education . . . so PBS has no separate advocacy efforts in that area. Our advocacy is more general and focused on the case for a strong public broadcasting service, national and local.

Who’d get spectrum proceeds?

The third petition recommends that if there’s to be a trust fund backed with the proceeds of spectrum auctions, the fund should direct its aid to stations whose spectrum is being sold, not to PBS.

There’s never been a proposal that the money should go anywhere else other than to the holders of the spectrum, which are the stations.

Do you anticipate that the Digital Future Initiative [story] will address where the money goes?

The APTS trust fund proposal is the only one to come out of public TV at this point, and it calls for the money to go to the stations. I talked with [APTS President] John Lawson about this recently. It’s always been his intention—and mine as well—that if we find some new funds, we want to use them in the best way possible for local and national services. How we approach the distribution of any new funds has not been clearly laid out in the current proposal, but APTS is working on that. We will approach these funds in the same way we approach programming and dues aggregation now.

The proposal for the Digital Opportunities Investment Trust, which came from outside public broadcasting, initially didn’t have a provision for public television. It proposed that all the proceeds from public TV’s spectrum go into a giant trust fund for everybody. APTS and DOIT are working together now, and hopefully the result will be one proposal.

The DFI is not focusing its efforts on where the funding comes from. They’re focusing on building the case for using new technologies that enable us to do a whole lot of important and significant things in the areas of education, lifelong learning, civic engagement and homeland security. They’re looking at how we make that case for funding those services in a compelling way so that, whenever we go to the Hill with whatever funding device we come up with, that we do it in one voice.

At the last meeting of the Digital Funding Initiative there was a parade of public TV people talking about their local projects. Do you think that the initiative will come out with some specific proposals about what public TV can do if Congress endows a trust fund?

That’s certainly my hope, and it’s the reason that PBS convened this group. What I understand from our discussions is that they believe very strongly in the opportunities that digital technologies give to public broadcasting to enhance our learning services, children’s services and civic engagement.

This panel is going to write a report on its findings after listening to many station representatives and consulting with many public advocacy groups about how public broadcasting can work with other nonprofit institutions and what they see as the best approach to pursuing these opportunities.

They will be presenting a vision, as they call it, a plan based on these conversations. It will be the case for a new funding source.

Why did you decide to convene this panel? How did it get started?

The MacArthur Foundation gave us a small planning grant seven or more months ago. I had a conversation with the MacArthur Board. After hearing me describe all the many challenges of public broadcasting right now, the board told me to use a small grant to look at the key issues and see if I could get some leaders from outside and inside public broadcasting to spend some time on one or two of them.

Underfunding is a crucial problem. We know what digital affords us the chance to do, but we can’t deliver on any of those promises if we don’t have additional funds. We are barely able to sustain what we are doing now with our current funding. And it’s going to get harder and harder.

We were able to put together a panel that represents both sides of the political aisle—business, public policy, and public broadcasting representatives. NPR, PBS, CPB and APTS are represented and eight members of the public who mostly have little experience with public broadcasting but believe in its potential value to play a greater role in the future.

That’s why they renamed themselves. They were originally called the Enhanced Funding Initiative, meaning “money beyond what we are getting now.” But they decided to focus on the digital opportunities of the future and make the case that public service media has a big role to play there. In order to play it well, we’re going to need funds. That’s how they wrote their mission statement, and they will report to the PBS Board by the end of March.

Has the panel heard any ideas about what kind of programming would add new people to public TV’s audience? CPB’s research showed quite a variety of people with different interests in the potential audience. Some might watch more public TV if it dealt with their issues.

Segmentation is the reality that we’re dealing with, but digital makes it possible for us to address those various segments. The segments have different educational needs and other segments of the population probably won’t be well served by other media but public media will serve them.

You raised a similar challenge with the stock car reference. We are going to have to make this case as a grassroots effort. I think we’ve got the best chance we’ve ever had in doing that because in the media environment today, public broadcasting is looking better in comparison to what a lot of the other channels are doing. They have to fight more competitively for profits and ratings. We are differentiated in our service because we can be about service, especially when it comes to learning and workplace training. A lot of the things that stations are doing are distinctive and valued.

We are in a good position. Politically, on Capitol Hill, we always have our ups and downs and our fans and foes, but we have strong support from both sides of the aisle. Jim Barksdale and Reed Hundt, the DFI co-chairmen, paid a visit on the Hill recently. They were very encouraged by the enthusiasm they heard from both sides of the aisle, saying “Now is the time.” We have a historic, once-in-a-lifetime opportunity.

Did they meet with Rep. Barton, Sen. McCain and Sen. Stevens?

They met with all those people or their staffs. They have other meetings lined up in the middle of February as well.

Here’s the alignment of opportunity. There’s going to be a rewriting of the telecommunications bill. The spectrum is going to be auctioned. We are going to have a transition to digital at some hard date soon.

All of those three things are a historic opportunity for this country to think clearly and for the first time about how to sustain a truly strong, service-oriented public media enterprise. If we can get a proposal that our community of producers, stations and all of us buy into—that defines at least part of the way we go into this digital future, and how to fund it—and if we get behind it and take it out to the public, I believe we can change the future of this enterprise once and for all. We will change it so that we will finally be well-resourced enough to actually carry out the mission that we’ve been given and have been carrying out without the resources to do so.

Web page posted Feb. 17, 2005
Copyright 2005 by Current Publishing Committee

RELATED ARTICLES

Stations covering more than half the population aired the Postcards from Buster episode that had too many mommies for the Education Department.

LATER STORIES

As the issue of Current containing this Q&A was distributed Feb. 14, Mitchell announced her plans to leave PBS in 2006.

Mitchell became president of the Museum of Television & Radio in March 2006 and WNET exec Paula Kerger got the nod as her successor.

LINKS

Postcards from Buster is part of PBS's move to develop shows for school-age kids, as discussed in a PBS release.

 

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