Will board force a choice between PBS and sectarian programs?
The few public TV stations that carry religious programming are uneasily awaiting a final PBS Board decision on whether a station can air “sectarian” content and remain a member of the network.
The issue affects at least five stations, with one, WLAE in New Orleans, weighing its PBS membership against a long-running broadcast of Sunday Mass.
On March 31, the PBS Board unanimously approved most of its Station Services Committee’s recommended changes in membership rules. Approved among them was a compromise set of provisions defining the prerogatives and fees for two frequently conflicting classes of members — full-member stations and the usually smaller stations that pay lower fees and air less of the PBS schedule (separate story).
But the board went back to the member stations to seek further comment on “the Three Nons,” descriptors that help define public TV’s identity — noncommercial, nonpolitical and nonsectarian.
Federal law and the FCC restrict two of the “nons.” The FCC is mandated to ban commercial content and limit political content on noncom stations. But PBS is on its own to define what the third “non” means to public TV.
Station Services Committee Chair Jennifer Lawson told Current that the board is striving to achieve “some degree of clarity of what sectarian programming is, and it would be assumed that a religious service like a Mass would be sectarian.”
In contrast, she said, shows like the journalistic Religion & Ethics Newsweekly or the geo-history documentary Walking the Bible are acceptably nonsectarian.
The rule could affect Lawson’s own station; she is g.m. of Howard University’s WHUT in Washington, which carries Mass for Shut-ins on Sundays. Denver’s KBDI also airs a local Mass. If the membership pact changes, stations that run worship services would be advised to “migrate that off of public television,” she predicted.
Lawson said the board will vote on the Three Nons issue before its next meeting, June 14-16 .
The committee explained its backing for the Three Nons rules in a draft of its report. The committee “believes that if PBS or its Member Stations were perceived by the public to be ‘commercial,’ ‘political’ or ‘sectarian,’ PBS could be hampered in its ability to carry out its mission.”
PBS, it continues, “places a high value on presenting diverse perspectives, as opposed to rigidly adhering to any single political or religious point of view.”
Allowing such programming “would cause the public’s trust in PBS to erode, along with the value of the brand.”
This discussion, plus the other rules that take effect July 1, has some pubcasters at smaller secondary stations in multiple markets fretting about their options.
Where churches founded stations.
“Each station is unique and has reasons for programming the way they do,” said Ron Yager, g.m. of WLAE, founded by a lay Catholic group in New Orleans. “As we move forward as a group, PBS has been encouraging us to be more local. What’s more local than that?”
WLAE has broadcast a Sunday Mass from New Orleans since 1984, “our very first day on the air,” Yager said. “We’ve built a membership around that Mass.”
The station equipped the St. Louis Cathedral in Jackson Square with robotic cameras and a microwave link.
Yager said WLAE leaders are discussing what to do if the PBS Board adopts a rule that makes it difficultor impossible to keep the Mass broadcast and remain with PBS.
“If it comes down to that in order to be a member, we’ll have to go to the board and see which way they want to move forward,” Yager said. “Either way, it’s a very difficult decision.”
PBS policy, adopted in 1985, states that member stations must provide a “nonsectarian, nonpolitical, noncommercial educational program service.” The committee, in its February draft proposal, recommended this updated wording:
“PBS Member Stations shall provide only nonsectarian, nonpolitical, noncommercial educational content on all broadcast channel(s) and related media distribution platforms that use the PBS and/or PBS member brands.
he fact that a noncommercial educational television station is licensed to a governing authority that may be regarded by some as a ‘religious’ or ‘political’ organization should not, by that fact alone, constitute a bar to PBS membership. The fact that certain media distribution platforms may incorporate some advertising and/or non-PBS related promotion does not, in and of itself, constitute a bar to PBS membership, provided that the context, quality and quantity of the material is appropriate and is not detrimental to PBS and its brands, and/or to a Member Station and its brand(s).”
Idaho pubcaster Peter Morrill, vice chair of the Station Services Committee, couldn’t predict the stations’ consensus. The board “needs to let the system react to proposed guidelines,” he told Current. “It’s a little premature to say it will go one way or another.”
“We’re a membership organization, and ultimately the preponderance of the membership will have a significant impact on the direction we take,” he added.
Monsignor Pedro Briseño, g.m. of KMBH in Harlingen, Texas, said in February that he was troubled by the possibility that PBS would take action on Three Nons rules.
KMBH is licensed to a nonprofit created by the Roman Catholic Diocese of Brownsville. It runs religious programs along with PBS fare and plans to launch a multicast channel of all-Catholic programming.
Defining “nonsectarian” is problematic, Briseño wrote in an e-mail to Current. What about a Christmas concert by the Mormon Tabernacle Choir? Or shows about artwork in Thailand’s Buddhist temples, or the lives of Saint Paul or Martin Luther King Jr.?
“Has not PBS included a continuous coverage of religious issues one way or another through its programming?” he said.
Briseño added: “I have been told by PBS officials not to worry. Apparently, PBS officials will be ready to reinterpret their own ruling or to make immediate exceptions.”
KBYU in Provo is a division of the Mormon-owned Brigham Young University College of Fine Arts and Communications. The station runs daily programs about Mormon theology and church news as well as a Sunday worship service.
Station Manager Diena Simmons sums up the station’s objections: “Our issue is about what seems to be a shift to a network model, to what extent the stations are surrendering their ability to be locally controlled stations.”
Simmons said KBYU is pleased the Station Services Committee is giving extra time for considering the matter. She added that she hopes “all stations will engage in the dialogue. These are fundamental issues about broadcast and nonbroadcast services.”
As for its future, KBYU has “has been a PBS member station for almost 40 years and has every intention of continuing to be a PBS station,” Simmons said.
PBS Board revises its membership pact
Summary of PBS Board actions on station membership policies, March 31, 2009
Criteria for stations’ membership in PBS
Further review for the Three Nons: The PBS Board asked stations for further comment on extending three key criteria for membership—noncommercial, nonpolitical and nonsectarian—to cover “all broadcast platforms and other platforms branded as PBS or member station.” (Story above.)
No changes in other basic criteria: Member stations must operate educational noncom stations with FCC licenses. They do not have to be eligible for federal aid through CPB (though most are).
Common carriage of programs
Retained the basic carriage deal: To encourage program funding by getting stations to air a designated PBS show on the same day nationwide, PBS can designate up to 500 hours of programming a year for common carriage. Full member stations can preempt up to 50 hours for any reason and can reschedule any amount to make way for “qualifying” local programming and pledging.
Episodes—present policy: Requires carriage of a specific episode fed by PBS in its primetime National Program Service (NPS) on a specific night and repeats of it during that week. Approved change: To enable Nielsen to count stations’ audience, PBS requires a station’s first primetime repeat from an ongoing series that airs within a week to be the same episode.
Broadcast of credits—maintained present policy: Station must air all funding credits fed with a PBS program.
Children’s programs—present policy: Requires common carriage broadcast of at least seven hours of NPS children’s programming per weekday. Approved change: To facilitate Nielsen audience measurement, again, full member stations must run their chosen children’s content on their primary digital channel each weekday. Licensees owning two stations in a city (“duopoly”) may run seven hours on either primary channel or a combination.
Program Differentiation Plan for overlap stations
Delayed broadcast and blackouts—maintained present policies: To encourage stations in an area to air different schedules, PDP stations must delay PBS programs, typically eight days; daily news shows by two hours. The “blackout” rule also continues: PDP stations cannot air a series or program, even if it’s a repeat, on the same night it’s in the NPS schedule.
NPS content—present policy: PDP stations may air their selection of between 10 percent and 25 percent of NPS programming. Approved changes: All PDP stations must buy 25 percent of NPS offerings, though the portion can go higher if full-member station in market consents. Of those programs they can air no more than 25 percent in primetime. And they can air a series or program no more than twice a week.
Online streaming—present policy: none. Approved: Full member stations can stream any NPS content on their websites. PDP stations can stream only the same shows they buy for broadcast. This interim policy will be reviewed 18 months after adoption.
Fundraising programs—present policy: Full-member or PDP stations buying PBS’s optional pledge-special package receive access to the pledge programs. Approved change: PDP stations have two options: For no extra fee they can broadcast pledge specials if they delay them until the next pledge drive, months later; or, for a surcharge of 25 percent on the package, they can air pledge specials during the same drive as full-member stations. (Separate story)
Obligations of being a member station
Channels that carry PBS programs—present policy: Member stations air NPS content on their analog channels. Approved change: So that Nielsen will register audience, full-member stations must broadcast common carriage programs on their primary digital channel encoded for Nielsen to identify. Ditto PDP stations and their selection of NPS shows. Duopoly stations may meet the requirement on either of their primary encoded digital channels. Restrictions on PDP stations’ broadcasts apply to multicast channels as well as main channels.
Technical standards—new policy for more complete audience data: PBS adds its first tech standard for member stations: They must encode their primary digital channels so Nielsen can identify their signals for audience measurement. The board may add other tech standards later on.
Certification and policy enforcement: Member stations must certify additional info annually about their operations. The board will adopt a formal process for dealing with policy violations.
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Web page posted April 14, 2009
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