PBS appoints Kathy Quattrone chief program exec
Originally published in Current, July 8, 1996
By Steve Behrens
After searching the arts and media worlds for an "impresario" to serve as PBS's chief program executive, President Ervin Duggan found her in the 20-year public TV veteran who was already doing much of the job, Kathy Quattrone.
Duggan said in the opening session of the PBS Annual Meeting June 20 that he was appointing "someone fully equal to the job" who had "earned the respect and confidence of the system."
And the crowd agreed. Pubcasters said they were relieved that Duggan put a respected insider in the job.
Quattrone--a former station staffer in Morgantown, W.Va., and Orlando, Fla.--understands programming from the station perspective, and listens to stations' concerns, said Mary Pruess, programmer from WHRO, Norfolk. Colleagues from other stations lauded her friendliness and integrity. Mike Flaster, associate g.m. from KPBS, San Diego, said programmers were glad to have someone in the c.p.e. position whom they can hold accountable for decisions.
The job had been vacant since C.P.E. Jennifer Lawson left 15 months ago. Duggan was stymied in attempts to hire from private industry; he found that media corporation execs expect salaries several times larger than what PBS pay, he said earlier this year.
Quattrone, 45, who has been overseeing PBS programming along with acting C.P.E. Bob Ottenhoff, told Current she had been a candidate for the job from the beginning and was told about her selection a few days before the announcement in San Francisco.
Nature host George Page was quick to crown Quattrone "Czarina II"--a reference to a facetious tag for the job that PBS created in 1989 to consolidate control over millions of station and CPB program dollars. The title "czarina" overstated the autonomy and cash given to Lawson, the first c.p.e., however; her power was constricted on every side.
With the appointment of Lawson's successor, there are Quattrones in charge of programming at two competing networks. Her husband Mike, a former programmer at Philadelphia's WHYY, moved to the Washington area for their marriage several years ago and is senior v.p. for primetime programming at the Discovery Channel in Bethesda, Md.
"We enjoy each other so much that we tend not to be competitive between us," she said. "It's fairly easy to enjoy each others' personal successes. Beyond that, we have a cardinal rule that we never discuss business. We are often literally looking at the same projects."
She came to PBS in 1987 when her name was Kathy Channell, and was promoted from associate director of program business affairs, director of schedule management, and v.p. of programming. In March, PBS upped her to senior v.p.
Quattrone earned her bachelor's degree and taught secondary school (1973-76) in Fairmont, W.Va., and received a master's in journalism at West Virginia University in Morgantown, where she got her first public TV job in 1976: production assistant at WNPB. She rose to assignment editor, producer/reporter, adult learning supervisor and director of programming and production, and then moved to Orlando, Fla, where she was WMFE's program director in 1984-87.
Surprise and amaze 'em
The new c.p.e. promptly announced a restructuring of her staff, effective July 1, into three units:
John Wilson will head both his scheduling staff and the program-selection and editorial staff, formerly managed by Quattrone. Donald Thoms will oversee program management--bringing along all of the "deliverables," including packaging of programs, flagging of programs for station execs, handling ancillary products, and serving as liaison with PBS Online and other departments; Pat Hunter will supervise the administration of the National Program Service, including budget, contracts, finances, and teleconferences for stations.
"This is a great moment in time," Quattrone said in an interview. Having come through the funding debate with a "reaffirmation" from the public, "it's up to us in the industry to use this moment in time for building public television."
"I want people to say, 'I can't believe what I saw on public television last night'."
Some time from now, when researchers ask viewers what PBS does for them, Quattrone wants the viewers to report that it surprises and amazes them.
That's one of PBS's objectives in a 14-page programming plan issued in response to a request from the National Program Policy Committee (Current, June 16).
PBS will also begin mining its past seasons more intensively, according to the new programming plan. This will be the first assignment for Ron Hull, the former CPB Television Program Fund director, who is on loan from Nebraska ETV. Hull will search past seasons for successful programs to repeat in primetime, to offer in syndication or to distribute on cassette or other media, Quattrone said.
Quattrone aims to set aside part of PBS's programming budget this year for R&D grants to producers. An R&D grant to WNET for a rethinking of the Travels series "paid off splendidly," she said, with a forthcoming, as-yet-unnamed series of vacation larks hosted by popular NBC weatherman Al Roker.
How much PBS can spend this year on R&D, and on other program projects, won't be known until it makes budget decisions on series--green lights normally given in May. Though PBS has informed producers that "there aren't any surprises" about renewals, final figures are held up while PBS negotiates a production contract with major producing stations, Quattrone said.
With a heavy load of continuing series already commanding blocks of primetime, Quattrone is more interested in backing specials and limited series than new perennials. This is the way to maintain the variety that viewers regard as a strength, she said.
Quattrone announced that WNET's celebrity-hosted nature show, In the Wild will be the third project backed from her biggest pot of new production money--the $15 million pledged by the Reader's Digest Association. The aid to In the Wild will cover some of the development work already done, as well as added promotion. Several other projects are under discussion for RDA funding, she said.
Byron Knight, a prominent Wisconsin PTV programmer on leave at PBS, will focus on the Reader's Digest Association alliance. Knight, whose state network coordinates the Wisconsin Collaborative Project involving producers at many stations, "has a lot of ideas for better use of system resources," Quattrone said. "While we need strong [outside] partners, we have a lot of strength and talent in the system we need to be tapping into."
Quattrone wants to encourage producers working in public TV's solid genres to make their programs all the more powerful by breaking new ground in production techniques. David Grubin's October American Experience bio of Teddy Roosevelt, for instance, uses evocative video and sound supporting scenes of TR's childhood, for which no photos or films were available.
And Lennart Nilsson's November Nova special Odyssey of Life takes its anatomical probe "to a whole new technological level" beyond his classic "Miracle of Life," Quattrone said.
Innovation remains a priority for PBS, though the edgier programs sometimes slip by without enough promotion, she said. The fall preview reel represents just a fraction of programs.
Those previews prompted one of the few direct criticisms of PBS during open sessions of the smoothly stage-managed annual meeting. David Othmer, station manager at Philadelphia's WHYY-TV, stood up in the vast Hilton ballroom to say that the fall preview looked "brilliant but not innovative."
Othmer said he had realized that he shouldn't expect "cutting edge" programs from PBS. He likened the network to the "anchor" department stores in a mall: "You don't go to Sears for body piercing." He suggested the stations create a national "guts fund" to pay for nervy, unsafe, innovative programs.
Duggan defended the PBS schedule, citing Frontline profiles of Newt Gingrich and Rupert Murdoch that seemed nervy under this year's political circumstances, as well as such P.O.V. programs as "Leona's Sister Gerry," a powerful tale about abortion.
Beth Harrington, an independent producer from Boston, volunteered that a "guts fund" for public TV already exists: the Independent Television Service (ITVS).
PBS states its goals
Shortly before Quattrone's appointment, PBS laid out its objectives in a new programming plan, distributed at the conference.
Pubcasters will have chances to discuss the plan in PBS's monthly satellite videoconferences as well as at the combined Fall Planning Meeting/PBS Development Conference in September and the Public Television Programmers Association meeting in November, Quattrone said.
In guiding the schedule, Quattrone said, PBS will try to give PBS five qualities that future viewers will appreciate. One is that the programs "surprise and amaze," as mentioned earlier. Others are that its programming embodies the nation's diversity, struggles and triumphs; that it extends into video, online and other product lines; that the stations are "recognized for having local communities in mind," and that the programs are of lasting value.
These characteristics would join seven others that already differentiate PBS in viewers' eyes: its variety, its free-to-everyone price, its lack of interrupting commercials, its depth and comprehensiveness, its programs for kids, and its lack of violence.
The plan also lays out nine goals for this year:
1. "We will increase the National Program Service budget by 50 percent, to $165 million, by FY 2000." The only new programming money this year is the first $15-million annual commitment from Reader's Digest.
2. "We will maintain station membership support for the NPS at the proposed level for FY 1997 ($88.4 million) and ensure station support for a 2.5 percent increase in FY 1998 ($90.6 million) by continuing to provide a high-quality, variety program service that lives up to the mission, depth, reach and distinction that traditionally have been the hallmark of the NPS." According to the plan, PBS will seek funding for repeat airings of successful recent series and specials, secure rights to some classic programs, develop new local/national programming partnerships like the Wisconsin Collaborative Project and WQED's "An Ice Cream Show," boost R&D spending, and review the diversity of planned programs and commission new projects with diverse topics and viewpoints.
3. "By the end of FY 1997, we will increase our funding investments (in comparison with prior years' commitments) for key programming genres that have set the standard for quality television." The four "equally important" mega-genres, Quattrone told Current are history/nature/science/travel, drama/performance/arts, news/public affairs and children's programs. But it is the drama/performance/arts category that attracts limited audiences and needs the biggest publicity effort, she said. PBS will extend the Democracy Project beyond the election year as a "sub-brand" for news and information programming, according to the plan.
4. "We will make every effort to help our member stations meet the 90 percent common carriage and coverage targets for carriage designations by the end of FY 1997." Common carriage "is a powerful resource for our future growth," increasing the impact of programs and leveraging outside funds. Four series in 1996-97 will be designated as "pop-outs" for additional promotion effort in connection with common carriage.
5. "We will endeavor to increase system participation in PTV: The Ready to Learn Service on PBS, to 100 percent national coverage by fall 1997 (current coverage is 63 percent)." PBS will revise its outreach requirements for RTL stations to bring in more stations. The network will use its May 1996 curriculum guidelines to build its kidvid schedule and look for additional series like Adventures from the Book of Virtues for family viewing. Development of programs for preschoolers will continue to get top priority.
6. "We will provide momentum for the Station Equity Model by fully expending the annual Reader's Digest commitment ($15 million) in FY 1997 for high-profile, quality programs for the NPS; securing more comprehensive rights to programs that meet strategic revenue objectives; and seeking additional partnerships in program development and distribution." PBS will develop long-range plans for joint projects with Reader's Digest, seek producer proposals for them, and develop new alliances with other domestic and foreign partners.
7. "By the end of FY 1997, we will establish a more comprehensive means of quantifying the use of public television programming beyond Nielsen audience data (e.g., educational use, online activity, video sales) and incorporate this information into regular communications with member stations and the public." Though public TV's monthly cume reached a new high last October, PBS is "selling ourselves very short" by measuring audiences only with broadcast ratings.
8. "We will provide to our member stations a return on investment that yields better than $7 for every $1 of member station investment in the SIP [Station Independence Program] program portfolio." PBS is seeking an 8 percent increase in the fees that stations pay for fundraising specials to give it a pool for investment in more blockbuster programs and in experiments with new program strands. Programs from signature series will continue to be used for occasional pledging, as in the case of "Odyssey of Life" from Nova.
9. "We will continue to build PBS Plus and PBS Select as new programming services of value to member stations. We will maintain these complementary program services during FY 1997 at a minimum of $1 million each, and develop plans for future growth in FY 1998-2000 to ensure maximum system participation and the lowest possible user costs." PBS Plus programs are fully underwritten and distributed to stations in "soft feeds" outside the usual broadcast schedule. Fees for the Plus service will be set at the lowest practical level, according to the plan. The Syndication Services arm is also expected to bring occasional programs to the NPS instead of syndication, when appropriate. PBS aims to build the quantity of programming offered through PBS Select, its a la carte syndication service. It will negotiate for rights to past series and offer them through PBS Select, and may commission new productions or co-productions with broad appeal. Now expected to cover its own costs, PBS Select will move toward generating profits by investment in program rights under the Station Equity Model.
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