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"So now I'm taking orders from an aardvark," jokes Ottenhoff, kicking off his digital overview with a digital talking Arthur doll.

Rumors rampant as Ottenhoff steps down

Originally published in Current, June 21, 1999

By Steve Behrens and Karen Everhart Bedford

Chief Operating Officer Bob Ottenhoff is leaving the No. 2 position at PBS after eight years working for Ervin Duggan and the previous president, Bruce Christensen.

News of the change, already circulating in heavy rotation at the PBS Annual Meeting when Duggan announced it during the June 6 opening session, mystified station executives and even some PBS Board members.

It added a new story element to what one former board member called "a range of colossally uninformed mispeculation" that Duggan was either (a) confidently moving ahead, (b) soon to lose his own job, or (c) both. High-ranking board members said nothing.

Beth Wolfe, PBS's chief financial officer since 1988, will take oversight of Ottenhoff's departments, with the new title of chief administrative officer. She'll oversee business affairs, engineering, communications and brand management, development, finance and human resources. Wolfe joined PBS 14 years ago as its controller; she previously worked as a senior auditor at its audit firm, KPMG Peat Marwick.

Conference-goers talked about whether Ottenhoff was departing by his own choice. He and a PBS press release agreed that he's "relinquishing" the c.o.o. position, but he declined to get specific. Ottenhoff will continue to serve as "senior counselor," Duggan said.

"I felt after eight years, it was about enough," Ottenhoff told Current. "I'll probably stick around for a little while. PBS would like me to continue to do things on DBS, digital television and odds and ends. What I would like to do is try some new things." He called the job "a pressure cooker."

Duggan also announced that John Wilson was promoted to senior v.p., programming, while continuing as acting chief program executive. Wilson, who had been v.p. of editorial management and program scheduling, joined PBS in 1994 from KAET in Phoenix, where he was program director.

In the meantime, PBS will conduct a national search to fill the chief program executive position, said spokesman Tom Epstein.

And Duggan said he was promoting Cindy Johanson from v.p., PBS Online, to senior v.p., Internet and broadband services. Johanson, who developed public TV's early online services for teachers at WNET and then managed PBS Online since its 1995 launch, is adding "enhanced" DTV to her responsibilities.

The week after the meeting, PBS filled one of its other vacancies, appointing Robert C. Altman as senior v.p. and corporate relations, succeeding Jon Abbott, who is now overseeing WGBH's television stations. Altman, who starts at PBS Aug. 2 has worked since 1982 at WHYY, Philadelphia, where he is now senior v.p. for development and marketing.

Who's the station guy?

Duggan continues to fight some pubcasters' resentful perception that he overlooks station achievements in his tight focus on the PBS organization in Alexandria, Va.

In his remarks at the annual meeting in San Francisco, he emphasized that public TV is "not something we create at Braddock Place." His programmers launched new initiatives to assist local production. And PBS Online announced extensive new assistance to stations' web sites (story, page 11).

Yet, five-and-a-half years after Duggan came to PBS from the FCC, some of his own board members, speaking on condition of anonymity, contrasted him with Ottenhoff, once the head of the New Jersey Network, who they said was more sensitive to station needs and views.

"There is such an obvious gap that a station person is not visible at the top," said the head of a major station.

Ottenhoff grew tired of presenting a "station point of view" in PBS management meetings, reported another board member who said he had spoken with him.

Duggan has often commented that Ottenhoff was the "man who talks me out of the trees when I get upset," said Beth Courtney, a former PBS vice chairman and head of Louisiana Public Broadcasting. She speculated that Duggan got tired of Ottenhoff doing that, and that Ottenhoff got tired as well.

Rob Gardiner, a PBS Board member who tops Maine Public Broadcasting, said he sensed "the time for a change had been developing" between Duggan and Ottenhoff.

"What is important is what comes out of this," Gardiner added. "The board is enthusiastic about Beth [Wolfe] taking over. The c.p.e. search will go on. These are not unusual changes. There's been a long period of stability."

Rumors that the president of PBS would soon leave--which were rife in San Francisco--are "normal" for PBS, said Gardiner.

Still, those notions remained in circulation. The PBS Board's "wall of silence" over Duggan's future indicates that it has made a major decision about him, a production executive predicted. Board members are keeping quiet about the decision "to protect him and the serenity of the annual meeting."

Duggan has "an appalling job" to do

If Duggan was in trouble with his bosses on the board, he didn't let it show. He presided in San Francisco with his usual confidence and even got up and danced with Karen Wilson of An American Love Story when her husband, Bill Sims, cranked up his blues band.

The president proudly announced that the PBS Sponsorship Group has brought in nearly $40 million from national underwriters during the first three quarters of this fiscal year and recently snagged LookSmart, an Internet search directory firm, which is putting up an amount in "eight figures" to underwrite Sesame Street, Mystery! and three cooking shows. Chicago's WTTW and Maryland PTV will join the Sponsorship Group next month, he said.

But by all reports Duggan continued to feel the tensions that are built into his PBS job.

"It's frustrating for Ervin," Courtney said. "The problem is that when he was hired, he was asked to do some things that he has accomplished. He wonders, 'why are you all so unhappy with me?' In accomplishing some of those things, he's made people unhappy."

For instance, the system wanted Duggan to seek equity and revenues from programs distributed by PBS, but that caused him to clash with producing stations, Courtney said. Duggan made a point of announcing a multiyear production deal with WGBH at the San Francisco meeting (story, page 12). Duggan has done a good job, Courtney believes, but by doing so has offended the heads of some member stations.

The PBS presidency is "an appalling job," another former board member commented. "Ervin has a conflicting assignment. He has to lead PBS forward and yet he has to take care of the stations."

Criticisms of PBS and dire predictions naturally follow nearly every contested decision, and add to the fears of the huge uncertainties the field faces.

In San Francisco, Duggan spoke up for optimism and urged his constituents to break out of their "culture of complaint."

"Too often, when we should be ringing the bells of celebration for our real progress and our genuine achievements," he said, "we seem to wring our hands instead."

"I disagreed, in the '80s, with many of President Reagan's ideas. But I admired one idea that he seemed to embody: he seemed to know that optimism is not simply a temperamental trait, but a necessary tool of achievement: the essential armament of victory; the indipensable fuel that makes forward motion possible."

 


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To Current's home page

Current Briefing on divisive issues within public TV that pit PBS against some stations.

Later story: The rumors prove accurate: Duggan resigns three months later.

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