PTPA project evaluates its first four series: public TV's public affairs staples
Originally published in Current, June 2, 1997
Television viewing is naturally a subjective experience. Each viewer has likes and dislikes, and each station programmer has to accomodate a different mix of missions and audiences. Even those who admire the same program often disagree about why. So, how do TV professionals ever have a constructive conversation about program standards and content?
Last year, the Public Television Programmers Association took a shot at addressing this dilemma--by designing a systematic method to evaluate programs and get a dialogue going with producers about the real business of public broadcasting--programming.
The concept was modelled on the Public Radio Program Directors Association's "program user groups," which have critiqued public radio programs and published the results since the late 1980s. Mike Flaster, a PRPD founder who helped establish the user groups before adding TV responsibilities to his job at KPBS-FM/TV in San Diego, proposed that the newer TV programmers' group develop a similar methodology.
"There were a lot of different ways that programs were evaluated, but the people who were most capable of doing these evaluations needed their own instrument and agenda and criteria," said Flaster in an interview last year. "We wanted to be the advocate for the audience, which is the job of programmers." He suggested a process like the one used by PRPD.
Founded as a professional association for programmers to share knowledge, PTPA had never "used that expertise to help producers and help the programs that we air every day," said Judith LeRoy, codirector of TRAC Media Services, which administers PTPA. "We're keeping the posture of being helpful to producers."
At the start of the process, a cross-section of PTPA members receives a lengthy questionnaire with which they evaluate one or more specific telecasts of a chosen program. After the results are collated, PTPA shares them with the show's producers, who respond to the evaluations during PTPA meetings.
Until recently, PTPA didn't release or publish the critique summaries, as its radio counterparts do. Earlier this year, Current asked PTPA's executive officers to open up discussion of evaluated programs. PTPA released summaries of the news and public affairs programs it had critiqued so far: Frontline, The NewsHour with Jim Lehrer, Wall Street Week, and Washington Week in Review.
In each PTPA critique, programmers assessed several aspects of program quality: content, program purpose, personalities/talent/guests, technical quality, and consistency, among them. "Effectiveness" rates how well shows perform for stations in generating audiences, pledge dollars, or goodwill from their communities. The summaries also included selected remarks by unnamed individual programmers.
The most consistent theme in the critiques, by far, was the programs' limited "engagingness," (story, page 1), but there were many pointed and often contradictory remarks by individual programmers about other matters, such as the skills of hosts and correspondents. Programmers also revealed concerns about viewing levels and demographics.
"No one under 40 would ever watch (that's not necessarily bad for the program, but it is bad for the system)," wrote one reviewer of Washington Week. "This older audience is marginally beneficial to our station--they watch a lot of public TV already."
Related story: PTPA finds regular PBS
public affairs series low on "engagingness."
Web page created July 21, 1997
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