Lawson leaves APTS but not his DTV focus
John Lawson, who led public TV’s defense on Capitol Hill for seven years while promoting its expansion into digital transmission, will leave March 14  to do the same for an evolving commercial network that also has its eye on DTV.
Lawson, president of the Association of Public Television Stations since 2001 and a staffer and then consultant to it for 11 years prior, will leave the advocacy organization to work for Ion Media Networks, he told public TV station reps last week in Washington.
Mark Erstling, APTS c.o.o., will lead the organization until it hires a new president.
Lawson announced his plans Feb. 11 during APTS’ annual Capitol Hill Day confab, when station and lay leaders convened to discuss lobbying strategy before meeting with their representatives in Congress.
As Ion’s first executive v.p. for policy and strategy, he will open a new Washington office for the Florida-based net formerly known as Paxson Communications. He’ll oversee the network’s regulatory and legislative advocacy and assist with content strategy for Ion’s growing efforts in digital TV.
“I have mixed emotions about the move,” Lawson told the Capitol Hill Day crowd. “I’m excited about the opportunity, but I’m deeply committed to public television.”
“I’ve come to learn that not taking risks is the greatest risk,” he said. “You have to be willing to let go of the familiar and think big, so that’s what I’m going to do.”
Cicadas attack regularly
Lawson headed public TV’s lobbying efforts during an era of transformation and upheaval running up to the DTV transition and analog shut-off and through a series of attacks on the system’s federal aid and editorial independence.
Not all of APTS’ plans bore fruit during his tenure. But there were notable policy victories.
Station leaders say Lawson succeeded in casting public TV as a worthy federal investment that could use its DTV capacity to help remedy major problems in areas such as health and education.
“John has taken public television’s prestige within Congress and the federal government to another level,” said Peter Morrill, g.m. for Idaho Public Television. “During some pretty dark times he’s been clearheaded, forthright and he’s gotten the job done.”
Lawson’s group, working with PBS leaders, secured carriage of stations’ digital program streams on cable and DirecTV and secured funds from the Department of Homeland Security for a still-developing plan to use public TV’s satellite system as a conduit for a new digital emergency alert system.
On Lawson’s watch, Congress created two new federal budget lines to help equip stations for DTV—a temporary series of dedicated appropriations to CPB plus assistance to rural stations through the Agriculture Department’s rural utilities service. Through those budget lines, combined with the Commerce Department’s Public Telecommunications Facilities Program, system lobbyists helped raise nearly $550 million since 2001, or just under half of the more than $1.2 billion total stations raised from federal, state and private money to fund the digital TV transition. A portion of those funds went to digital upgrades for radio.
Various requests for Congress to create a pubcasting trust fund seeded by profits from the analog spectrum auction or other sources never caught hold. (A persistent effort led by former PBS President Larry Grossman has morphed into a broad educational science and technology trust-fund concept. It passed in the House earlier this month as part of the College Opportunity and Affordability Act, HR 4137, and awaits action in the Senate.)
Under Lawson, APTS has stressed the importance of “grasstops” advocacy efforts that cultivate strong support for pubcasting among influential community leaders and philanthropists.
But earlier in his tenure, APTS abandoned a proposal to embrace a more direct form of that strategy by creating a political action committee that would use private supporters’ political contributions to get the attention of legislators. The PAC idea crumpled under opposition from the NPR Board and others within and outside the system (Current, Dec. 1, 2003).
Station leaders credited Lawson as an aggressive advocate who was able to envision expanded roles—and new funding opportunities—for public TV in the post-analog future.
“His vision and his entrepreneurial nature led APTS to look for what were really the best opportunities for public broadcasting and how we could parlay that into something that’s clearly of service to the American public,” said John Hesse, president of HoustonPBS and chair of the APTS Board.
Lawson was also an outspoken critic of threats to public TV’s funding and editorial independence from both within and outside the system. He decried CPB Chair Kenneth Tomlinson’s efforts to politically “balance” pubcasting programs in 2005, and APTS helped lead a successful grassroots and on-air campaign to beat back congressional efforts to cut pubcasting funding that same year.
“Attacks on editorial integrity are sort of like cicadas,” Lawson said. “They come out of the ground every few years.”
Lawson announced his plans after a short panel discussion by the heads of pubcasting’s primary national organizations that included him; Patricia Harrison, president of CPB; Paula Kerger, president of PBS; and Ken Stern, NPR c.e.o. The shared stage reflected a harmony at the top that Lawson’s colleagues credit him with promoting.
“It wouldn’t have happened without John,” Stern told Current shortly after Lawson’s announcement. “He’s the dean of that group, he’s been around the longest.” Stern said the top-level cooperation will continue, “but it won’t be the same without him.”
This week the APTS Board will decide how to find a replacement for Lawson, Hesse said. Lawson, who will also advise on the hiring process, says knowledge of pubTV’s ins and outs would be “a major plus” for the next APTS leader. But the most important requisite, he says, is “the Washington skill set.”
Lawson’s own background was in consulting and lobbying when he was hired to head APTS in 2001. He oversaw South Carolina ETV’s communications department in the 1980s and joined APTS as director of national affairs in 1990 before leaving three years later to start Convergence Services, a consulting and lobbying firm focused on the DTV transition and educational technology.
Mobile coalition partner is his new boss
At Ion, Lawson will lobby for the network on regulatory and legislative issues such as carriage for its digital streams on cable and satellite providers, a familiar challenge. In addition to its flagship Ion Television channel — a family service specializing in reruns, formerly known as PAX TV — the network has two digital streams: Ion Life, which focuses on health and lifestyle topics, and Oubo, a multilingual kids service.
The company, part-owned by General Electric’s NBC Universal, has also played a leading role in the Open Mobile Video Coalition, a group of media companies that is trying to establish a technical standard for mobile DTV. APTS is also a member of that group, and Lawson had served on the coalition’s executive committee with coalition president Brandon Burgess, Ion’s c.e.o.
Looking back on his time with APTS, Lawson says he helped to rehabilitate what he says was the system’s shaky reputation on Capitol Hill when he took the job.
“What I’m proudest of is: I think we have been able to reposition public TV as a solution to some of our nation’s most pressing problems.”
Public TV's lobbying unit, the Association of Public Television Stations, said this month it expects to hire a new president by September. APTS President John Lawson left APTS for a job with Ion Networks in March after leading the group for seven years. The Boston-based search firm of Isaacson, Miller, which specializes in filling nonprofit leadership posts, will conduct a nationwide hunt. Jane Gruenebaum, a onetime congressional staffer who was executive director of the League of Women Voters and c.o.o. of the Center for Policy Alternatives, is heading the search, working with Isaacson staffer Gail Gregory.
Web page posted Oct. 16, 2008
Copyright 2008 by Current LLC