Splintered public TV is 'not an institution'
Pubcasters agree to disagree, but don't face the consequences

Originally published in Current, Nov. 11, 1996

Eric DouglasConsultants to America's Public Television Stations sketch public TV as a "pluralistic society" that is unable to respond collectively to challenges. Rather than uniting behind a common sense of purpose, public TV leaders are united largely by their support for "localism"--the right to continue disagreeing.

The field's professionals "rarely sit down and face together the consequences of their views--or the consequences of their inability to agree," says the first report from BMR Associates, a firm hired by APTS to help improve public TV's decision-making processes.

APTS sent copies of a six-page overview of the findings to stations early this month [overview text on project's web site]. It presented a preview at the SECA Conference in Tampa Oct. 30, and plans to feed a videotape of the session to stations by satellite. BMR also aims to create a discussion area on the PBS Express computer bulletin board.

A group of 11 station executives begin formal discussions Nov. 22-25 [1996] in Cincinnati.

In Tampa, the diagnosis sounded like "a reasonably dysfunctional family," said Mac Wall, associate executive director of Oklahoma ETV. The description was recognizable to Joanne Winik, president of KLRN in San Antonio, but that didn't make it easy for her to hear.

The presentation left some people wondering whether BMR had analyzed public TV's strengths. Eric Douglas, a senior associate with the firm, assured them he had found some.

"Everybody I've talked to has seen themselves in the mirror," said Douglas after the presentation.

On a timetable that will run through next fall, BMR aims to "kick-start" a process of change, Douglas told Current. After three months of extensive interviews in the field, the San Francisco-area firm is now looking for analogies in industries outside of pubcasting.

Later this month, APTS will convene the first of some number of discussion groups to "stew" over the issues, as Douglas says. BMR tried to make the first selection representative; 10 of the 11 members are: Rick Breitenfeld, WHYY, Philadelphia; Virginia Fox, Kentucky ETV; Mike Hardgrove, KETC, St. Louis; John Hesse, WLJT, Martin, Tenn.; Bill Reed, KCPT, Kansas City; Rob Gardiner, Maine Public Broadcasting; Burnie Clark, KCTS, Seattle; Dennis Haarsager, KWSU, Pullman, Wash.; George Miles, WQED, Pittsburgh; and Beth Courtney, Louisiana ETV.

That group and others that grow out of it will determine what happens next, including how to ensure representativeness, Douglas told Current. "It's their process," he says, "not our process." The discusssion groups will constitute a core working group by springtime, which will start making recommendations by summer. Surveys and "town meetings" will follow, leading to a "binding vote" in fall 1997.

No need for chains and ropes

If the diverse parts of public TV agree that they have a mutual problem, and confront it together, the theory goes, they're more likely to work together to resolve it.

They're not doing it now, according to BMR. Pubcasting executives reserve their candor for private talks in the corridors rather than speaking their minds openly. They demonize people who disagree with them. Station managers who disagree with the majority become frustrated, drop out of national discussions and "go it alone," Douglas said.

Stations distrust their national organizations, which earn distrust by fighting among themselves and operating with "unclear mandates and fuzzy lines of authority," the study says.

As a result, public TV is neither a single institution nor a community, but a "pluralistic society" whose members have different and often conflicting goals.

BMR's plan is to "begin creating conditions for ongoing dialogue," Douglas told the Tampa session, by creating a neutral forum where all parties follow "the rules of productive conversation."

The field has to acknowledge and explicitly define the interest groups that divide it, and make sure they are represented, he said. After the discussion groups and the core working group do their things, APTS expects public TV to be ready for a "binding vote."

But the field is "not accustomed to a binding vote," observed James Morgese, president of KRMA in Denver.

Douglas replied that, in BMR's experience, other organizations have been able to reach the point of taking a binding vote "without having to resort to chains and ropes."

"It can in the end be seen as a endorsement of things people have already agreed to."

In other words, the consensus can be reached gradually, without abrupt leaps to solutions that many would resist.

BMR isn't recommending creation of a new organization, he said, but public TV might choose to make a permanent fixture of the neutral forum created in the process.

The consultants originally set out to bring public radio into the big picture, but after two focus groups with radio leaders decided to focus first on public TV, because "radio did not exhibit the same level of need for changes in governance and organization." Radio executives--who, in many cases also operate public TV stations--were interested in the talks, BMR noted. The study will begin to deal with public radio when appropriate, Douglas said.

Douglas saw no conflict with the changes that the PBS Board is now considering in its decision-making structure.

A system atomized

How did pubcasting grow apart? In BMR's analysis, the field grew out of separate local stations but began to feel "a sense of national vision, mission and purpose" as it developed national organizations and was recognized in the first Carnegie Commission report.

"Our present hypothesis is that, as time has passed, this sense of national mission and purpose has slowly eroded and local licensees have tended to revert to the time when they felt less allegiance to the national 'institution,' " the BMR paper says. "As a result, local licensees today feel less responsibility for the welfare of the national phenomenon we know as public television."

"In the past," the paper says later, "certain external forces--most notably, the almost universal need for federal support--exerted a steadying and unifying force. The threatened absence of federal funding as a unifying issue exposes PTV's underlying instability."



To Current's home page

Current Briefing on decision-making for the public TV system.

Text of the BMR Associates report on the Countdown '97 web site.



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