Overlap stations envision a second PBS channel for the baby boomers
Program control remains sticking point for proposal
Originally published in Current, April 6, 1998
By Steve Behrens
Multi-station cities (examples) Market Largest station Others New York WNET WLIW, New Jersey Network,
Connecticut PTV, WNYE
Chicago WTTW WYCC, small Indiana stations Los Angeles KCET KOCE, KLCS Philadelphia WHYY WYBE Washington WETA WHUT, Maryland PTV, small Virginia stations Denver KRMA KBDI San Francisco KQED KTEH, KCSM, KRCB, KMTP Atlanta Georgia PTV WPBA
Will a strengthened program service for public TV's second-stations-in-
a-market possibly aimed at the Baby Boom audience develop within PBS, or outside, or not at all?
A CPB-backed study by PBS and the "overlap" stations' Program Resources Group (PRG) may reach its moment of truth late this month when the partners confront touchy disagreements over control.
The concept also faces opposition from outside. Though the project has released only a glimpse at its preliminary results, and PBS has made no commitment, major stations are already questioning the idea of bolstering the smaller stations that they regard as competitors.
"The approach to me is strengthen what we have, not strengthen the secondary stations that may be detracting," said Sharon Rockefeller, president of Washington's WETA, at a PBS Board meeting
"That can only be described as 'old think,'" replied Mel Rogers in an interview. "It's based on a paradigm for broadcasting that isn't going to exist in the future." Rogers, who is co-directing the study for PRG, is president of KOCE, Huntington Beach, an overlap station that shares the Los Angeles market with the larger KCET.
Rogers said that the second service would complement and not detract from today's PBS service by aiming at a distinctly different and younger target audience.
KOCE and other overlap stations see themselves as an asset for public TV that reaches 54 percent of households, and not a political and economic liability, as they are regarded by some critics of "wasteful duplication."
"In the 500-channel world of the future, public television cannot exist as one little blip," said Rogers. "It needs to exist as a number of blips, and they all need to be different from one another and coordinated with one another."
Rogers has seen complementary services thrive in Salt Lake City, where he formerly managed a family-oriented overlap station, KBYU, that deliberately differentiated its schedule in close cooperation with KUED, the mainstream PBS outlet.
"Everyone knows that if you sell both Coke and Diet Coke, in the long run you are going to sell more," Rogers said.
Tentative target: boomers
Research by David LeRoy of TRAC Media Services suggests that the second PBS network could be designed for the boomer generation in its 40s, according to Rogers. Commercial TV aims younger and PBS skews older, leaving an underserved niche. LeRoy and PBS project co-director Alan Foster were not available for comment.
Connie Rannels, who monitors the study as director of CPB's Television Future Fund, said the target audience is defined more by boomer outlook than by age, excluding some fortysomethings while including some older and younger viewers.
Still, public TV has little experience making programs and having pledge successes with boomers, she acknowledges.
Public radio, however, has a median listener age in the low 40s and has success with boomer donors. Giving isn't tied to age; it's tied to the importance of the programming to the audience, said John Sutton, a public radio pledge consultant and former NPR research director.
"The question is, can you cut through all the media choices they have?" including videocassettes and the Internet. But Sutton is intrigued by the idea of a boomer PBS. "A Baby Boom-targeted PBS service will be a newer medium than the Internet," he said.
Even if the project finds programming and financial viability to serve the chosen target audience, it will face review by policymakers who influence funding. After Rannels and Doug Weiss, CPB's director of TV operations, briefed the CPB Board on March 16, board members expressed dismay at illustrative program ideas they had heard.
After Weiss said the new network might carry programs on "relationships, lifestyles and coupling," Chairman Diane Blair dismissed it as "touchy-feely stuff." Blair, a political scientist, said she'd been excited at the thought that the new network would do what public TV was supposed to do serve the underserved including minorities, and carry public affairs programs.
Weiss said the network would feature diverse cultures, but board member Heidi Schulman, a journalist, was skeptical. "I don't see that," she said. "I see the kinds of programs that are traditionally found on PBS."
Who does programmer report to?
No decisions have been made on the proposed second network so far, said Rogers, though some research results are in from LeRoy and Andersen Consulting. "We are just confused on a higher level ... than we were before," he said.
At the PBS Board meeting, President Ervin Duggan assured Rockefeller that there would be time to discuss the project before any decisions were made.
Within the PRG-PBS project, all parties agree that an executive director would make program decisions for the new service, according to Rannels. The question now is whether that executive will report to a PBS official or to a separate board.
PRG and PBS leaders will discuss this and other governance issues at the project's next meeting on April 27, she said.
Outside the project, some major stations want to maintain separation between the second network and PBS's main programmers. So do some overlap station leaders in the project.
"It's kind of a sticking point," said Terrell Cass, president of Long Island's WLIW, the largest overlap station and parent of PRG. "PBS, I think, wants programming control in their programming department in Alexandria, and we would like to have it separate."
But Cass wants close cooperation in program buying, on-air promotion and other PBS functions, as well as use of the PBS name, which is judged essential to sell underwriting.
If both stations were assured that their programs weren't competing for the same viewers, they could comfortably cross-promote each other as the Discovery Channel does with its sister channel, Animal Planet, Cass said.
In Los Angeles, Rogers' station, KOCE, makes a gesture toward that by running a weeknightly tune-in promo for KCET's schedule along with its own.
Overlap leaders don't expect PBS to put up any money for the project. Funding would come from underwriting and production partnerships instead. LeRoy and others have talked with Canadian companies about sharing programs, for instance.
The new network has a far greater potential reach than new cable networks, said Rogers. If it included second stations that are owned by primary stations, and local cable channels run by public TV, as well as overlaps, it would reach two-thirds of TV households, he said.
Cass estimates that the annual program budget would grow from PRG's $2 million to $15 million or $20 million. To start, the costs would be considerably lower, if the network begins feeding just three nights a week Thursday, Friday and Saturday.
To Current's home page
Earlier analysis: Though it has second stations in many cities, public TV invests little in them; major stations regard them as a nuisance.
Earlier news: With its research funds, CPB plays matchmaker between the overlap stations and PBS.
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