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As PBS Pledge Model Falters, What's Next? A "Re-Imagining"...
October 15, 2010  | By Tom Brinkmoeller


By Tom Brinkmoeller

PBS's lead affiliate station in Los Angeles, KCET, is dropping its network membership because of the amount of dues it was being asked to pay. Several public TV stations have decided to furlough employees to prop up weak budgets. One public-TV station in Texas and another in Michigan, each formerly owned by educational institutions, have been jettisoned, reportedly for reasons that include money. For public television near the end of 2010, that's only the top of the problems list...

The Corporation for Public Broadcasting (CPB) is encouraging underfunded stations in neighboring markets to merge as a way to stay alive. A study done recently for CPB reports non-governmental financial support for public television fell by $262 million over recent years, a number estimated to almost double by 2013. PBS wants to begin raising money on the Internet, but some turf-sensitive affiliate stations are fighting the idea, arguing the money they traditionally raise locally will be siphoned away to Washington.

The diagnosis for PBS?

"It's on the critical list, but it will recover," said Steve Behrens, editor of Current, a national newspaper that covers public radio and television. "But will it ever be the same?"


No, it won't, and that isn't all bad, said PBS President and CEO Paula Kerger in a phone interview this week with TV WORTH WATCHING.

She acknowledged the economic issues while pointing out that her network has built new ways to deliver content to its fans, attract new audiences, raise funds and cut costs without necessarily cutting quality.

The PBS Web presence has grown significantly, she pointed out, through its own site and by delivery of programs over third-party sites such as YouTube and Hulu, and apps for smart phones and devices like the iPad.

She mentioned, as other signs of vitality, the network's increased amounts of children's programming, and the use of the Internet as "an incubator" in which new programs can be tested and grown before they join the broadcast schedule.

Kerger also envisions many more sharing partnerships among nonprofit stations, similar to those going on now between public radio and TV news operations, as a way of keeping standards high while spending less.

"I think the story for public broadcasting is one of that, despite that we're working through some hard times, we've been able to break through a good bit," she said.

"I just have this sense that we're sort of re-imagining the medium as we're living it right now."

While it reinvents its methods, PBS still has more than a few fires to fight. The defection of KCET, currently, is the largest blaze, with several analysts wondering if the move will permanently hurt PBS in the nation's second-largest television market and whether the move will motivate other cash-strapped stations to walk away, too.

Kerger said PBS hopes to replace the station's impact by utilizing the three other public TV stations in the Los Angeles area. She wouldn't say whether the replacements now reach as many homes as KCET, but it's her goal to make sure "to get PBS programming to the entire market" by the end of this year.


The furloughing of employees at public stations is a sign of the current economic picture, but she said public stations are faring better than and not doing as many short-term layoffs as many other nonprofits, such as museums. For two years, it has been a major goal of PBS to help stations in jeopardy, many of which have had their state support reduced or eliminated by state governments.

Current's Behrens said some of the ideas being offered by PBS CPB worry local-station administrators and boards of directors. He said they fear mergers would take away local autonomy and identity, and central fundraising would divert their money to a central treasury.

"In general, they're suspicious of Washington."

"What (CPB is) trying to encourage is, where it makes sense, there would be collaboration," Kerger said. By combining some business functions, she said, stations could reduce "back office" expenses "so that more resources may be put on the air." The Internet fundraising she sees being done by PBS would complement what is done locally. Many Web users end up on the PBS site without connecting to the site of the local station. She wants to make sure that visitors to the national site have a way to donate, with the raised money going to the visitor's local station.

She said testing of the central-giving concept would be done soon and the results would be presented to local managers later this year, along with the rationale for merging stations, in hopes of calming their worries and gaining their support.

Though Kerger said "I'm not sure I fully agree with" the study that showed huge reductions in the amount of private money that will be given to public television, "I think it is clear we have to think very carefully about how we bring new funding into public broadcasting."

Corporate support of established PBS series has increased 10 percent this fiscal year over the previous one, she said, and many foundations continue to give support to specific types of programs. Still, individual support remains essential to the future of public broadcasting. In addition to traditional programming, Kerger believes that new ways of reaching the public will maintain public support:

"We have to find new ways to connect with the people who are using our services. That's how we're going to turn this around. There is opportunity, but there is not one silver bullet."




Tausif Khan said:

PBS is a public good. It is a public service and has the critical success only seen on premium cable. There should be more government support to reduce private contribution.

The BBC is a government owned channel and is highly successful commercially and critically. Which should mean great profit (both critical and commercial) for their financiers-the public. The British have BBC programing in other nations- BBC America. Moreover, they partner with PBS to provide much of the scripted programming on PBS. We might look into more government support.

Has PBS looked to instituting a Paypal account?

A thing I found troubling is that I had watched a couple shows on PBS and wanted to purchase some media related to the programs (books on which the televised material was based) and I went to the PBS shop online and did not find the material. I eventually went to Amazon and found the products I wanted. I would find that it would be a good financial opportunity to keep all PBS products on sale all the time at their online store...

I would hope that the public in public broadcasting consists of more than people interested people in bonnets from the 17th-19th centuries. I would like to see more diversity in PBS programming.

NPR noted that having programs targeted towards African-American audiences brought in greater numbers yet did not necessarily lead to sound financial return.

For this reason they canceled News and Notes and justified concentrating on bringing in more attention to their tentpole shows Morning Edition and All Things Considered. This to me is a problematic model because it leaves out so many people within the American public and a secondary reason for a lack of support. Given that most of PBS's scripted programming is dedicated to people in bonnets and classic theater I feel that same criticism can be leveled against PBS.

Comment posted on October 16, 2010 12:54 PM

Simon Bao said:

Tom, one minor point and one major point...

A minor point, it's probably significant that KCET is a public television station, and is ONLY that - KCET's television broadcasting operations are NOT wedded to a public radio station or NPR affiliate. I'm going to guess that makes it relatively simple to drop the PBS and "Public Television" identity and rebrand KCET as a "viewer supported public media service." I don't think that would be as easily accomplished by those PBS affiliates that are wedded to NPR affiliates sharing the same call signs (i.e., WHYY, WQED, KERA, WETA, etc.) How common is it for a PBS affiliate to be wedded to, and share an identity with, an NPR affiliate?

The major point, many of the local PBS affiliates were already in distress before The Great Recession hit. Well-established PBS programs were already being eliminated, the programs that were kept were repeated endlessly, there was an ever worsening reliance on Self-Help & Lifestyle Guru programs (e.g., Dr. Wayne Dyer, Robert Kiyosaki) selling products and remedies to middle-age, middle-class audiences, low cost foolishness like reformatted Lawrence Welk programs, etc. The recession didn't cause the current low state of PBS programming, it's simply accelerated the decline. Endless hours of the same PBS "specials," which are simply pre-recorded fundraising infomercials, repeated throughout the week, every week. If anyone at CPB or PBS has a vision for how public television saves itself, they're keeping it very private.

In any future telephone interviews with Paula Kerger, you might press her to make the case that PBS stations are all about to be dramatically reborn - or admit that what we got is as good as it will ever be. And that taxpayers, foundations and philanthropies, corporations, and viewers should all continue to invest scarce dollars in keeping such an institution alive.

Comment posted on October 18, 2010 1:32 AM

David Brugger said:

Whether PTV stations are distressed or not is not a reason for merger. It just might be too late if a station has waited until a crisis sets in for it to save itself by any means.
Being involved in helping stations (public TV and public radio) to collaborate and maybe merge, I find that it simply makes good community business sense. It helps to save on duplicated expenses and allows more resources to be dedicated to increased or new services that were unaffordable prior to achieving a cooperative relationship.
It is a lesson for all non-profits. They grew exponentially in the 1980s and 90s, as did many institutions and services. Board trustees have a responsibility on behalf of their communities to make sure usable and necessary services in education; quality programming and the arts and sciences are advanced. Stations working together can accomplish that and better use their communities' contributions.

Comment posted on October 18, 2010 5:43 PM

Tom Brinkmoeller said:

The name attached to the above comment seemed familiar, so I did a little Web searching and realized why: Mr. Brugger has an impressive media background that includes membership on the Consumer Advisory Committee of the Federal Communications Commission, past president/CEO and board trustee of the Association of Public Television Stations, and former senior vice president for the Corporation for Public Broadcasting.

I contacted him to see if I could let fans of this site know who some of their fellow readers are. He agreed, adding that a website connected with David Bianculli carries with it a level of legitimacy missing in many web postings.

I sure wish all of us who follow this site could meet in a big room and get a chance to see that David B's credibility and reputation for excellence has attracted a pretty impressive group of good people.

Comment posted on October 21, 2010 7:43 PM

Tom Brinkmoeller said:

A correction:
The following sentence was inaccurate:

"Current's Behrens said some of the ideas being offered by PBS worry local-station administrators and boards of directors."

Mr. Behrens points out he was referring to the Corporation for Public Broadcasting (CPB). and not to PBS in his comments. The author was disoriented by the two "alphabetetic" groups and chose the wrong one. He did so PDQ, after the mistake was brought to his attention, and hopes the FBI, PTA or AFL-CIO isn't called in to further compound his mistake.

Comment posted on October 28, 2010 11:54 AM
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