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Is There a Lifeboat Drill in PBS's Near Future?
July 14, 2011  | By Tom Brinkmoeller

It hasn't been a year to brag about for the Public Broadcasting Service. Four television stations so far this year have dropped their PBS memberships, three at the start of this month...

(Prefatory note: I had hoped this would be a news story about what looks a little like the start of a meltdown, with comments and perspective from the epicenter agency, PBS. But after weeks of requesting an interview on the subject, and no luck, I must ask readers to form opinions without comments from the key player.)

All four of the stations that have bolted of late have claimed high membership costs as the reason for leaving.

KCET, Los Angeles, started the year by dropping out.

On July 1, WMFE in Orlando, WDSC in Daytona Beach and WIPR in Puerto Rico jumped the ship.

KCET reportedly is filling its schedule with shows it produces and non-commercial programming picked up from non-PBS suppliers.

The Puerto Rico station, according to news reports, has been producing a lot of its own programming and will do even more now.

The lame-duck Orlando station sold its TV-broadcast rights to a religious broadcaster, and hoped to pass off the controls on July 1, but has been filling its air with everything but home movies while waiting for the Federal Communications Commission give final approval to the sale.

A partnership of the stations at nearby University of Central Florida and Brevard Community College -- put together in just weeks after WMFE's surprise announcement -- has managed to keep PBS programs on the air in Central Florida.

But it's the Daytona Beach station's strategy that really should worry PBS most.

It is part of a regional college, Daytona State College, trying to cope with the economy. Rather than sell, close or join forces with the Orlando and Brevard stations, it now only uses programs from other suppliers at a much smaller cost.

The decision cut somewhere between $185,000 and $200,00 from the school's costs, outgoing General Manager Bruce Dunn said Wednesday -- a savings that was nullified when Florida's governor made a sizable cut in state funding to the state's public radio and television stations.

WDSC's programs now come from American Public Television, Executive Program Services, National Educational Telecommunications Association and others, which collectively supply an abundance of public-television programing at a much smaller cost than PBS.


Some of the shows are as established and as well-known as anything PBS offers -- including cooking shows from Lidia Bastianich and Cooks Ilustrated's Christopher Kimball, travel shows hosted by Rick Steves (right) and Rudy Maxa, other long-running series and one-time specials that appeal to public TV's selective audiences. All are noncommercial and many are extraordinary independent productions.

Dunn, who was the WDSC general manager for six years, said the surprise nature of WMFE's announcement to sell left his school with little time to help devise a rescue. The Orlando-area market's three public stations previously had worked under a sort of gentlemen's agreement to complement each other, rather than compete for supporters, he said.

WMFE's decision to not clue in the others, he said, left "Daytona State College (where) it just wasn't in the picture to spend more money. Quite frankly, when that happened, it became a domino effect."

Reduced funding for public broadcasting, combined with the threats of conservative lawmakers to cut even more, has the potential to make such polite agreements more difficult to maintain. Dunn said there are 17 similar "overlap" communities in the country that could experience the same sort of financial crisis.

It would have been helpful to know what PBS is doing to keep and support its member stations, in light of the four recent defections. Especially threatening to PBS, it would seem, would be for more stations to stay alive by dropping PBS membership, but keeping access to a wealth of public-TV programming, as WDSC did -- at an appreciably smaller cost.


The Corporation for Public Broadcasting, which disburses the money Congress votes to fund a portion of the cost of public radio and television, is said to be working to keep stability in the public television universe by encouraging partnerships such as the one that emerged in the Orlando area. Several requests for information about this from CPB had not been answered, however, by the time this story was written.

Perhaps, someday, Frontline or PBS Newshour will do a story on this threat to the best television America offers.

If it does, the opening question could be: How many stations will be left to carry the report?




Davey said:

I love a lot of what PBS does, Frontline, Masterpiece, POV, Nova and Nature in particular. But things have definitely declined from earlier years in terms of quality and diversity.

Public TV has fallen for behind in innovation, catering more to older viewers than smart people of all ages. Where I live, at least, the frequent and endless "pledge drives" reflect managements thorough lack of imagination. The "special programming" consists of thinly disguised infomercials for rather tawdry hawkers of books, courses, and multimedia products for get-rich schemes, dubious motivational claptrap, and repetitious medical advice of varying credibility. The rest of the time is spent with dull-as-dirt panders to old-person nostalgia and every ethnic group the producers can find.

Seems to me the outfit is in desperate need of brand-new management that understands what century it is while at the same time avoiding the shallow commercialism that makes the rest of the networks such pathetic junk. It's a sad reflection on the US that we can't do much better than this.

Comment posted on July 14, 2011 7:28 PM

Simon Bao said:

Tom, I'd encourage you to rethink some of your assumptions about the value of public television in the 21st century.

Apart from the programming collectively known as PBS Kids, is there anything about PBS in 2011 that really warrants the truly vast outlays of federal dollars, corporate dollars, charitable and philanthropic dollars, and member dollars?

If you were designing a public television service right now, in 2011, would you put together 350+ local **broadcasting** affiliates? Each one of which requires a ton of capital, and a very substantial budget of tax dollars, donated dollars, member dollars? No one would do that -- so it's worth asking why we are so desperate to preserve such a system.

Given the duplication of programming across all PBS affiliates, and how **little** quality programming is produced for local broadcast, why not consolidate the entire enterprise into a single cable channel? The savings would be enormous. That programming could continue to be broadcast locally, and continue to serve folks who don't have cable.

I also have to ask if you have monitored the decline in the quality of PBS programming, the loss of original programming, the reliance on endless repetition, the scandalous reliance on faux-fundraisers that are long-form infomercials for lifestyle gurus, etc.

Sadly, the folks best qualified to cover the current state of PBS aren't on PBS. They're on NPR, over at On The Media.

Comment posted on July 15, 2011 1:07 PM

Tom Brinkmoeller said:

When people complain about the alleged diminishing quality of PBS programming, they should remember that the network buys programs the same way we do our shopping: Getting what it can afford in today's distressed economy. It can't afford expensive productions these days in the same way most of us can't afford to buy the same kind of foods, clothes, appliances and other items the way we did before the recession's thud. Underwriting is harder to find, private donations have diminished by necessity, organizations go after grants the way shoppers hit the doors at Target on Thanksgiving morning. Many elected officials would cut off any government funding.
I honestly think PBS is putting out some great shows on a smaller budget.
I do agree that the fundraising pledge drives have been a disastrous mistake and the sooner that template is broken the better.

Comment posted on July 16, 2011 9:13 AM

Davey said:

Simon, last night PBS showed a terrific version of Verdi's Rigoletto. Masterpiece mixes middlebrow Agatha Christie stuff with quality drama you won't find anywhere else outside premium cable (rarely) and some things on AMC. Frontline and POV offer reporting found nowhere else on tv. For all its many failings, public tv is one of the last remaining obstacles to American television's slide into absolute pure garbage.

I don't see how starving it further would make it better or stronger. Public media works well in every developed country except the US, so maybe the problem isn't the concept but the venue.

I entirely agree that public tv should be much better. In Chicago, local news programming is the only place to turn to for reporting and intelligent discussion. In a better environment, local stations would be the creative ground for innovation. That's how it works on NPR, near as I can tell.

BTW, why must you parrot the lies about "vast outlays of federal dollars"? We pay vastly less for public media per capita than any developed country in the world. I think what's needed is not further cutting and centralization, but stable funding, restructuring of the hierarchy, and a clean sweep of the current management to put bold, creative people in charge instead of gray, dull suits.

Comment posted on July 16, 2011 12:09 PM

Anne said:

PBS has fine arts programming that is not available anywhere else on TV, not broadcast, cable, or premium cable. There is no other outlet for the programs I watch on PBS. My TV life would be immeasurably poorer without PBS.

Comment posted on July 16, 2011 11:10 PM

Simon Bao said:

To Tom, I have to disagree with the implication that the decline in PBS programming somehow coincided with the onset of The Great Recession. The decline set in well before the economic crisis, and can't really be blamed on current economic woes that have only exacerbated an already-established decline.

To Davey and Anne, no one denies that there are still some quality programs on PBS. But you didn't address the issue I raised - are they of such outstanding quality and meet such urgent needs that they deserve all the federal and state dollars, corporate and foundation dollars, and member dollars needed to bring them to viewers under the current scheme for PBS - 350+ very costly local broadcast affiliates and all the capital outlays and expenses associated with them? There are other ways to deliver the same programming to the same viewers.

To Davey, please carefully reread the passage you quote, you have misread it entirely, and I am not parroting any lies whatsoever. We may or may not pay the least per capita out of *federal* or *national* budgets for public broadcasting, but when we add in all those other dollars I just mentioned, you can see that public television is receiving quite a lot of funding, and delivering content of diminishing value.

The trend for PBS content doesn't look good, the trend for future PBS funding doesn't look good - and very soon there needs to be a conversation about how to do things differently.

Comment posted on July 21, 2011 1:59 AM
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