The Little Picture: PBS has big prime-time plans

Jun 11, 2001  •  Post A Comment

When she took over PBS as president last year, Pat Mitchell promised she was going to shake up public television. So what is she going to ask her affiliates to do? Make PBS more like the other commercial networks.
OK, that’s not entirely fair to Ms. Mitchell, who actually has some ideas to increase PBS’s appeal to the under-50 crowd. But part of her deal with the 347 local affiliates who own PBS-and whose representatives will discuss Ms. Mitchell’s proposal this week at the annual board meeting-essentially involves the stations handing over to PBS what precious few prime-time hours they have left.
As of last week, the plan would call for PBS to increase its “common carriage,” which is public TV-speak for live clearances, from 350 hours annually to 550 hours. In effect, local stations will be locked into the PBS schedule six nights a week, excluding Saturday.
Like any grand plan hatched at PBS, the common carriage proposal has met with resistance among the affiliates. But it is muted thanks to Ms. Mitchell, who has spent the past year and a half trotting around the country visiting stations and producers, gathering ideas and getting local managers to buy into her agenda.
I spoke with staffers at several stations last week, and they all knew the Mitchell formula by heart: Uniform scheduling plus distinctive programming equals underwriter dollars. It’s coherent, it’s straightforward, and it sounds a lot like the formula for cable TV, which is where Ms. Mitchell spent years developing programs for Ted Turner.
For all of their eccentricities-especially those goofy fund drives with their Home Shopping Network ambience-public television stations really aren’t a whole lot different from cable networks. They need ratings, they need sponsors, and they need niche appeal.
Ms. Mitchell has decided that PBS’s niche will be “social capitalists.” This phrase, which she took from a book by a Harvard professor, supposedly refers to the 24 million or so Americans who are active in civic affairs and their communities. One third of this 24 million watches public TV regularly, but less than half of these viewers give money to their local station.
PBS plans to target those viewers with programs like “Public Square,” a two-hour weekly series that’s being called “public television’s answer to reality TV.” It’s a great big kitchen sink that will cover the arts, politics, economics, history, science and performance. It will have a Web component and will rely on local stations for at least part of its content.
PBS may want to air “Public Square” on Friday nights in 2002 with common carriage. The problem is that public stations already have their own public squares on Fridays-the local public-affairs talk shows and magazines that air on the one weeknight the stations have to themselves. One station executive told me, “We’re going to have a lot of unhappy viewers” when the new schedule goes into effect.
The PBS schedule is like Stonehenge, an odd assortment of pillars that have stood longer than anyone can remember. Fans of these shows are often fiercely devoted, and cancellation could well lead to a quick outflow of membership dollars. Not a prospect anyone wants to face as the number of people PBS supporters continues to fall from its 1993 peak.
Yet Ms. Mitchell is making bold moves-and good ones. She’s told the producers of “Mystery!” that PBS will only pay for American works from now on, not the cheaper and much-imitated British imports. And her acquisition of the ex-Fox documentary series “American High” was brilliant and remarkable-a show that for the first time in memory matched PBS with a teen-age audience.
But stations didn’t have to air “American High” in prime time, and many didn’t. Ms. Mitchell won’t have to suffer that indignity when she has her extra 200 hours of common carriage. What’s more, if she gets her way, PBS will finally be able to promote its series the way other networks do: by telling viewers the date and time the show airs. No more “check your local listings.”
Even if PBS affiliates ultimately accept Ms. Mitchell’s plan and embrace the revamped PBS schedule announced last week, they’ll still have to sell viewers on it. They’ll have to find new sources of corporate generosity in the thick of an economic slowdown. And they’ll have stiff competition for membership dollars. Specifically, public radio.
That’s right. The biggest obstacle to Ms. Mitchell’s plans could be NPR. While public TV membership has swooned, public radio’s member rolls are growing.
It makes sense, doesn’t it? After all, if you are a “social capitalist” involved in your community, how are you connecting with the wider world? Listening to “All Things Considered” while driving to a school meeting? Or sitting at home watching TV?