The Little Picture: In public TV we trust

Jul 22, 2002  •  Post A Comment

Contrary to what you have been reading lately, the future of public television is bright, very bright indeed. The future of PBS, now that’s another matter.
For all the compromises-the beg-a-thons, the corporate-themed programming, the ridiculous pledge fare-public TV still has a lot to offer. It retains a firm grip on substantive news programming, independent documentaries and anything involving road shows and antiques.
But its most striking success is happening on the local level. Here in Kansas City, Mo., KCPT-TV recently completed a series of multimillion-dollar campaigns to expand and renovate its studios, buy new digital broadcast and production equipment and endow a local programming fund. In nearby Topeka, Kan., KTWU-TV is embarking on a similar drive, and it has area business leaders foursquare behind the station.
On the national level, unfortunately, prime-time ratings for PBS have dipped to all-time lows. More people now watch Lifetime on any given night than watch PBS since Pat Mitchell took it over two years ago. And as the Los Angeles Times reported in May, Ms. Mitchell has already abandoned some of her strategies to grow viewership. Her ballyhooed teen initiative, for instance, went belly-up after viewers objected to the strong language on last summer’s “American High.”
And while the ultimate fate of “Wall Street Week” is unknown, it seems safe to say that Ms. Mitchell put herself through an awful lot of trouble just to land AOL Time Warner as an underwriter.
You can hardly blame her, though. Like her predecessors, Ms. Mitchell finds herself in the familiar trap of trying to bring in new money without alienating the old money. When CBS moved “Murder, She Wrote” off Sunday nights a few years ago, no one at the network cared whether it lived or died. When Ms. Mitchell moved “Masterpiece Theatre” to Monday nights last year, it promptly sank in the ratings. So back it goes to Sunday.
The Corporation for Public Broadcasting, which funds PBS, will receive $365 million next year, or about as much as ESPN collects in subscriber fees every two months. Only a portion of the CPB pie goes to PBS; there’s also NPR and local TV and radio stations to feed. It’s a pittance when compared with the $1.5 billion that a blue-chip committee known as Carnegie II recommended that Congress allocate each year to CPB. And that figure was for 1985.
Over the years, a portion of those billions would have gone into a trust fund and endowment to make public TV financially secure and, in the committee’s words, “free to the maximum extent possible from partisan politics.”
Yeah, but then what would Rep. Billy Tauzin do to keep his name in the papers? Last week Mr. Tauzin, who signs off on CPB appropriations, signed his name to a letter addressed to Ms. Mitchell (and quickly distributed to the press) that demanded to know how much money was being spent on an HIV-positive Muppet that “Sesame Street” planned to introduce later this year on “Takalani Sesame,” the edition beamed into AIDS-ravaged South Africa.
Clearly, the federal hand enjoys jerking the PBS leash. There must be a better way. And there is-but it involves the commercial broadcasters swallowing their longtime opposition to a CPB trust fund.
In 1987, Sen. Ernest Hollings latched on to Carnegie II’s idea and introduced a bill that would tax commercial broadcast licenses and use the money to create a trust fund. The National Association of Broadcasters worked tirelessly to kill the measure. But that was back when Sen. Hollings was less of a threat and public TV was more of one.
Today, the parent companies of NBC, ABC, Fox and CBS would all like to see the rules on media ownership relaxed. Sen. Hollings stands in the way. The broadcasters, however, could soften his opposition by ponying up the money for a CPB trust fund. An historic quid pro quo could be in the making, one in which media consolidation would actually profit the public square, not to mention render hundreds of pledge drives instantly obsolete.
Sure, it would cost big money. Ten billion is a nice round number, raised over the course of a decade or two. But that should be within the means of commercial broadcasters. After all, didn’t the National Association of Broadcasters issue a press release a while ago bragging that its members gave away $9.9 billion in “community service contributions” in 2000?
The CPB trust fund can be the broadcasters’ C-SPAN, their “gift to America.” C-SPAN is funded through a simple scheme whereby nearly every cable and satellite operator in America agrees to pay a fee in exchange for carrying one, two or all three C-SPAN channels. The ratings aren’t great, but everyone’s thrilled with the product. And no one on C-SPAN begs for money.