Guest Commentary: PBS Bucks Industry’s Bottom-Line Mentality

Nov 3, 2003  •  Post A Comment

Here’s what “viewers like you” already know: Americans value PBS.
As the only nonprofit public television service in this country, PBS has a vital role to play in today’s media landscape.
Of course, I believe that. It’s my job and frankly, being the president of the Public Broadcasting Service does come with some bragging rights. Among those is the fact that PBS programming still attracts more viewers on any average night than any of the cable channels. PBS programs win more awards for quality and journalistic excellence than any other media company. Above all else, PBS continues to be a choice for viewers who want to be entertained and engaged, educated and enlightened. It is the one choice among the hundreds that literally belongs to them rather than to a global conglomerate.
But you don’t have to just take my word for it. Consider the roster of respected and diverse talents who have chosen to bring their work to PBS this year alone, including Martin Scorsese, Robert Redford, Hugh Jackman, Edward James Olmos, Wes Studi, Tom Hanks, Lily Tomlin, Clint Eastwood, Ken Burns, Keira Knightley and Don Cheadle. Where else would they have found a television home for a celebration of “The Blues”; mystery dramas set on a Navajo reservation with Tony Hillerman’s “Skinwalkers”; an “American Family” with a Latino cast; or a full-scale theatrical production of America’s classic “Oklahoma!”?
And where else can you find the powerful investigative journalism of “Frontline”; the objectivity, perspective and depth of “The NewsHour”; the entertaining, educational programs on PBS Kids, which is the most-watched children’s programming schedule for kids 2 to 5? And while PBS always seeks the largest audience possible, ratings are just one measurement of impact for a public service media. In other words, great television is just the beginning.

What also matters is the powerful impact on audiences after the television is turned off. As part of PBS producers’ commitment to public television, our producers create extensive off-air outreach around the content, including a corresponding Web site through PBS.org-the most visited dot-org in the world-educational resources and opportunities for local partnerships and activities that are uniquely possible through our 349 locally owned-and-managed PBS stations.
Because of this unique local structure, all content is made distinctive for a greater local impact. In today’s media environment, localism is a measurement that matters more and more. That’s just one reason why more than 2 million Americans protested the Federal Communications Commission’s rule changes that would allow for more consolidation of media ownership. And that’s why I believe public television and public radio stations, all local media institutions, will see an increase in audience value and support.
America needs at least one source for television that is devoted to making a difference rather than making a profit.
So you may be thinking, all of this good work takes money. Where is it going to come from? Fair question, and as you know, there are financial challenges for all nonprofits that are not unique to PBS. But let me set the record straight and add some perspective to the PBS funding model.
Less than 20 percent of the total operating budgets of most public radio and public television stations comes from the federal government. The largest single source of revenue continues to be individual American citizens voluntarily writing checks. This public/private partnership is unique among the global public broadcasters, some of which, most notably the BBC, get all of their funding directly from government charter.
Naturally, we envy the level of support that makes it possible for the BBC, Japan’s NHK and other public-service media enterprises around the world to focus entirely on their programming and services. But on the other hand, PBS, like the democratic system we serve, is built on a direct relationship with its public. PBS belongs to the public, and the strong bond between the public and PBS puts us at the top of every brand survey that measures trust.
It is that association with trust and the track record we have with parents, children and educators that attract corporate support. Gratefully, there are many companies in this country that want to have positive impact as well as positive bottom lines, and for them, we are a perfect match.
In this time of heightened security concerns around the globe, corporate scandals and degrading reality programming, America needs to know there is one media company that is not beholden to any interest outside of the public interest, that is not owned by anyone other than the public it serves, that is popular because it is making a positive difference in the lives of individuals and communities.
I’ll take those bragging rights any day of the week and I’ll stake the future of this kind of media organization on its ability to be as vital and viable as the democracy it exists to strengthen.
Pat Mitchell is president and CEO of PBS.