Top PBS Position May Be Tough Sell

Feb 21, 2005  •  Post A Comment

As PBS begins a search for a new president, some say the question is not so much who will lead the Public Broadcasting Service, but who would want the post?

“I wouldn’t want that job for all the money in the world,” said Mary Ann Alhadeff, president and CEO of Maine Public Broadcasting.

In the wake of PBS President Pat Mitchell’s sudden announcement last week that she will not seek a new three-year contract and will leave the network by June of next year, speculation immediately began as to who might replace her.

Names that quickly surfaced as candidates include two top figures at Boston’s WGBH-TV, which produces almost half of the programming distributed through PBS: Henry Becton Jr. WGBH president; and Jonathan Abbott, a former PBS executive who is now executive VP and chief operating officer in Boston. “Becton would be a good choice,” said Jeff Chester, who heads the Washington-based Center for Digital Democracy, a frequent critic of PBS.

WGBH oversees production of such PBS mainstays as “Nova,” “Antiques Roadshow,” “Mystery!” “This Old House” and “Masterpiece Theatre.” Before WGBH Mr. Abbott was senior VP for development and corporate relations at PBS.

Others mentioned prominently by station insiders last week include Jerrold Wareham, president and CEO of WVIZ-TV in Cleveland and a PBS board vice chairman; Sharon Percy Rockefeller, who heads the prominent affiliate WETA-TV in Washington; and Mary Bitterman, a former head of KQED-TV in San Francisco.

Ms. Alhadeff, who too is a PBS board member, said Mr. Wareham had “his finger on the pulse of what the [general managers] are thinking.”

Mr. Wareham did not return a phone call. WGBH spokesperson Lucy Sholley said it was “really premature to speculate on a successor.” Stephanie Aaronson, a spokesperson for PBS, also said such speculation was premature. “The search for Pat’s replacement has not begun yet,” she noted.

Whoever is chosen will face the same monumental problems that have plagued Ms. Mitchell’s tenure. While PBS continues to offer a menu of high-quality programming, it is no longer the only game in town. Everything from English drama to alternative network news is now widely available on commercial cable TV.

The head of PBS has nowhere near the power of the head of CBS or NBC. PBS produces from the bottom up-meaning shows must have a home based at a local affiliate that can find the money to fund production.

This dysfunctional system has created tension between PBS management, which schedules the shows, and the 349 member stations. Local public TV affiliate executives have been highly critical of the changes Ms. Mitchell was able to institute. Some felt she ignored their point of view. Last week many were insisting that the next president come from among their ranks.

One example of where the stations and Ms. Mitchell split was over PBS’s joint venture with Comcast Cable to produce a digital kids cable channel with Sesame Street and HIT Entertainment. The stations see it as competition to their own children’s fare. And by later this year that programming will be available on Comcast systems as VOD-available whenever kids want to watch, Comcast spokesperson Chris Ellis said. It will also be part of the PBS digital channel launching this fall.

When the joint venture was being discussed, PBS circulated an informal poll among stations. Sentiment against the project was ignored, said Steve Bass, general manager of Nashville’s WNPT-TV. Ms. Mitchell last week cited the Comcast project as one of her proudest achievements. Ms. Mitchell did not come from the station system; she is a former CNN producer.

Mr. Bass said station morale was low. He said two PBS board members had told him that Ms. Mitchell made her announcement without consultation with them, which allowed her to spin the story her way and set a date for her departure.

“Board members did not know about Pat’s announcement,” he said. “It was like a bombshell going off in the room. A couple of board members I spoke to indicated that they would move to name a new person quicker, as opposed to having to deal with this a year from now.”

A PBS insider said that the board wants to act “very soon.”

Mr. Bass said that her successor “is going to be from inside.” Ms. Alhadeff seconded that conjecture, saying, “Many general managers would be pleased to see a person coming from within the ranks.”

Peggy Charren, a longtime advocate for noncommercial children’s TV, said that whoever heads PBS, problems will persist as long as a dwindling endowment and the threat of cutbacks in government funding cause unpopular compromises. “How much money is in the system?” she asked. “PBS needs an endowment or a trust fund.”