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May 21, 2008

For Sale, PBS

Alarm bells are sounding for PBS' The News Hour, where the loss of a major corporate underwriter has cut the show's budget. And the cut looks like it's not just the loss of a major sponsor but an indicator of a failing business model. From Monday's NYT:

Not only are corporations cutting back on all forms of advertising during the current economic slowdown, but public television's model -- soliciting long-term commitments -- is also increasingly out of step with the changing needs of corporations, which no longer sponsor public television programs for purely philanthropic reasons.

"Now, it's more a marketing-driven conversation, about audiences, and delivery and engagement," said Rob Flynn, vice president of communications and marketing for "NewsHour."

In the last five years, corporate underwriting on PBS has varied; in 2007, it totaled $91 million, or just under 23 percent of all program financing, PBS said. But the core series of the PBS schedule, like "NewsHour," "Nova" and "Masterpiece Theater," known internally as the icon series, have had corporate underwriting drop 40 percent.

Okay, so public television is facing the same problem everyone else is - a business model that seems to be failing and no obvious remedies in sight.

I have two reactions to this story. First, the "corporate underwriting" conceit is a bit disingenuous at this point. Public television and public radio in the US both run commercials and have for some time. They may be differently formatted than on the commercial airwaves, but they are commercials. Arguably, for the audiences public broadcasters serve, the "underwriting" format is more effective advertising than the shall we say "less subtle" form found on commercial TV. If advertisers are abandoning The News Hour and PBS, they've made the calculation that their messages aren't getting out as effectively as they once did. Commercial broadcasters (not to mention newspapers) have been finding their advertisers melt away after similar calculations. With expanding consumer choice, the pie is being redistributed and the stale bits are being passed over.

My second reaction is to...

marvel once again at how bad public television is in America. Canada, Britain, Italy, France, Australia, Germany - they all have robust public broadcasters, who, for better or worse, are major media players. America, not so much. Public television here is an awkward hybrid that has never had either the vision or the resources to become a cultural force.

In many cities, the local public television station is little more than a re-transmitter of what are essentially syndicated programs. And not particularly good ones either. Suze Ormond? Lawrence Welk? Yanni?

Many stations make little more than token attempts at local programming. And arts programming? Fugedaboudit. Lincoln Center isn't the only live culture in America.

If public broadcasting is supposed to do things commercial broadcasters won't, then why aren't there local public TV newscasts that concentrate on something other than the fires, car chases and lost child stories that dominate commercial "news"? In the Age of YouTube, where are the innovations in public broadcasting nurturing citizen journalists? For that matter, where is the work of the young documentary-makers that has flourished in the past decade? Where are the attempts to explore the cultures of our cities? Where are the next versions of Frontline and The News Hour, both fine shows, but both which have been around for years and are hardly what could be called the cutting edge of news reporting?

 Instead, one gets the strong impression that the programming grid is determined by whatever projects come in the door with money attached. Since the stations are strapped for cash, rather than developing a coherent philosophy or experimenting, they program by convenience. Public broadcasting ought to be so much more than this (as public radio, functioning under a different model, is. And public radio's audience has gone up dramatically in the past 10 years).

The News Hour is a worthy program, though I have to confess I haven't watched it regularly for years. The show's format seems frozen in time; when it should have been evolving (in smart ways, not by dumbing down) it (bravely?) chose to remain static, a defender of standards articulated on stone tablets long ago. Now changes in its ability to support itself will likely dictate some unpleasant changes. Too bad. It's easier to experiment and innovate when you're out in front than it is when your existance is on the line.

May 21, 2008 11:34 AM | | Comments (0)

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