What am I supposed to do with this thing? What would you do if you owned a global public broadcasting station? Let’s hear your big ideas in the comments!
David Margolick’s recent piece in Vanity Fair should be required reading for anyone who cares about public broadcasting and its future. He offers a rare “inside baseball” glimpse into NPR’s recent struggles with management and illustrates the zero sum game they play. We at FIXPBS.COM will forgive David for stealing our “National Public Rodeo” headline, coined for Vivian Schiller’s ousting last March.
PBS has slowly been opening its door to commercial sponsorships over the years, but Mitt Romney seems to want to kick the door off its hinges. We at FIXPBS favor keeping PBS entirely free from commercial interests by weaning it off the federal appropriation and negotiating a transition to a federally mandated licensing fee system, wherein cable providers charge households a negligible monthly fee for the inclusion of PBS in basic cable packages. Cable providers would be incentivized with a percentage of this fee, and PBS’ proceeds could seed a permanent public broadcasting trust fund. And, if a bigger and better PBS could then centralize its national network operations and eliminate waste and redundancies, its future could look very bright indeed. It’s a transcendent, winning logic that could play well as well for President Obama as it would for President Romney. Now is the time to prepare a real plan, and if PBS matters, why not opt for a real and lasting solution, rather than political stopgaps and half-measures?
PBS has announced that it is partnering with Canadian venture capitalist, David Lyons, to launch PBS UK. It seems a strange time and place to expand. Perhaps they aren’t aware that the BBC has cornered every corner of the pub-casting market in the UK, and on planet earth. And how could they know that British audiences have little to no appetite for American subjects? Not unlike its stateside mothership, PBS UK may even acquire or commission British content to round out a limited menu.
We at FIXPBS.com wish PBS UK well, but we don’t hold high hopes for its survival. If PBS can’t find a way to be relevant, and stay solvent, in America, how can it be expected to make an impact in a country that has already practically perfected public broadcasting?
PBS has long compensated for its meager programming slate by importing dusty old bargain basement series from British public broadcasters, and to no avail. Now, Downton Abbey has proven a rare success, but it’s still just British/ITV leftovers, not to mention, a sad reminder that PBS cannot afford the kind of world class original programming that UK pub-casters produce so well, and so prolifically. In the short run, PBS may bask in the acclaim Downton Abbey generates, but in the end, it’s only another break even bet.
First, the critical “moment” the series is enjoying is unlikely to register an increase in member support. Second, while DVD sales are bound to be a minor bonanza, PBS doesn’t own the series; it’s only got a licensing stake which primarily serves to benefit WGBH. And third, when PBS spends its scant resources on shelf product from the competition across the pond, it is missing the chance to invest in itself, and a shot at real relevance.
One upshot is that Downton Abbey has temporarily steered PBS into popular culture. This could and should represent a golden opportunity for PBS to re-brand itself for a new generation. Patton Oswalt, a comedian of the hippest order, has been live tweeting Downton Abbey. If PBS was smart, they would launch a viral digital campaign, featuring Patton and other celebrity fans, that parodied and/or praised the series…just in time to spice up a pledge drive, of course!
William Warren at Americans for Limited Government hits the nail on the head with this cartoon, but he and others want that nail in PBS and NPR’s coffins. We at FIXPBS think the increasingly popular limited government message could and should rather be used to resurrect public broadcasting; to endow it with a solar-powered, recession-proof funding system. The kind of political sentiment Mr. Warren depicts here is contagious in hard times, and certainly catching in the GOP primary. What if both parties could actually concede to phase out the CPB and the federal appropriation, and hammer out a plan for PBS and NPR’s long-term survival with real bipartisan support. Impossible you say? Well, FIXPBS has hatched just such a plan; click here for the “Reader’s Digest” version. The only question remaining is who will move first and earn the credit for it: President Obama, or President Romney?
Former Washington Post Executive Editor, Len Downie, Jr., has authored a report for the Columbia School of Journalism entitled “The Reconstruction of American Journalism”. In the report, Downie defends the endangered practice of accountability journalism. Promoting a ground-up strategy that could strengthen local journalism, he calls upon the FCC to create a national fund for local news. Supporting robust local journalism, especially in public radio and television, is commendable, but establishing a discrete public fund may prove a long, uphill battle that would not remedy PBS’ larger funding and programming problems. Restructuring PBS at the national level and giving it the means to expand its coverage of local, national, and international news seems a more holistic approach. The BBC’s extensive local news sets the standard and proves the point. Still, Downie’s report underscores the necessity of public journalism in our national life and the report should be required reading for the FCC, Congress, and the Obama administration, especially in the greater context of PBS reform. To watch Jeffrey Brown’s Newshour interview of both Len Downie, Jr. and Nicholas Lehman, Dean of the Columbia School of Journalism (aired 10/20/09), click here.