A PBS revolution in the making?

A new blog and Twitter feed has appeared. And no, I’m not writing it.

Called Revolution PBS and @RevolutionPBS on Twitter, the writing so far calls for a radical reorganization of the broadcast assets of PBS at both the network and station levels, building a national program feed and elimination of much, if not all, of the local station effort to duplicate what could be a nationally-replicated service.

So far, the ideas are interesting, albeit threatening to the old model (deliberately, of course). The writer talks about the millions of dollars he or she suggests could be saved via this centralization effort.

What’s interesting to me is the writer shows a better understanding of the member station model than most “civilians” I’ve met over the years. Perhaps its someone that’s done their homework, or perhaps it’s an “insider” looking to anonymously get some ideas a little traction.

I’d love to know who’s writing it, but so far, no admissions of “guilt.” 😉

My recommendation to PBS and pubmedia thinkers: Engage.

Don’t brush off these ideas or the writer(s) as kooks or fringe elements. Take the ideas at face value (at least for now) and engage in exploratory discussions around some of the suggestions. Be open to thinking differently but also press factual points home so our new discussion partners are forced to wrestle with some of the messy realities we see in the “system” today.

I’m of the mind that the funding and operation models we’re pursuing — or we’ve fallen into — are untenable long-term, especially in the mid-market and small-market stations (the majority, by number). Change of some kind is inevitable, so openly bouncing some of these ideas around could help us find a better future.

For now, here’s the comment I offered to their first major post, Efficiency Idea 1:

What you may not know is that PBS has provided a fully-integrated program stream to stations via satellite for some time. Using that feed (called Schedule X, last I checked), a local station can do a direct pass-through of that signal right onto the local transmitter. However, for regulatory reasons, stations must insert local branding and broadcast details in their signals, and many want to sell local adverti… err… underwriting which must also be inserted into the program stream.

Similarly, PBS also supplies satellite TV providers with a non-local “station” for those areas of the country covered by satellite but *not* covered by a local broadcast signal. People in those areas can opt for the national feed or the nearest local feed.

I worked at a station that, for cost reasons, opted for the pre-programmed feed from PBS. We had tremendous fears that fundraising would suffer dramatically, as we essentially gave up a great deal of local control over our schedule and what programs were included in our stream. However, we found donations were stable for 2+ years under this model. We still had to do local “traffic” to localize the signal and insert some locally-produced shows, and our systems weren’t nearly as automated as they needed to be, but it worked.

The current local station model — as opposed to something more like C-SPAN — is a holdover from a past era, in which local stations actually produced a lot more local content using local talent and resources. As the cost of running these nonprofits has risen over the years (technology costs, aging workforce, healthcare costs, etc.) and as government support has fallen (especially at the state level), local capacity has dried up. Many stations (there are more than 300 nationwide) raise enough money to maintain a barely-local presence in the hopes that someone will save the day at some point in the future.

So far, no knight in shining armor on the horizon, but there are plenty of new threats to public television, the biggest being the disruptive effects of the Internet upon distribution and consumption patterns and ratios.

There are many of us in the public media world that look at this situation and believe there must be a better / smarter way, and the notion of centralized national programming has strong appeal for the efficiency gains alone.

But efficiency can’t be our primary goal. If all we do is make the public TV system more efficient with its cash, we’ll only postpone the truly troublesome problem, which is one of purpose or of mission. Why are we here? What can we do to serve our communities? Is broadcasting enough? If it’s not enough, what should we be retooling to do to make a 21st century difference?

If the call for efficiency in the old distribution model is combined with a call for new services tuned to the needs of our communities today, I’d say you’ve got a revolution worth joining.