More on the Revolution

Upon arriving in Washington, DC this week conversation with my public media colleagues immediately turned to the new Revolution PBS blog. Two questions came up: “Are you behind it?” and “Then who is?”

I still don’t know.

We didn’t get much time to talk about the new blog while at CPB, as those proceedings moved very fast (thanks to awesomely energetic facilitator Allen Gunn) and we were focused elsewhere.

Nevertheless, the conversation continues as Revolution PBS posts more material and at least one freelance journalist has picked up on it for a proposed article in “Public Broadcasting Report,” a print-only publication (what’s that?) from the for-profit trade magazine publisher Warren Communications News. (NOTE: If the story appears, it will only be in print, so I’ll be unable to link to it and they don’t provide copies for digital distribution.)

Laura Norton, the freelancer writing for the Report, sent me some questions to answer, and I thought I’d share my complete responses here, since I took some time prepping the answers.

And here’s what you can do: How would you answer some or all of these questions?

Q1: Can an anonymous blog critiquing PBS have any traction? The intended audience appears to be PBS brass, but is the more-likely audience station managers, directors, etc? Does it make a difference?

Who knows? Odds are this blog won’t make a big difference. It’s easy for pubmedia leaders to dismiss it because it’s unsigned and — so far anyway — it’s not specific enough to allow for meaningful action.

However, if the blog continues to offers new ideas or points to consider, it might push more conversation. Public media folks *love* to talk, and maybe some of these ideas could be drawn into the conversations of the powerful and drive changes. It’s possible.

As for audience, I don’t know who will really pay attention over time. I suspect it might make it to executive suites at PBS occasionally. And a few GMs around the country might make note of it.  Probably the best audience, as with any blog, will be anyone that wants to see positive changes that preserve the core goals of public service media in an age when old broadcast media business models are under siege.

Q2: How curious are you about who is writing it?

Very curious.

The author (authors?) have already demonstrated an understanding of the construction of the public media world that far outstrips that of the average citizen or donor. Even major donors often don’t understand the relationship between the stations, the network, producers, CPB, Congress and so on.  That suggests — though by no means proves — the author(s) are from inside the system, either currently or formerly.

Knowing the identity of this new voice could lend the ideas more weight. Or the reverse.

Personally, I want to know more about the writer because I’m not a fan of anonymous commentary. I understand the need for anonymity in some circumstances, but I still don’t like it. Plus, if they remain anonymous, how can we put them on a panel at the next pubmedia conference? 😉

By the way, in talking with colleagues in the system, everyone that’s aware of the blog is curious to know who it is. And speculation to date is that it’s an insider.

Q3: Are the ideas proposed too far off target from where PBS is heading?

The ideas proposed so far are nowhere near where stations or PBS are heading — if in fact they’re headed anywhere in particular. It’s a radical rethinking of how the service is organized at pretty much every level. That kind of change is incredibly scary and would definitely result in job losses (and some new jobs, too). Corner-office types everywhere, in CPB, PBS and in stations, would be at risk.

Ideas like these could only come from people that either stand to gain from the changes or from people deeply committed to an ideal. Or both.

Q4: With lots of pubmedia groups out there talking, critiquing, etc, what makes this different?

It’s different because the changes proposed are more radical than anything in recent memory (at least publicly). Mostly those of us yakking in the pubmedia sphere talk either about smaller matters or more evolutionary changes. We may talk about new things (like expanding digital media efforts), but almost no one comes out and says “this system is messed up and should be destroyed to be saved.”

It’s also different because of the anonymity. To my knowledge, everyone else signs their work in the pubmedia commentary world.

Q5: How (if at all) do the critiques ring true?

DO the critiques ring true? That depends upon who you ask.

Some of them ring true from me, and, if asked privately, I suspect most people working in public television with a view of the whole system would agree there are points here that are spot-on.  On more than one occasion I’ve heard people in the system ask, “If you were going to build a public television system today, would you duplicate what we have now?” The answer is always “No way!”

There are so many things that are “wrong” with the public TV system you could write a book (and some have). But to me the inefficiency argument is the easiest target of them all. When each of the 300+ stations create virtually identical program streams (some of it dictated by PBS common-carriage rules), the argument that “we need a local station because our community has unique needs” just doesn’t hold up.

And local control of the broadcast schedule is pretty much the only defense left for the majority of stations out there. Most pubTV stations no longer produce meaningful local content because:

  1. it’s incredibly expensive to live up to national quality standards and make a program people want to watch in sufficient numbers to pay the bills
  2. funding of all types has been dwindling for years (membership, sponsorship, foundations, government)
  3. viewership is declining as new channels and platforms proliferate.

So if you’re not generating local value, why, exactly, do you need a local full-service station? Why not just run a “repeater” in your area, offering a national “feed” of PBS content?

That’s the apparent “Revolution PBS” critique (or at least much of it), and I think it’s a discussion worth having. Who knows — what if we found a solution that solved the problem just by talking it through?  What IF we had a “C-SPAN style” PBS with tiny local offices doing intensely local (and cheaper) work? What would that look like? Would it serve the public good better than what we’re doing today?

Q6: You say PBS should engage on these issues, how? to what extent?

It would be very easy for PBS to dismiss the blog, and I suspect they will, at least officially. PBS is a huge corporation and this is some anonymous blog with not-entirely-coherent (or at least incomplete) arguments, especially from the PBS perspective.

But this is a series of critiques that are new and nuanced. This isn’t some right-wing screed about how PBS isn’t relevant anymore in a world of 200 cable channels or Big Bird is a millionaire and doesn’t need public money or PBS is a liberal indoctrination system infecting our children. No, this is a critique about the construction and efficiency of the system and the split roles of local and national. If PBS dismisses this blog, and if the ideas gain traction (which can happen on the web very fast), this could be a new critique that maybe — just maybe — brings down the house because you can’t dismiss it as political invective.

How to engage?  I’d say at first you meet the blogger(s) on their turf — their blog, in the comments, and sign your name. Participate in the dialog where it makes sense. Correct statements or assessments that are wrong or miss the point or don’t address real concerns from stations, producers, the public, etc. Push the bloggers to be more specific, to back up their points.

Who would do this? It doesn’t have to be PBS CEO Paula Kerger, but mid-level and upper-level leaders in PBS would be great. Other bloggers in the pubmedia space should chime in occasionally.  Make it a robust — but honest and realistic — conversation.  That would show PBS is serious about doing the “right” things and the “best” things for the public as a public service organization. And it would show respect for the public in ways that would actually pay PR dividends for PBS leadership.

The blog so far has not been a screed, it’s not been a rant. It’s respectful. They’re saying they care about the future of public media. This is someone we can talk to, someone we might be able to learn from. So let’s do it.

On a side note… When I entered the public media world several years ago, I had picked up a book on the industry, one that was somewhat critical of the system, especially in terms of its insular nature, its unwillingness to collaborate with other nonprofit media organizations and its drift toward commercialism and away from the core notions of the 1967 Public Broadcasting Act.

One day my GM at the time saw the book and asked why I was reading it. I said I was trying to learn more about the industry. I was promptly told the ideas in that book were irrelevant because they were written by “outsiders.” I’ve never forgotten that.

I agree that “insiders” have a more insightful view on current practice and operational challenges. But insiders lacking outside views develop huge blind spots — how do you know if you’re serving the public’s needs if you never ask?

I’m hoping when thoughtful and respectful people come along with criticisms and suggested solutions, maybe now we can listen, think and offer conversation in return.

2 thoughts on “More on the Revolution

  1. >>what if we found a solution that solved the problem just by talking it through

    OK, I’ll be devil’s advocate: Then what? What are the specific, concrete steps to overhauling the system? Most of you know I’m new (1 year and counting) to covering the Wide World of Pubcasting so I’m coming at this with a different eye. I hear so many incredible ideas and have met so many brilliant “thought leaders” over just one year. But how does the system go about dismantling and reinventing itself, particularly with so little money?

    It’s a fascinating time to be covering the system. So much enthusiasm and idealism. Now for the pragmatism…

    1. Dru — As with most things in public media, we just don’t know. However, my take is that any concrete plans would have to be set forth by CPB or some kind of Congressional action. The odds of system leaders rising up and volunteering to transform the industry — and bringing their collective Boards along for the ride — are effectively nil. The more likely hope is that discussing some fresh ideas will generate some excitement amongst the next generation of leaders (assuming there IS a next generation) and that group can begin to change the industry little by little.

      From here I see two possible futures, pragmatically-speaking:

      [1] Without additional funding from Congress or a radically revamped CSG regime from CPB, the public TV system largely collapses under its own weight; perhaps 40% of the stations simply go under or are reorganized as repeaters under a national programming plan. This then ricochets into more changes across the system and we’re left with a very different public TV world than we can imagine right now. Radio might see losses of up to 25% of its stations until it stabilizes with fewer total stations, but stronger stations.

      [2] CPB wrangles more money out of Congress, thus perpetuating the current system setup in radio and TV until the costs get out of control again, at which point we’re back to point #1 or CPB raises even more money from Congress again. I have to assume the gravy train stops somewhere, but maybe not.

      The fundamental problem is that broadcast carries less weight with the public over time. Period. As it carries less weight, it draws less advertising. Membership also falls — it’s already down and continues falling in TV land, and radio is relying upon more dollars from fewer listeners. Meanwhile costs go up (healthcare, DTV, etc.). And when was the last time you heard about state governments spending more on pubcasting?

      So something will have to give somewhere along the line. I’d rather take the bull by the horns than wait for catastrophe. My practical, semi-related interest is in getting CPB to reach beyond the broadcast barrier (which they may not be able to do, statutorily) and fund some online-only experiments in public media. Online can run fine at a smaller scale (see TPM), but that’s a scale we need to learn in public media. Right now everything we do is big — too big to be sustained the way we’re constructed. Unless someone’s got new pots of money to spread around.

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