Parting (cannon) shot at WNET

Wow. Just wow.

When WNET’s Sam Toperoff retires, he really retires. Something tells me CEO Shapiro is pissed.

A brief excerpt of Toperoff’s full goodbye letter:

On my commutes to work on the E and F lines and occasionally on the Number 7 train, I’d ask people if they watched PBS. Almost no one does. They said there was very little on the air that spoke to their lives. The New York public is not merely the “Upper” East and West sides. It is these “Others” too, millions of them. And during those rare times we do program for this other New York , we do it embarrassingly, in stilted, patronizing “other” fashion. In spite of my left-wing bona fides and my high falutin’ Doctoral degree, I see our general programming for the wider public as elitist and offensive in the extreme. … But of course, when stations run on very rich people’s and Corporate money, how could it be otherwise? And when the corporation is directed by those very clever and very ambitious fellows whose careers will float them to good places no matter what, what else could we reasonably expect?

Gawker has the complete letter — well worth a read. Beautifully written, despite the dark content.

Two comments from me:

  • I’d bet you real money that if you did a survey of employees at public radio and television stations across the country and got honest and accurate answers, you would find very little public television viewing. At one station I knew well, some employees who worked fervently every day to support public TV didn’t even own a TV themselves. Others just didn’t watch much TV of any kind, and if they did, public TV was a minor component of their viewing. I don’t fully understand why this is, but that’s been my experience to date. (If your experience is different, let me know!)
  • I haven’t had tons of exposure to Boards, but those with which I have had contact have been filled almost exclusively with what I call “Rich White Folk” — generally the political and financial power base of the community. This is a deliberate thing, mind you. It’s intended to increase the fundraising capacity of the organization, both by bringing in well-to-do donors and their friends, and by bringing in corporate dollars those people influence or control. Sadly, it also means “public” views and needs are not well-represented; the ages of the Board members often match or exceed public TV viewing demographics, creating major programming and public service blind spots.

I often wonder what happens next, especially with public TV. Toperoff’s letter portends a difficult future. Two questions:

  1. Does Toperoff’s experience sound familiar or alien to you?
  2. If leadership is lacking, how do we fix this situation?

9 thoughts on “Parting (cannon) shot at WNET

  1. Well, you know, I have worked in the PBS system for more than 25 years. I love it. And I believe we do create original content that is both entertaining, informative and watchable.

    But I too have met many PBS folks who proudly claim they don’t own a TV or that they don’t watch much. And my answer has always been why? Imagine the author who proclaimed that he/she never read or not very much. Or the composer who said he/she never listened to music or not very much. If you don’t watch television how do you compare the competition? Better yet, how do you make your original content watchable?

    The issue of leadership within the station is always difficult to address. One reason is for many of us we are far too close to the forest to see the trees. But perhaps more important, if you as an employee don’t like the leadership or the direction the station is going, leave; find new pastures. I say this because that is what I have done in the past.

    Mr. Toperoff’s complaints may be valid. But from my perspective, when you stay at one place for so many years you fail to challenge yourself. Instead you get into a routine that become comfortable. And you resist change when it happens along or point the finger at the “leadership” for failing to initiate change. All the while the challenge of change rest within you. Change is difficult – it is difficult to accept and it is difficult to make happen. So how do we fix the situation? Take a page from Nike – Just Do It!

    1. Thanks for the comments, Jack. I agree people should move on if the leadership doesn’t suit them. Yet time and again in stations I’ve known, they’re frequently populated with “lifers” — folks that have worked there pretty much their entire careers, or most of them. It’s not healthy, to my mind, to spend an entire career in one business or even one industry. But that’s me.

      As for TV watching, I have to admit I don’t watch much TV these days. I’ve even tried to, but it doesn’t fit in with my lifestyle and preferred pursuits. I enjoy interacting with folks — like you, for example! — via online means rather than passively take in TV programming.

      That said, I do see a lot of video. Via Hulu, DVD, Netflix streaming and so forth.

      As for PBS’ content, I think it’s pretty good on the whole. But the programming is terrible. As in, the shows are okay, but the video streams coming from stations via broadcast are intolerable. One minute it’s science, the next it’s investigative journalism, the next it’s a kid’s cartoon, the next it’s cooking and then home improvement and then mysteries, opera and so forth. It’s the Russian roulette of TV channels.

      Since the death of “appointment television” several years back (for me, at least), I don’t know when shows are “on” or not. So the PBS schedule is irritating at best. I’m better off tuning in to Animal Planet. At least then I know what I’ll get (animals).

      Based on this and other factors, I’ve learned one thing recently: I will never again work for a pure-play public television station. Dual-licensees are fine, but pure TV is not my game.

  2. I think for most Americans PBS is synonymous with Sesame Street and represents a portal for the highest quality children’s programming available to be used as an educational babysitter for the first 6 years of life. I probably watch more public TV than most of my friends, who mostly find it boring. I think some of the best programs available in the public TV sphere (POV, ITVS) on too late at night. Frontline’s David Fanning is right that fundraising specials on PBS that sell oldies music to financial advice to brain games really diminish the brand and don’t given viewers the opportunity to support the programming that they actually watch or depend on. Too many of the most popular public TV shows are British comedy and drama imports. I’m looking forward to the development of the World 2.0 channel/portal which promises to draw younger, more multicultural, edgy content into the mix.


  3. ***I’d bet you real money that if you did a survey of employees at public radio and television stations across the country and got honest and accurate answers, you would find very little public television viewing. At one station I knew well, some employees who worked fervently every day to support public TV didn’t even own a TV themselves. Others just didn’t watch much TV of any kind, and if they did, public TV was a minor component of their viewing. I don’t fully understand why this is, but that’s been my experience to date. (If your experience is different, let me know!)****

    As someone who has worked in public radio my entire career, currently I watch more public television than I’ve done in previous years. Part of that is because I don’t have cable or satellite. But part of it is also because I now get two additional digital channels as well.

    As a father of two, I trust PBS in their children’s programming. Personally, I could watch the always-charming Ruff Ruffman everyday and not get sick of it. Occasionally we all watch something on Nature, American Experience, Antiques Roadshow, History Detectives or even a cooking show. I’ll watch Frontiline and the occasional special as well. Ken Burns could make a 10-part series on the history of cement and I’d watch it.

    So for me, the question is will program XX contribute to making PBS indispensable? Some programs, yes. Other programs not so much Due I believe to competition, but also I sense an overriding feeling of “we’ve always done it this way”. There are hundreds of programs out there — some legacy, some not. But, my point is that some just don’t belong on public television anymore. Does PBS have core values similar to that of public radio? If so, where are they? And, are they being implemented?

    Not only that, but program schedules can be so erratic, who knows if a core PBS program will be on at the same time week after week.

    Don’t even get me started on the pledge drives where we see programs (such as it were) that we never see during any other time of the year. So say these programs fall short of making PBS indispensable, is being generous at best. Just once, I’d like to know the facts of what it takes to get Frontline on the air. Also, having lived in 5 states, I can tell you that the look and feel of some local PBS affiliates just doesn’t match that of the network. The little stuff — promos and station ID’s – it actually matters what they look like.

    1. Thanks for the comment, Michael.

      I think the kids programming on PBS is probably the most important part of what PBS does today, and it’s the best work done for the network as a whole. Frontline and the NewsHour are also important, but only Frontline really illuminates public affairs issues well, because it’s got a longer production cycle where shooters and editors can get at the story without the he-said-she-said nonsense the guests often bring to the NewsHour.

      And don’t get me started on pledge programming!

      One part of your comment really stuck out for me: “Does PBS have core values similar to that of public radio? If so, where are they? And, are they being implemented?” I think PBS has some overlapping core values with NPR, but PBS has SO MANY core values that they can’t do any of them well. PBS needs a mission and operations reboot, from the stations to the network and back again. NPR at least has the news focus as a primary mission. They also have some mission creep issues, but so far they’ve been able to stay close enough to news to retain a clear core purpose.

      I just wish people would talk more openly about the problems the stations and the network face and would consider more radical models for going forward. There’s a need for public service television in the 21st century, but PBS is not fulfilling that need consistently right now.

  4. Hi John,
    I don’t work for PBS but have been a consistent viewer, or was for twenty years or so. It seems that you have received responses to your first two questions. I want to comment as a “general public” person who doesn’t watch PBS television any more.

    There may be more of a core issue than the poor scheduling and elitist programming. Namely, the increasing irrelevance of television to lifestyle choices. Television is becoming the Farmville of the airways. I didn’t stop watching PBS directly. I stopped watching cable altogether.

    I remember very specifically when I turned cable off. It was about six years ago when CNN’s hottest story was a warehouse fire in West Virginia. Nobody was hurt. There was just a big fire, and CNN covered it live – every ten minutes for an hour an a half.

    As someone living in Alaska, a warehouse fire in West Virginia does not warrant ten seconds of my time. That was the precise moment that I called to have the cable removed. I have never missed not having it. My point is that it is not just PBS that has a viewer problem. PBS is a cable channel, or a network channel. Interruption broadcasting, whether it is commercials or regular, irrelevant programming is something that has become increasingly easy to filter out.

    While reviewing some of the research about reading habits on social media two numbers struck me. First, the average time a viewer spends on a headline is 1.57 seconds. If a person actually clicks on the headline, the average time spent reading the article is 5.2 seconds. This is dynamic filtering. It is relevance focused filtering.

    When I do watch PBS it is shows I select, at times I select, about content that is relevant. I watch PBS programs on the computer. If PBS wants be begin to take steps to get through the relevance filters it could start with making archived content available at a central location that gathered content from PBS stations nation-wide. The issue is consumer choice. I don’t think that PBS gets that at all.

    I sure do like watching some of the content though – when I feel like it.

    1. Nailed it! And I should point out for other readers that you, Ken, are not some 20-something kid fresh out of college and born into the Internet era. So if *you’re* doing this, then the future for public TV (indeed, all TV) is at risk.

      As for your CNN comments — I’m completely with you. That channel, and so many others, do not have relevant media to share with me except on rare instances. And when said media is worthy of my attention (and the attention of millions of others), then it’s guaranteed to be available on multiple platforms — including the web.

      I’ve recently started using Netflix streaming to my iPad. That plus rental DVDs, purchased DVDs, gaming, social media and so forth… I don’t need traditional TV any longer. PBS should strike deals with Netflix, setup 4 national cable channels (a la C-SPAN) and let the stations figure out what they want to do to survive (hopefully focus locally).

  5. I am getting to this conversation late because I was out of the country for a few weeks but would love to weigh in on what Sam’s letter was really about. I have been a PBS fan & viewer all my life. Without Sesame Street, Frontline, Nature and American Masters I would be far less informed then I am today.
    I also worked at WNET for 7 years. I loved telling people I worked there, loved the people I worked with and for, and was proud to be part of the system even in my very small role. What happened during the year I left was disturbing and destructive.
    We went from the dedicated, genuine, caring and integrity driven leadership of Paula Kerger to management that came in, hired lots of con$ultant$ instead of doing any meaningful work, insulted and lied to staff, fired anyone who doesn’t walk the same line, created chaos, destroyed morale and moved on leaving a path of destruction for others to clean up. We also went from Bill Baker who I adored and admired to Mr. Shapiro who, while he has lots to be proud of in his professional history, didn’t get how PBS stations work. He wanted a vanity project and got it in World Focus, a complete waste in my opinion. So much money was poured down the drain with that program, and the new studios at Lincoln Center that my last visit to WNET looked like a ghost town. Rows and rows of empty desks where dedicated staff used to sit and do great work. Yes, the economy has not been good, layoffs were bound to happen. But WNET would have done better if not for such waste.
    I remain a dedicated viewer. I believe in WNET and the shows it produces. I remain friends with people I worked with there. I want success for all public media, and I would like to see a management team that cares about integrity. None of us every worked for WNET to get rich. We worked there to be part of something unique, rich with culture and vibrant staff, to be part of a station we were proud of. While recent events have torn some of the luster away, I believe WNET still plays a vital role in PBS and New York city. We just need someone who really cares about what is best for the station, not best for his or her ego.

    1. Thanks for the comment Beth. What you describe matches up with what others have said about the management changes at WNET, some privately, some publicly. Sounds like it was a bad deal all around for those that had dedicated themselves to the institution. Sad to hear.

      Unfortunately, there are lots of CEOs out there with a similar mindset: make a mark, make a name for myself, never mind the history or the “little people.” Boards do a great disservice to their nonprofit organizations when they hire “hero” CEOs rather than public servants.

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