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.

History Channel: Oh, SNAP!

I’ve been known to rag on PBS programming at times for being boring or uncompelling, but some of the cable channels out there are guilty of something worse: manipulating the public and programming against the very name of their channel.

Thanks to our friends at GraphJam (from the folks that brought you I Can Has Cheezburger) they’ve broken down one cable channel’s programming strategy into an easy-to-follow flowchart.  (Click the chart for the original post over at GraphJam.)

Headed to CPB. Headed for community?

I’m headed to the CPB today for an all-day meeting tomorrow (Thu, Apr 15) at the mother ship, hosted and arranged by Rob Bole (aka @rbole).

Up for discussion amongst a small group of public media tech types? Collaboration and community, or at least that’s what I’m expecting.

Many of you can probably list conference after conference and presentation after presentation, especially in the digital media space, where we all swear to stay in touch and share project ideas and methods, but it just never seems to happen. And I’m as guilty as the rest!

Lots of smaller projects have popped up over the years, including the #pubmedia chats happening each Monday evening with the help of some public media Twitter luminaries. 😉

What each of the projects have lacked is either staying power or depth of collaboration, mostly driven by a lack of time to pursue collaborative work instead of individual (station-focused) digital production.

With the help of Allen Gunn, I’m betting on a great meeting and some sustainable work to benefit our communities and colleagues across the public radio, TV and web universe. Hopefully there will be more to report by the weekend.

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.

Transformation of books: 'The Elements' for iPad

We’ve heard about interactive textbooks for years, but we’ve never seen it. Not even on the Kindle, which has some nice features, but it’s not there yet.

But this book — The Elements — specifically designed for the iPad, looks stunning. Everything is informative, interactive… alive.

I don’t need a periodic table of the elements or any of the rest of this book. Not really. But I’ll buy it. I want to experience this new digital form.

Pew: Impact of the Internet on Institutions in the Future

By 2020, innovative forms of online cooperation will result in significantly more efficient and responsive governments, business, non-profits, and other mainstream institutions.

New survey results report from Pew on how institutions are likely to change as the impact of Internet models of thinking and acting change our expectations of those institutions. It’s also about how we, as workers in those institutions, are changing how we work and what we expect of work.

CS Monitor leadership gets it

the key to building and keeping traffic is far more prosaic than multimedia and sharing buttons. It rests on overcoming a huge cultural barrier: evolving a serious, experienced, thoughtful newsroom into an audience-first organization. I use the term “evolving” because this is all about the present tense. Trying to understand our current and future audience is a work in progress that will continue for as long as we publish on the web.

Great story — read the whole thing. The CS Monitor is rapidly iterating and staying focused on users and mission, not tools.

The best 21st century career advice available anywhere

The next time you see this man, you kiss him on the mouth.

Because he’s given us some killer career advice for all workers in all professions in all industries. Follow this advice and you will not want for work. The work will find you.

In “The importance of being a person,” consultant Bob Lewis outlines how you can make yourself indispensable in your job and in your field. He calls it “being a person,” which sounds a lot softer than his advice really is.

The short version (the full piece starts off a little slow, making its big point in the second half):

In just about every business, there’s a club. To become a member, you have to be a person, and not just an interchangeable, faceless, member-of-the-great-unwashed, one-of-the-troops sack o’ skills.

Companies treat members of the club differently than non-members. They pay members more. They give members more interesting assignments. Members receive the promotions, and their names aren’t on the Reduction In Force rosters.

If you value your career, believe me: You want to be a person.

The examples Lewis uses after this are IT- and software-related, but the point is the same. Either you’re someone business managers instruct, like a robot, to do a set grouping of tasks, or you’re an active part of solving team and company problems, taking ownership of the issues that keep your manager up at night or are holding back better corporate performance.

A person is someone that’s fully engaged, fully participating. Those people are hard to find and sometimes hard to keep around. But cogs in the machine? They’re a dime a dozen; easily replaced.

Find the ways to become a “person” in your company. And if you can’t do that where you are, find another company where you can participate fully.

Channel surfing + web surfing

NewTeeVee has a nice post summarizing some recent Nielsen data on TV viewing + simultaneous Internet usage.

Of course, the data are somewhat anecdotal because Nielsen has direct measurement tools for TV viewing, but noting “Internet time” is diary-style and the diary is likely filled out by older household members less likely to multi-media-task™ with laptop and remote on the couch.

It also ignores the younger set that doesn’t turn on the TV to begin with, but still watches TV content… via the web. I’m working with some new folks in St. Louis, some rather young folks, and they generally don’t watch TV via TV. So that usage pattern isn’t directly recorded, either.

Nevertheless, the dual-surfing approach is definitely on the rise, by Nielsen’s numbers and from my own observations. Shoot — my 70+ year old mother does that with her MacBook Pro and the big screen TV. Soon she’ll do it with her 64GB WiFi iPad (I kid you not).