On seeking trust in public media

Public media consultant Michael Marcotte posted about some of his recent work on ethics guidelines for public media employees and I was moved to comment. I started commenting directly on his blog, but realized — after 700 words — that I should really post this on my site and link over to it. No need to gunk up his comments.

Be sure to check out the source post — Ethics Guidelines for Public Media Employees — and related documents first. Got it? Then here are my comments.

I’m glad someone is thinking about this in the public media world, but I’m disappointed that traditional journalists got their hands so deeply into this document.

We don’t need a replication of existing “view from nowhere” positioning in journalism. We need fairness and disclosure, yes, but objectivity is not increasing public trust. NPR maintained traditional objectivity right through the right-wing attacks of the last few years and it neither illuminated those situation nor generated more trust in any corner. Objectivity-worship sucked the teachable moment right out of those manufactured controversies.

I could go on for a long time about the perils of objectivity, but Jay Rosen has that waterfront covered, so just read his stuff. Instead, I’ll focus on the real flaw I see at the heart of this document.

It’s related to the objectivity thing, but it’s much simpler. It’s right there in the Principles at the top of the list: “Seek public trust“. Three simple words.

  • Trust is good. We all want that. We need it. It makes the mission of public media organizations easier and more supportable. Trust is an unvarnished good.
  • Public is a pretty good word. I think we’ve lost touch with that word through its overuse; we don’t know what it means anymore. Does “public” mean upper-middle-class college whites? It certainly seems that way in public media. But let’s leave that old argument aside and assume the best around the word “public.”
  • Here’s the problem: “Seek“. You’re telling people to seek public trust. You’re advising that people angle for it, grasp for it, hope for it. By choosing the word “seek” you’re admitting that public media organizations must position themselves, marketing-style, as being trustworthy. They don’t have to BE trustworthy, they just have to seek the perception of trustworthiness. (It’s time to post more “PBS is #1 in public trust” press releases!)

When it comes to social media and real life — and I would argue when it comes to news — you either are trustworthy or you are not. You earn trust. You have trust. You can lose trust. But you don’t seek it. You don’t plan for it. “Seeking” to me sounds like someone who’s trying too hard to be my friend. It feels contrived. And contrivances are not trustworthy.

Those three words — “Seek public trust” — flow from a major problem public media organizations (and newspapers) face today: a collection of older executives that are working to protect an anachronistic empire, managers who’ve inherited a system that has a lot of trust built up from 30+ years of valuable public service, most of which was built before their time. They’re seeking public trust because they’re trying to preserve their own income and status.

Early public media leaders didn’t seek public trust. They just did trustworthy things. They were trustworthy people. Trust adhered to them over time based on the things they did. It wasn’t the color of their logos, it was the content of their characters that made a difference. Do you think Fred Rogers sought public trust? He schemed for it?

To take an unrelated example, look at Apple. Apple has tremendous levels of trust built up with millions of customers. They have a brand with worldwide respect. They’re the best at customer service. They have unparalleled product quality, design, and ease of use. People love Apple. Dis Apple “seek public trust” to get where they are? Did they market their trustworthiness? Or do they instead earn their trust with each well-executed product, each simple service, each box opening? Go look at the last 10 years of Steve Jobs’ presentations. Did he ever talk about trust? No. But he and the company earned it billions of times over.

In the case of social media, public media organizations should ask their employees to be trustworthy, be nice, deal in truth, share the spotlight, and promote — at least some of the time — a better world.

The long list of ethics rules should really be shortened to look like this:

  • Be trustworthy (e.g. think before you post, respect privacy, practice transparency, strive for accuracy and truthfulness, use your “real” voice, be nice, share)
  • Either maintain a healthy congruency between personal and professional behavior or at least recognize that your capacity for maintaining separate personal and private lives is inversely proportional to how public your professional position is
  • Keep in mind your public associations, even fleeting ones, may affect whether others are willing to trust you, so associate carefully for positive and negative returns

And that’s it.

The extra rules in the proposed document are designed for managers of an earlier era. I understand why they’re there. They’re all part of “seeking public trust” through manufactured objectivity and too-earnest striving for legitimacy. Which is a losing game in the long run.

Public media actors should be trustworthy, and let the rest take care of itself.

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?

When a PBS journalist attacks

NOTE: Updates added at the bottom of the post.

Late last week the host of a major PBS program took aim, in a pseudo-blog-post, at NYU journalism professor and innovator Jay Rosen because Rosen said he didn’t like that hosts’s program — a weekly talking-heads affair based out of Washington, DC.

I won’t link to the host or their complaint here because they didn’t bother to link to Rosen’s original piece in the Washington Post or his blog or his fascinating Twitter feed. And that host was deliberately ignorant of Rosen’s work, failing to do a shred of research. They didn’t even watch a video of Rosen appearing on PBS a little over a year ago.

But I will link to that insightful Jay Rosen appearance on PBS — with the now-retired Bill Moyers — in which he specifically critiqued the problem of Washington insider journalism, including the many insiders that appear on the outraged host’s program every week (I would have embedded the video here, but the video isn’t embeddable without stealing it). I encourage you to watch, despite the length, because Rosen shares a highly nuanced view of Washington journalists, politicians and their mutual interest in preserving status quo power.

In the reaction to Rosen’s appeal to put this particular insider show out to pasture, the host’s post (yeah, I know this is tedious, but I’m making a point) never referred to Rosen by name, never linked to anything he’s done, including the source article that ticked off the host in the first place, never addressed Rosen’s concerns and in fact reinforced his long-standing critique of beltway insider gamesmanship.

Only calling Rosen “the NYU professor” and failing to link to the source piece is an intentional slap in the face from an elder in what Rosen calls the “Church of the Savvy.” Dismissing his argument simply reinforces his point: that this program, the host and its guests are beltway insiders talking shop rather than helping the public hold politicians to account in meaningful, public-service ways. The host’s total mischaracterization of Rosen’s arguments also proves the prediction that beltway insiders reflexively dismiss outsiders, thus retaining their positions.

I defend anybody’s right to comment on the news of the day – whether it is Chris Matthews or Bill O’Reilly or Larry King or Jon Stewart. I even defend the NYU professor, however misguided he might be.

<sarcasm>How generous of you. Thank God you’re standing up for Jay Rosen’s free speech rights! And you know, you’re right… Bill O’Reilly and Jay Rosen are cut from the same cloth, aren’t they?</sarcasm>

In effect, the host played directly into Rosen’s analysis. But worse, the show’s audience has been denied a serious discussion about the mission of such programs. There may be valid reasons for having an insider show, perhaps as part of a larger programming strategy, but the claim that the show “saves marriages” (I’m not making that up — that’s in the reaction post) is utterly unserious and demonstrates the intense contempt this insider has for meaningful media criticism from a serious and even credentialed source.

What to do?

Look, I’m not on the “cancel this show” bandwagon. It makes viewers happy, which helps bring in the bucks. And for a talking head show, it’s a considerable step above what you get on cable channels. But the demonization of Rosen is breathtakingly ignorant and/or deliberately dismissive at a level unbecoming of a PBS-sanctioned “journalism” host.

I don’t think an apology is in order. I think the next show should have Rosen on as a guest. If you’re not a guardian of the Church of the Savvy, you’ve got nothing to fear. Bill Moyers didn’t shy away from this issue, why should you? And hey — this could be the equivalent of Jon Stewart appearing on CNN’s Crossfire.

Be More: Resourceful

[1] Here’s a brief example (video) of how “savviness” cuts off legitimate debate in the professional press:

http://www.youtube.com/v/ms548AkFP5s&hl=en_US&fs=1&rel=0

[2] And here’s a little more on what savviness is, directly from Jay Rosen.

[3] Meanwhile, if you like talking head shows examining national politics, forget the snoozy Friday evening PBS fare and go for something more entertaining and at least a little further outside the beltway. I highly recommend Slate’s Political Gabfest (also entertaining on Facebook), which has only 1 beltway insider (who also has appeared on the aggrieved host’s show). If you must stick to public media sources, go for Left, Right and Center, which has insiders, but at least it’s from California.

[4] And about linking… Why didn’t the host link to Rosen’s original piece at the Washington Post? Because the host was obeying old-media rules, in addition to being dismissive. Rosen explains the rules in this discussion of outbound linking:

http://www.youtube.com/v/RIMB9Kx18hw&hl=en_US&fs=1&rel=0

[5] And if you’ve never seen it, here’s the Jon Stewart appearance on Crossfire that pretty much ended the show. It exposed this extreme Church-of-the-Savvy example for what it was:

http://www.youtube.com/v/aFQFB5YpDZE&hl=en_US&fs=1&rel=0

UPDATE 1: There’s another great Jay Rosen piece, in which he refers to the unnamed PBS program: Audience Atomization Overcome: Why the Internet Weakens the Authority of the Press. And in this piece, he goes on to explain some concepts about how the mainstream press — especially the insiders — defines what ate and aren’t legitimate news and discussion points for consideration in public life.

UPDATE 2: One of my favorite firebrands, Michael Rosenblum, took our subject to task in a seething post that posits our dear host as a member of a doomed noble class.

Shales on 'Need to Know': Blech!

A couple days ago TV critic Tom Shales participated in an online chat with Washington Post readers in which he bantered about the Betty White appearance on Saturday Night Live last week and other topics. In the mix he took a few questions about the new PBS program Need to Know (produced by WNET), including this one:

…what does Need to Know need to fix?

Tom Shales: A whole new mindset. It’s just HORRIBLE. First the ridiculous idea that you’re very au courant if you somehow incorporate the internet in your show — oh please — and then that “incorporation of the internet” turns out to be not much more than EVERY SINGLE OTHER SHOW ON TELEVISION DOES, which means set up a stupid web site that hardly ever changes and paste some leftover junk on it. …

And if you think this comment is nasty, check out the full review Shales published in the Post this week, including this little gem:

PBS promises that this dreadful “Need to Know” show, which supplements vacuous televised drivel with fancily designed Web-page graphics, “empowers audiences to ‘tune in’ any time and any where.”

Meaning that you are free to supplement inadequate broadcast material with unsatisfying Internet material whenever you inexplicably get the urge.

Shales offers a decidedly harsh assessment. But I watched the first episode and had a similar — though less violent — reaction: it’s dreck.

But I’ll do what Shales didn’t: I’ll answer the question of “what do they need to change?”

Don’t Fake Me Out with the Web

The show was hyped as a web/TV hybrid, but it isn’t that at all. If the audience is getting an “open kimono” view of the production process, I can’t see it. Viewer participation in the editorial process is also nonexistent. NPR’s failed Bryant Park Project had more participation than this — and that was 3 years ago.

Sadly, to fix the show they’ll have to scrap it and start over. If the web is supposed to be a core part of the service, start there, not in the studio. Build a news service on the web, draw in the audience, feed smaller elements over to the NewsHour for exposure and find your editorial voice and rhythm. Don’t produce a TV show until this is working well. Otherwise you’re lying about the role the web plays in the production.

Do New TV

The most cringe-inducing parts of the show were when they copied commercial news conventions, whether with graphics or camera angles or the two-way interview shots of the nodding correspondent. If I didn’t know better, I’d have thought this was a Dateline parody at times.

Good God people, TV news is a plague upon the earth! DO NOT COPY THAT MODEL. If it looks and smells like commercial TV news, you’ve failed.

Get New Hosts

I know Alison Stewart has done some journalism along the way (even winning a Peabody), but I’m sorry… MTV News on the resume? That should be a disqualifier for serious news work in public media. I just can’t take her seriously, whether she asks “dorky” questions about GPS or not. But mostly she needs to go because she was hired as a mini-celebrity.

And Jon Meacham? He’s a passable stuffed shirt straight man when Jon Stewart is verbally goosing him on the Daily Show, but on this show he seemed incredibly stiff and “serious.” The false gravitas was annoying on a level almost equal to James Earl Jones saying, “This is CNN.” Sometimes I thought he was looking into the camera as if to say, “Get me out of here — I have a magazine to buy!

Get hosts that are virtual unknowns, just like the NewsHour did with their online and rundown host Hari Sreenivasan. Focus on the content, not the face. Start with the web to produce news. Start with real journalists to create the face of the program for TV. I know: corporate funders want big names attached to their dollars. But who are you serving here?

And We Pay for This?

Last but not least, if you haven’t read it already, videojournalist gadfly Michael Rosenblum addressed this new program back in March when he got wind of the project. He got several facts wrong, most notably the program length (1 hour instead of 30 minutes) and the fact that staff weren’t hired to work on the show until March or April of this year, but his rant is well worth it for entertainment alone:

The rent on Need to Know’s Lincoln Center studio is $1 million a year. The show’s annual budget is more than $10 million, according to sources.

Are you kidding me?

Are you all on drugs over there at WNET/13?

One Million Dollars a year… for rent? (and to yourselves!)

One Million Dollars a year for a studio from which you are going to produce one half-hour once a week!

And another (gulp!!!) Nine Million Dollars for some lousy website!

Are you all insane?

I don’t wanna make too big a point of this, but we over here produce 3 half-hour local news shows a day (for cable), and we do it 5 days a week for 52 weeks a year, and our TOTAL costs are a tiny fraction of your budget for one half hour once a week.

WNET’s CEO Neal Shapiro then replied on the blog and refuted several errors. But he didn’t rebut the core of Rosenblum’s idea: that $10 million a year for this kind of show is an insane amount of money. Shapiro points out it’s cheaper than network alternatives, but in a later reply Rosenblum makes this proposal:

Suppose we hired 25 of the very best journalists we could find in the country. Suppose we salaried them at $100,000 a year. I think they would like that. Now, we have spent $2.5 million. If we’re going to produce 52 hours a year, and each of them has to make 8 pieces a year (I think this is reasonable, no?). So, we have 200 pieces over our 52 hours or 4 pieces per hour. With me so far?

Lets give them video cameras and laptops and some travel budget. And they can work in a transparent way – on the web, so with wikis and citizen journalists and such, there can be lots of ‘curating’ and contributions to their stories. We can assemble this anywhere really. And we can do it live. Let’s rent a radio studio from NPR and simulcast the show or rent a studio from WNYC in NY. that’s the easy part. Or we can pre-tape the whole thing from my living room. I will rent it out for a lot less than a million a year. Is this do-able? Oh, I think so.

Would we get a great product? Oh, I think so. Let’s put the money in the journalism and not in the carpeting on the walls (which was my favorite feature at the old Hudson Hotel WNET). You don’t need offices any more. Or carpeting. Or receptionists. Or chyron people. Or camera crews. Put the money into the journalism and I will gladly open my checkbook and give all the support I can.

Next Wave TV News

We all know that local public TV stations across the country have basically no news capacity. Their relevance and impact is dwindling. But take on the Rosenblum approach and you’ll get something that looks and functions in new ways. And all for a bargain price compared to traditional TV.

The key for TV news success, to me, is to destroy most of the commercial TV conventions. Make sure the news product looks, feels, sounds and functions differently than commercial TV. Make sure everything starts on the web and lives there 95% of the time. Only go to the big screen as a wrap-up of the week or with stuff that just doesn’t function well on the web.

Imagine a team of 10 VJs hitting the streets to make video for the web and for broadcast each day. Imagine the results: new kinds and styles of stories. Topics covered that would never make it in traditional broadcast. No more ambulance, police and fire chasing. No more vacuous news anchors. Local stories told well and gathered at a rate and with a quality that’s unprecedented.

Need to Know could have led this revolution. It’s incredibly disappointing they didn’t.

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.

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.

Two angry callers

Radio and television stations all over the country get nasty, crazy and crazy-nasty callers pretty much every week. Most calls are handled by the poor souls that handle “operator” duties in the station. But after hours, the calls go to voicemail. And back from my days in public broadcasting in Anchorage, I would occasionally save those voicemails.

As I was cleaning up some files this weekend, I ran across these two callers. They never identified themselves (thankfully), but they had some choice words for our station.

Think of the children!

October 2008 — What would you do if Big Bird told you to smash up valuable property in your home? You’d do it, right? Well, not if this caller has anything to say about it!

Back in 2008 we were still airing the “Be More” series of PBS self-promotion ads. Apparently there was one in which a musician decides to “be more passionate” following a performance. But in doing so, he’s indoctrinating the children — the children! — in the ways of the vandal.

Call includes the classic “I won’t give you money” threat that always comes from people that never gave you money and never will anyway. [MP3 link]

[audio:https://gravitymedium.files.wordpress.com/2010/02/angry25021.jpgaudio/20081013-vandalism.mp3%5D

Socialist sons-a-bitches!

September 2008 — Everyone knows PBS is part of President Obama’s Bolshevik plot, right? Duh! But this caller thought he might turn our local station back to the righteous American way of the world by asking us, in his eloquent way, to remove our collective heads from our asses. Bonus points to this guy for suggesting — way ahead of his teabagging colleagues — that Obama would “kill us” if elected.

What sparked his ire? Well, the Democratic National Convention went on for 4 interminable days in late 2008 with blanket coverage by both our NPR and PBS colleagues each day. But the Republican convention was much shorter — by Republican choice due to the threat of a second Katrina in the opening day or so as hurricane Gustav approached the Gulf coast. Awkward!

But let’s not let facts get in the way of a pre-teabagging rant… [MP3 link]

[audio:https://gravitymedium.files.wordpress.com/2010/02/angry25021.jpgaudio/20080901-socialist.mp3%5D

Mobile DTV? You have got to be effing kidding me

PBS, NETA, APTS and CPB leaders are out of their freaking minds if they think Mobile DTV will take off. All momentum is in the opposite direction. All of it. But go ahead — read the giddy predictions:

Public TV leaders at NETA predicted Mobile DTV will be used for simulcasts of live TV as well as weather alerts, datacasts of traffic maps and sports scores, radio with pictures and interactive brainstorms yet to come, CPB is backing a PBS experiment with a 24-hour children’s TV service.

Though commercial broadcasters are mum about their business plans, said CPB Senior Vice President Mark Erstling,  they agree that kidvid is Mobile DTV’s “killer app.”

There’s even hope that Mobile DTV will seduce 18-to-24-year-old “millenials” to watch news and public affairs TV, said Lonna Thompson, general counsel of the Association of Public Television Stations, speaking at the NETA Conference. A survey indicated their level of interest would double, she said, because they’d no longer be “tethered” to a set in the living room.

Mobile DTV may be able to do a tolerable imitation of cable: Planners say broadcasters in D.C. will air at least 20 different Mobile channels during the tryout this spring.

It can also do a limited imitation of video-on-demand by “clipcasting”—constantly downloading, in advance, an array of popular videos to be stored in users’ receivers—though it won’t let users choose among every video on the Web.

Where it may shine is fulfilling past visions of interactive TV that cable has failed to realize. If the mobile receiver is a cell phone, it can provide a return path for ordering pizzas, voting on American Idol or whatever users want to click

“There will be great businesses built in Mobile DTV,” predicted Andy Russell, senior v.p, PBS Ventures, at the NETA Conference. “We think the possibilities are enormous with this new platform.”

via current.org

QUESTIONS

  1. So the whole “alternative uses” angle on DTV never came true. What makes it likely to happen with Mobile DTV? And who’s going to pay for all that software development? TV stations can’t even make regular content in most markets now, but we’re going to hire traffic and weather and sports programmers for our little Mobile DTV channels?
  2. You seriously think that just by creating yet another distribution channel — one that competes with existing popular channels — millenials will suddenly get interested in news and public affairs programs? You’ve got to be f***ing kidding. “Oooh! ‘Washington Week’ on my mobile phone? Check it out Kayleigh!”
  3. So Mobile DTV’s big idea is to copy cable? Excellent business plan. You do realize most of the cable companies are monopolies with extensive infrastructure, right? They don’t make money by lining up channels alone.
  4. “Clipcasting?” It’s called YouTube! Perhaps you’ve heard of it? I have it on my phone right now! Besides — who’s going to curate that? More people we can’t afford to hire?
  5. Dear God you’re going to the “interactive TV” angle again? Jesus, that died 20 years ago and rightly so. TV is a largely passive medium. Interactivity is a web practice. Have you all learned nothing since the advent of the Internet? Ordering pizzas? Voting for “American Idol?” Really? This is the glorious future ahead if only we develop Mobile DTV?
  6. Great businesses will be built with Mobile DTV, huh? You mean like HD Radio has burned up the dials and made Clear Channel billions? Oh, right — they’re in the toilet along with the rest of the commercial radio world. But TV will kick ass with a new platform that requires new hardware, barely duplicates existing and growing functionality on other platforms, and has little to no value proposition for users, right? Sure. Sign me up.

There was a time, many years ago, when a kid — like myself — enjoyed smuggling a little 2.5 inch Casio TV into my high school study hall and getting fuzzy TV images of “The Price is Right” or daytime soaps or whatever was on. But aside from that experience I’ve never wanted mobile TV. Mobile video, yes (and I have that), but not TV.

Keep in mind that TV, including some of public TV, has turned into a broadcast wasteland, especially during the day when people are mobile. I’m going to tune in for “Judge Judy” for 1.5 minutes while I’m on line at the bank? Not likely.

The only shot Mobile DTV has is kids programming, and only from PBS. But is it a “killer app?” Well… if you define “killer” as the only remotely viable app for Mobile TV, done at cost in a noncommercial model, then sure. And Lord help us all pay for all the infrastructure this year and forevermore.

To understand why Mobile DTV won’t make it, just look at what kids are already doing today: they’re texting and using social networks and calling one another. They’re doing social things, not kicking back and watching TV. At most, they might refer friends to see a web video clip, but that will be something forbidden, not a great vocabulary lesson from “Word Girl.”

As 3G and 4G wireless networks (and WiFi) become truly ubiquitous, and our devices are always on the ‘net, TV will become increasingly quaint. The only likely users for Mobile DTV will be the very Boomers that won’t buy the Mobile DTV devices anyway.

And let’s not forget all the bold promises of DTV that remain unfulfilled, which we’re hearing yet again from our august leaders: datacasting, weather, sports scores, news, ad nauseum. The fact that “radio with pictures” was noted in the article tells you how desperate these folks are to get attention. And hey — where’s my MP4-encoded DTV broadcasts? When’s that gonna be done?

Finally, don’t get me started on the low technical quality of the proposed Mobile DTV channels. I have a 2-year-old Flip cam that shoots better video than could be displayed on Mobile DTV. How does this make sense? Disruptive technologies can indeed come along with a lower technical quality, but who intentionally builds a Ferrari and then dents it up, puts a speed governor on it and smashes the windshield to get different customers interested?

Today — the “day of the Tablet” — I encourage all the public broadcasters out there with an eye toward Mobile DTV to look at the real future: mobile apps, mobile web, mobile multifunction devices field-upgraded on demand with new software from the cloud. The web absorbs and carries all media, synchronously and asynchronously. Reverting to broadcast just doesn’t make sense in most cases, and where it does make sense, we already have technologies and deployed assets that work fine; they even work better than fine if you consider HDTV.

Mobile data is much more valuable to our society and economy than propping up a shrinking business model. Let’s stop fighting the losing DTV battle and start fighting for a public service media future that meets the needs of our community and meets people where they are and where they’re going, not where they’ve been.

Yeah, we're a sensible business. What of it?

One thing I cannot abide is prevarication. It’s why I’ll never be a successful politician (or an unsuccessful one, for that matter).

So it irks me every time a public broadcasting leader gets up in front of a crowd and trots out the old chestnut of how public broadcasting — especially public TV — is so much better than commercial broadcasting because we produce “Masterpiece Theater” and they produce “Dog the Bounty Hunter.” Recently PBS CEO Paula Kerger took to one of these many stages and talked about how PBS kids programming is so much better than the commercial kids garbage out there, especially since PBS doesn’t attach kids merchandising to the broadcasts.

Too bad someone blew the bullshit siren. [Hat tip to Current for the find.]

And please, let’s not slice-and-dice this story into “well, it wasn’t PBS that did it, it was WGBH, the producer…” yadda, yadda, yadda. The public does not understand these distinctions and we all know it. The conservative blogger also busts out the old Sesame Workshop example, which has dogged the network for years because  no one has had the guts to speak the truth without blushing (which I’ll get to in a minute).

Separately, the issue of PBS buying Nielsen ratings data came up in this Washington Post column (scroll to the bottom), in which Kerger attempts to politically sidestep the fact that the network bought the access to help it sell air time to sponsors. The columnist said Kerger’s explanation of the Nielsen deal “sounded suspiciously like a CBS sales exec at a pitch with potential advertisers.”

Good grief. The problem isn’t that Kerger sounded like a CBS sales exec, it’s that she sounded suspiciously like a CBS sales exec! It’s suspicious because her language was deliberately double-talky. We’ve been taught to be apologetic for operating like businesses, and her roundabout language gives away our cultural discomfort with bottom-line considerations.

I’m tired of the song-and-dance promoted from the tops of our public media ecosystem. Our leaders attack commercial media and praise noncommercial despite the fact that the differences are not so stark; there are good programs in commercial media, and we have some dogs of our own. We rag on “Ice Road Truckers” but secretly sit transfixed for hours during a weekend marathon. We despise the rampant commercialism of kids programming but align ourselves with companies that participate in the same TV-industrial complex.

Let’s get real. Here’s some of what I would like to see in print and hear from our leaders when they talk to the public:

  • Nonprofits are still businesses. If they’re run without good business practices, they will fail. If a nonprofit corporation fails, the public good they were organized to pursue will be lost. So it’s good to operate like a business. Stop acting like this is a bad thing!
  • Sesame Workshop makes money from character licensing? Good for them! Money they make in that way offsets the cost to PBS and stations. Without that separate income, that show would cost stations a metric ton more to produce, meaning that show or others would be canceled. Nonprofits are specifically allowed to make unrelated income — they just have to pay taxes on that income. So guess what happens…
    • kids get “Sesame Street” products they like, attaching them to a program with great educational value
    • people are employed in making, transporting and selling the products
    • taxes are collected on the profits, helping pay for government programs (like public broadcasting)
    • actors, directors, producers, writers and other artists are paid a fair wage
    • the cost to PBS and stations is reduced for a beloved program
    • …and this is bad how?
  • Corporations used to be more openly philanthropic, but now they want something for their money — we can’t change that. So we can either take their money and create “advertising lite” options for them, or leave the money on the table. Maybe it is wrong to take the money and add corporate messages to our content. If you’ve got a better idea, we’re all ears.
  • Yeah, we don’t like the slide toward advertising either. But watch 1 hour of PBS and 1 hour of Discovery and compare the number, frequency, length and stridency of the commercials you see. There’s a difference and you know it.
  • Buying Nielsen data is standard practice in the TV world. It helps us get sponsorship dollars. Frankly, you should be shocked it took us this long.
  • Don’t like our mild commercialism? Push for legislation to fund public media at a level where corporate sponsorship isn’t needed, BBC-style. We don’t like selling ourselves anyway.
  • We produce “Antiques Roadshow” because it gets ratings (and dollars) not because it’s programming that consistently lives up to our mission.
  • We broadcast “Lawrence Welk” because old people like it and we want their money when they die.
  • There’s quite a few programs on commercial media we like and respect — it’s not all garbage. For example, we’re mad we didn’t think of “Mythbusters” first.
  • Sometimes we will use marketing tactics to make people aware of our programs. Deal.

Would I phrase all the messages exactly this way? No, of course not.

But the messages must be clear: we’re businesses, we do good things for our communities and we use a variety of tactics to achieve our goals, some of which involve trade-offs of mission and sustainability.

And if you can suggest ways in which we never have to make trade-offs, let’s talk.

Rosenblum Resurrected

Back in February 2007 I was blown away by Michael Rosenblum, keynote speaker at the Integrated Media Association conference in Boston. I’ve shared this video on DVD, shown it to colleagues and helped the IMA post it to their web site back then. But it’s buried at the IMA site and it deserves much more play. So I’m resurrecting it here.

I was actually running the cheap camcorder at the event, in a dimly lit hotel ballroom from about 50 feet away off to the side — so the video itself is blah. But the audio is awesome because it was professionally recorded and I was able to merge the blah video with the fantastic audio. Makes all the difference.

Blurry and dim video aside, Rosenblum’s presentation is mesmerizing. His grip on historical stories brings to life the peril that’s present for traditional TV broadcasters and TV producers, including public broadcasting companies. This is must-watch stuff if you’re in any way involved in TV or video.

Length: about 1 hour. Introduction by KQED‘s Tim Olson. Download a QuickTime copy here (113MB).

http://vimeo.com/moogaloop.swf?clip_id=8212211&server=vimeo.com&show_title=1&show_byline=0&show_portrait=0&color=ff9933&fullscreen=1

Rosenblum on Video News

Sing it brother! Rosenblum instinctively understands the next wave in both local video news production and local advertising production. While working at the stations in Anchorage, I proposed that we develop a democratized advertising platform to allow folks to write their own material, submit it online and pay for it instantly. Why aren’t we doing that today?

http://vimeo.com/moogaloop.swf?clip_id=8079409&server=vimeo.com&show_title=1&show_byline=1&show_portrait=0&color=&fullscreen=1

Brian Lehrer Live Interview from Rosenblum TV on Vimeo.

Rosenblum on TV Economics

Everyone in the PBS community knows that stations and the network screwed up when cable became a major national media distribution force. PBS should have been allowed an encouraged to develop a multi-channel national content distribution system tailored to the cable world. Too bad we missed that boat. And now, with hundreds of cable channels and millions of web outlets, video economics have jumped and it’s time we rethink our work.