Public Broadcasting… an American Challenge

GUEST: Neal Shapiro
AIR DATE: 12/12/09

I’m Richard Heffner, and I began to produce and host The Open Mind back more than a half-century ago, in 1956.

And it’s still a source of great delight for me. But the very most rewarding thing I’ve done as both a commercial and a public broadcaster over even many more years than that was in the early 1960′s to help acquire and then as its Founding General Manager to activate public television Channel Thirteen here in New York.

Outside of my children and grandchildren, nothing has ever made me as proud.

Over the years, too, many of Channel Thirteen’s intrepid leaders have joined me here on The Open Mind to discuss its enormous growth … and triumphs … AND, quite frankly, at times its problems.

Well, my guest today is Neal Shapiro, President and CEO of WNET.ORG, the parent of New York public television stations Thirteen and WLIW21.

Earlier, my guest had spent 13 years at ABC News and then served as President of NBC News from 2001 to September 2005.

So that Neal Shapiro has seen it all … and by this time I think I can legitimately ask him about the major challenges WNET.ORG – and public television stations generally – must face in the years ahead. Fair, Neal, to put that to you?

SHAPIRO: Totally fair. I must say there’s something … wonderful symmetry here. I, the new guy, get to talk to you, the Founding Member, so this is fun for me, too.

HEFFNER: Okay. What are the problems?

SHAPIRO: Well, the biggest one, and maybe this hasn’t changed since your time …

HEFFNER: (Laughter)

SHAPIRO: … the biggest one is money. Public television, because we’re not driven by commercials … we spend an enormous amount of our time trying to raise the money to do the programs we want to do.

And my biggest surprise … or one of them, anyway, in coming to public television was the ratio between the amount of people it takes to raise the money and the amount of people it takes to do the programs. Because we get funding revenue from so many different sources and in a recession, they’re all challenged.

We spend a lot of time trying to say “What can we afford to do, how can we afford even to keep the programs on the air right now that we love.” And in addition to that, how can we try to do new programs that we need to keep growing?

HEFFNER: Which way is it going right now?

SHAPIRO: Well, as we sit here?

HEFFNER: Yeah.

SHAPIRO: It’s still challenged and there are some signs, I think, that the economy is moving a little bit. But I would say we’re still challenged on almost every front.

HEFFNER: Is this just the very large stations like WNET? Like Thirteen? Or is it across the board in public television?

SHAPIRO: No, it’s, it’s across the board in public television. Some of the bigger stations like Thirteen were more challenged in a way because we produce so much of the programs that you see on PBS. So we have bigger challenges because we spend more, because we produce more.

But even the smaller stations, stations which produce very little are having a very difficult time and there are even some concerns within PBS that some of the very small stations may not be here much longer.

HEFFNER: If you were to take that point … ask yourself “Well, so what? So what in terms of consolidations and leaning more on the very large stations than on so very many small stations.” How many stations are there in the public system?

SHAPIRO: Three hundred and something … 330, I think. And I don’t know what the biggest issue would be if suddenly there were fewer stations, there were some consolidations … especially it would be good if there were some, what they call “Back office” consolidations. I don’t’ think anybody cares if there are less control rooms or, you know, less traffic people or less schedulers .. that would be fine.

The fear is that what you lose is local programming for smaller stations and obviously the national programs that bigger stations do.

HEFFNER: If you had to make a bet … is that what’s going to happen?

SHAPIRO: Well, I think there … I’m guessing there will be some kind of consolidation. And not all of that is bad. One of the things that I brought from the commercial sector, I think, is my emphasis that the point is I want to get all the dollars on the screen. And we ought to work as hard as we can about driving costs out of the system.

It’s fun(????) to say other people don’t feel that way, too. But if you’ve grown up in public television that’s the way you know how to do things.

If you grow up in commercial television you lived under that, that relentless pressure to drive out cost. And you have to be careful, you can’t do it without damaging quality. That’s the hard challenge.

But I do think there are opportunities, as for … as everyone in television to keep looking and saying “How can we do things more efficiently? How can we take advantage of technology, which continues to change?”

And if we are at the point where kids can produce things on their Apple computer … surely there must be some ways we can look at the way we’ve done programs and say “can we reduce some of that cost?”

HEFFNER: What about those kids and their computers? What’s the impact of the digital world on public television, on television generally?

SHAPIRO: I think we’re just learning it. And in some ways I think if we went back and you had said to me, had I been sitting here 25 years ago and you said, “This whole video thing, what’s going to be the impact of that? That we’re not going to have film any more?”

And I would say, “I’m not sure. My guess is you’re going to find it easier and easier to access material … video in this case. You’re going to find more and more people who can make it. There’s going to be a different way in which we can produce things … either with less people or less time.” And that’s what happened.

And the days even when I first became a broadcast journalist and the old film editors would say, “Boy, you don’t know what it’s like. We would go out, we would shoot something, we would put it in the soup … we would wait two and a half hours before it came out and then we would start to edit, and they had a whole way of doing things built around that technology.

Now you tell people that today … they don’t know what you’re talking about because they’ve grown up in the age of camcorders where you shoot it and you see it instantly.

Digital only makes that … accelerates all that. Now it become even easier and easier to shoot … even easier and easier to edit. It doesn’t mean, however … just because a lot of people can shoot film … not everybody’s Steven Spielberg.

Just because everybody can shoot digital video, doesn’t mean everybody’s going to be the next Don Hewitt or whoever the next great producer is.

It does mean more people are going to grow up being video literate. Both in what they can produce and how they can appreciate and sample material.

It means changing our notion that the only thing that counts is what’s on television. I mean we’re already doing that … I’m, I’m happy to say. But when we think about programs … for years … because TV was the only game in town, you would produce things only for what was on the TV screen. Everything that was left, stayed on … quote … the cutting room floor.

Now we live in a time where everything you produce can exist separately on the web. We can think about having an extension of it, so it’s a richer or deeper experience. And we need to think about people sampling our material, or watching it on different devices.

I think we’re moving to a place where there are both bigger screens and smaller screens.

I think we’re going to be sitting in living rooms ten years from now where the screen is the size of the wall. I mean you can see HDTV screens getting bigger and bigger and the experience getting richer and richer … the … just the video quality, the amount of detail you can see … so that when you see nature and you can see the depth of field of the buffalo in the foreground and the waves of grain in the background … so striking .. the things that are epic and big are different.

And at the same time people are going to be watching things on video screens that are on their watch or on their phone. And that’s going to mean that we may even have different versions of everything … the big version that we show you in your living room … that’s like the movie screen washing over you … where your eye is lost in the screen … we may have to cut that … literally, differently than this when it’s that close.

That’s just the beginning of the way in which I think the industry may change.

HEFFNER: Neal, it’s so wonderful to see the enthusiasm you have and I have to think that it comes from the fact that you were there … that you come to this position, this exalted position …

SHAPIRO: MmmHmmm.

HEFFNER: … from having been “hands on” in broadcasting.

SHAPIRO: Well, I think I’m very lucky in that respect. I man everybody brings their own personal experience to whatever they do. But I’ve been very lucky to be … getting into broadcast television in the eighties.

I didn’t realize at the time, but I think I probably was there to the glory days of network news … you know at a time when … at one point there were twenty some hours of magazines on prime time and it was growth, growth, growth was the name of the game.

And technology was changing so quickly and I got to work with some great people … I’ve been very lucky my whole life to do that. So I think I learned a lot from them.

And I also learned not to be fearful of the future. Because it’s facing you no matter what. So the answer is you have to embrace what’s good about it and find the opportunities in it.

I’m sure there were people years ago who said this whole car thing isn’t going to work out … and I think the wagon is my vehicle of choice (laugh) … but it doesn’t make a difference …

HEFFNER: Well, you know they were right.

SHAPIRO: That’s right.

HEFFNER: Well, listen, that makes me raise the question, we both read this past Sunday in The New York Times, David Carr’s piece on “A newsroom subsidized … minds reel”.

Going back to this question of news and you got into it, you’re a newsman from broadcasting … what do you think about the suggestions here that a) public stations should become more involved with news … local news and that b) there should be national money, governmental money, involved in supporting such news.

SHAPIRO: Well, let’s take it one at time. How do I feel about the first part … I think it’s a great idea and it, you know, a little exclusive to your viewers … we at Thirteen are going to get much more involved in covering local news.

I think it’s vitally important. I think because of some of the profit pressure that faces commercial television …you’re seeing them reduce the amount local news they have. Because at one point that was a huge, huge source of profit for them. And it turns out to be less and less so.

So I think you’ve seeing less coverage of local news and, within that sphere, even less coverage of the news which is harder to cover, harder to digest. So that you’re seeing less coverage, if there was much at all about education or urban planning or real estate or government in Albany … things that are not as easy to cover as say, car crashes.

So I think you’re seeing less deep, important coverage of the local news to start out. I do think public media should dive into that space. And we’re going to do some of it. Now how do you pay for it? Back to the very …

HEFFNER: Right.

SHAPIRO: … first thing we talked about. There are a couple ways. I am a little leery of taking government money, for a lot of reasons that, that we know. First because government money comes and goes in, in a way that can have everything to do with factors beyond your control, but there’s a bad year in the economy, pressure’s on the government and suddenly you find yourself down a huge amount.

We get some money from the State of New York. Mostly for the educational programs we do. And I’m very proud Ron Thorpe and our whole team … we have a great education department.

And last year because the State has had such hard financial times, they threatened to cut our subsidy by 50%. And we fought hard to get a 20% cut. Nonetheless that was still a big cut to us. So there was … that’s one issue.

The same thing you always worry about with government money is the potential for some government control, or even self-censorship. Even the notion that will you not do things because you’re worried that it may somehow anger those in government and then they will therefore take it out on you in the form of the amount of money you get.

HEFFNER: Has that happened, by the way, in terms of what government money there has been in public television?

SHAPIRO: Now as a, as a newbie in public television I haven’t experienced that yet. I haven’t experience either. I haven’t, haven’t felt that kind of pressure and I haven’t felt people say we shouldn’t do this because it will get people upset. But that doesn’t mean it doesn’t exist in the back of people’s minds and the possibility’s out there.

Now what would be great, if I could wave the magic wand, would be for foundations and philanthropists … because I think their goals are more in line with sort of unencumbered, unimpeded media cover.

If they would step up in a big way and say, “You’re right, this is the future of media … public media can go the places where commercial media is having a harder time. And we’ll make long-term commitments to you to do it.”

Because there is …for foundations … they require you to keep … properly to keep account of how you’re spending their money and to demonstrate that you’re having an impact, and that’s proper.

But, there’s not the sense that “We didn’t like this story, we didn’t like that story …”, there’s not that fear about that.

So in that way I would prefer that.

HEFFNER: Any sign on the horizon of that coming to pass?

SHAPIRO: There are some … there are some foundations which are getting their toe in the water. Knight’s been doing some interesting things. I know MacArthur and Carnegie and Pew are all interested in doing those things. And we’re interested in talking to them about our projects.

And there are increasingly some number of public television stations which have done some interesting projects. And I know a lot more are thinking about doing that.

HEFFNER: Let me, let me move this to a slightly different, not totally different … question or field … “if it bleeds, it leads” … now you know that has been the major criticism, generally of local news for years and years and years and years. Why won’t that be the clarion call of public television in the news … local news?

SHAPIRO: Well, I think for two reasons. One idealistic and one practical. The idealistic reason is because part of our mission is to do the stories that are important in the count. So we are much more likely and much more interested in doing things about issues of government policy. We’re much more interested in, in having people on to, to interview them about the issues that make the difference.

And in that I don’t think there’s going to be a lot of competition between us saying we want, we want to talk to the heads of education, or taxes or urban planning, or the things that are not quite a glamorous as what local news warrants.

The other thing is from a practical point of view. We’re not going to set up a newsroom with a bunch of cameras running around listening to the police scanner and saying, “Go chase that accident”. You know we don’t have the resources for it, we don’t have the inclination to do it.

Our goal is going to be to let others deal with the kind … the, the sirens of the day. And even frankly a lot of the news of the day. We want to tell you what it means. We want to tell you what’s the impact of it. There are plenty of other places who can do that. And if there is some spectacular police chases in this city, we’re not going to put up the Channel 13 helicopter to follow it. You know, and if I had the money, I wouldn’t put in the Channel 13 helicopter.

But I’d much rather tell you the next day … should we have these kind of chases, what’s the impact of them? Are we prepared for them?

I might want to talk to the station in Los Angeles, which has, which has a sport of following those police chases in commercial television … and say, “Have we lost our way here?”

I think in a lot of stories like this, there’s always the second day story, the third day story that often has much more importance than the glitzy story of the day.

HEFFNER: Well, God bless you and I hope you’re right in what you’re predicting about what will happen. I guess as a … increasingly cynical older man … I have some concerns about the need to, the perceived need to … not the real need to always follow the crowd, to get the crowd to watch. And that’s why I raise that question … do you find, to any considerable degree in your entrance into public broadcasting that there is some element of crowd pleasing that you thought wasn’t there before?

SHAPIRO: Well, I … I mean we do look at ratings …

HEFFNER: That’s what I mean.

SHAPIRO: Yeah. But, but not in the same way you … in some ways I think it’s not nearly the same way I used to do it in commercial television. I used to have pit twice in my stomach every single day. The first day you would get what were called “overnights” in the morning. Which was a sample of the big stations. And you could look at those and you would feel you heart sink if we were second or third … if we lost something we wanted to win. And then at four o’clock the “nationals” would come out. And sometimes the fact that the nationals would be completely different and you would win. So you would spend all morning long …

HEFFNER: (Laugh)

SHAPIRO: … sort of being … you were second guessing yourself or even more likely having people second guess you about why did you do this, why did you do that? Then the nationals come out which was theoretically the actual sample of the whole country and you’d win.

But going through that and agonizing about … you know, should we lead with this and not with that … more diet stories … no less diet stories … that’s not the type of thing we do in public television.

There is a sense do we say, you know, “is this a general topic that interests viewers?”. And in that sense we look at ratings. But we don’t minute by minute ratings. We don’t get half hour ratings. And we don’t spend time trying to think about what kind of category … kind of what can we do to tweak this or that.

You know, in part, because in commercial television there’s a cost. A tenth of a rating point means real money. In public television, it doesn’t really mean anything. It’s more just about “are we reaching the viewers we need to reach?”

Are we, are we making a point. I mean there is a strategy. I do care who watches us because, make no mistake, I want more people to watch. But I want them to watch for the right reasons. I want them to watch because they like the mission of what we’re doing and it feels different to them, that it feels that we’re reaching out into areas whether it’s arts and culture or movies or the many important non-profits in New York and says, “I’m not seeing that elsewhere, or I’m seeing things you’re doing that seem deeper or smarter.” And I want to get those people to watch.

HEFFNER: Is it the concept of alternative, alternative television that you think should dominate the public television area?

SHAPIRO: Well, I think with 500 channels or more … we want to say “what do we do differently or better than everybody else?” And there are some things we’re not going to do better or differently.

If you want to watch “Lost” go watch it on ABC. If you want to watch “Desperate Housewives”, go watch it on ABC. That’s not what we do.

And there’s plenty of room for people who want to watch things like that.

But over time if you want to watch programs that will stay with you, programs that you will think about, programs that will make you both think and feel, programs that you can show your children. That’s the place … that’s where we can be.

HEFFNER: But, Neal, many people now, from sociologists to futurists to historians talk about … and it’s a hateful terms, the “dumbing down” of America. I can’t say that I don’t see that in the classroom, I do see it as a college teacher.

Do you ever stop to consider what that means for public television? What consequences it must have?

SHAPIRO: I do. And, and that once again I see some opportunity in that. I do think there is that, that tendency to try to find the lowest common denominator. And in that I think, you know, more and more people who support the station, say, “You know I, I watch around sometimes and I find myself going back to 13 or 21 because there’s nothing else I want to watch.”

I do think that more and more that other people chase that, then more and more there’s a place for us to say, “Look, if you care about arts and culture, you can start on 13 or 21 and you’ll flip the channel 500 times and you’ll wind up back on 13 or 21”. Because there aren’t many other people who are saying “Who’s next the next great artist in our city? Where can I get the Met? Where can I get the Best from Lincoln Center?”

We’re building a new studio at, at Lincoln Center, which I’m really excited about because it’s going to enable us to tap even more into all the exciting talent that’s in New York.

I mean I’ll give you an example of one thing that we can do. So our studio is … literally Julliard is right about us. So the next generation of great composers, artists, dancers, actors … they’re all there.

So I wanted to change the station identification … the little thing that plays on top of every hour. So we said to the students at Julliard … we’d like you to compete to write the next theme. And one of them wrote it and the students at Julliard composed it, and that’s our new theme.

Well, there’s that kind of talent in the city all over the place. And I want to tap into that and do those things. And I don’t think, not for malicious reasons … that doesn’t really fit in the real house of my other colleagues in commercial television … it’s not what they’re about. It’s what we’re about.

And what television has shown us in the world of 500 channels, you can be a successful niche broadcaster. I mean the people that watch ESPN, watch it for a reason. They want to watch competitive sports at a professional level. That’s a great niche. We can’t do that.

HEFFNER: A few years ago there were those who said, “Look what Channel 13 does and does so very well.” What you’re talking about now is being done by some cable television channels. I have the feeling that’s not quite so true any longer. What, what’s your view of that?

SHAPIRO: I do think there are a lot of people who kind of have the veneer of some of our topics and say, “this is like public television”. But it’s not.

Just because you say you’re doing a story about bridges in America and we say we’re doing a whole series called “Blueprint America”, doesn’t mean we’re doing the same thing.

I’ll give you an example. We … when the bridge in Minneapolis collapsed …

HEFFNER: MmmHmm.

SHAPIRO: … I said this is a big story. And I knew sort of what commercial television would do … not that this is bad, because I’ve done it, which is they were covered for a couple of days on the evening news … they would tell the incredible human drama of who survived and who didn’t.

They come back a year later and do a series across the nightly news about, you know, declining infrastructure. That’s not a bad thing, it’s fine. It’s good that that gets out there. But there’s only so much the evening news can do. It’s 22 minutes with commercials, they have to get the news of the day in there … they just don’t have the time to truly, you know … an in-depth report is two and a half minutes. It’s nobody’s fault, that that’s what that genre allows.

The morning shows can do only so much. They have all these news to get into and … but public television is different. So we, together with the Rockefeller Foundation said, “We want to take a really serious look at this issue.”

Not just the issue of declining bridges. But everything. An infrastructure not just highways, but the information superhighway … everything … from where we are on the Internet. And how are we going to compete with other countries?

So we did this all across public television and public radio. We did a series on the NewsHour, we did things on Bill Moyers, we did things on “Now”, we did documentaries and during the course of some of that, both Paul Krugman of The Times and Brooks at The Times saw some of those things and talked about it and wrote about it.

And out of the course of that, the Obama campaign started to talk about it. Now they might have anyway, it sort of fit in with where they were politically and what they needed to do to get the economy going.

But my point is … when public television does things … two things happen. It talks to the people who make decisions in America. Public television over-indexes in everything from who votes, who gives to political parties, who reads and writes OpEd, who gets involved in civic causes, who works on the Hill. These are people who care about where our country is going. And people like … who are on our program get involved in this political echo chamber of smart people talking to smart people who make a difference.

And I think in this case, as in many others, when we say it’s an important topic, it gets it into the political blood stream faster and in a more profound way than when other people do it.

HEFFNER: You know I can’t help but think that you’re voice is the voice of a, of a renaissance in public television of something very new, very old and what we wanted, but something about to come true now. I hope that that is the case. Your enthusiasm as great now as when you left commercial broadcasting to come to public broadcasting?

SHAPIRO: Well, I think renaissance is the right word and the mix of old and new is exactly right. Because still the legacy programs of public television are fantastic. The shows and the people at Thirteen that do this work is great.

You know, I mean there’s nothing that matches, I think, the great work that “American Masters” does … these, these profiles of artists and performers which are done brilliantly with incredible research. The kind of work that “Great Performances” does. Which takes you to brilliant operas, concerts, dances all across the country … the kind of work that “Nature” does … which is probably the best show about, sort of science and, and, and animals and planets that you can get anywhere because the quality of the research is so good.

Those things, I think, define who we are. At the same time we can do new and different things. And there’s nothing more exciting than saying “let’s continue to take all the, the programs we have that bring in the core audience. Let’s continue to make those and make those better, more exciting.”

You know the other day I was talking to David Horn who does “Great Performances” and he continues to say I’m going to reach outside of New York. I’m looking for new and different breakthrough performances in San Francisco, Los Angeles, around the country. Because as great as New York is we also want to include the rest of the country.

Or Susan Lacy who does “American Masters” has some great ideas for new people we’re going to profile, and new interesting ways to do it.

And say some of the other new things we’re talking about. Let’s get involved in local news because other people aren’t … that’s our chance. Let’s change what we’re doing.

I’ll give you a quick example … we used to run two old movies on Saturday night … back to back. And we found out by the time we ran the second old movie … by the time we ran “The Best Years of Our Lives” for the 40th time … our audience was less interested. A lot of them had gone to sleep.

So we said, how can we change it? So we … now we take a classic movie and we have the film historian Neal Gabler, who tells you such interesting things about the movie that sometimes I wind up watching the movie again …

HEFFNER: (Laughter)

SHAPIRO: … even though I’ve seen it, because he told me new things about it. And then we do an independent movie … and we let, let independent filmmakers upload shorts and our audience votes and they pick the film they want to see. And then we go to independent movies that have gone to the festivals and they get a play on public television, which is a bigger audience than they ever would have had in the independent theater.

HEFFNER: Neal Shapiro, I feel a heck of a lot better about the future of public television listening to you today and I’m really grateful to you. Not only grateful for the fact that I sit home on Saturday nights now and watch you … suspenders and all …

SHAPIRO: Right. Right.

HEFFNER: … on the air and what you do. I hope everyone’s listening to your enthusiasm about the future and thank you for joining me on The Open Mind.

SHAPIRO: Thank you very much, it was my pleasure.

HEFFNER: And thanks, too, to you in the audience. I hope you join us again next time. Meanwhile, as an old friend used to say, “Good night and good luck.”

N.B. Every effort has been made to ensure the accuracy of this transcript. It may not, however, be a verbatim copy of the program.

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