Who Pays for Public TV

THE OPEN MIND
Host: Richard D. Heffner
Guests: Sonia Landau, Ward Chamberlin
Title: “Who Pays for Public TV?”
VTR: 5/4/85

I’m Richard Heffner, your host on THE OPEN MIND. If you continue to watch public as well as commercial television as you choose, obviously, ways must be found to pay for it, and since who pays the piper so often calls the tune, this problem of support looms ever larger. With a particularly challenging array of would be though only partial solutions being offered these days, there’s enhanced underwriting and bigger auctions and swapping better parts of the broadcast spectrum for lesser parts plus a bundle of cash, and larger hats for passing around, and greater pressure for government funds, and some form of paid public TV, perhaps even paid per program. And, of course, there is the real hard sell on the air, advertising, too. All in the cause of keeping public stations going and public programming growing and improving. Obviously, there are many crucial decisions to be made here, many basic issues to be examined. All, one hopes, with an open mind.

And so today I have again invited two of the key people who help mold this medium to set public television’s funding challenges before us in their own perspective. Sonia Landau, the Chairman of the Board of the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, and Ward Chamberlin, President of WETA, Channel 26, the accomplished public station in Washington, D.C.

Thanks to both of you for joining me today. I know it’s not an easy subject, but one you both are thinking about constantly. Ms. Landau, I wonder what you would say first about where you would hone in on the financing of public broadcasting. Is it through public funding?

LANDAU: I think, in part, it’s through public funding, but I think the private sector and the subscribers to public television have to play a very major role. I think Federal funding is really a seed for public broadcasting.

HEFFNER: Can we anticipate more and more by way of public funding, then?

LANDAU: I’d like to say we can participate in more and more consistent ways of funding. The problem is that we never get as much as we like.

HEFFNER: Why not? Isn’t it worth it?

LANDAU: There is just not enough money to go around. It’s not a question that it’s not worth it. Indeed, it is worth it. But we have to compete with the elderly, the poor, and many other people who need money, and I think you know we have to take our share of a cutback as well. I do believe that Federal funding is very critical to public television, and, indeed, we will keep that.

HEFFNER: What’s your own feeling? You’re a practitioner. You’re right on the line there. You’ve got to run the station.

CHAMBERLIN: Well, Dick, public funding, you know, now is about where it was seven or eight years ago, whereas our industry has grown enormously. Our stations have grown. We’ve got more stations; we’ve got more costly programs. So public funding, at the moment, doesn’t look to me as if it is going to be the answer for public broadcasting. Our real problem is that our stations are probably in better financial shape than they have been in a long time.

But, where are we going to get the major programs, which are very costly, going up all the time that will keep us growing? Growing means that you’ve got growing audiences and the people want to look at you more and more. We have the best programming here we’ve ever had in public broadcasting, but I looked at the schedule for next Fall, and it just doesn’t look so good. You have to work ahead in this business as you well know.

HEFFNER: Well I do know, and I know when we did one of our other programs, and Jay Iselin, from Channel 13 in New York was here, Jay talked about needing this program fund, and is that what you’re talking about?

CHAMBERLIN: Yes.

HEFFNER: So where are you going to get it?

CHAMBERLIN: Well, you know, we have always wondered. We faced the same question five or six years ago, and we didn’t really see how it was going to work, and strangely enough, this decentralized system made up with financing from subscribers and from the Federal government, through the Corporation of Public Broadcasting, and through state governments, and from corporations has so far turned out a darn good product and one that is attracting more and more viewers.

But when we look ahead, we are going to have to have some new sources and it clearly is not going to be the Federal government, at least until the next period of time until the government works its way out of this financial crisis.

HEFFNER: Ms. Landau, let me ask you whether you are sympathetic to the suggestion that has been made of swapping, where there is a good place on the spectrum, swap it with one that is poor, but brings with it just a big bundle of cash.

LANDAU: Well, I always support big bundles of cash, but I would have to ask the question when we receive this big bundle, are we still going to follow the mandate to the public? Are we still going to be able to serve as many people? Number one. Are we still going to be able to give them a quality signal? Number two. And will the money, indeed, that is involved in this big bundle of cash, will it go to public broadcasting?

So after you answer all of those question, I guess I then want to ask the local community, what do you think about it? How do you think it works in your community? Because what might be right for Tampa, Florida, may not be right for New York City.

HEFFNER: But suppose the answer to the first batch of questions are all very positive. The money is going to go for this programming fund that Ward and Jay talk about that is so necessary. The money will be spent for programming. But that the community is uneasy about a spectrum change, which is certainly understandable, you don’t like to swap for a pig in a poke. Would you be in favor of such a swap if what we could get out of it would be big dollars for programming innovations?

LANDAU: I think we still have to serve the public. I think that is our first mandate. So if the public didn’t support it, I guess the answer is no, I wouldn’t favor it.

HEFFNER: Ward?

CHAMBERLIN: I think it is a horrible idea. The only people that suggest it are people who have VHF stations to swap, of course, because they have never been in the inferior position of having a UHF station. I know that it came up in Tampa. It is coming up in Tampa. Tampa is a growing community in this country, growing all the time. It is going to be a very significant community. It is now. And for them to give up their VHF station for Channel 61 or whatever it is on the UHF dial, even though they have a fair amount of cable there I think, is not serving the public.

In New York City, where Jay Iselin raised the question, I think he raised it really to dramatize the business of the program fund that we’ve been talking about, because he regards that, quite properly, as being a desperate need in public broadcasting. But, I mean, there’s cable in Manhattan, but there isn’t cable anywhere else in this city.

HEFFNER: Yes, but you know, the strange thing is you talk about this as if you weren’t the manager and the President of a UHF station. You are, it is a darn good station, and it serves its public. I commute to Los Angeles, and I know that the station there is a darn good station. It serves the public. Why the fuss then?

CHAMBERLIN: Well, as Fritz Hollings said, Senator Hollings, when talking about it in Congress the other day, when the Chairman of the Federal Communications commission tried to say there was parity, really almost parity between the VHF stations and the UHF stations, Hollings said, “Well, when they stop paying ten times as much for a V as they do for a U, I’ll think it’s something like parity”.

A lot of people in Washington can’t get Channel 26 because there is a great big building between then and the signal or there is a hill. A UHF signal is mediocre compared to a V and it hasn’t anything like the penetration even though people are much more used to turning to U’s now than they were ten years ago. They can receive it better, but even so, where I am in Washington, in Georgetown, people a block away, if they are down the hill a little bit, can’t pick it up.

HEFFNER: I just want to make certain that we weren’t knocking your station, or UHF station.

CHAMBERLAIN: If we’d had a V in Washington, if we’d had a VHF station in Washington fifteen years ago when this thing began, we’d be a long way further ahead in public funding and public television.

HEFFNER: Yes, but New York did have a V or we bought one here in New York in 1961-62, and there are financial problems and they’re real. Boston has a V and there are financial problems and they’re real. San Francisco has a V, etc. Let’s turn for a moment, though, to another V, in Chicago, where the general manager seems to be putting his emphasis upon the potential for, if not commercializing the medium, at least putting some stress upon commercials. How do you feel about that, and is there a posture that the CBB has taken?

LANDAU: Well, I think our posture is pretty much what the FCC is supporting and we’re supporting, which is enhanced underwriting. We are interested in seeing, as I think Ward has pointed out, what can be done to get more money into public broadcasting. So, certainly, there are some facets of advertising that we’re interested in looking at. And I think we are going to continue to look at that. People are now talking about enhanced, enhanced underwriting. Which I suppose it depends; one person’s enhanced underwriting is someone else’s advertising. I’m not really quite sure how you can clarify or qualify that to everyone’s satisfaction.

HEFFNER: But aren’t you going to have to?

LANDAU: I think we’re going to have to look at new ways. I was very surprised, myself, to find out that during the TCAFPT experiment that the Illinois legislators, apparently felt that Congressman, that there would be no problem with Federal funding even though there was advertising. I had always felt that once you became commercialized, you would lose your support for Federal funding. But, apparently, that’s not been the case.

CHAMBERLIN: Well we don’t know really yet, Sonia, do we?

LANDAU: Not for sure, but they have indicated…

CHAMBERLIN: We don’t know that if we had advertising that it would or would not jeopardize…

HEFFNER: What’s your bid?

CHAMBERLIN: Well, I don’t think it would so much as I used to. I used to be set against advertising because ten or fifteen years ago, our editorial posture in public television was suspect. We weren’t a known quantity, and we were afraid that our funding sources, people were afraid that our funding sources would influence our programming. Now I think we are established enough so that’s not going to be a factor.

It’s interesting that in England, now, at the home of non-commercial television, the BBC, the Thatcher government is proposing advertising on the BBC which would have been just unheard of years ago. We want in public television to give the people who support our programs, corporations, better identification so that people will identify them with a quality product and that will bring more corporations to public television.

But how far do we go in that? We are now, for example, on “Washington Weekend Review”, funded by the Ford Motor Company. We are showing a couple of Ford motor cars. We can’t let them move yet, but we are showing the cars and identifying them. So we’re coming along. Now the question is, will this kind of sort of institutional advertising attract enough corporate money to make a real difference? So far, that question is very much open.

HEFFNER: Well, isn’t the other side of the coin, though, isn’t the other question whether moving the cars something as you suggest, enhanced, enhanced underwriting? Will that turn off your audience? It seemed to me, and I would appreciate it if you would share your views with me on this – it seems to me that the attacks that have always been made on commercial television, on commercials of commercial television, have had to do with the interruption of the programs, and have had to do with the quality of the programs that the commercials were designed to serve and support, rather than wit the idea that there was such a thing as an enhanced, enhanced underwritten visual on the air. Do you think it’s the phenomenon of commercials that turns people off and that might turn people away from public broadcasting?

LANDAU: I think it is a combination of that, but I also think it is a combination of the kind of programming. I do think, though, that if you are talking about our kind of enhanced, enhanced…the cars may be moving at the beginning of the program or at the end, but they may not be moving in the middle all the time. So that might be the area that gave you the distinction there. But I think…(unclear)…is correct. We have to think of it more in these terms because clearly the Federal government cannot…we can’t count on them to support us at any greater level, I think, than we’re getting now, which is about eighteen percent of around the country of public broadcasting’s budget.

HEFFNER: That’s eighteen percent now. That budget is growing and growing in pace, isn’t it?

LANDAU: Well, it’s growing, but then the demands and more stations come up and the demands are greater. So, I think just in terms of thinking where are you going to get your money, we’ve got to be thinking about where. I have often personally felt when I’ve traveled around the country that maybe we don’t do ourselves our best favor when we talk a lot about cutbacks and Federal spending. Because, indeed, to the viewer who is listening to this, they are going to think, this is another bureaucracy of Federal government. There is no point sending in $20. What good is it going to do? Well, if everybody who…(unclear)…who enjoys “Washington Weekend Review” writes that $20 check, we’ll be on a gravy train and all those programming things you want to have happen will happen.

CHAMBERLIN: It will help, but our problem still is to accumulate funds for program development. At the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, which Sonia’s Chairman of, that has the largest fund. That’s a $25,000,000 fund, a little larger than that maybe, somewhere in that nature for a year. That really isn’t very much of a program development fund.

HEFFNER: What do you mean?

CHAMBERLAIN: What you really need for program development is $150,000,000.

HEFFNER: Every year?

CHAMBERLAIN: Because some of the things that you develop are not going to be successful. You know, the New York station, for example, took tremendous risks with “The Brain”. They went ahead and produced that program before they had…(unclear)…They were $2,000,000 or $3,000,000 short in funding, but they made it up and got it in at the last minute. But that is the kind of risk that producing stations run and they get into trouble sooner or later. We’ve all gotten into trouble and until we get more program development monies, that money will have to come form some form of advertising. I really do believe, now, that if you do it in a tasteful way…and Phil McCarter, in Chicago, is the best exponent of it with WTTW, he does a wonderful job in doing his corporate credits so that I don’t believe they bother anybody.

HEFFNER: Would you consider the possibility of nationalizing this industry, if we can call it that, literally, and kissing goodbye to the ideological basis of local programming which certainly was the basis for the beginnings of public broadcasting and saying given the need for the kinds of programming funds for the kinds of investment that we can recognize, we have got to move, perhaps, if not to eliminate, to cut back on the local stations that eat up, that duplicate each other’s services, and focus on a network that feeds the same kinds of cultural information and educational programming to the nation at large. Would you accept that, or would you say it’s a violation of our tradition, we won’t do it?

LANDAU: I would say it probably is a violation of our tradition. I think that we do need local programming in America. I think, however, we probably could think about combining some of our producing entities. That might be a way. I’ve heard that discussed. I think that is a possibility for terms of national production. But I think the local contributions are very important. I think they are very important to the public of that local community.

HEFFNER: Ward?

CHAMBERLIN: Well, Dick, you know we started out in this business with one production agency, really, NET, back in the days when you and I first knew each other. It makes it very vulnerable, you know. That’s my objection to it. I think it could produce fine programming and make a more efficient use of funding to have one or two production entities who, in effect, network the whole system. But it is very vulnerable.

HEFFNER: You mean a non-moving target?

CHAMBERLIN: Yes, a non-moving target, and we have believed that this rather clumsy system that we have of decentralization with productions, with four or five stations, two in particular, New York and Boston, who do a great bulk of the production and those stations like Los Angeles and Pittsburgh who do a good deal of production, and then in South Colorado, and Dallas occasionally, and other cities, and other stations bring in different kinds of productions that you just might not see if you had a centralized production source.

So I believe it would be more efficient, but I don’t think it would be in keeping with our background and with the way this system was developed. In spite of all our difficulties, it’s developed reasonably well.

HEFFNER: I wonder, perhaps, whether one wouldn’t have to say we’ve reached a point then in our financial situation in this country where efficiency is going to have to loom larger than it does now. But, Sonia, let me ask you about something. You said in a speech that you gave in Tampa, Florida, in February 1985, you talked about the requirements on public broadcasting. You talked about delivering the highest quality “educational radio and television broadcasting” to all the American people. This is what truly distinguishes us from the networks. It is what oftentimes seems to be forgotten with a preoccupation with ratings. Will you elaborate on that?

LANDAU: Sure.

HEFFNER: As to whether you agree or disagree?

LANDAU: Can I really disagree? I think programs like “Jerry the Clown”, although excellent; I can’t imagine a better production. I see problems with productions like that frequently because they are something that are so well received. I know that the people…(unclear)…just gave an award the other day. They were acclaimed everywhere. Where does that leave us with our educational, I think, mandate? Programs such as “Washington Weekend Review”, programs about Congress…I think we should do that a lot. I think we need to provide a great deal for children. We are looking at statistics daily that tell us that children are getting out of school – they cannot read, they cannot think. They cannot…(unclear)…We are operating in an era of extraordinary technology, and it seems to me we are going to have to move our technology and our resources to address this problem. I think that is certainly what Congress had in mind when they set up public broadcasting. I agree.

CHAMBERLIN: It depends on what you mean by education. You know we can produce very educational programs, but it’s not easy to get people to look at them. We have some motivating public broadcasting. We have some damn good programs that meet Sonia’s standards and the use of them … (unclear)…is not as great as it should be. Television, of course, is still regarded in the home as a purely entertainment medium. We are the only system who brings anything else to it and I agree that the emphasis, that our emphasis should be and continue to be on education in the broadest sense. But whether that, Sonia, gets down to … (unclear)…Of course, “Sesame Street” is the greatest educational program that has ever been produced anywhere. And if we can only produce more “Sesame Streets”, well that is the greatest solo contribution, in my opinion, that public television has made in this country.

LANDAU: I’m just going to respond for a moment just about another medium, of public radio. For example, I would consider a program such as “Small Things Considered”… (unclear)…to be educational. It’s a three hour talk show for children under twelve.

HEFFNER: I agree.

LANDAU: that, to me, is educational programming. I see people such as George Lucas and Steve Spielberg who are able, through their creative minds, to put something on a screen that really motivates and interests children. What I’d like to see happen is have those kind of skills translated to our medium so that we are able to deal with these programs in a way that it becomes… (unclear)…entertainment…that we’re bringing one person to the tube. And we can’t. That’s why I thought “Sesame Street” was wonderful.

CHAMBERLIN: … (unclear)…we need that kind of an approach for a great many different ages.

LANDAU: I’m sure we need maybe a little different approach. I don’t know what the approach is. I only know what the question is. And the question is: What are we doing about all those kids who are getting out of school and they can’t read, they can’t write, they can’t think? That’s a problem that I think we have a responsibility to address.

HEFFNER: You suggest Lucas and Spielberg, and I was going to suggest Joan Ganz Cooney. You might be able to get that. But you know, I really decided to do this series of programs on funding public broadcasting when I read in The New York Times… (unclear)…about this business of swapping, and that in New York, of course, the Channel 13, for you, and they talked about the need to define public broadcasting, and I thought that ws what you were doing, in a sense. You were saying, we have a need to come up with a closer, sharper definition of what we should be doing. I remember when I had Les Brown and Jay Iselin here. Jay said… (unclear)…forget the definition, we know what we are. We know who we are. We know what we are supposed to do. But I really wonder whether there isn’t still some question as to what … (unclear)… means.

CHAMBERLIN: There is and there always has been, but I’m not so sure… (unclear)…too sharp of a definition. I have no problem with emphasizing the educational side of our business, but I’m not sure… (unclear)…define it too closely.

HEFFNER: You know, years ago, we had to get away from the instructional… (unclear)…indeed, stations did question, too far away?

CHAMBERLIN: If you look at our schedule any given week you’ll see such variety of programs, whether they are musical or whether they are drama or whether they are… (unclear)…related to government, but you will find that it hits on many important aspects of American life in what I consider to be an educational way. Whether that deals with younger age groups in the right way is another… (unclear). And I think we certainly intend to invest in that area.

HEFFNER: Will the Corporation tend to define more what it thinks public broadcasting is, should be, and what should be supported?

LANDAU: I think definitely it is doing that, and I think it would continue to do even more of that. I think there are many of us who sit on the board who see programs like “George Washington”, which comes out of commercial network, which will indeed… (unclear). I think they feel there should be more programs of that nature that are coming out of public broadcasting, that do deal with historical…

CHAMBERLIN: … (unclear)…the other night we did a preview of a wonderful show called “Space Flight” and six astronauts were there and they were delighted with our real version of the real thing, and of the real history, as opposed to THE RIGHT STUFF, which was a fine book. They didn’t think much of the movie. They thought less of the in-series “Space”. They thought it was just a caricature of their effort.

I think those programs, our version of them, which I think you’ll think is, I hope, as good as I do, represents the whole differences between our approach in public television and the … (unclear)…approach of commercial television.

HEFFNER: Of course, I’m prejudiced. I thought the movie was great, but that’s beside the point. … (unclear)…We just have a couple of minutes left. Ward seemed to take exception to something I said in the beginning without doing so specifically about who pays the piper that calls the tune. … (unclear)…Question: Will the Corporation use its funding resources a s a means of achieving the objectives that you just laid out?

LANDAU: I think to a certain degree we will because we do have priorities, and we’d like to have the money placed in line with our priorities. Our first priority is children’s programming. Our second is public affairs. So yes, I think that, indeed, it will.

CHAMBERLIN: (Unclear)

HEFFNER: So who pays the piper? (Unclear)

HEFFNER: I suppose it has to be that way.

CHAMBERLIN: But I don’t think Sonia’s saying exactly that. She’s saying that the corporation will emphasize children’s programming, as for a number of proposals to control children’s programming. But they are not going to necessarily influence the programs themselves.

HEFFNER: Less money for arts?

LANDAU: No, I don’t think particularly so.

HEFFNER: But if there is more money for public affairs, and there is more money for … (unclear)…Where is it going to come from?

LANDAU: Hopefully from the subscribers.

CHAMBERLIN: …(unclear)…programs have been easier to fund from corporations. So perhaps, the federal money should be used for other priorities.

HEFFNER: You both agreed…(unclear)…on the future now, I gather.

CHAMBERLIN: That’s good.

HEFFNER: That’s a good way, since we have to end the program. Thank you so much for joining me today, Sonia Landau and Walt Chamberlin.

CHAMBERLIN: Thanks, Dick.

HEFFNER: Thanks, too, to you in the audience. I hope you’ll join us here again next time on THE OPEN MIND. Meanwhile, as an old friend used to say, “Good night and good luck”.

This is Richard Heffner, your host on THE OPEN MIND. We’d like to hear your ideas and your opinions on the subject we’ve just discussed. Please send your comments to me in care of THE OPEN MIND at this station.

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