Les Brown, John Jay Iselin

How Public Is Public Television?

VTR Date: March 30, 1985

Guests: Brown, Les; Iselin, John Jay


Host: Richard D. Heffner
Guest: Les Brown, with John Jay Iselin
Title: How Public Is Public Television?
VTR: 3/30/85

I’m Richard Heffner, your host on THE OPEN MIND. Money talks in American life, loudly to be sure, but not always so clearly, which may nowhere be truer these days than in the arena of public broadcasting, the newest of this nation’s major institutions, surely the one more in need of definition, and then of support. As a lead editorial in The New York Times implied recently, the problem is that the more clearly one does define public broadcasting, the more at risk is one of another of its major sources of support. Take the high road, be always a proud alternative to the popular fare of commercial mass entertainment, but then run the risk of being labeled elitist, and of losing the crucial financial support of popular government, even of corporations bearing gifts, so interested are they, too, in ever larger and larger audiences. Go low-brow instead, however, compete for ratings, make numbers king in culture as well as politics, and then perhaps swap one’s birthright for a mess of porridge.

Now, these public broadcasting concerns have always been with us. As the medium’s 2,000 year old man, I can testify that we agonized over them a quarter-century ago there at the creation. But then the budget of even New York’s flagship Channel 13 was only $2 million. Now it’s reaching to 100 million. And the suggestion being made now, too, is that, like Thirteen some of public broadcasting’s most powerful stations actually be swapped for lesser frequencies of lots and lots of money. The proverbial porridge, if you will. So this then is the key issue The Times editorialized about, and that today and perhaps frequently in the months ahead we will look at here, as always, with an open mind.

And today my guests are John Jay Iselin, the enterprising President of New York’s enterprising Channel 13, and Les Brown, Editor-in-Chief of the distinguished communications periodical, Channels. Gentlemen, thanks for joining me here today. I know these are perilous times, talking about all of this money. And I guess, Jay, I’d like to begin the program by asking whether there is something of a failure of nerve perhaps, this quest for trading off some part of the frequency for a lot of dough.

ISELIN: I think, Dick, and viewers should know that I am speaking to the first General Manager of Channel 13, and when he referred to himself as the original, he is the original, and…

HEFFNER: Two-thousand year old man, Jay.

ISELIN: In any case, I don’t think it’s a matter of failure of nerve. I think it’s a matter of evaluating opportunity. First of all, it seems to me the question about definition is well resolved at this point. Programs such as The Open Mind, with or without the current participants, are mainstays of a kind of broadcasting what are now fundamental to the viewing of a lot of Americans. Over 50 percent of the people with television sets in this country now watch public broadcasting every week. It’s no longer a minority system. The definition has been achieved through a partnership between the producers, the programmers, and the public. And I think there is no longer any doubt that it’s fundamental to the communications band in this country that there be a form of excellence and a striving for excellence of the sort that programs such as this one has represented. So the definition is not in doubt. The question is how to continue to achieve it. And is there some means to offset that important problem of an absence of sufficient funds through classic sources? Classic sources in most other countries being federal or governmental subventions. Is there a means to find alternative sources of funding to assure that the programming can continue? Well, that’s not a failure of nerve; that’s just the reverse. It’s the desire to perpetuate and to continue a kind of programming that now is main stream in this country.

HEFFNER: Les, what do you think?

BROWN: I can’t believe – you know, with all due respect – I can’t believe you’re taking that whole proposal seriously. I thought it was an insane proposal when I heard it the first time. I mean, the one generally offered by the FCC that they would change the rules and allow VHF stations to swap with commercial UHF stations in the same market for an exchange of money. I mean, these channels were designated for educational, noncommercial television when they were designated. But the FCC wants to change those rules. Now, when you have, I mean, the channel frequency you have is practically the most valuable thing you’ve got. And it’s terrifically important to the people of this community, because you can’t receive UHF stations very well except on cable. And only households in the Borough of Manhattan and the suburban, and the surrounding area of New York, for example, have cable. And of those that have cable, only 50 percent really subscribe to cable. That nobody in the Bronx, Brooklyn, Staten Island, and Queens yet has cable. So for you to make that kind of switch is, in a sense, to tell the people who live in those communities that they’ve got to search for you on the high frequencies, on the ultra-high frequencies that require a special antenna. They’re very hard to tune in. I don’t see anything in this at all for the citizenry, for the public.

ISELIN: A couple of points: One, there is no offer on the table. But there is now a rule making under way in front of the FCC on this issue. The issue was surfaced by the commissioners of the FCC, that regulatory body which governs the use of the frequencies, as a possible means of providing sources of revenues for various public stations around the country, and therefore providing for an increased degree of stability. There is no offer on the table here in New York, but there is now a discussion underway of the sort that we’re having here. The premise of the discussion is that there is such a rapid change in the technological base of broadcasting taking place right now that, though there is no parity between UHF and VHF at this time, there may well be the prospect that such parity, comparability will be achieved over, let’s say, the next five years. High-definition sets are coming on the market. New tuners are being created. In various markets, Boston, Chicago, and other places, commercial UHF signals are now going on the air and are operating at a profit. There may well be the kind of seed change that took place with the radio bands, when FM suddenly emerged as the equivalent of AM. But it may not be. We don’t know the answer to that question, but the suggestion is that in the spirit of this program we should keep an open mind about the possibility that the UHF band may dramatically improve in its ability to transmit a first-class signal.

HEFFNER: Les, I’ve wondered about that too. It’s Jay who says let’s keep an open mind about the technological futures. You teach in that area. You comment on it. Your magazine is filled with comments about that. Why are you so intransigent here? Why are you so certain that it doesn’t make sense?

ISELIN: Well, it took 25 years for FM to really establish itself. Twenty-five years is a quarter of a century. That’s quite a long time. And I don’t think we have that amount of time to wait for UHF to achieve that kind of parity with VHF, for one thing. For another, FM only made the breakthrough it did when it did because of its intersection with something unforeseen: stereophonic sound and rock music. When FM was playing classical music, and almost exclusively classical music, it was dying as a medium. It was when young people, nobody could foresee that young people would work all summer, save the money, and spend $2,000 for sophisticated stereo rigs so that they could hear this rock music pure. It was when that happened that FM broke through. What’s going to happen to make UHF different? I don’t see it. I don’t think it’s five years, by any means. The tuners are here, the ones that can allow you to punch up UHF as equally with VHF, but there aren’t that many of them, and it takes a long time for people to get rid of their television sets to buy new ones.

BROWN: Well, there are really two points. One point, I think, is whether or not it’s technologically feasible. We who watch our sister stations abroad broadcast realize that some of the most potent signals on the continent and in Great Britain are all broadcast of UHF, and the signal is impeccable. Technologically, it’s an accessible signal if you have the right tuners, which we don’t have in the country, and were we to achieve it, the question is: Is even five years a probable time frame? And the best wisdom – and there’s no better wisdom than your own – is that it would be highly unlikely that we could really achieve comparability. And what we’re really trying to figure out here is whether or not there is a long shot chance there may be some breakthrough development in the works. There maybe some configuration that would at least make sure that we hadn’t overlooked some opportunity that we can’t quite imagine but which might be in the offing. And it’s that long shot that we just want to make sure that we’re not inadvertently missing.

ISELIN: I can’t blame you, you k now, and I thought you were quoted in the press as saying that there’s no way you can make a decision on this, you have to run it by your board of trustees, and certainly you can’t unilaterally say, “No, we won’t do this.” Still, I would be very surprised if your board even took it seriously. Let me point out first that the British, while they’re all on UHF, have pulled everything off VHF so they’re not competing with VHF, so you’ve got a different kind of animal there. They’re also working on 625-line transmission. We have 525-line. The picture’s going to be better there. But the other thing is, what would you settle for? What’s enough money? Because I might get into this business. I sort of like this. It’s becoming…Suppose I bought a station on UHF because I had a chance to make a deal with you. How much would you settle for in this swap? Suppose I had channel – make it up – 52. Right?

BROWN: Well, okay, okay.

ISELIN: I’ll give you channel 52 for channel 13. now, what do you want, $100 million?

BROWN: Well, we first…

HEFFNER: A hundred million? Come on! At least a quarter of a billion.

ISELIN: Well, I’m bargaining. Oh, half a billion if he’s a smart negotiator.

BROWN: The first point is that there would have to be some threshold points; your point that we would be foolhardy to sacrifice a precious resource, an asset that we fought to acquire and that the public has embraced. And I have to say the numbers of letters that have come in saying, “Say it ain’t so”, is really, really heartwarming, because it shows that this is an essential signal, as you pointed out. The threshold point would have to be whether or not there was in fact even cabling of the entire area. So you would have to certainly wait until the boroughs in the metropolitan New York area were cabled. But cable, as you point out, is only going to reach 50 percent of the households. So there would also have to be some demonstration. There would be a dramatic improvement in the ways and means of transmitting a U if one was going to get to that point. Third, I think then you have to talk about a phasing, if one ever went after your 52. For example, the independents of this market, really, if I may make a point about the independents through the benefit of WPIX, which is a co-producer of this program, the independents do very well in fringe time. It might be initially one would preserve the children’s block and primetime, and there’d be a period of time in which there would be shared broadcasting, maybe over several years. Those threshold questions, if they were resolved, would then get round to what is enough money to enable public broadcasting, not only in metropolitan New York/New Jersey, but around this nation, to be assured of continuity of major productions year after year. And I think one has to be talking about numbers that approach those that the major VHF stations are now being negotiated for around the country. There’s a station on the block in Los Angeles for a reputed $500 million.

HEFFNER: That’s what I hope you would hold out for, Jay.

BROWN: In Los Angeles, so…that wouldn’t even be enough in New York.

ISELIN: I think that’s the kind of range that one should be thinking about if those other threshold conditions could be met.

HEFFNER: But gentlemen, I have to ask the question as to: Where does it all begin? Why? You want it because you need the money. You need the money why? Federal sources drying up, or are they beginning to open up again? Public sources drying up, or are they beginning to open up again?

ISELIN: Since you started us off in this business, Dick, we have been chasing a will-o’-the-wisp, and that’s federal support. After 20 years of pursuing some kind of federal subvention, we’ve not run into a cap. Under the best of circumstances, the federal government will be providing approximately the same level of funds that now exist. Only six percent of Channel 13’s budget derives from the federal government. We are working in an environment where we have to be enterprising, we have to find alternative funds, because there is really no prospect that there will be any substantial assistance, at least for the time being, or as far as we can see in the future, from the federal government. Therefore, we must look to the public, we must look to alternative means, we must, it seems to us, continue to look for opportunities that will enable us to create a new generation of programming.

HEFFNER: And I gather the swap would provide not only another channel but a chunk of money that you could invest and not quite live off of, but that would help you.

ISELIN: I t would provide an endowment for continuing on a high programming road that is now being selected, chosen by a discriminating public in increasing numbers. It would come at a time we’re seeing network shares falling, when we’re seeing a fragmentation of the old lockout, in effect, in terms of commercial broadcasting. It would enable public broadcasting to have, in a sense, a programming endowment, not just for this station, but because we share our programs with 300 stations around the country, and there…

HEFFNER: Excuse me, does that mean that you see this money as going into a pool for all the stations?

BROWN: No, he’s saying, I think, that…

ISELIN: No, I’m saying that the money, if it were available and the conditions were met, would be put into an endowed account so that the interest – let’s say it was $500 million – at ten percent, $50 million a year would be invested each year in creating new programming that would be transmitted, hopefully over a VHF channel, if we could have the best of both worlds, in the metropolitan New York area, but at least transmitted with a first-class signal, not only here, but through 300 other public television stations around the country. Because we share the bulk of programs that Channel 13 produces with our sister stations, and therefore create in our own way what we call a system. It’s not a network in the classic sense that Les has written about for several years, but it is a collaborative system whereby we have 300 public stations around the country that share each others’ programs.

HEFFNER: Les, do you object to that kind of centralized thinking? Because that’s what it is.

BROWN: Oh no, I think centralized thinking is, I think it’s one of the directions that public television has to go in now.

HEFFNER: And which?

BROWN: Well, the problem is in they’re going from VHF to UHF, which I think is a nutty idea altogether. I mean, first let me explain to you what happens. You’re going to lose audience going from VHF to UHF. I don’t care if you do it, if you’re talking about ten years from now you’re going to lose a substantial amount of audience. If you lose a certain amount of, that substantial amount of audience, then you’re going to lose their contributions to the stations as well. If follows that people who don’t watch are not going to contribute.

HEFFNER: Of course Jay is going to try and find out how much you lose in dollars when you lose that audience that will not be reached by the signal.

BROWN: Then you will also lose…Look, nothing goes on public television, no matter what they say – and they’ve been saying this for years – that the public makes up by, their contribution makes programming happen in public television. Nonsense. The commercial sponsorship does. It is a very commercial business, public television. Nothing gets on the air unless, almost nothing, unless some corporation is behind it or a government agency or something contributes money to it. But what you lose when you lost the audience is also those contributions. You lose the interest of the big corporations that back these programs because they know they’re going to get some kind of good and important audience from Channel 13. You know, I’ve lived in this city for a long time, in this area, and there’s another public television station in the city, Channel 31. I never, ever got to see Channel 31 until I got cable. It’s just very hard to bring in on an ordinary set. And I daresay if I had trouble with 31, I would have trouble with Channel 52 when you’re on Channel 52. I hope not.

ISELIN: Well, the ideal is to have strong distribution, strong transmission, and strong programming. It’s a Hobson’s choice to say that one has to trade off one of the precious assets we’ve got to achieve another goal. So the goal really should be to have strong programming and strong transmission. Now, the question that we’re discussing is how best to achieve that in an era in which a federal cap appears to be a reality. And therefore we are dependent upon, and happily so, upon public contributions. Those contributions have gone up each year. Over or roughly 30 percent of Channel 13’s budget is now derived directly from public support. No one likes the on-air fundraising, particularly those people who have already contributed.

BROWN: That’s not true.

ISELIN: But on the other hand, each time extraordinary responses are evident, and the station is now really operating with a balanced budget, with no debt. It’s operationally sound thanks to the public more than anyone else. Secondly, thanks to those corporations that have underwritten programs, the question is: How do we create a new generation of programs that will be supported by the public and by what we call underwriters?

HEFFNER: Would you be willing to change that word to “advertisers”?

ISELIN: Well, they aren’t advertisers, but they do have an opportunity to identify themselves. We’ll invent a word like “indenturals” or something one of these days. But the point is that there is a distinction between on air. There is no interruption of programming. There is a, I think, an aspiration for quality and excellence that differentiates us. And corporations happily identify with it. But there’s a problem. The problem is that one needs to have enough research and development funds to create first-class programming that the public will support and that foundations and corporations will back. It is very difficult to walk into a corporation and say, “I’ve got a great idea. Give us a couple of years to develop it and finance it.” The mythical 50 dollars will be largely put into creating a programming that will then be accessible for operational support of the sort that forthcoming from the public, whether individuals or corporations and foundations.

HEFFNER: But Jay, I raise the question about advertising not just as a semantic matter. Would you think of real advertising, heavy advertising, as an alternative to this idea that Les gets so excited about negatively?

ISELIN: I really doubt that regular advertising is a solution. Now, if one…

BROWN: I happen to agree with that, too.

ISELIN: If one could do what happens on many noncommercial signals on the continent, where there is a half-hour set aside for a kid of a cluster, a group, one might examine that closely. But I really think our signal is different in kind and in nature, and that hard advertising, first of all, wouldn’t really work with the public we’re talking about. And secondly, I really think that would probably have a distorting impact on what we’re about. Identifications of the sort that corporations are able to do to explain what kind of an organization these corporations are, I think are quite appropriate. But those are different from efforts to, in a sense, make comparative judgments about product, which I don’t think have a place on our air.

HEFFNER: I wanted to ask Les whether he couldn’t just for a moment come off the high road of principle and deal with practicalities. Jay’s talking about a real problem.

BROWN: I know it’s a real problem.

HEFFNER: You don’t want advertising. You don’t want this swap.

BROWN: No. I think the swap is a really terrible idea. You know, for years PBS, when PBS was spoken of as a kind of network, was always a very weak force because something like almost half the stations in the system were on UHF. I mean, that was a given. And we talked about that for years in the press, that public television could never really compete with commercial television at all because so many of its stations were on UHF. That’s changed a bit because cable, which is essentially a suburban medium…when you think about it, cable has managed to improve the ability of lots of people to receive public television stations, the ones that are on UHF. But to think of taking that wonderful frequency that Channel 13 has, imagine calling Channel 15 Channel 13, for example. I mean, it changes everything, doesn’t it? And…it is a truly wonderful…And WGBH in Boston has Channel 2 and WTTW in Chicago has Channel 11. Those are very important frequencies. In Washington it’s on UHF. In Los Angeles it’s on UHF. Then in major cities public television is on UHF it can’t be the kind of force, the kind of counterforce to broadcasting that it ought to be. But I do think there are other ways to go. It’s sort of interesting that Senator Goldwater just recently accused President Reagan of trying to destroy public television. I mean, the administration, at least the people at the FCC who, I think, represent the administration in some sense, have so far offered two possibilities. One, sell advertising; go commercial. Well, wait a minute. That’s what commercial television is. But they’re encouraging you guys to do that. The other is, give up this wonderful frequency you’ve got to a commercial operator for money. Now, it seems to me there’s something cynical about that proposal, because what they’re saying is, “Look, guys, we tried to help you. For goodness sake, we, you know, we did everything we can. We’re going to change the rules and let you do these things. But you won’t…”

HEFFNER: Les, you know the trouble with that is that you’re saying that’s commercial television. Commercial television is the programming on commercial television. And I think we’ve been spoiled over these years without the necessity, financially speaking, of a break in a program, but still fine programs. And I think this notion of being almost dog-in-the-manger-ish about this is going to make us come full circle at some point.

BROWN: When you start playing that ratings game, when you start taking advertising…

HEFFNER: When does it count?

BROWN: …then you’ve got to aggregate numbers. And you’re going to do it by taking a show like The Open Mind, for example, and putting it down someplace where it won’t, where its lousy numbers won’t hurt your bottom line, and instead put up something that’s a science show or something that’s more popular. It distorts, it changes the mission, the mandate of public television.

ISELIN: Well, let me attempt to put what we’ve been talking about in some kind of perspective…

HEFFNER: In about a minute.

ISELIN: In a minute, to give a sense of the growth that’s taken place. The 300 stations, public stations around the country, represent not only the largest television network system in this country, but in the world. They’re in place. They have viewership. That viewership is rising. The challenge now is to create a new generation of programming, through some funding mechanism that will make sure that he support that’s already in place and that’s growing will continue. So how do we resolve the riddle? We probably can’t do it here, but at least we can raise the question, “How do we get a new generation of programming funded?” If not from the federal government, then from whom? And that’s the issue with an open mind we’re seeking to resolve. Because we believe we have a moment of unparalleled opportunity for service here.

HEFFNER: Certainly that opportunity in terms of the swaps and the dollars that go along with the swaps, that opportunity won’t last terribly long because commercial people will bet that you’re wrong, Les, will be that sooner rather than later will come the time when the VHF won’t be that valuable competitively speaking.

BROWN: Commercial broadcasters will oppose this and already are opposing this. Do you know what it means to Channel 11 in New York if Channel 13 becomes occupied by another commercial broadcaster? Do you know what the solution…I mean, do you realize what kind of competition there’s going to be, for not only for advertising? Because any new commercial operator on the commercial band is going to get some of that advertising.

HEFFNER: Since when have you been so concerned about the interests of the commercial broadcaster?

BROWN: But I’m always concerned about the interests of commercial broadcasters.

HEFFNER: Come on, Les.

BROWN: The commercial broadcaster is the one who should be supporting public television. That’s where the money should come from.

ISELIN: That is a wonderful idea.

BROWN: It should have a long time ago. But there is, I mean, and actually there is a moral basis for this. If 300 public broadcasting stations that you’re talking about decided next month that they’re going off the air, “The whole thing doesn’t work fellas. We quit…”

HEFFNER: And we’re going off the air because we don’t have any time.

BROWN: (Laughter) You don’t want to hear this.

HEFFNER: The sign that I saw said, “Quit”. Thanks Jay Iselin and thanks Les Brown.

And thanks too, to you in the audience. I hope that you’ll join us again next time here on The Open Mind. Meanwhile, as another old friend used to say, “Good night, and good luck”.