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Frederick Breitenfeld, William J. McCarter

How to Support Public TV

VTR Date: June 1, 1985

Guests: Breitenfeld, Frederick; McCarter, William J.

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THE OPEN MIND
Host: Richard D. Heffner
Guest: Frederick Breitenfeld with William J. McCarter
Title: How to Support Public TV
VTR: 6/1/1985

I’m Richard Heffner, your host on THE OPEN MIND. This program is one of a series of inquiries that may just be of more than usual significance to those who regularly watch television series like this one as well as the far, far more ambitious and accomplished ones that regularly appear on public broadcasting stations for it deals with how to support the enterprise itself. In short, we’ve been asking who pays, and how to pay for this medium. For as wiser persons have noted, here as elsewhere there’s no such thing as a free lunch. Well, if you’ve watched any of these occasional Open Mind forays into the tangled web of financing public television you know that each time we presented two of the key people who help mold the medium and the way we think about it. And today’s odd couple, William J. McCarter, the president of Public Channel 11 WTTW in Chicago, and Rick Breitenfeld, president of Channel 12 WHYY in Philadelphia.

Gentlemen, thank you for joining me today. It feels like Old Home Week to be back here again with public broadcasting chieftains. Bill, I think I would start with you. You run a very, very tight ship in Chicago and I think WTTW has the reputation of being wonderfully well connected with its community, and probably well supported too for that reason in terms of programs watched, et cetera. I know too that you have been identified fairly or otherwise – and you can comment on that – with, in this quest for funding, sufficient funds for public broadcasting, talking about the spaces between programs, how to fill them in a way in which we can make the most of them. Are you for advertising? Are you for commercials in public television?

MCCARTER: Let me back up on your question, Dick, and say that I believe very strongly that we can’t confine all of our energies and initiatives to legislative pleading and on-air begging. I think they’ve somewhat mesmerized us over the years. We’ve done a very good job of trying to bring as much funding from those sectors into our stations and into the business. So it behooves us now to experiment and test a range of other self-sufficiency or supplementary income initiatives. It’s in the spirit of that idea that our institution did participate in the limited advertising test and the enhanced underwriting test. And our particular bent in that case, having had some fairly thorough experience with underwriting was to test this space between programs that is not necessarily connected with any program and might be an opportunity to bring the private sector into our business to a much greater degree than they have been in.

HEFFNER: Did it pass the test?

MCCARTER: Well, you know, it’s very interesting. The Congress really asked us to do this. This is nothing that we dreamt up. And in their wisdom they said, “Now look, you have a limited financial life with us. We can’t do it all. So we want you to experiment.” And they said, “Look into things like limited advertising,” among others. And they set two rules. They were very simply, never interrupt a program and use no more than two minutes of the space between programs and see what you can do and see how the private sector responds. We were flabbergasted at the response. I think it could be best illustrated by the president of Swift Foods who one evening said to me as they were becoming more and more familiar with the station – I’ll never forget the quote, he looked at me and he said, “Bill, we’ve waited, in my world in the food business, twenty years to be identified next to programs like Nova and you never let us in.”

HEFFNER: So, flabbergasted good? Money in the pockets…

MCCARTER: (Nods)

HEFFNER: Rick, money in the pockets – that sound good to you? It should. You head a public television station. You’re always looking for money, aren’t you?

BREITENFELD: No question about it. But since 1952 when the Federal Communications Commission established this unique system of broadcasting with no visible means of support, we have been allowed to let big companies in through what we’ve called program underwriting. And in the early days the Federal Communications Commission said if you take money from somebody, you have to announce that you’ve done it. So you say that this program was made possible in part by a grant from Swift Foods. And then as years went on, with Bill and WTTW in the forefront we began to realize, gee, you can say Swift Food and put a logo on. Now the FCC in the 1980s has relaxed the guidelines so you can take that underwriting money and you can say brought to you by a grant made possible by Swift, manufacturers of all sorts of foods including so and so for over a hundred seventy-five years. A little music, a little animation, and it’s a commercial. I think that if we public broadcasters, those of us owned by private corporations – a lot of stations are owned by state universities and state agencies – if we keep our wits about us we can take these relaxed underwriting guidelines (whether we call them ads or not is academic), and maintain the unique nature of our excellent programming philosophy, if we can not be tempted by such words as audience flow, and the ubiquitous ratings, because the distance between what we do and what commercial broadcasters do for large audiences is not that great, if we can keep the same programming outlook and take advantage of these spaces between programs, we may have hit upon a marvelous way to help to support the enterprise.

HEFFNER: You’re both being historians. You explained the origin, the ideology of this whole business. Neither of you are making bets right now. And I wonder when you say, “If we can do this… if we can maintain the distance,” what’s your bet and what do you want?

BREITENFELD: Between here and that happening we have to settle some questions within the public broadcasting enterprise. The stations have banded together to form a national entity which is called PBS. The hundred and eighty-odd licensees owning two hundred and eighty-odd transmitters are only one-third owned by private corporations, as in Chicago and Philadelphia where we can talk in this futuristic way. We are not beholden to a state agency, a legislature, or a school board, or a state university regents group. The first thing that will happen is the stations that are saying, “Let’s see if we can take advantage of this,” are going to come head-up with two-thirds of the stations which say, “Don’t destroy our non-commercial nature because my board of regents wouldn’t stand for it.” And we might see public broadcasting world, which is nothing more than a collection of independent local licensees, coming apart into two factions. One speaks the way Bill and I do: Let’s see what we can do with this, keeping our eye on our program. And the other one will be horrified and won’t. After that rift, after that split, I’ll put my bet on the fact that we can maintain the unique nature of the programming and we can bring in money to help support the effort.

HEFFNER: Do you think there will be that split?

MCCARTER: I think Rick states it well. I would agree. And I don’t think we should look at split in ominous or…

BREITENFELD: Acrimonious.

MCCARTER: Yeah, I don’t think he means split in a saddened way. It may be a very healthy way, just evolution. When you look at the background and the origin of the two licensee types, this isn’t completely with us alone. The university world is in turmoil now where it has to, where they’re into a buyers’ market and they’re moving more and more into marketing many of their services, the difference between the private and the public sectors, as well as hospitals. I think there really isn’t a lot of mystery connected with it, Dick. I don’t think it’s taking a step that everyone is necessarily that afraid of. After seven years, excuse me, seventeen years of fragile, limited, begrudging federal funding which is fairly well stabilized in and around the hundred and fifty, the hundred and eighty million dollars. One can’t see that moving a great deal one way or the other. I think that was made pretty clear by Ward Chamberlain and Sonia Landau appeared on your program. The other sector of the three sectors that I would identify is the philanthropic sector. We have pressed that probably as imaginatively and as vigorously as one could imagine. Witness our developing an on-air sales technique called “the Pledge Night”. Anyone who has lived through enough of them realizes a degree to which that has perhaps been moved to its extremes. There’s a third sector and the third sector is the one we’re discussing here following your opening question. And that’s the business and the private sector. And they have been in with modest underwriting, very fine underwriting in the early days, but they have not been in very heavily in a financial sense.

HEFFNER: Do you think they will be?

MCCARTER: I think they will be. I think they want to be. I think there has been sort of an inherited sense of apartheid here that I think we can look at again. I agree that if we continue to experiment with these various ranges of devices; enhanced underwriting, and on that program they said enhanced, enhanced underwriting, and then forms of limited advertising whatever that would mean. Maybe the word advertising really isn’t a word that should be used here.

BREITENFELD: I think not. Interestingly, proof…

HEFFNER: What euphemism are you going to give it?

BREITENFELD: Oh, we call it a general support acknowledgement. How does that sound?

HEFFNER: That’s terrific.

MCCARTER: I’d toast that. G.S.A.

BREITENFELD: That’s exactly right. Interestingly, we now find more often than not when you approach a company and discuss what involvement with Public Broadcasting that company might have, you end up in the marketing and [whisper]advertising[/whisper] departments. Whereas in the old days when we’d go and say, “Hey could you… you know we’ll mention you on the air, but five thousand I mean, gosh.” You’d be talking to the board chairman or the president or the executive vice president or worse, that person that each company assigns as a charitable community giver. Now, we’re talking business. Before, we were talking charity. And that’s a critical difference.

MCCARTER: Let me expand on his point because you can almost create a caricature of this if you take us back over twenty years. Early on we would walk in, as Rick says, to a corporation and we say, “Yes, it’s nice to see you.” “Won’t you go down and see Mr. Jones. He’s down the left-hand hall.” And we go into Mr. Jones’ office. Now Mr. Jones’ job, who is probably a senior official, semi-retirement at that corporation, is to take a foundation fund at the company and move it around the community and have it work for the community and the corporation. And that would result in some modest grants. About ten years after that we would walk down the center hall to usually a public relations official, perhaps in the outer office to the president or the CEO of the corporation. You’d say, “You know, that’s an interesting idea.” And they would discuss that at the highest most personal levels. And they’d say, “We’ve never done anything like that, but we might like to put our money into that.” I think things like ‘Great Performances’ and ‘Masterpiece Theater’ probably developed in that sense. Now there’s a third hallway. And we’re standing back in the reception area again. And we say, “Miss Jones, we’d like to down the third hallway.” And that one is the one he describes and those are marketing and advertising people.

HEFFNER: But of course there are people who would say that when you walk down that hallway you’re going down, you’re taking that first step down that slippery slope.

BREITENFELD: Absolutely.

HEFFNER: Well you say absolutely, Rick. And yet, I thought a few moments ago you sort of gave us with these GSAs the thought that you can maintain your virginity, if I may. You walk down this hall and still you remain good guys as you’ve been interpreted. But you’re afraid of that. Which is it? Where is your fear greater? Poverty or…

BREITENFELD: The sad fact is at this point in the history of non-commercial broadcasting in America (interestingly non-commercial is becoming an ancient archaic word in this context), we cannot afford not to try everything that is allowable. But while we try, cautiously monitoring every step, we must also be aware that it is easy to be tempted. The question is will we and when will we be tempted, and how will we react to it. That’s a question that history will answer, but we have got to proceed.

HEFFNER: Well, you talk about temptation. It isn’t though a matter of will McCarter or Breitenfeld succumb to these lures. The question is what’s built-in to. It seems to me the question is what’s built-in to these GSAs or GASs. Maybe that would be more appropriate. What’s built-in to it in terms of a ratings race? You bring that up and you say we’ve got to stay away from that. But when Sonia Landau was here I read from a speech she had given in which she talked about the unfortunate propensity of some public broadcasters to move in the direction of a ratings race. Aren’t you going to be forced? Won’t the dynamics of commercializing the space between the programs force into something akin to a ratings race and won’t that take you down the slippery slope further than either one of you gentlemen want to go?

MCCARTER: Let me respond. May I use a visual aid, Dick?

HEFFNER: Sure, if you think it can be seen.

MCCARTER: I think it can be seen. First of all, the operative term is probably not non-commercial, it’s non-profit. That’s a more important operative term. Now, if you play out possible models and experiments and tests against that backdrop, then I think you can see it more vividly. Here’s an example. I’ll let you handle this.

HEFFNER: The beautiful Smiths…. If you think I know what to do after all these years, I don’t know where there’s a camera here. Maybe the camera can focus on this. It’s… Is this a plug now? Is this a commercial for the Smithsonian?

MCCARTER: This is a non-profit agency, Dick and Rick.

HEFFNER: Right.

MCCARTER: This is a Smithsonian magazine. It may be a model. In this magazine, which is non-profit, you have three forms of financial support; a modest financial support through the Smithsonian Institution, a very strong subscriber membership base, and limited advertising/enhanced underwriting in between the articles. It’s all there. It works. It’s an interesting thing to look at. And the editorial, I think you would be the first to admit, has never been compromised. It’s outstanding.

HEFFNER: It doesn’t have very much competition, does it, in a very real sense and at this particular moment. And you fellows do. You need audiences, and as large an audience as possible if you join the ranks of people who are going to compete for commercial dollars. And won’t you be doing that? Isn’t that a problem as you walk down that path? Won’t you be competing as you walk down that?

BREITENFELD: With whom?

HEFFNER: With other broadcasters who are going to say that, “We can do better with the advertising department, with your company’s needs than these fellows can do.”

BREITENFELD: The company that advertises to sell the product alone, I don’t think is a competitor. Let’s put it this way; what’s a great, huge company that makes toothpaste and soap?

MCCARTER: Colgate-Palmolive?

BREITENFELD: Colgate-Palmolive. When they advertise on television they advertise a toothpaste, a soap. And their test markets they watch to see if sales go up after a certain type of ad. That’s one type of advertising. The kind of advertising we’re talking about, and here we are using the word again and we probably shouldn’t, is a kind where the parent company says, “I want to be associated with public broadcasting and perhaps an individual program. And I want the world to know that I’m a leading manufacturer of soaps and toothpastes and that I’m a responsible member of my community.” In the same way they – I love your visual, Bill – the same way they take out ads in that book.

MCCARTER: There may be something there for us. I agree.

HEFFNER: But you’re both, you’re more sanguine than – I’m a little surprised. I thought McCarter here who I had always identified, probably very unfairly, as a leader in this use of the space between programs was going to be confronted by Breitenfeld who would say, “No, no, no, no, no, we can’t do that.”

BREITENFELD: In various Jesuit training institutions I’m told one of the exercises is “Belief in God: Take Either Side”. And today you’d have to take B and I’ll take A, and tomorrow we reverse it. If you would like me to give you a strenuous answer about why any form of commercialism on public broadcasting is the absolute beginning of our demise, I can do it. It won’t be my heart talking.

HEFFNER: Ok, that’s really what I want to know. I’m interested, you both are leaders in this field and what I’m interested in discerning for our viewers is what you really think, what you really prophesy, what you really think will work.

BREITENFELD: We have struggled for thirty-three years now to try to find a way to stay afloat. In 1967 when the Public Broadcasting Act was passed they promised, they being the vague Washington place, that one of the first things that would be done with this new corporation would be a design for permanent financing. And we had task forces, sub-groups, discussions how can we fund it. Meanwhile, we went back to the hill each year and did our legislative begging as an interim measure before this alchemy was performed and our tin cup could become a silver goblet or something. And that’s what’s happened ever since. There is no alchemy. There is no changing copper to gold. And therefore, at this point in our history as I suggested, we can’t afford not to examine potential and opportunities that are there. Philosophically, I hate to see non-commercial public broadcasting imposed upon by anything that appears to be commercial. Partly because we are more akin to universities than we are commercial television stations, and any semblance to commercial television stations bothers me a little bit. But with that said, we’re going to limp along and be skeletons for the rest of our institutional life unless we start getting savvy and trying things that might or might not work. We have to have the courage to fail as well as the courage to succeed.

HEFFNER: What will this do? Interesting point, what will it do? Bill, your station I think of always as a station that’s so extremely well built-in to the community, of which there’s such a high regard and such high viewership in the community. If public broadcasting goes up this path – I won’t say down this path – goes up this path, and what you both had suggested there may be a splitting off of the stations that can go into this venture more easily and those that cannot, do you see this becoming more of a nationalized system, a system that put its emphasis much more upon something akin to networking programs with the – I won’t call them commercials, whatever we’re going to call them – the spaces between the programs occupied by items that are designed to enhance commercial interests. That’s a little longer. Do you see the system becoming more centralized, maybe centralized in the person of the big city stations?

BREITENFELD: That’s possible.

MCCARTER: You know, that’s a hard one to read. It is possible because the independent corporations, not necessarily – or the independent stations and corporations referred to earlier in our discussion are more often than not the major producers of the national programming and have taken on that mantle of responsibility. So it could be that they would have somewhat of a dominating program influence. But I personally believe that we will go the route of television itself today. And that is the emergence of the independent station and the groups of stations. It was very interesting to look on the inside – or the first page of Broadcasting Magazine this week. They listed, now that all the breakups have come and the Tribune has bought the Los Angeles station and Cap Cities and ABC have been formed, there are now 20 groups of stations, 20 mini-networks half of which probably will last, that form the broadcasting core of television in the United States. I think that if one uses the independent model in the commercial world that it would be healthy for that to thrive in the non-profit world as well. One of the main reasons is that these stations exist to carry a certain national diet. But if that’s all they did then we wouldn’t have a need for them; we could go the Home Box Office route. We want to make them very strong local originators as well.

BREITENFELD: Dick, here’s another…

HEFFNER: Sure.

BREITENFELD: Here is a real problem on the topic you’re discussing. If Chicago’s station is successful with general support acknowledgements and then let’s say Chicago produces a very successful series called “Sneak Previews”, a popular program about the movies. Now let’s say that Bill puts into that program one of these colorful GSAs because of his own purposes. And then he distributes it around the country to an institutional college or a state licensee that says, “I’m not allowed to have those things.” So Bill has got to find the compromise between do I have enough stations carrying it that really want it with this, or should I just take this out so that all the stations can use it because I make out better that way. The centralizing, the networking is going to be in a variety of groups and projects, but it will seek its own level because Bill will either leave it in and make money or take it out and make money.

HEFFNER: Wait a minute, never mind about the “make money”. Bill has agreed the one thing you don’t make is profit here.

BREITENFELD: You bring in money though.

HEFFNER: You bring in money…

BREITENFELD: Ok.

HEFFNER: …to support the thing. The one thing we haven’t talked about of course among many things is the business of swapping stations. We’ve talked about this on the other programs. Either of you gentlemen in favor of a swapping a V for a U plus a bundle of cash?

BREITENFELD: It’s a red herring issue, Dick.

MCCARTER: I think I agree. I’ll give you a view on it. It’s been interesting to watch people react to it. To me, the most important part of that discussion is the fact that it came up. And it’s the most vivid demonstration of the desperation in the overall financial picture of public broadcasting you could possibly have. It sits there like a jewel. Look at that notion and you’ll understand this whole discussion. It’s as if we took the heirlooms down to the auction house. Beyond that, I would call it a local issue. And beyond that, I would call it a non-issue that at the most could occur in three, four, or five areas depending on the local circumstances.

BREITENFELD: The greatest danger of the concept and the discussion itself is that those who are against federal appropriations for public broadcasting will, as they did with advertising a couple years ago, say, “Ha, it’s our opportunity to cut congressional appropriations for public broadcasting. You guys can do your swapping and I’m told you can make hundreds and hundreds and hundreds of millions of dollars. So I’m going to vote against that CPB appropriation this year and encourage you to move with that swap.” That’s the danger of this issue.

HEFFNER: Is that not the same with the GSAs or GASs that you were talking about?

BREITENFELD: It could be. It could be.

HEFFNER: Why would it not be?

BREITENFELD: But that’s real. That’s real. This isn’t real. The swap is a phony issue.

HEFFNER: Well it does dramatize, as Bill says, the need for dollars.

BREITENFELD: Sure. Oh, absolutely.

MCCARTER: That’s its greatest value right now, if we would look at it like that.

HEFFNER: You know, short time left, what do you think will happen? Not what you want to have happen, what do you think will happen in the next two years, next three years?

MCCARTER: In which areas?

HEFFNER: In the area of financing public broadcasting.

MCCARTER: I would predict that as opposed to the way this discussion may have been approached three to five years ago, you can see in our comments that we’re quite probably in tune with the direction we have to go. I think there’s now a vivid realization of the extent of federal funding and the fact that I think we can hold it. There’s a vivid realization of the degree to which we have pressed the philanthropic sector. And there is a realization that we should press as many experiments as possible, experiments as possible, to bring forward the private sector to a much greater degree and then head for a mix, treat it as a challenge, not as a problem. It’s a fine opportunity for us to head it in this direction.

HEFFNER: Rick, you agree?

BREITENFELD: I agree, but I would like to point out in any prediction we really want to stress the fact that what we have stood for since 1952, a certain kind of approach to programming, remains. So that as we appear to be losing the virginity as you put it, as we appear to be going down the primrose path, the slippery slope et cetera, remember most of us are very aware of our history and our tradition and what it is we mean to do. In the next three to ten years we will continue to do it.

HEFFNER: That’s an up-note. And that’s the note on which we end. Thanks, Bill. Thanks, Rick. Thanks, too, to you in the audience. I hope you’ll join us again here next time on the Open Mind.

Meanwhile, as another old friend used to say, “Good night, and good luck”.