William Baker

Money for the Medium That Is the Message

VTR Date: October 7, 1989

Guest: Baker, William


Host: Richard D. Heffner
Guest: Dr. William Baker
Title: “Money for the Medium that is the Message”
VTR: 10/7/89

I’m Richard Heffner, your host on THE OPEN MIND. And though every program we do here deals with a subject near to my head – after all, Linda Murray and I choose all our own subjects and guests! – Still, today’s subject is particularly dear to my heart: it has to do with public broadcasting…”Educational television”, as we knew it back more than 30 years ago when I first became involved with the medium, finally helping acquire and to get Channel 13 on the air here in New York, then serving as its first general manager.

Well, four or five years ago we did a series of programs here on THE OPEN MIND with the Chieftains of several of our nation’s major public stations. Our subject, of course: How to support he stations and keep the medium on the air. And today I want to re-examine that question with Dr. William Baker, now President and Chief Executive Officer of Channel 13, WNET.

Now recently I watched Dr. Baker on Channel 13 doing a series of simply superbly personal pitches for your dollars, and I ought to start today by asking him just how he’s doing and how the medium generally is faring with contributions from the public, as well as with dollars from the government, foundations and the business community, particularly in light of recent pressures for and against public affairs-related programming.

Dr. Baker, how are you doing?

Baker: I’m fine, Richard, how are you?

Heffner: (Laughter) The question is, is the money pouring in?

Baker: (Laughter) The money is not pouring in. When I left commercial television two years ago, I knew this would be a difficult challenge. It is…it is for me the hardest thing I have ever done, trying to find money for an incredibly worthy cause. I would argue, perhaps the most worthy of all charitable causes in someway. If you really think about an institution like Channel 13, which I know you’ve thought a lot about, the station, if you measure an institution by the numbers of people served, Channel 13 is probably America’s biggest educational and cultural institution. Eight million people a week watch us here in New York alone, and our programs perhaps as many as 100 million across the country every week. We are doing okay. I mean we are not coming apart at the seams. It takes a lot of money to make the kinds of programs we make, and those costs keep going up, although in a fairly controlled fashion. I mean, there’s not any kind of runaway cost problem there, but our members are, are loyal, but they’re still a small cadre of them. One in ten of the people who watch us give us something. The rest are, for want of a better word, “freeloaders”. But we can’t seem to get through to them. They don’t, they don’t give, but they watch. The corporate world, and I heard an interview here on this program a couple of weeks ago with Newton Minow, is…has collapsed in a sense that they’re less philanthropic, more concerned about the bottom line, less concerned about citizenship, so there are only a handful of large corporations that give public television anything. There are only…people come to me and they say…and they say, “Oh, all these big billion dollar corporations, you’re in great shape. They’re giving you lots of money”. As I recall, there are only thirteen corporations in all of America that give more than a million dollars a year to public television. So, their numbers are not…are going down slightly. Individual contributions are going up slightly, but just barely enough to keep pace with inflation, and then people say, “Well, what about the old government…they’re sitting there writing checks”. Well, the government’s…one of my favorite lines is “the government spends about this much of an aircraft carrier is what they spend on public television every year”. It’s about 18 cents per capita and in England it’s about $38.00 per capita. That number is not growing. It has not been growing with inflation. Luckily, we haven’t been severely cut, although there has been the effect of Gramm-Rudman which we don’t really know how we’re going to deal with that. And, and our last source of income, is what we could call ancillary income from selling videotapes and books and those kinds of things, and that number is growing a little bit, but, but when you’re dealing with educational material, we try to see it at the lowest possible price, so we’re not interested in trying to make a large margin on it, and you couldn’t make a large margin on these things, anyway, so…so it’s a tough fight. We’re there. We keep going on. I’m proud to be in the fight and somehow we will weather the storm. People embrace me and they say, “Well, what do you have new? What’s…you know, how are you going to fund public television?” I say, “I don’t know, but I know somehow, something will happen (laughter) that we’ll, that we’ll be able to keep on. As an institution, as a business, we shouldn’t have existed for all these years, but somehow, there’s something miraculous about it, something that the public wants so badly, that somehow I know the people will see us through. I don’t know how, but somehow they will get us there.

Heffner: Now, Bill, that’s okay if this were Channel 13’s pitch for funds…

Baker: Yes.

Heffner: …we could time it…a minute and a half…

Baker: Yes.

Heffner: …two minutes, whatever…

Baker: Yes.

Heffner: …you raise your eyes looking for support from some other source, and then stop…

Baker: Right.

Heffner: …but we’re going to go on now for twenty-seven more minutes…

Baker: Right.

Heffner: …and the first question that occurs to me is, if you say you’re not blowing the whistle, things aren’t coming apart at the seams…

Baker: Yes.

Heffner: …four, five years ago when your counterparts fro the other stations were here, and your predecessor, Jay Iselin…

Baker: Yes.

Heffner: …they were talking, speaking in these dire terms. Money from government wasn’t available as it had been before, and public contributions were going up a bit, but…as you say, people are still getting free rides, etc., etc. What happens in the long future? I know you’re an optimist…

Baker: Yes.

Heffner: That’s something terribly nice about…

Baker: Right, I…

Heffner: …dealing with you. But where do you think you’re going to fill these gaps? Will it be something like subscription public television? Will it be some new idea in the future? Will it be in the world of commerce?

Baker: Richard, I hate to tell you this, but I don’t have the answer. I don‘t know. I mean, I really don’t know. Everybody asks me this and I don’t have a simple answer. I have no answer to that. Our answer for the short term has been cutting costs, doing everything we can to tighten our belts, and get through this period until somebody has the great idea, or the public all of a sudden explodes with great munificence or the government, or some other source. Or course we’re looking for new ways. We’re experimenting on the air right now on Channel 13 with a 900 telephone number to let people…kind of a new way to let people who, perhaps have never given us anything, when they’re watching a show and they say, “Hey this show costs a lot…”, they can call a 900 number and for $5.00 count their name as being a supporter of that program. They go out to see a movie and it’s $7.50 or $10.00 or some number like that. So, we’re trying some new, some new gimmicks, for want of a better word. Is that working? The answer is “not yet”. I’m hopeful that it will. Every day somebody in our development office comes up with a new idea, and every day we try something new. We’ve been doing…we are looking at businesses that could be, in a sense, for-profit subsidiaries of public television. The way Children’s Television Workshop has been pretty successful. Our problem is that what we don’t want to do is get into a business that makes money and that suddenly becomes our principle focus. Our…our only focus it so…is to run the finest television station in America and serve the people. It’s an intrinsically uneconomic activity because to do outstanding quality programs it’s like running an opera company…you know you can sell all the seats in the house, and it still doesn’t pay for the cost of performing the opera. So…but…but what we don’t want to do is wind up getting into something else and then taking our eye off the ball of running Channel 13. We’re running a charity, and we want to focus on that. Will we come up with a…a grand new plan? My guess is that it will be some evolutionary kind of a thing. Will we start charging “pay-per-view”, as you suggested? I don’t think so. I mean, I’m…I’m against it. I get letters every day with some…there are a lot of our friends suggesting new ways of making money, everything from going back door-to-door, to “scrambling your signal and sending out converter boxes to those people that pay”. Well, part of the purpose of Channel 13, as you know, is to be available free of charge to those who can’t afford to pay. Part of our mission is to be, is to be available for those people who just can’t afford to pay anything.

Heffner: Bill, in terms of your research, and I…now…in terms of your earlier career…

Baker: Yes.

Heffner: …that you are a research oriented person…

Baker: Yes.

Heffner: …the people who watch 13, and in terms of what we know about the other stations around the country…

Baker: Yes.

Heffner: …because we’re being seen in Chicago, and being seen in Los Angeles, and many other cities…

Baker: Yes.

Heffner: …what do they know about the kinds of people watching the economic…level of economic well-being of the people watching?

Baker: Well, it’s very interesting. It’s different from what I thought. I thought that the people that watched Channel 13, for the most part, were educated suburbanites, those kinds of people. I always knew what their relative numbers were, and that is compared to commercial television, they’re relatively small. But of course, compared to cable television networks, they’re very, very large. Compared to almost anything else, they’re very, very large. They’re just not in the same league as the Bill Cosby numbers of the Oprah Winfrey numbers, or something like that. But the audience is much more heterogeneous than I thought. It is…it is from every walk of life…as a matter of fact, seventeen percent of all the people who give us money are from the lowest socioeconomic zip codes in this metropolitan area. Now that was a real surprise to me, in the ghetto, and the…you know, in the most hard-pressed places people are reaching into their pockets, giving us money. It’s not just, you know, Greenwich, Connecticut, or Short Hills, New Jersey or the Upper East Side of Manhattan or some, some place like that. So the audiences tend to be a little bit older, and they…and, and not necessarily even better educated, in the sense of formal education. They tend to be somewhat more female. That’s about all you can say about it. Now, I can tell you more about that audience personally, because I’ve spent a lot of time running commercial television enterprise, and now my two year experience with public television. The audience to me is a very personal audience, it’s a unique one. A one-rated television program will get a bigger response at a public television station in letters an comments on the street, etc., than a twenty–rated program on a commercial television station, and I’ve grown to think of the public television audience as a kind of a friend, you know, because of the fact they are my friends, they are our supporters, and they…and these people I describe as the kind of decision makers in our society. We know also that they’re not heavy TV watchers. Commercial television’s always afraid of me now that I’m in public TV. They say, “Well, you’re going to take viewers away from us”. I say, “Don’t give me that stuff. You’re out of your minds”. The people that watch public television are, for the most part, not television watchers. They are…the only time they turn it on is just to watch public television. They don’t turn it…it’s not as though they say, “Well, I think I’m, I’m watching a sitcom over here and I think I’ll switch over…see if 13…”, there’s very little of that. The people that watch public TV are low TV viewers, but I call them the kind of decision makers in our society. Now they may be wealthy decision-makers, they may be government officials, but they could be teachers in the ghetto. They could be community…they could be community affairs kind of leaders, people like that…those are the people…so, so when our station’s on the air, I have a sense that it is talking to the people. Maybe not in the same numbers that commercial TV is talking to, but it’s talking to people that…when they get aroused, they really do something.

Heffner: Have you been affected badly, or at all, by the rise of cable now, which comes closer to being a rival, perhaps, than anything else?

Baker: No, surprisingly. Actually, public television across the country, its numbers have gone up slightly, even with cable. Perhaps the reason that that’s happened, is with cable and a lot of the public television stations are UHF stations, and they have gotten on better channels, and they’re better able to be received. The case of Channel 13, our numbers, two years ago, were the highest they’d ever been, and New York was, you know, the New York metro area…New York, New Jersey, Southern Connecticut, pretty well, pretty well cabled. We…our numbers have slipped a little bit, but I mean in a miniscule amount, but that’s been intentional because we’ve done more and more…recently more and more public affairs, and public affairs kinds of programs tend to have lower audiences. But we just think it’s part of our mission, so we’ve turned up that knob of public affairs community issues, knowing intentionally that it would not get the same kind of audience that our Nature programs and our operas and ballets do. But, but for the most part, our audiences are stronger than they have ever been, ever in the history of the station, and I just, we’ve just started our new season, and I get, I get ratings ever day, although honestly I don’t look at them the way…I used to look at them like this, when I was in commercial TV, but now I just, I just kind of casually look at them. I want to make sure that we’re, we’re being as effective as we can, and I was delighted to see that programs like Art of the Western World had audiences of millions of people, and it just…it just made me feel proud. So, so things, I’d say in that area are doing well, and people, while there are some public…there are some cable services that, that may have the edge of a look of public television, they aren’t public television and the audience knows that. There’s a loyalty of public television. There’s a choice of programs, a breadth on public television that just doesn’t exist anywhere. The only area where we now seem to be slipping, and I’m not sure I understand why, is that our audience for children’s programs in the afternoon, not the morning, our morning audience is getting bigger, but our afternoon children’s audience, that where we do a big block of children’s programs seems to be getting smaller. We’re not sure why. We don’t know.

Heffner: Maybe they’re finally going out and playing outside?

Baker: Well, that could be it. I think perhaps, though, it’s more that what commercial broadcasters call “set control”…older kids in the family are watching the talk shows on commercial stations, things like that, and then they take the kids away with them.

Heffner: Bill, back when Channel 13 began, there was a wonderful New Yorker cartoon showing some kids playing, making snowmen and you could see the mother in the distance, beckoning them, and one kid is saying to the other, or to the mother, I guess, “Ah, Mom, do we have to come in and watch Channel 13?”

Baker: (Laughter)

Heffner: So maybe they’re just in rebellion now. You know, you spoke before about people not carrying their own weight…

Baker: Yes.

Heffner: …in terms of watching, but not contributing. Is there any psychological research as to how people and why people are willing to do that? Loyal viewers, or at least they watch, and there are things they like, but you tell them that they’re not going to stay on the air unless the money comes in…maybe you’ve got to start taking things off the air until the money comes in.

Baker: Well, I mean…we’ve had every…again, other suggestions…people have said, “Well, why don’t you just go dark, you know, say, ‘Well, hey, the money runs out’.” Up until about a year ago, we had enough money, literally, and this was true, our auditors came in and looked at it, and their eyeballs turned into saucers. They found that the Channel 13…I mean I think, too, we cried…we cried poor for so long people then, they don’t believe it…well, in fact, it’s the truth. Channel 13, if our funding stopped tomorrow, would have enough money to stay on the air for about three days. That’s it. It’s incredible. It’s really scary. Now, back when I was a commercial broadcaster, I used to worry about hundreds of millions of dollars profit margin. You know, I always had this big fat cushion. But to think that, that if, if something even slightly goes wrong…because every dollar we take in we spend, we don’t have a margin as…at all, you know. You have to start burning the chairs in your office, you know, instead of paying the heating bill. Makes you pretty uncomfortable, and everybody at the station has that same kind of impoverished feeling. (Laughter) No, I mean it’s not…I don’t want o get carried away, but it’s made…I’ve never seen really creative people be so humble. Where I came from, creative people were so cocky because they, their creativity yielded also large amounts of money. Here the creative people are just kind of looking for the next, next open hand that they can grab that might have some, might have some funding.

Heffner: What’s been the impact of public affairs programming? I mean the recent problem with a program that was either going to offend supporters of the Palestinians because you didn’t put it on the air, or offend Israeli-oriented viewers because you did…

Baker: Yes.

Heffner: …that sort of thing you’re going to have to face more and more as you go into public affairs.

Baker: Oh, yeah, that’s one of the things that, of course, makes that a hard decision. But, after all, you know the mission of public television, and that is that we are, in effect, the only really public meeting ground in America where really tough issues can be talked about and if we start becoming only vanilla television, being afraid to offend anybody, we’ll be a…we’ll be a meaningless kind of an institution.

Heffner: Of course, the charge has been made is that that is precisely what public television became after a while, and you’re moving it back into…

Baker: Well, yeah, we’re…you know, I think that…I don’t know…I mean I don’t know whether public television became that or not. It certainly, you know, has become a more mature institution. It’s a bigger institution. It’s not…and I…but I think that if unless we’re kind of that spunky, young-at-heart public meeting place that we’ll…again, why exist unless…I mean that’s what we’re there for, or that’s certainly one of the principle reasons. Yes, when you do programs you offend people, you sometimes lose their support, and we have lost some support…has it been enough to hurt us? So far the answer is “no”, because we’ve gained support…often when you’re true to yourself, and you’re true to your heart, when you’re making the best good faith decision your institution can do, and that’s what we did in this…in the case of the program under discussion. Even the people that were not happy that we did it, I think, had a respect that “Gee, they’re trying to do what’s right. I may not like it, but they’re trying to do what’s right”. So I think that’s, bottom line, not going to hurt us. I think if we became a wishy-washy, waffling kind of an organization that was only looking to the next buck, I think then nobody would support you.

Heffner: Bill, when you were chief honcho at Westinghouse, surprisingly enough, as a commercial broadcaster, you supported the Fairness Doctrine.

Baker: Yes.

Heffner: Now the Congress is in the process, perhaps, of bringing back the Fairness Doctrine, no longer as simply an FCC doctrine…

Baker: Right.

Heffner: …but unfortunately as the result of legislation. How do you feel about the Fairness Doctrine now?

Baker: Well, I’m still in the minority of people in broadcasting who support the Fairness Doctrine…it’s just something I believe in. I believe in it in a sense even more for public television, whether it needs to be a law or not, I don’t know. I just know from Channel 13’s point of view…we’re running the institution as though there is a Fairness Doctrine. As far as we’re concerned, our mandate is…is to ultimately run a balanced institution. Now that doesn’t mean that every program we put on is going to be balanced. Some will be very, very definitely out of balance, but over a period of time it’s our hope and expectation and internal demand that every point of view will be raised and a contrary point of view brought up as well, so that he public can have a wide-ranging and in effect, video library to make their own decisions about what’s going on out there.

Heffner: To you knowledge, is that a position taken by most other responsible leaders in public television?

Baker: It’s one that we haven’t talked about. I would think that it…I would think that it would be…they’d be hard-pressed not to feel that way, but I don’t know, I don’t…it’s not been a discussion I’ve had with other public television executives. Usually, when we get together, we are asking about if anybody’s come up with any new ways of raising

Heffner: What about when you get together with our former commercial brethren, not about the Fairness Doctrine…

Baker: Yes.

Heffner: …because we know, generally, now they, they think…

Baker: Right.

Heffner: …even though as a commercial broadcaster you were in favor of it.

Baker: Yes.

Heffner: Are they carrying what you consider their weight in support of the brethren in public television?

Baker: I’d say that’s been…in some ways for me, one of my biggest disappointments. When I ran the Westinghouse television stations, I made it company policy because I also thought it was good business for our television stations in our communities, Boston, and Pittsburgh, San Francisco, etc., Baltimore, Philadelphia, to embrace the public television stations, you know, to kind of run announcements saying “Hey that public television down the street, they’re good people. Give them a little support” on all of our…on at least most of our stations. We even preempted prime time once a year and duplicated the pledge drive so that the…so that the people watching commercial television could be aware of what was going on in public television, give…give it a little bit of a boost, a little bit of a kick. I expected it to be the same here in metropolitan New York, and when I approached my brethren down the street, making similar suggestions, saying “Hey, I think it’s just good business” because, again, we’re not stealing audience from commercial television. What America needs is a strong public and a strong commercial broadcasting system. We can…we’re needed, both of us are needed, and it shouldn’t’ be an either/or, and that hey, also there should be a little rub-off. Why do you think some large corporations support public television? It is not totally eleemosynary. It is because they think that, that doing public good like this will eventually accrue to their best interests economically. And I always felt that, hey, if you did something nice for Channel 13, maybe…maybe a few extra people would watch your news at 11 o’clock and you’d make few extra dollars, if you’re a commercial broadcaster. Well, every little idea I suggested…everything from running an hour of pledge to…to running some announcements for us have more than fallen on deaf ears. They’ve kind of come…they’ve hit mi in the head with my idea saying, “No way…no way”. (Laughter)

Heffner: But isn’t that an indication that perhaps you are competitive? That 13 is?

Baker: Well, I don’t think…I think they think we are, but we…I mean I spent 30 years in the commercial television business. I mean, I don’t, I don’t know how, by any measure, we’re competitive. Again, based on the kinds of people that watch public television, etc., and now there are so many choices, why not, why not support another public…another institution and have their name mentioned on, on Channel 13? Can’t hurt them.

Heffner: We just have a few minutes left. I want to ask you something else.

Baker: Okay.

Heffner: When you were at Westinghouse there was no question that Westinghouse had taken the lead early on in the area of editorializing. Public television…what’s its posture, what’s your own position?

Baker: Yes, we did editorials, and as a matter of fact it was a mandate of all of our television stations to do it. But we had local news organizations, and…which we don’t have at Channel 13. I’m running now a publicly owned institution. I think…I think in a commercial station we could say, “Speaking for the station or speaking for the licensee”…us…those of us who were the…technically the licensees, we could say things to the public. Here…I’m …the only people I can speak for, if I do an editorial are the…all of the people of the community…well, as you know, I can’t speak for all of the people of the community, the viewpoints are so diverse and so complex. So on public television, I’m against certainly me doing any editorials. Should there be editorials from a widely divergent group of people, not the management of the institution…perhaps. We’re thinking about maybe having a nightly commentary on Channel 13 form a number of people including Bill Moyers and community leaders, and the Mayor, and religious leaders, etc. You know, that might be interesting. That’s something we’re looking at, but I don’t think the management of Channel 13 should be ever making editorial statements.

Heffner: So that it would be commentary as you suggest…

Baker: But not editorials.

Heffner: …but not editorialization.

Baker: Yes, yes, because I can’t speak for all the people, and that’s who we represent and that’s who in fact owns our institution. All of the people.

Heffner: Enhanced underwriting in forty…fifty seconds.

Baker: Yes.

Heffner: More enhancement?

Baker: Enhancement already means things that look more like commercials?

Heffner: Yes, sir.

Baker: I…there’s no question there’s more of that on Channel 13, a lot less than on other public television stations. Do I like it? No. I’d like us to have no underwriting if we could afford it, but we can’t…but more and more now because corporations, in order to give us anything want something more in return. There’s probably going to be some of that creeping enhanced underwriting, but we’re pretty tough in holding the lid on it.

Heffner: And that, of course, brings us to not just the end of the program but the question of the marketplace and values, and you gave a beautiful speech some years about values in the marketplace. Someday you’re going to have to come back here and let’s talk about that.

Baker: I’d be honored.

Heffner: Bill Baker, thank you so much for joining me today.

Baker: Thank you.

Heffner: And thanks, too, to you in the audience. I hope you’ll join us again next time. And if you care to share your thoughts about today’s program, please write to THE OPEN MIND, P.O. Box 7977, FDR Station, New York, NY 10150. For transcripts send $2.00 in check or money order. Meanwhile, as another old friend used to say, “Good night and good luck”.

Continuing production of this series has generously been made possible by grants from: The Rosalind P. Walter Foundation; The M. Weiner Foundation of New Jersey; The Mediators and Richard and Gloria Manney; The Edythe and Dean Dowling Foundation; The Lawrence A. Wien Foundation; The New York Times Company Foundation; The Richard Lounsbery Foundation; and, from the corporate community, Mutual of America.