Guests: Iselin, John Jay; Tiano, Anthony
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THE OPEN MIND
Host: Richard D. Heffner
Guests: John Jay Iselin, Anthony S. Tiano
Title: More About Public Television
HEFFNER: I’m Richard Heffner, your host on THE OPEN MIND. We’ve done several programs over the past couple of months that dealt with our medium of choice, public television. In the process we’ve talked some about what’s on the stations you’re watching around the country now, quite a bit more about how to pay for it. For never in the long and quite difficult history of public broadcasting has the bottom line ever been anything that looms quite so large in contemporary life. The point is that while we’ve always understood that there’s no free lunch now, in particular, public broadcasting has to find even larger and better programming. But the question of coarse remains when and how. And again, I’ve invited the chieftains of two of the medium’s key stations to explore this matter with me today, New York City’s WNET, Channel 13. Gentlemen, thank you for joining me again. We’ve done a number of these programs, and Jay you were on the first. And when you were here the first time there was a lot of talk about swapping. Tony has been in on this too swapping your valuable V’s for UHF’s and a pot of dough. I gather at this particular point Channel 13 at least has said no to this.
ISELIN: We met Dick and Tony just the other day at our annual board meeting and reviewed a fairly comprehensive engineering study that we have been undertaking, and looked at the evidence. And we concluded that there really isn’t sufficient evidence that a UHF signal could approach comparability, parity, market. Now we didn’t take a position on what any other station should do or might do. It’s just that in this high density urban environment we could not find sufficient evidence of UHF reach and penetration to warrant suggesting that we could possibly consider a swap.
HEFFNER: Tony, will you feel the same way when the issue really begins to focus in on San Francisco?
TIANO: Well it has already. We in fact had maybe been one of the first stations in the country have an offer made to us by a UHF broadcaster. Frankly, from our perspective, it was not a particularly difficult decision because the strategy that we’ve adopted is really one of user support. And if that’s that strategy, then clearly what you want to do is have the best signal you possibly can. And any potential degradation of that signal is something that you’re just not interested in at all. Nonetheless, when an offer is made and when you’re looking at the Board of Directors and management team that could conceivably find themselves the subject of derivative law suites, you don’t take the matter lightly. So even if you make the decision you’re not particularly interest in doing it, it has to be carefully thought through and carefully researched. As Jay has done, as WNET has done, we’ve taken a lot of care in designing the research process which we think will be important to help us not only to answer that question which I think I can almost guarantee is going to be that we are not interested in any sort of swap, but also will help us look at some other marketing and technical issues as well. So it will have… (inaudible)…
HEFFNER: You know in the weeks since Jay… I guess it was Les Brown who was here at the table with you at that time… talked about it. There have been those who have said now this fellow Jay Iselin, he wouldn’t give up is VHF signal for anything. And for the reasons that Jay has just said, but that he wanted to dramatize the absolute need for the program fund that you talked about then. Now how are you fellows going to accomplish that if you turn away from this potential?
TIANO: Well Dick, I wish there were an easy answer to that. I wish that if we could solve that simply by deciding to put on a few more commercials which our colleagues in the business has been able to do for a lot of years, but that’s not what we’ve been about, and that’s not what some of us think we ought to be about. We also think, by the way, that how we do… how we raise those funds in an individual market is a decision that ought to be made by each individual station, each individual board of directors, each market. The funds are going to have to come from the people who use our services and from the private sector. I can’t imagine a scenario and maybe Jay can in which there is sufficient funding available from the Federal government or from state governments to begin to even dent our need for capital for program funding. The stations which use the programs that Jay and Channel 13 produce are going to have to pay a larger and larger share of that, an ever increasing share of that to the extent that we are unable to find the funds in the corporate sector. Our job is going to be, frankly, to find ways of finding Jay and his producers the funds that they need to make sure that they’ve got that capability.
HEFFNER: This make you feel better Jay?
ISELIN: Thank you, Tony. I appreciate that. One of the great results of this debate has been a sense of mutuality among all parts of I think the public broadcasting family. The mutuality parts of I think the public broadcasting family. The mutuality owing to the fact that we are both producers and users. Producers in the sense that we help pool resources to create programming and we have over now almost 300 stations across the United States that provide the signal to 300 different communities. So we have both the task of having a strong signal, the debate that we have been discussing waging, and the equally important task that we’re now discussing of developing a fund, a reliable source of revenues that will help us create the program that will ride the pathways that we’re trying the preserve and protect. Our board, in looking at the evidence, the engineering report, concluded on our recommendation that we set aside an opportunity. There’s no question that the marketplace is valuing Tony’s signal and Channel 13’s signal at really substantial sums, many millions of dollars. Set aside this opportunity but not set aside the obligation to find the resources for financing a new generation of television programs. And the actual resolution that our board passed unanimously twinned the forswearing of the opportunity which is really dramatized by the signal with a commitment to try to find the resources in this community to build a program fund that would enable us now to create the programs to make that signal that we’re going to save come alive.
HEFFNER: You’re talking about an endowment aren’t you?
ISELIN: In the end, we’re talking about an endowment because if we’re talking about reliable and dependable programming there has to be some set aside that would enable us to regularly develop programs through the research development and early production phases. And if that’s going to be there and dependable…(inaudible)…we’re going to have to talk about an endowment.
HEFFNER: What’s happened to foundations and the thought years ago that big foundations might provide a big endowment?
ISELIN: I think, and Tony you probably have your own views on this, I think what we’ve discovered is that in what many of us referred to as the post-Ford Foundation era which really is now comprised a decade since the Ford Foundation pulled back… you all recall when Dick Heffner was himself a general manager of a well known public television station, Channel 13 no less, the Ford Foundation helped bring that signal into the non-commercial arena by helping purchase it from its prior commercial owner, but also financed over 10 years, over a decade of programming seeding to get the programming going. When Ford pulled back, the expectation that other foundations would move in was not realized. And what we’ve found is that most foundations are intimidated by the cost of production. The sums seem so great, the demands seem so unending, that what we’ve found unfortunately is that we find very selective targeted foundations support. Not enough consistently to help. One big exception is the Mellon Foundation which has again and again repeatedly set aside and then distributed funds from research and development. That’s a big and important exception.
HEFFNER: I suppose my friend Franklin Thomas wouldn’t appreciate it if I commented that Ford has lain fallow for long enough now after ten years perhaps. Tony, do you think that’s a place to look?
TIANO: Well he might not appreciate it, but we would.
ISELIN: We’d love to have frank come back.
TIANO: I think there are a couple of other issues that are related to that. And one is that clearly the draw on the foundations had become much more serious than it was back in the days when Ford was in as heavily as it was.
HEFFNER: What do you mean the draw?
TIANO: The number of organizations and institutions that are finding themselves absolutely in need of those funds. In some ways and this not to be misinterpreted but in some ways the Federal funding works to out disadvantage because there still is some Federal funding or public broadcasting as there are organizations which have seen most of their Federal largesse removed. It’s very difficult for them. The foundations have tried to fallow that void where they can, but they have limited resources as well. And they have tended to go toward more social services as well. And they have tended to go toward more social service agencies. I think that’s a major part of the difficulty that they’ve had. They are, I think, generally supportive of what we’re trying to do. But they’re trying to do it in a sense in the primary way rather than in trying to fund public broadcasting.
HEFFNER: Tony, you talked before about user support of a kind. The stations that use the programs that Jay put out would pay Jay for them.
TIANO: That wasn’t exactly what I was talking about, but fair enough.
HEFFNER: Okay. Something like that. What do you fellows think about a different kind of user support in which you literally are paying for what you’re viewing? I mean this comes up then it dies.
TIANO: Subscription television option of a… well as you may know that in 1980 KQED filed a tentative position with the FCC to allow us to operate a subscription television service on Channel 32. It had been our feeling and it still is our feeling that we really a re absolutely user supported in the best sense of that in San Francisco. And we’ve seen our membership numbers and our subscription, if you will, numbers continue to climb over the past several years. We’re very pleased with that and feel that it provides us with the base for independence which is very difficult to achieve through any other source of funding, Federal, corporate or foundation. There’s just so many individuals who are supporting us that it gives the editorial folks an opportunity to do things that otherwise does not seem to be possible. The subscription television issue has a lot of problems with it. After a lot of years of trying, to find a way to integrate that into our system, it’s clear to me that it’s not an easy road. It is a technical, it’s a very difficult technical operation. It’s a very difficult operation to reconcile with some of the traditional feelings about public broadcasting service to everyone on a free basis. And for those reasons I doubt that we’re going to see any major change in regulation allowing us to do that sort of thing. But in a sense we’re there already. We are offering the programs. We’re collecting not particularly efficiently, but we are collecting from an ever larger number of people. And to some extent an ever larger percentage of the people who use our programs. So it is there, but it’s on a voluntary system.
HEFFNER: Jay, do you dismiss this notion?
ISELIN: Well I think Tony makes a fundamental point that if public broadcasting is going to live up to its potential and fulfill its mission, it really must be accessible to everybody. And, therefore, even as we’ve encouraged public support contributions, subscriptions, we have always referred to it as pay television, but on the honor plan. It’s a phrase, I think, that was actually coined at KQED originally, but on the honor plan. Our belief is that an awful lot of citizens who are benefiting from public broadcasting either through what they see or its impact upon the community in which they live aren’t yet valuing it to the extent they should an contributing, subscribing, to make it continue to be a free service. But it really, I think, must continue to be a free service because out of that comes the rationale for all the support. The fact that the culture of our times can be made available to everybody and that no one should be denied, will be denied access to the artistic and cultural riches of our age is really the democratizing principle that undergirds our particular medium. So it must be free. But it also ought to attract voluntary support from viewers on the basis of its value.
HEFFNER: Yes, but we were saying that back a quarter century ago, and unless you fellows are just crying to get more in that you don’t absolutely have to have, it would seem as though you’re faced with a somewhat different problem.
ISELIN: Well let me weave a hypothesis that may or may not be true, but it goes to another opportunity that I think we are now just beginning to approach. And this is an opportunity that supplements the subscriptions that complements the underwriting that we’ve talked about that reinforces whatever is left of or can be preserved of tax dollar support at the Federal level and increased at the state and local level. In other words, we’re building a diversified funding base for public broadcasting. There is no doubt that there is a consumer revolt underway in this country. And it is a revolt against mediocrity and in favor of quality. You need only to go into a supermarket today to see a dramatic change taking place in that supermarkets are beginning to position those products which are outstanding in ways that they can be most reached by discriminating consumers. The same thing is happening in television. We’re experiencing extraordinary growth in viewership across the country. Public broadcasting is now clearly and unmistakably a majority service. Its viewership closely approximates a cross section of this country. The characteristic of our viewers is one of curiosity…people who watch programs with titles like THE OPEN MIND, and those people who are watching by choice. They’re picking quality goods rather than inferior goods. Now if there’s a revolt under way, very shortly we’re going to see a marketing revolution because this country has many astute marketeers. Madison Avenue is going to begin to recognize that class can be mass. And that the old fashioned view that everything has to be mass marketed is going to now move to a new era in which the consumer retrieves control of the supermarket and of the television set.
HEFFNER: I hope there are a lot of Madison Avenue people watching because that’s a terrific pitch. Is it enough?
ISELIN: Well, next step. If we can mobilize not only the citizens who are watching individually but the corporate citizens who now have to reach those discriminating consumers…viewer…public…then it may be that the investment choice will turn out to be the quality signal. Three hundred public television stations in three hundred communities offering quality programming to a discriminating public. And I would suggest that there may be a revolution under way wherein what we are providing turns out to be the most desirable and sought after programming and therefore the primary outlet for the corporate community.
TIANO: Dick, don’t discount that too quickly.
HEFFNER: No, I don’t discount it. I’d embrace it if I thought it could be.
TIANO: It’s the sort of thing that I hear people say, “oh, pshaw”. The point is that if you follow the trend of public television viewing over the past ten years, don’t try to measure this thing on a month-by-month or year-by-year basis, but as you begin looking at the trends over the past ten years and you just for as an exercise project those out for an other ten years there is a point within the next ten years where the lines cross, where our viewership and the commercial television viewership reach a parity. When that sort of thing happens, the revolution that Jay’s talking about will be…there’d be a stampede to see that sort of thing.
HEFFNER: Then I hope you fellows are right.
TIANO: Well, we’ve been working at it a long time, and we’ve been studying it a long time, and obviously we have a bias.
ISELIN: So we listen to THE OPEN MIND. We heard very recently two of our colleagues discuss the space between programs. That space might possibly be mobilized in such a way that a different kind of corporate identification could be created. It would never be called a commercial nor an advertisement not a spot. This would be different. This would be way of enabling corporations to identify themselves with their outstanding products if necessary in such a way that we would maintain in public broadcasting our distinctiveness, but at the same time offer an opportunity to the corporate sector to participate with you. A new funding stream we are anticipating.
HEFFNER: If I understand correctly what you’re both saying is that back a quarter century ago we felt and thought the same things, but we weren’t able to convince the advertising community or the corporate community of what you’re saying. And also you’re quite correct. We didn’t have the space between the programs to make use of. I’m a little puzzled though. One says as one looks at different other aspects of American life that that sight of consumer rebellion isn’t quite there.
ISELIN: Well, after all, John Naisbitt’s MEGATRENDS is premised on the era of high-tech, high-touch. The book is fundamentally a distillation of trends which are discerned across part of America in terms of a move in a qualitative direction. When one says high-tech, high-touch it’s a reminder that a discerning citizen consumer today is looking for ways and means of improving his life and the community in which he lives. And that in that sense public broadcasting represents a model for community involvement, but also personal fulfillment. If you listen to Dan Yankelovich, Dan has been listening to the heartland and the pulse beat of this country for many years, and his clear statement now is that we’re moving into an age of what he calls expressivism in which the citizens who are setting the trends in this country are demanding of their environment a sense of community participation. They are looking at corporations increasingly in terms of the extent to which corporations who a sense of participation in the well-being of community as well as in the quality of their product. I think the trend lines are pretty clear and pretty well now identified and that we’re not just puff and smoke here.
HEFFNER: Does your programming show this at this point?
TIANO: Oh, I don’t think there’s any question about that. I think that on that particular issue the history, the record of public broadcasting is unassailable. What we have done over the course of the last ten years is to build an ever stronger programming service year by year attracting more and more people to it. Doing our job is much, much better. I mean we’ve matured an awful lot in the last ten years as we kind of stumbled through first the process of trying to decide how the federal government ought to support us and then having failed there, having realized that not only not having failed but having realized the difficulty and the strings which go along with those funds…found other ways to do it. This is yet another approach. It will never be, I’m convinced, an easy job for public television to find the silver bullet. There just isn’t one out there for us. Frankly, that’s the good news. The tough times that we’ve had, you’ll find I think, as will people who watch our services, have build a pretty doggone viral breed of folks in these places whoa re committed to what they’re doing and who have gone through all the tough parts of it now are prepared to begin providing a whole new brand of service.
ISELIN: The basis of the whole sense of optimism that we retain and have is that we have managed to create a nucleus of talent in public broadcasting that has learned to touch America in many different ways and be touched. And this talent bank that we have been fortunate to create over the years, through trial and error through working together, constitutes our key resource. If we can indeed build a programming fund now that can keep our talented producers and writers, directors and managers at work and therefore find successes to such programs as HERITAGE and BRAIN and CONSITUTIONS and VIET NAM and those other outstanding achievements as well as the every day programs whether they are GREAT PERFORMANCES or MCNEIIL LEHRER or NOVA. You name it, we’ve got a really extraordinary line-up. If we can now build successes, then I think there’s every expectation that the public will reach out to those of us who have been able to do that and provide the funds for those to bring those programs to air.
HEFFNER: Given the programming you’ve mentioned, and I’m sure there are many others that you would mention, why do we need to have quite as many scores and scores and scores of public television stations using up as many millions and millions of dollars that we have? You’re talking about network programming. You’re talking about national programs. You smile, Tony.
TIANO: Well, I smiled because it’s a very good question. We have to remember that the reason for these educational reserve channels was in part…the force for that was being driven by the commercial broadcasters who wanted to create something of a scarcity so it was much easier to reserve them that it was to try to have competitors on those frequencies. So there are an awful lot of them around. We deal with six individual public television stations in the San Francisco Bay area and, for example, my cost for buying MCNEIL LEHRER is on the order of fifteen times that of one of my colleagues who operates just down the street from me serving the same market. It’s a major issue. It’s one that the system is going to have to deal with. I think before long many of us are going to begin agreeing to buy programs but being a little more interested in exclusivity in our own markets. There is, as my programming people tell me regularly, there is no dearth of programming available. The question is just the quality of the programming and essentially the sort of position that we wish to take as a station. We think that it would be much more appropriate for other stations to begin finding new niches in the market rather than trying to compete with us head on at 8:00 with the same program. Or try to shift it by an hour which doesn’t seem to offer that new service.
ISELIN: But think also of the marvel of what has been created during a very difficult and lean period. The largest public television service…it’s a collaborative, but it’s a united service, a non-commercial service in the world…300 outlets. Putting in place the foundation for a democratizing force that means that virtually every substantial community in this country can participate in the public television experiment. And that’s important.
HEFFNER: How much money goes into public television all told in this country?
TIANO: It’s probably right at a billion dollars, isn’t it Jay?
ISELIN: If you stretch. I think I would put it in a figure closer to 700-800 million in current dollars.
HEFFNER: And how much of that is covered by the duplication and by the triplication that you’re talking about, Tony?
TIANO: A great deal, no question about that.
ISELIN: I don’t think there’s any question about that.
TIANO: Again, let’s use Jay’s figure for a moment. And the Federal appropriation this year is about 150 million so the percentage of Federal money in the system is relatively small. I’m taking now corporation for public broadcasting funds alone. You talked earlier about the issue of the program funding. In some models at least, at least on a short-term basis there’s sufficient money in the system for us to begin to build the sort of program…(inaudible)…are indeed budgets which we need. But it is being frittered away, not necessarily just by the divisions that go to the individual stations, all of the stations, those that are duplicating, etc. But there’s also a good deal of frittering away happening in Washington and we’d like to see…some of us at least would like to see a model which is now taking hold in public radio with the direct station pass-through of those funds with the stations buying back the services that they want from which ever networks or which ever services they think are appropriate.
HEFFNER: Would you come…would you opt for something closer to a unitary system with fewer stations, Jay?
ISELIN: I think not because I think the decentralized system is one of our unique propositions. And another reason for optimism which we talked about earlier is a sense of shared opportunity. More and more of the stations that are fundamentally purchasing programs are recognizing that their own community service depends upon their ability to acquire and then position and schedule first-class programs. The phenomenon about the revolt of the consumer, a marketplace revolution is national in scope. So I think we really have a blessing here in a 300-station national collaborative. The trick now is to develop an ethic in which we aggregate resources around outstanding programs which then can be shared nationally. That’s the next challenge. And I think across the country there’s beginning to be a belief that that can be done…it must be done…it can be done on a collaborative shared basis, and we can rewrite the rules of broadcasting.
HEFFNER: What we can’t rewrite is time. Thanks so much for joining me today, Jay and Tony. And thanks, too, to you in the audience. I hope that you will join us again next time here on THE OPEN MIND. Meanwhile, as an old friend used to say, “Good night, and good luck”.