William Baker

Public Television: The Medium Is the Message

VTR Date: March 17, 1995

Guest: Baker, William


Host: Richard D. Heffner
Guest: Dr. William Baker
Title: Public Television: The Medium is the Message
VTR: 3/17/95

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, Tom Chandler and I choose all our own subjects and guests — still, today’s subject is particularly dear to my heart as well. It has to do with public broadcasting, “educational television,” as it was known back more than four decades ago when I first became involved with the medium, finally helping acquire Channel 13 and putting it on the air herein New York, then serving as its first general manager. So that over the years the fate of public broadcasting has not only been very much on my mind, but often discussed here on The Open Mind as well. Usually, of course, in terms very much related to dollars and cents: to be direct, how do we support this ever more needy public institution?

And that’s very much a question again today: Should, will, can the federal government cut off or severely diminish its contributions to public stations and programming? It looks that way, though the returns aren’t all in yet.

But in the process of sifting through all of this, far larger questions are surfacing as well. Not, of course the first time, nor for the last For with all the attacks now upon public broadcasting as not only profligate, but political and elitist as well, it’s clear that some rather rigorous soul-searching, some very precise self-definition; and a whole lot of realistic financial and even cyberspace-related planning are in order. And perhaps my guest today can help us begin to travel this rough, mine-strewn path to the future.

Dr. William F. Baker is president and CEO of Channel 13/WNET, what most of us in the New York area like to think of as public television’s flagship station. Earlier, Bill Baker had spent many years in commercial broadcasting, joining Channel 13 after serving as president of Westinghouse Television and chairman of Group W Satellite Communications.

Let me ask Dr. Baker first what he thinks will now come of congressional and other attacks upon public television in the midst of its necessary effort to win dollars and, more than ever, make sense.

BAKER: If this democracy works as it should work, and those letters keep coming, my guess is that when we look out over the next few months over what’s really going to happen ultimately in Washington, those will have and probably will be the most decisive factor. But as far as this institution goes, if –the institution being public television and radio — in my opinion, that if we lose federal funding to the degree they’re talking, which is 40 percent over the next couple of years, 45 percent over the next two years, that the business will be changed forever. It doesn’t mean that all of the stations in America will go dark; but it means that they will somehow be very different from what you see today.

HEFFNER: Bill, you say the business will be changed forever.

BAKER: Right.

HEFFNER: I want, you want, I think everyone watching us today wants it to continue. Must it continue as it is? Are there plans for a different kind of business that you can see?

BAKER: Well, one of the dilemmas with planning for an entity as complex as public television is that it appears to the viewer, it appears to the government, it appears to its critics, that we area centralized – television network, the way CBS, NBC, or a cable network, Turner, is. But we’re really not. We’re like a group of different school systems all over America, all differently incorporated, some owned by state governments; some owned by city governments, some owned by local communities, some of them by universities. All with different strategic directions, all with different wards, many with different missions. So, and it was started that way. Everybody says, “Well, what a crazy, complicated system we have.” Well, the government established it intentionally to be that .way so it wouldn’t be this huge, powerful, centrally-controlled thing like some of the foreign public broadcasters are. So, in our weakness, in a sense, we have not been able to kind of coalesce a game plan because everybody’s game plan is slightly different.

And the other dilemma is, in my view, is that people who tend to go into this public service broadcasting industry are nice people. And they’re people that are used to doing, quote, “God’s work.” And they don’t like confrontation. They don’t like trouble. And they try to solve problems. So when we have a hard frontal attack, as we’ve had, a lot of individuals have, in a sense, stepped back from that and said, “Hey, maybe we shouldn’t be defending ourselves, maybe we shouldn’t fight this fight. You know, maybe God or someone else will take care of us.” My view is this is the time to tell the people what’s at stake and let the people help make those decisions.

HEFFNER: But when new views come to be true views, certainly you want to adopt them. You talk about the beginnings of this business, this industry. Why do you have to stay that way? I know perfectly well what you’re talking about: the disparate interests.

BAKER: Right.

HEFFNER: But can you not anticipate taking the lead and bringing them all together and defining public broadcasting in a different way?

BAKER: Well, I, you know, one, I think for WNET to take the lead, you know, this is an interesting industry. And often the very largest stations, WNET, WGBH in Boston, are viewed by our sister institutions as big and independent, and, “Why should we listen to them,” you know. (Laughter) So, what we have done is generally to say, “We trust the organizations of the public television system. These ace organizations of good faith and good people.” Particularly PBS and CBP. And we have been asking them, as a large television station and as the system, to say, “Hey, give us the leadership, give us the, you know, some new ideas.” There aren’t really any great, new ideas. I mean, as a former commercial television broadcaster, I can tell you quite simply that, look, federal funding is a critical piece of this mix. Nationwide it represents about 15 percent. But for the big producers, and entities like ours that produce about 30 percent of all the programs, for us it’s about 30 percent of all the money we get filtered in through the system in various ways, if that money is removed there is no other way to replace it other than perhaps go commercial, sell the asset, do something like that, I mean, you know, some very dramatic change that would change the system forever. Things such as huge cost cuts and downsizing and all that, in the seven years I’ve been president of this institution, five of those seven years we’ve been downsizing. It has been the most painful experience that I’ve ever gone through. Because intrinsically I define this industry, this television channel, as one that is non-economic. If what we did could make money or be profitable, all the other guys would be doing it. So what we’re doing is we’re doing the kind of, we’re using this medium for a purpose that is ultimately not economic. So virtually everything we do is a money-loser. That means the high-end cultural programming, very fine children’s programming, public affairs programming, all of those things are not economic, otherwise you’d see them on cable or you’d see them someplace else.

It was funny, I went to a little speech last night. We had the top producers of historic documentaries from public television giving a little lecture at the New York Ethical Culture Society. And there was an audience filled with people. And a couple of people came up afterwards who are cable producers producing similar programs on cable. And they said, “You know, the work you” — speaking to these producers — “The work you do is so great. We grind these things out in six weeks. You spend two or three years and make sure you get it right. We wish we had that ability, but we can’t because we’ve got to make money.”

And I once talked to a friend of mine who runs a major cable network and said, You know, maybe we should be doing some projects together, and some of our major performance programs, such as we do, of American Performance, which we’re very well known for.” And this person said, “You know, that’s really for public television. We could never do that because you lose so much money doing it. We’ve really got to make money. So just keep up the good work, Bill, and thank you very much.”

HEFFNER: Bill, let me ask you whether it has been a mistake to become so expensive that you’ve had to spend so much time now downsizing. Why did it grow as it did, the medium? Was it right in growing as it did so that you have to downsize now?

BAKER: Well, I don’t know. I think over time a lot of things happen. You know, television institutions develop a maturity, they develop systems that, you know, such as labor unions and all the other kinds of things that go into a mature and sophisticated organization. I don’t think so. I mean, you know, when I came from the commercial television world, we were about as lean and as mean, because what I used to talk about was “maximum honorable profits” in the business that I ran. I wanted to do the right thing, but ultimately we had to make money for the stockholders, and that was our ultimate goal. You know, that’s a legitimate, fine thing to do in America. But when you look at a thing like public television, I’m saying that if you presume that television is the most powerful thing in our society today, and I think arguably it is, there should be one sector of it that is not trying to make maximum honorable profits, that’s using its purpose, its system to do something else other than just make money.

Any rate, back to the point of size. When you look at the kinds of things that need to be done, very often they’re just expensive things. I mean, if you want to do a performance in this country, videotape an opera or a ballet or a performance, there’s no way to do that inexpensively. There just isn’t. The reason you see so many aggressive, angry talk shows on commercial television is because they’re inexpensive to do and they make a lot of money. They get big audiences, and their costs are low. I would like to think that one of the reasons we exist is to do things that do cost a lot of money, like these really fine children’s television programs, that the public needs, and that there are really no simple and cheap ways of cutting corners to do them.

HEFFNER: What do you think of…

BAKER: So my cuffing has really been now into the bone. And our issues have not been, you know, in truth, have not been labor, have not been anything else; they’ve been really the cost of puffing the content on the screen.

HEFFNER: What do we need in this country for a well-supported public broadcasting system?

BAKER: We need government support. We really do need government support.

HEFFNER: Put a figure on it.

BAKER: Well, I mean, you know the standard numbers that we quote. In this country right now it’s 80 cents per person going to through the federal government system. That’s what the government spends: 80 cents per person. In countries like England I think it’s something like 80 dollars per person; the numbers are much, much larger. I would say, if the federal government could stay at the $300 million level, which is where it is right now, we might make it. But even at that, we have been very short. We have not had the resources to do what needs to be done. I would say a number more like $500 million from the federal government would be reasonable. And by the way, the 300 million, this 80 cents per person represents 2/200ths of one percent of the federal budget. What the heck is the argument about it? You know, you talk about downsizing the federal budget. When you’re talking about something that isn’t even in the rounding error, I don’t get what the argument is about something that you would have to say of all the things the federal government spends money on, probably public television is the most used. Maybe that and the federal highway system. Of all the things the federal government spends money on. I mean, we’re about six inches worth of an aircraft carrier. We are really, in the federal budget terms, an irrelevant number. So this huge fight for something that small doesn’t make a lot of sense to me. And that well used.

HEFFNER: The day after Thirteen went on the air in September ‘62, Jack Gould of The New York Times called me and said, in not such polite terms – and he had been a supporter, he had helped us acquire, activate the station — “What the hell are you doing? What’s your purpose?” And I’m going to ask you: What is the purpose? Why this much of an aircraft carrier?

BAKER: That is the toughest question. I should turn this thing around and say, and ask you what you said. (Laughter)

HEFFNER: (Laughter)

BAKER: Do you want to go first? (Laughter)

HEFFNER: It’s a good thing I’m doing the interviewing.

BAKER: But I’ll tell you what I, because I have to answer that question all the time, and I’m delighted to answer the question, but it is a relatively hard question to answer since we are a full-service institution. I mean, it would be very easy to say, “Well, we only do children’s programs,” or, “We only do education.” And a lot of people are saying, “Hey this is a time of narrow casting. You should just be doing public service or public affairs, or you should just be doing children’s, or should just be doing news, or whatever.” And the way I define us is, as I say, on economics. I’m saying that this country, I find nothing wrong with commercial television. I spent much of my fife doing it. Or cable. Think they’re valuable and think they’re good. But say, on an economic basis they will only do so much. Simply because they are profit-driven; they have to make money. And if this country is to be a fully functioning, free society, it needs its electronic media to provide more than just what the profit motive will provide. It needs to have culture, It needs to have education. It needs to have children’s programming that is not economically driven. And what we do is we provide the audience, the people of this country, with options that the marketplace economy will not provide. That’s the way I define it.


BAKER: How did you define it?

HEFFNER: Very much along the lines… I’m only kidding. (Laughter) Complicated question, you’re right.


HEFFNER: But let me pick up what you say about the marketplace. What in the world is the answer to what I consider to be an absolutely soundproof, foolproof, brilliant response on your part, what the marketplace does not, cannot provide, public television will? What in the world is the response to that? How can anybody set that aside? Listen to you, hear that, and turn away from that?

BAKER: Well, as certain elements in the Congress today certa1n1 are setting it aside. I there have been quotes coming out of the Congress that say the only really public television that exists is Rush Limbaugh. I mean, anything can be criticized. I believe that this… I mean, I believe with all of my heart, and certainly with all of my commercial television and cable history, that what I am saying is absolutely the truth. The irony of all of this, when you were talking earlier about downsizing and changing when I left commercial television and cable to come here, I didn’t change. Everybody expected that I was going to do all of these radical changes to this wonderful public television station. Well, I was a viewer of this station. I liked what I saw. I liked what I see on all of the public television stations around the country. I made up my mind that what I would do is try to keep it; not try to change it. Because what I saw was really special. So I didn’t want it to go away. So rather than be an agent of change, I was trying to be an agent of preservation.

HEFFNER: I’ve been criticized so many times it rolls off my back. But I think I would be harshly criticized ill didn’t bring us back to the beginning when you said, “Look, this institution, this industry was started in a certain way. Maybe it’s crazy, but that’s the way it was started. Duplication, etcetera.” How are we going to continue to find the resources, no matter how right you may be, no matter how wonderful it is what Channel 13 and public broadcasting generally does some of the time, maybe most of the time, if we don’t say, “If there’s duplication, we’ll eliminate the duplication; if we want a mass, a critical mass of the kinds of programming you’re talking about, we’ll raise to the level of supportability which is what the big stations are doing, and then let the little stations be satellites?” When are we going to bite that bullet?

HEFFNER: Well, I mean, I think there are a couple of things about that. First, you know, it is not that simple. And my view is that if you tear the system apart, it may crash. And even, I mean, certainly I see things about this system that I don’t like, that I view as perhaps even inefficient. But I’m saying that if we take it apart and it crashes, it will never come back. And this thing is so wonderful, I’m prepared to live with inefficiencies.

HEFFNER: Oh, Bill, you’re a much, much, much more down-to-earth person than that As a businessman, before you came to Thirteen, you didn’t talk about things crashing; you talked about building things, reconstructing things, doing the right thing.

BAKER: Well, no, I’m talking about doing the right thing. I’m talking about a fragile entity; not a commercial business where you can, you know, manipulate it much easier than you can these nonprofit, public-service institutions. I think that there is a justification for a certain amount of multiple public television stations in this country. In a city the size of, say, New York, where there are 18 million people in this metropolitan area, I think there’s certainly a justification for more than one public television station, as tong as those stations are providing different services. I think there’s very little justification in public television for duplicative systems.

HEFFNER: But we have that, right?

BAKER: And we have that. And I think ultimately that has to be changed, because I don’t think that’s in the interest of anybody having one station more or less doing the same kind of programming schedule as another. But even that duplicative waste is in the scheme of this system relatively small, relatively small. I mean, that’s not going to make up, if you solve that problem it’s not going to make up for the loss of federal dollars. That might be, you know, $10 million or some number like that. I don’t know what it is.

HEFFNER: Do you think computerization, on-line, etcetera, etcetera, things that I know nothing about, and you may know a great deal about, do you think they are going to change the face of public broadcasting?

BAKER: Well, I mean, I think they already have. You know, it’s interesting. All over America in the public television system, public TV stations are operating just the way our commercial sister institutions are. At our place, we’re now using high-eight cameras for shooting, we’re using all of the, you know, much of the latest technology. We’ve been able to do all of that. I mean, there’s no computer gimmick that anybody has in the commercial world that we aren’t using or have access to.

HEFFNER: Bill, I was talking more about delivery.

BAKER: Oh, delivery. Okay. Yeah.

HEFFNER: Isn’t that the future concern?

BAKER: The future concern. Richard. Yes. I mean, it’s going to be wonderful when you and I are long dead to have fiber optic into the home and all of this digital data coming down the stream and people go in and they type in “MacNeil Lehrer News Hour” and boom, it comes out of their television set, or out of their computer. In truth, however, this digital, video revolution is going to take a long time. Further out than anybody can do business planning. I’m talking a decade or more. There will be some migration over the next five years to interactive, multimedia and cable, but it will not be, it will not replace, it will not be a substitute for the mass electronic media that we now commonly call television. So yes, maybe down the road 10, 15 years, when the industry is totally changed, there will be some things that we can do. But I’m living in the world of 1995. I’ve got to think between now and the end of this century. And between now and the end of the century it’s going to look pretty much the way it looks today. The delivery system is going to be very much the way it is today. There’ll be a few CO-ROMs over here, there’ll be some interactive fiber optics in a few places, but generally you’re going to come home, you’re going to stick out rabbit ears, you’re going to snap on the set, and the picture’s going to come up.

HEFFNER: But you don’t mean that the only answer to our problems is for Bill Baker to get on the air now and say, “Send in your money.”

BAKER: Well, I mean, that doesn’t hurt. That doesn’t hurt. You know, this is a very, very touchingly powerful system. I took a subway from our studio uptown down here to the bottom of Manhattan, and it was like holding court in the subway car. People were coming up to me saying, you know, “I care, I’m a giver. You know, is public television going to be all right?” You know, it was a very touching and powerful thing. And the viewer member dollars that come in from viewers that watch these public television stations, I have to say, in my whole 30-some years in the television business, has been the most powerful, the most touching experience, the most two-way interactive experience that I’ve ever dealt with. You know, what I used to say was that I, in my commercial life, used to produce programs that would get 15 ratings and put them on and get an occasional telephone call or a letter. Put a program on public television that gets a one rating, you might get 5,000 letters. I mean, this thing, public television, really does interact with people as I’ve never seen a mass medium ever interact with people. And the viewer dollars have been the key from the beginning, when, I guess, you were doing this. I assume they were key then. And they’re now even more important. If we could figure out how to get twice what we’re getting from every individual who is giving it to us, or if we could get every individual who watches to give us $5, our problems would be over. Or 80 percent of those individuals to give us $5. We seem to have topped out at the level we are. In our case we’ve got 350,000 members, and we’ve been kind of constant at that level for about – which is a huge number– but it’s been constant at that level for the last five years. But its not a huge number in percentage of the five and a half million people who watch us every month.

HEFFNER: We have 30 seconds left. Do you want to use that time to kick the backsides of the people who aren’t joining and sending in their dollars though they’re watching and benefiting from Thirteen?

BAKER: Well, you know, my argument is that if anybody watches a program like this one, they know what the issues are. And if they can afford to pay for it and aren’t, shame. (Laughter)

HEFFNER: (Laughter) Bill Baker, thanks so much for joining me today.

BAKER: Thank you.

HEFFNER: it’s not a laughing matter. And Lord knows, in the years since we began Thirteen, this is the critical time. Good luck.

BAKER: Thank you. Good luck to you too.

HEFFNER: And thanks too, to you in the audience. I hope you join us again next time, after you write your check to Channel Thirteen or your local public station. And if you’d like to share your thoughts too about our program today, please write: The Open Mind, P.O. Box 7977, FDR Station, New York, NY 10150. For transcripts, please send $4 in check or money order, after you send the check to Thirteen.

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