Peter Downey, William Kobin

What Lies Ahead for Public TV?

VTR Date: November 23, 1985

Guests: Downey, Peter; Kobin, William


Host: Richard D. Heffner
Guests: William Kobin and Peter Downey
Title: “What Lies Ahead for Public TV?”
VTR: 11/23/85

I’m Richard Heffner, your host on The Open Mind. If we’re to continue to watch public as well as commercial television just as we choose, obviously ways must be found to pay for it. And since who pays the piper so often calls the tune, this problem of support looms ever larger. There’s a particularly challenging array of would be, though only partial solutions that are being offered these days. Enhanced underwriting and bigger auctions, and swapping parts of the broadcast spectrum for lesser parts, plus a bundle of cash, and larger hats for passing around, and greater pressure for government funds, and some form of pay public TV, perhaps even pay-per-program. And of course there is the real hard sell on the air, advertising. All in the cause of keeping public stations going, and public programming growing and improving. Obviously there are many crucial decisions to be made here, many basic issues to be examined, and all, one hopes, with an open mind. So today I’ve again invited two of the people who helped mold this medium to set public television’s funding challenges before us in their own perspective. William Kobin, President of KCET, Channel 28 in Los Angeles. And Peter Downey, Senior Vice President of PBS, the Public Broadcasting Service.

Gentlemen, thank you for joining me today. This is one of several programs on public television. We’ve talked about passing the hat and raising money. I wondered if I could ask what the impact of your financial status is on your programming situation now and what one can expect and perhaps not expect to see because of whatever your financial status is. Bill, you run a station. What can we expect?

Kobin: Well, the impact of course is that there isn’t as much money as is needed for the production of programming, both local and national programming. And I think that one of the greatest concerns that many of us have is the question of where are we going to aggregate in a sufficient number of really large funds to produce programs, major programs for the national schedule?

Heffner: Yes, but every time I read about you when I’m in Los Angeles it seems that Kobin is raising more and more, successfully raising more and more millions. Where does it have to go to satisfy you?

Kobin: Well, it’s kind of you to say that. We are, yes, we have had a very successful period at KCET, but the funds do not exist for the production of major national programs. The funding that we raise locally is basically to sustain broadcasting, out of production of local programs, and the acquisition of local programs, and all of the support operations that you need to run a television station. What we are not raising money for in the traditional ways locally is, as I say, major funding for major national productions, for the prime-time national schedule.

Heffner: Well then don’t you look to Peter in Washington to supply that need? Peter, aren’t you there to do that?

Downey: We’re there to distribute and provide the programs back to all of the stations. But we’re certainly not there to provide the money. That’s not what PBS does.

Heffner: What do you do then?

Downey: Our job is to try to gather in programs as they’re produced by stations like KCET, Bill’s station, and other public stations and from other sources around the country and the world to put them together into a national program schedule, a schedule of programs, and then distribute them back to the stations for the stations’ use at the stations’ convenience.

Heffner: And raising money?

Downey: We don’t get much involved in that. Again, our job is fairly much limited to production and distribution, although obviously part of the job is to have a sense of what’s going on, what to expect next, and perhaps a sense of what the future might hold. You put your finger on, of course, a very severe problem, and one I think the public generally doesn’t recognize or realize how thin a veneer the dollars available to produce those national programs are. For example, of all of those corporations whose names you see at the beginning and end of a lot of public television programs, more than 75 percent of the money all of those corporations put up came from just 11 corporations.

Heffner: That’s a frightening thought. Bill?

Kobin: Yeah, I’d like to add to that. That that number is not increasing at a very rapid rate. And that’s when it…the question you’ve asked I realize I did not answer, and the reason I did not answer it is because we simply do not have an answer for it. The system really doesn’t have an answer to the basic question of how are we going to raise increased amounts of money. And we are beginning to meet now as a system literally to tackle that question. It has been hoped that an increasing number of major corporations would come into the business of providing major grants for the production of major programming. That corporations would help also to fill the gap. That also has been very slow. So we are looking now actually to each other to try to come up with an answer. And it may involve, some of us feel that may involve stations themselves providing, each of them, a certain amount of additional money for the production of this kind of programming.

Heffner: Is that possible? Can PBS perhaps find itself to be the place where money is placed so that you can actually begin to find more money for these programs?

Downey: We never say no. (Laughter)

Heffner: No, seriously.

Downey: I’m serious.

Heffner: Is it possible? Are there those dollars around at the stations?

Downey: I have to, all I can do is repeat what Bill just said. We really don’t’ know. It’s very much, very much a hand-to-mouth existence year to year. And one of the things that does is frustrate any sense of longer3-term planning about a sense of direction. One of the consequences is, to be perfectly candid about it, one tends to get programs which corporations are willing to fund, which isn’t’ always the same as the programs that you might like to do otherwise.

Heffner: Well of course you knew that I was going to turn now to this…

Downey: I would have said it anyway, Dick. (Laughter)

Heffner: …headline from Variety just in November. “Sponsors Call the Shots on Public TV”. And by gosh and by golly it takes me back to the ‘50s in commercial television when one read about that, and for shame. Is it true?

Downey: Well, I don’t really feel shame. I read that piece. And in all honesty my reaction was, why would anyone expect anything differently? I mean, corporations are not, it is not their business to fund controversial programs for public television. Corporations are obviously funding programming for a variety of reasons, one of which is to enhance the image of the corporation. So I think it’s a little unfair really to attack corporations for something that I think it is unrealistic for us to expect corporations to do. I think if a finger is to be pointed, it should be pointed at the federal government. The basic problem is not lack of corporate funding, the basic problem is that the federal government has never made the commitment to public broadcasting in the United States that it should have, and that governments in most other, many other countries have made to the sustenance of their public broadcasting systems.

Heffner: Don’t misunderstand me, when I went through the “For shame, for shame” routine, I wasn’t pointing my finger at the corporations. I think you’re quite correct, a corporation may expect something in return, or expect at least not to be in trouble because of where it donates its money. But what about the public TV people who take the money that is geared for purposes that aren’t quite so open?

Downey: Well, I don’t think that any of us – and when I say any of us, I mean WGBH, WNET, KCET, WOED, WTTW, any station that you want to mention – I don’t’ think that we take money for programs that we don’t want to do. That is a completely different issue. I think that the corporate funding that is coming into public television is for programs that we very much want to do. It is for programs like Masterpiece Theatre and that National Geographic specials and the McNeil Lehrer News Hour and many, many others. That’s a different issue. We want to do those programs. And personally I welcome that corporate support for those programs. The problem is a different problem, which is: where do we get the funding to do other kinds of programs that corporations are not going to support for the most part?

Heffner: But as I read your statistics, it seems to me that I see that when you do have occasional controversial issues on the air, in terms of audience those programs are beaten out by a Geographic series, they’re beaten out by nature series. Is that unfair?

Downey: It’s not only not unfair, it’s not untrue. It’s true. But I’m not sure what the relevance of that is.

Heffner: Because aren’t you interested in your audience?

Downey: Well, we’re interested in having people watch. If no one watches, then the programs serve no interest. But our mission in life is not to ever increase the ratings irrespective of what the nature of the program is. Our mission is to present good programming which we think will help to enlighten, inform, enrich your life. Now, if a lot of people watch that, that’s terrific. But we have every expectation that not as many are likely to watch a complex public affairs documentary as do watch the National Geographic. And that’s not bad.

Heffner: Peter, the first time I went to the Soviet Union and spoke to the program director of the All Nation Television channel and asked him whether there was any relationship between what the Soviets knew about public opinion, what the public wanted, and what they put on the air, he drew himself up and said, “Professor Heffner, when you walk into a classroom, do you ask your students what you should teach?” and of course the answer was supposed to be no, although then back in the ‘60s it was closer to being yes.. are you saying that there is no real relationship between what you put on the air and what your audiences most want to see?

Downey: There is a relationship in that one has to be mindful of what the effect, y9ou know, what happens with the audience when the program is on the air. As I said, if no one watches, no one, zero, or a very tiny, small number, then I think that was probably not very good use of the funds that went into production of the program. But by the same token, neither must every program achieve some high, preset level. And so therefore that doesn’t’ become the measure of effectiveness of the program.

Heffner: How do you account for the people who are watching us, they’re going to watch their public television station, and they’re going to find things that I think would be very difficult by any stretch of the imagination to say fit in to the old definition of educational television or the new definition of public television. They’re obviously programs that are designed to bring in audiences and build ratings and get more contributions. Is that an unfair statement?

Downey: That’s also not an unfair statement. There are programs which are offered which we think are splendid, wonderful, terrific programs. And one of the…but remember the measure of what goes on the air is whether it meets the test of the programmer’s judgment as to its quality and the service and the, you know, intrinsic value of the program. Some are more effective than others certainly at delivering audience to the screen, particularly those who are of a mind to contribute.

Heffner: Now, Bill has a station on the air. What criteria do you consider here? What about ratings what about popularity?

Kobin: Well, there are a number of different criteria that we apply for a program judgment. I would differ with your statement that public television is designing programs specifically or exclusively or primarily to bring to viewers. I think that is simply not the case. Appeal is one of a number of criteria that we use in making a program judgment. And by the way, we have a number of criteria, but we don’t apply them all in equal measure or in exactly the same order to every possible program, every program possibilities. Our first criterion really is quality. You know, is this a quality program idea? Our second criterion is, is there a need for such a program? Is there programming like this being done elsewhere or does it serve a unique need, which I believe is our basic mission, to produce quality programs which really don’t appear elsewhere in commercial or public television for that matter. Our third criterion is, is this program idea fundable? And if certainly, we could spend a tremendous amount of time trying to raise money for programs that we really don’t’ think we can raise money for. Is anybody going to watch the program? Absolutely , that is a criterion. Will a lot of people watch the program? And as just one final point, as you well know, when we use the term “a lot of people” in non-commercial television, it is very, very different from the term “a lot of people” in commercial television.

Heffner: And yet your own statistics, and PBS statistics certainly indicate, much to one’s delight, a larger and larger number of Americans who find some time can, much more time these cays than before, to watch public television sometime during a week. That’s true, isn’t it?

Downey: That’s true. During the course of a week about one out of every two people tunes to public television for the period of time necessary to be measured.

Heffner: You know, Bill talks about one criterion being fundable. Understandable. But you also talked about the obligations of the federal government. Where is it written that there is this kind of obligation? If we the public want this medium, why don’t we support it sufficiently? And if we don’t, isn’t’ that an indication that it just doesn’t hack it?

Kobin: Well, I think that there are certain institutions that are so important that they should be supported and funded whether or not they can be totally self-supporting. I think symphony orchestras are in that category. I think educational institutions are in that category. And I think public broadcasting is in that category. If you say about every institution or activity in the country, “IF it can support itself, fine. If it can’t, hail and farewell”. I think that the culture of the society loses a tremendous amount that is necessary and vital.

Heffner: But it’s interesting that cultural programs seem to be rather well, fairly well, adequately perhaps, taken care of. You yourselves say that the 11 corporations that do participate do so mostly for cultural programs. You want the federal government to provide funds for materials that are quite controversial. Aren’t you concerned therefore that who does pay the piper will call the tune?

Kobin: In public broadcasting there is no such thing as a single source of support. You know, what we survive on really is a broad base of support from many, many sources, of which the federal government is only one and should be only one. Public broadcasting overall is approximately a billion-dollar business now. And the federal appropriation for public broadcasting is less than 200 million dollars. And over the next three years will not increase greatly. It will increase, but not greatly. So no, I am not concerned about a federal appropriation that is approximately a fifth of the total cost.

Let me just add one other point to this, a connection with something you just said. I believe that if the public television channel in your city or in the viewer’s city disappeared from the television spectrum, there would e a serious loss and a serious change in the kind of television programming that would be available to the residents of that community. I don’t’ think that is true of any other channel on that spectrum. It is unique. It is a very different kind of service. It is a service without which, as I said, I believe the society and the television spectrum would be poorer. And therefore, yes, I feel it deserves to be supported by all of these sources.

Heffner: Do you gentlemen feel that there is a time now or that there has been a time when public funds have been played with for political purposes, given or not given, withdrawn? Have we been immune to the fear that was originally expressed?

Downey: Not for political purposes, no. the only circumstance I could possibly think of would be the Nixon administration where a public funding, public television funding bill was vetoed, arguably although never proven, for quote political purposes”. But that’s the singular instance I can think of in 20 years I’ve been involved.

Heffner: Well, there’s a brilliant young lawyer, David Stone, who has just written a book on public television and the Nixon administration, which I just happen to have read, that made me wonder and ask that question. But you feel that it was, the pressures were limited to that time.

Downey: To my knowledge, yes. Yeah.

Heffner: Bill, you feel the same way?

Downey: I just want to follow on the point Bill was making. The broad funding basis, absolutely an essential ingredient to assure first the kind of diversity I think that’s necessary to provide a variety of different kinds of programs, and secondly to ensure the integrity of the operation. I think, as we were saying a few minutes ago, one lays out an array of choices before a corporation who may be interest din funding public television. And naturally they’re going to fund the program which they think they’re most comfortable with conceptually or for whatever the reasons they choose to fund. And chances are that’s not going to be one of those, quote, controversial public affairs programs. We know that. But that’s why well over half the dollars spent on the national program service in public television are dollars that come from public television stations and from the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, and those funds are available to diver into those kinds of programs, and they’re on the air.

Heffner: Now I’m going to throw both of you a curve ball. The man, that proverbial man from mars was to watch public television over a period of time. Would he have any sense that there was a political leaning if he knew enough to know that we here call ourselves little liberals or conservatives, would he feel that the medium is one or the other?

Kobin: Who’s “we” here? (Laughter)

Heffner: We in this medium, Bill. What we do think in terms of people, Americans being more rather than less conservative, more rather than less liberal. If I have to bring Reed Irvine into the discussion to talk about that, we could. But if there, one were to look at it from a distance, not caring what the answer was, do you think it has a complexion, a political complexion? Just between us.

Downey: I don’t. no, I don’t.

Kobin: Just between us. Right.

Downey: I don’t think it has a complexion. I think, and people are going through my minds. The public affairs programming that we do. The McNeil Lehrer news Hour. I’m very interested in the mail that we receive in Los Angeles from viewers of that programming because it’s about 50-50, evenly divided between people who think that McNeil and Lehrer are too liberal. I think overall we have programs, individual programs which can fall into either of those two very broad categories. But I think overall the overall output of the schedule is a balanced output.

Heffner: Are the PBS stations satisfied that that is the case?

Downey: Yes.

Heffner: By and large no question?

Downey: But and large no question. There are, we always have our controversial programs which, but those controversial programs tend to fall on both sides of that spectrum. And I think if you, as you look at the output over time – and that’s the key thing, is over time – anybody can raise any complaint that they wish about Buckley this week or McLaughlin this week or Tony Brown last week or what have you, but over time, I agree, I think the balance comes out pretty close to zero, right in the middle.

Heffner: What would you think about doing away with many of the stations in terms of fund-raising, and focusing on direct satellite home broadcasting and having less overhead to carry in terms of any number of stations and maybe three of four or five major producers? How would you feel about that?

Downey: The reduced overhead is very attractive. That could go into funding. The downside though, and I think it’s what makes that proposition really not a sensible or viable one, is that it takes the local proprietor out of the local community. I live in Washington. I don’t know very much about Los Angeles, though I’ve of course visited quite frequently. Bill Kobin is the proprietor of public television in Los Angeles. And his job is to know what the needs of that community are and to deal with them. And I can’t do it from Washington. I can provide a, quote, national service. McNeil Lehrer, Nova, Frontline, Great Performances, American Playhouse, and so on. But I think Bill will tell us, there are needs beyond those programs in the Los Angeles community which someone has to address, and it isn’t going to be from a distance.

Heffner: But when you make your surveys of who is watching and how many people are watching and what they are watching is there a leaning in the direction of the national programs?

Downey: Oh, sure. They’re the engine. I don’t think there’s any question about that. The engine that brings the large numbers of viewers and also which bring the contributions. But that’s not by itself the promise of what I think public television is, which is to fill in the remaining niches and provide the kinds of unique and special and distinctive indigenous services to the people of the community served by the station.

Heffner: I know, Bill, you’re the head of a major station. And you’re also part of a major community. Could you see, as a person who had been involved in the national scene, could you see the focus as I’ve suggested, as others have suggested, upon a certain limited number of stations feeding to the rest of the nation?

Kobin: I really could not, because I really think that the primary obligation of a public television station is to serve the community in which it’s located. In the nearly three years that I’ve been at KCET our top priority has been local production, has been local programming. That is where the largest percentage of our money goes. And by the way, of our annual operating budget, nearly 60 percent of that operating budget comes from individual subscribers in the Los Angeles area. Finally, our local programs, our local major specials come very near in terms of viewership to the prime time average, to the average prime time viewership of the overall schedule. So our support is coming from the community, our programming is being watched by the community, and it is impossible really to fill that particular need from outside of the community.

Heffner: If you were to project into the next century, do you think perhaps that our own involvement with the space age, our own thinking in more global terms might force this medium into a somewhat different position so that the emphasis upon community involvement would seem to be more parochial and less desirable? Can you see a pattern for the future?

Downey: Yes. But I think the direction or the emphasis is on distinctiveness or differentiation. My channel from somebody else’s channel, or my program service from somebody else’s program service. And what operators like Bill Kobin will have to do is ask themselves, ‘what is it I can do here in Los Angeles”, or in, you know, Omaha or Chicago or wherever you may be, “what is it I can do that no one else can do?” That is, what is the unique, distinctive service that I can provide to this community that will make me able to provide a benefit to that community?

Heffner: Of course, our time is almost up, and what I really haven’t pressed you fellows about is some of the money-raising tactics. You want more money from the federal government, sure. Are you ready to accept advertising or something akin to advertising? Bill?

Kobin: Well, as you know, the question of enhanced underwriting, which has expanded on-air identification for underwriters, is a very controversial one, both within the system and outside in the public…

Heffner: That’s why I ask you.

Kobin: Yeah, it is my…But advertising is a different thing. No, I don’t think that this system should go for advertising. I do think, and we are experimenting with enhanced underwriting at KCET in Los Angeles. We are very, very concerned about not alienating any of our current supporters. We are dependent, as I said, on the community for local subscriptions. We are dependent on various other sources of support, and enhanced underwriting, we feel, will never replace any of these sources, nor would it probably if it succeeds ever play a major role in the funding of the station. But the question we’re asking ourselves is, and it’s the one that we started off with really, “Where is this additional money coming from”? we must raise it in order to sustain the quality of the public television schedule. The only new source of funds that we have been able to identify, the only possible new source of funds is enhanced underwriting. So we are trying, very prudently, very carefully, and very slowly to see if we can make it work for us and still maintain all of the other qualities that the system stands for.

Heffner: does PBS have that position?

Downey: We haven’t taken any kind of public position, so I could only speak my own views on that. I completely agree with Bill that there are things that we have to experiment with to see what the consequences are. There are a lot of people in our business who can think of all kinds of terrible things and terrible fates that will befall us if bill does what he says he’s going to do. None of it’s really been proven yet, to my satisfaction anyway. I think the thing we must most carefully watch out for however is the point where doing enhanced underwriting causes us to try to deliver larger audiences in order to make that enhanced underwriting spot more valuable in terms of the revenue we can bring in for it. Then I think we’ve crossed the line, even though it’s not advertising.

Heffner: How do you put old movies into this spectrum?

Downey: I don’t’ put old movies into this spectrum. (Laughter)

Heffner: How would you? You came from a station?

Downey: You mean old movies on public television and why is that a service?

Heffner: Yeah.

Downey: I think it’s a question of availability and uniqueness again, trying to provide that alternative.

Heffner: You mean what film package is available?

Downey: Well, it depends on the movie. I think there are movies we both will agree are classic, great American, you know, film classics which have every respectable reason and right to be on public television if they’re not available anywhere else. And there are lots of communities where there aren’t independent stations, which is where one most typically finds the old movie packages. Now, we can argue, I suppose, about whether a particular film is, quote, trash’ or an American classic. But I think it’s legitimate. I think, you know, I think these movies that I see tend to pass the test.

Heffner: Gentlemen, I think I’m getting the sign that our time is up. And I do want to thank you both for joining me today on The Open Mind. And thanks too, to you in the audience. I hope that you’ll join us again next time here on The Open Mind. Meanwhile, as an old friend used to say, “Good night and good luck.”