PBS should become the NPR of TV

I’m sitting at #ima09, at one of the last panels: “Future of Public Media News: A Vision and A Plan.” Leonard Witt is speaking right now, and has a killer proposal: turn PBS into a “news powerhouse.” His case is brief and right-on.

Newspapers aren’t the only news organizations that are faltering, he says. Local TV news is crapping out too. As with newspapers, advertising is drying up: going away or moving elsewhere. Nobody talks about it much, but your evening news has been brought to you for many years by car dealers, spending co-op money from Chevy, Toyota and the rest of them. Bottom line: the advertising model is failing too.

Meanwhile, public broadcasting is sitting on — or next to — lots of news gathering and sharing organizations, including local and regional public radio stations, and allied listeners and viewers out the wazoo. Lots of those folks are blogging and tweeting. There is a natural sybiosis between these affiliated individuals (whether or not we call them “members”) and stations. Leonard is talking about how even small staffs — one reporter per TV station, for example — can add up. And (this is critical) without the high overhead of newspapers and other commercial media.

Another thing. PBS — and public television in general — desperately needs to move beyond its good but dull and old-hat stuff. The Discovery Channels (there are six), the National Geographic Channel, the History Channel and lots of other cable channels are eating away at PBS’s viewing shares. PBS, once one of the four major TV networks, now just holds down a few notches on a “dial” that isn’t anymore, and has hundreds of other channels. And this doesn’t even count the Net, which will continue to widen in bandwidth. At some point anybody will be able to stream anything to anybody in reasonably high definintion. When that happens, all that will remain of TV “networks”, “stations” and “channels” will be their antique names. These will matter as “brands”, but their content will matter far more. People will watch what they find interesting, relevant, familiar and reliable. And, in the case of news, sometimes necessary.

So here’s an interesting and opportune coincidence: as commercial TV news continues to tank, PBS and its affiliates can leverage their standing strength in news — one substantiated by their colleagues over on the public radio dial.

PBS’ news work can expand beyond the News Hour, Frontline and Bill Moyers. PBS stations can also go into the news business and appeal to the same people who currently spend a buck or more per day on newspapers — and can spend on other news sources.

We’ve seen what’s happened already with public radio. Stations like WNYC, KPCC, WBUR, KQED and WUNC all jacked up their ratings and income by moving from eclectic to “information” programming, built around morning and evening news programs from NPR. Public radio had advantages — a “dial” of finite width, for example (with one wide end  — 88-92Mhz) carved out just for noncommercial use, plus the homogenization and downscaling of commercial competition. So, while PBS was having its lunch eaten by commercial competition, NPR was eating the lunches of its commercial competitors. (The stations listed above are at or near the top in their local markets’ ratings.)

Can PBS and its affiliates get news teeth? I think they have to. Fortunately, commercial TV news has a very soft underbelly.

Now Susanna Capelbuto from Georgia Public Broadcasting is talking about GPB Radio’s Georgia Gazette. The show does video too (on the Net). How big a stretch is it for the network, or its stations, to do that on TV too — especially since ditital TV stations can now transmit up to four program streams (each called a “station”) at the same time. Yes, the costs of production can be high, but so are the benefits.

I’m sure there will be plenty of resistance, but it’s a damn fine idea. Leonard, during the Q&A, addressing the public TV broadcasters: “You have the gravitas, you have the reputation, you have the name. You have everything you need except the will to do it.” Perhaps not quite verbatim, but close enough. That was right after telling them that the idea is too good, and too opportune, to pass up. If public television does pass it up, commercial broadcasters will get the clues. CNN is already on the case.

[later...] Nice follow-up no the whole event, including endorsement of the above, from Robert Paterson.

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18 comments

  1. James Robertson’s avatar

    The big danger with this idea is of propaganda news from the government – without regard to an ideology.

  2. Sean Upton’s avatar

    The key for local media (commercial, listener/viewer supported, and foundation-funded non-profit), in general, is figuring out how to pool resources across multiple organizations where it makes sense, regardless of what type of organization and traditional media types. I think there are areas threatened by cutbacks, such as news libraries and non-scoopable CAR data-presentation and analysis of public data, that could benefit from federated cost-sharing models across multiple local organizations. Newspapers have AP; public radio has NPR, APM, PRI; public TV has PBS — but this notion of sharing resources need not only extend on the local-national axis. I have this gut feeling that we in the media business need a reasonable model for a hub for local media big and small in a municipality, region, or even a neighborhood to share resources such as core content management and archival software (open source + SAAS), non-competive staff duplicative across news organizations, and easy sharing of media and raw data.

  3. Doc Searls’s avatar

    How, James? Is the News Hour propaganda now? Is GPB’s Georgia Gazette propaganda?

  4. justcorbly’s avatar

    My local PBS comes from a station you know: WUNC. Right now they’re in “Festival” fundraising mode and, I swear, CSPAN is more dynamic. Any time now, they’ll run that John Denver special.

    That said, they do produce excellent local and regional news and public affairs programming. I’d love to see them make more use of the personnel on the radio side of the station to bolster that, perhaps move some of their weekly shows into the daily rota.

  5. James Robertson’s avatar

    Doc,

    It’s not the current state of PBS news I’m worrying about. What you described sounds like it could become the dominant news source in many places – then I’d worry

  6. Chuck’s avatar

    The BBC does a good job of keeping editorial control within their new divisions. A model based on their approach could allow for a subsidized system while also ensuring that an editorial board with members across the political spectrum could make sure that the news is presented fairly.

  7. Doc Searls’s avatar

    I think it could, James. But even then I’m sure it will be far from government — not only because PBS and its stations are already getting nearly all their money from elsewhere, but because the main source of news fodder and revenue for the stations will be viewers.

    Of course, that might bring up Plato’s problem with democracy.

  8. Warren’s avatar

    James. I think if NPR was used as a model for a ‘new PBS’ as Doc is suggesting, there wouldn’t be a propaganda threat.

    There is always the possibility that something new could be used irresponsibly, but that possibility exists across the board (public or corporate) and can’t really be used as reason that PBS can’t (or shouldn’t) up it’s game.

  9. Ross Williams’s avatar

    I don’t know if the news hour is propaganda. But when the Republican’s took over congress in the 1990′s one of the architects of the takeover, Vin Weber, almost instantly appeared as a regular commentator on NPR’s Morning Edition on public radio. The fact that he was not merely a “former congressman”, but one of Gingrich’s chief political strategists was not apparent to the audience. It didn’t last long, but Weber’s presence was clearly a response to the changeover in power.

    And it is quite clear that All Things Considered is largely all things considered from a Washington point of view.

    I think Leonard is on the right track. But it is important to recognize that, as the number of news sources becomes more dispersed, a large powerful centralized news organization could easily drown out whatever diversity exists. One way to preserve a diverse news environment would be by decentralizing management of whatever network is developed. Public Broadcasting has the ability to do that to some extent, but that is not a guaranteed outcome.

  10. Doc Searls’s avatar

    I don’t think what Len proposes is a large, centralized news organization, but rather a facilitator that can bring some unity, coherence and efficiency to a system that has decentralization as one of its core virtues.

    I hope Len’s proposal is taken seriously, but that’s not the way to bet. The spinning flywheels of Business as Usual in public television are huge.

  11. Espen Andersen’s avatar

    Speaking as a Norwegian currently living in the US, I would agree with you that TV news has a very soft underbelly: It is essentially repetitive filler between commercials.

    In Norway, one of the most popular news shows have been “Dagsnytt 18″ (Daily news at six o’clock) which essentially is an hour’s worth of direct broadcast from a radio studio. People in the news are invited in – frequently op ed writers, paper journalists, academics, businesspeople, local and national politicians – and interviewed by a well prepared interviewer in time slots of 5-15 minutes. No commercials, no makeup, if you are invited you show up ten minutes before your slot (you can see the people waiting outside in a sofa in the background through a window in the studio. Occasionally one of the interviewees will be on the telephone, in which case everyone dons headphones.

    The whole thing is low-key, intelligent, devoid of sports and celebrities, and discusses today’s news in low-key but humorous fashion. I think if NPR put on something like that (for instance, filming “Talk of the Nation”) it would be a huge success. If local PBS affiliates could do it, it would be even better.

  12. Adam’s avatar

    This is an excellent idea. I think that PBS is more than well equipped to do something like this…be the BBC News of the United States. PBS, and NPR, have always had some of the best journalism on the air.

    What this sounds like, to me, is that it would be regional PBS affiliates working together to produce some sort of local, or state-wide newscast that would be specific to their area. And honestly, if you slotted something like that in the early-evening as a lead-in to the Newshour, it’d be a fantastic news block. Plus, I wouldn’t expect a local PBS newscast to be like what you’d see on your NBC station, for example. I’d see it as more of a discussion type show where you could bring some of the newsmakers in and talk about issues. More public affairsy in presentation than the anchor sitting at a desk telling you about how someone got shot on the south side. A PBS newscast could do something like “there was a shooting on the south side of the city, which is prompting outcries of safety concerns from the area residents. With us now is Tom Jones, a resident of the area, Police Chief Bob Smith, and community activist John Doe” and then discuss the issue in much greater detail than a 1/2 hour newscast on a NBC/CBS/ABC/Fox station could.

  13. p’s avatar

    local cuddles?..no
    we already have plenty of fluff on the mainstream channels..what is missing on the telly is democracy now, alternative radio, harry shearer, counter spin style programing to the visual media on pbs.

  14. p’s avatar

    moderation?..pardon me..are you looking for comment/discussion, or sheer blanket agreement?

  15. Doc Searls’s avatar

    p, is your last comment addressed to my original post, or to one or more of the above comments? not clear. yet, anyway.

  16. Tony Shawcross’s avatar

    Public Access TV is in a far better position to realize this vision than PBS.
    PBS clings to a production model that they can’t afford to play in, and rejects the user-generated approaches that could be their only strategic advantage in the realm of content creation.
    And for distribution, PBS clings to DRM ideologies that should be illegal with publicly-funded media, and rejects more open (Public Domain/Creative Commons) approaches that could be an even more powerful strategic advantage, and bring PBS back into relevance.
    Of course, there’s little incentive for innovation in Public Access or PBS. It IS possible to build market-style incentives into publicly-funded efforts, and its up to us to develop that system. From public education to public media, we need to ensure that everyone has access to the tools they need to engage and contribute, AND we need to encourage and reward innovation in those arenas. We can do that without the government. We can build systems to facilitate voluntary supplementation of the subsidies where they are deserved, and now is the time to do it, with unprecedented subsidies and an apparent commitment to transparency.
    I nominate the sunlight foundation to manage it. ;)

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