The ABC’s of PBS: At 30, PBS has a lot on its mind. The pressure’s on for the Public Broadcasting System to retain its reputation for quality in the multi-channel digital universe, despite the ever-present cash crunch.

Keeping the 'broad' in broadcast...
February 1, 1998

Keeping the ‘broad’ in broadcast

In a sea of commercial outlets falling over each other to nail the ‘new niche’, PBS’s mandate sets it apart: appeal to all audiences and represent all voices in America. ‘We have a cumulative audience of over 80% of the American public, and keeping that is very important,’ says Kathy Quattrone, executive VP of programming.

‘We don’t focus on individual niches. A lot of the emerging services are trying to slice themselves more and more narrowly, and in fact, they’re competing with one another for narrower segments of the interest spectrum. We want to make sure we have top-quality programs which will reach a broad spectrum of people.’

With a weekly viewership of 96 million nationally, PBS has remained competitive with cablecasters in its four main areas of programming: documentary, art, news & public affairs, and kids’ programming. On the other hand, so many new broadcasters means increased competition for programming; PBS is no longer the only game in town for doc producers – which means greater fees are demanded for top-of-the-line programs. However, the broadcaster’s three-decade-long track record does give it some unique leverage, especially with new producers.

‘If we find something that will work in the schedule,’ explains Donald Thoms, VP for program management at PBS, ‘the next question is: Is this something the producer wants money for, or is it a free offer? In the old days, we used to feel a little guilty that we weren’t paying for something, but now PBS can give a work a lot of exposure. We don’t feel as bad about it, because we simply can’t afford to pay for everything.’

Coproduction: new partners, new deals

Although the concept of coproduction is not new at pbs, the system is in the same boat as its commercial cousins when it comes to the growing necessity of finding partners to offset skyrocketing production costs. ‘The rule is that funding always comes from multiple sources,’ says Peter McGhee, V P of national programming at Boston’s WGBH. ‘One way or another, whatever our level of interest, we’re going to have to find people we can persuade to put up the financing necessary to produce, just as any independent producer in the outside world.’

Tamara Robinson, McGhee’s counterpart at New York’s WNET, says coproduction is critical to cover the costs of producing for the national system. WNET had to pre-sell some American Masters episodes in order to produce the programs, but the money came in exchange for rights and, thus, a possible future source of income.

On the upside, the station recently did a very successful series called Steven Hawking’s Universe with the BBC, but it required Robinson to dig deep into the PBS system (to the tune of US$820,000 from WNET, along with $750,000 from CPB/PBS), and acquire outside support to ensure the opportunity wasn’t lost to a cable station.

Private-sector companies with deep pockets are becoming PBS’s new partners, rather than the broadcasters with which it has traditionally aligned itself. ‘One of the best partnerships we have going currently is with Devillier Donegan Enterprises,’ says Quattrone.

The $50 million production agreement with the Washington, D.C.-based distributor covers major blue-chip mini-series with worldwide marketability. Over three years, each partner will bring half to the table ($20 million has already gone to ABC/Kane’s series The Living Edens). The partnership works well for both parties, with PBS picking up U.S. rights and DDE getting international. As in most DDE deals, producers retain an equity share in the project and keep all outs.

‘DDE has looked at this as an investment,’ says Quattrone. ‘Not only have they provided distribution, but enough upfront money that we’ve been able to greenlight a number of projects that are very important to the schedule. The nice thing about our schedule is, because it’s so broad, there are different opportunities [for copros] in different areas.’ DDE’s strength is primarily history, natural history, adventure and science, leaving much of the PBS schedule open for other partners.

‘We’ve always worked with independent filmmakers worldwide,’ explains DDE president Ron Devillier. ‘We do a lot of work with producers out of the U.S., Britain and Australia, and we’ve been encouraging that body of filmmaking talent to come up with their best ideas to present to PBS.’ Devillier says his company has also been working on the development of ideas originating from inside PBS, instead of the other way around.

Series vs. One-offs: who’s in, who’s out

The main obstacle to getting a one-off onto PBS outside of an established strand is not just the usual scarcity of production funds. ‘It takes as much to promote an hour program as it does a series,’ explains Thoms. ‘Our promotion budget has gone up, but compared to what commercial stations spend on promotions, one-offs are tough. They still tend to get lost.’

One-offs can also end up competing with existing programs. For their deal, DDE is sticking to series. ‘We’ve stayed away from individual episodes, because we didn’t want to come up with ideas and offerings which might be competitive or duplicative with the strands PBS is already doing,’ explains Devillier. ‘Multi-part series, if they’re blue chip and high end, can sell very well internationally, and they also have a good shelf-life.’

Selling a one-off to investors can be as tricky as an entire series. Unless unique or extraordinary, a single show is hard to fund because the underwriter gets a limited window of exposure. As one PBS producer pointed out, sponsors aren’t entirely altruistic – they want as much return on their investment as possible.

Despite PBS’s mission, deciding what to air is increasingly wrapped up in economics. Once Robinson gives a show the nod at WNET, it’s sent to marketing to evaluate the possibility of raising the funds. Final decisions are, of course, based on content and the demands of the schedule, but money is also an object.

‘When I first started out on public television, many moons ago,’ recalls Robinson, ‘the promotion and education people would often say, ‘Well, they forgot about us again. Promotion is the last thing they think about.’ Now, as soon as you do a project, you think: website.’

Robinson’s criteria are firm. First, a program has to enhance her station’s portfolio and expand the PBS schedule. The producer’s track record is critical, as is the possibility of a project lending itself to ancillaries (books, records, websites, educational materials: ‘the whole pizza,’ as she puts it). Final considerations include potential home-video revenue and international appeal.

For McGhee, a producer’s experience is also vital.’The cost of high-end documentary productions is over half a million dollars an hour, and that kind of money can’t be raised on the promise that you’re going to give it to somebody who has never done it before,’ he explains. ‘Even if you could, you wouldn’t. There isn’t so much money in the system that gross failure isn’t noticed…

‘The cruel truth in our business is that there are a handful of A producers; a larger, but not enormous group of B producers; and a considerably larger group of C producers. Sometimes C producers do a work, and sometimes A producers do C work, but on the whole, the business of producing or investing programming wisely is finding the best of a lot of producers.’

ITVS: Another Window

Filmmakers who have no obvious entry point into the system, or are simply intimidated, might turn to the Independent Television Service for help. ITVS is a non-profit organization funded by, but independent of the CPB. Established by congress in 1988, ITVS serves as a kind of watchdog for PBS, with the mandate to ‘encourage the development of programming that involves creative risks, and addresses the needs of unserved and under-served audiences.’ Director of communications Lois Vossen, summarizes ITVS’s role more succinctly: ‘We look at PBS and see what’s missing.’

ITVS helps fund, package and promote projects, and then distribute them through the PBS system. Its aid has made over 150 hours of programming and 17 limited series possible. On average, the service gets involved with 15 to 20 projects each year, for about $200,000 per film.

Producers get money in exchange for license agreements. In exchange for ITVS’s help, a producer surrenders broadcast rights for three years. PBS has the right of first refusal, and accepts about 65% of the films (sans editing privileges). If the schedule is full, PBS may accept the show for PBS Plus, which means the pbs logo will still go on it. ITVS sells the remaining 35% directly to member stations.

Once accepted, PBS has the right to four releases in three years, with a release defined as unlimited use of a program for one week. Although unusual, ITVS will sometimes ask to re-up the program for more runs if it is popular with stations.

ITVS has a one-page application process. If a project is intriguing, the service returns to the producers for more information. ITVS funds projects until money runs out. Last year, it received about $7 million in funding.

‘As the number of funding sources has decreased, we have a lot more people coming to us who have shows-in-progress in need of finishing funds,’ says Vossen. ‘It’s been really important for ITVS to take on issues other people don’t want to fund, or can’t, for whatever reason. We’re almost always engaged in some controversy. It’s the nature of what we do.’

Here and now, and what’s to come >>

Playing the Slots: Scheduling Shifts

There’s a maxim which sums up programming logic at PBS: If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it. The system’s greatest strength is the calibre of what airs. Regardless of financial demands, pbs says content and quality won’t change, although format and presentation might.

‘Our strategies are very different than 15 or 20 years ago,’ explains Kathy Quattrone. ‘It’s a different marketplace, so we now tend to build programming events within our national schedule. Those are typically mini-series, or sometimes a special programmed around our signature series, which, occupying a year-to-year presence in the schedule, are doing very well. The mini-series and specials provide the real spark to our seasonal schedule.’

In January, PBS started creating thematic blocks on weeknights. The first, History’s Best On PBS, runs Mondays 9 p.m.-11 p.m. Quattrone hopes this will ‘create more of an awareness, and better use the tools at our disposal as a broadcaster, which are scheduling and promotion. By creating a theme block of programming people know they can look for, we hope to make it easier for them to find want they want to see.’

The next thematic programming block will be dedicated to the arts, including entertainment, performance and drama. While a spot hasn’t been designated yet, arts shows, like with history, will make the shift in order to create a stronger impression in the schedule.

Ancillary Artillery: Beyond Broadcast*

The technology is appearing to allow PBS to more accurately fulfill its mandate by providing the tools for true and measurable community response. While content will not see radical transformation, public broadcasting is looking to play a larger role in non-traditional fields.

‘We see our future in the ability to expand our distribution opportunities. While we will still have a strong broadcast schedule, we’ll really be focusing on online and website development as an important way of delivering content,’ says Quattrone.

‘Ancillary markets allow us to extend our content, and therefore our reach. We’re going to start tracking this year how many people we’re reaching, not only through broadcast, but also through video cassette, website, through school use and so on.’

While ancillaries might help the system meet some of its more idealistic goals, Thoms also underlines the practical side of the coin. ‘A lot of times, what will help us make the decision to accept a program is if we think it has educational value, or might have cassette sales. All of this becomes part of the business,’ he says.

‘I think we, as programmers, don’t make decisions in a vacuum anymore… There are decisions we make solely based on the fact that this is a good program, and that’s the way it has to be. But there are other times we have to make decisions based on the financing of the deal, the magic number which decides how much we put into a program.’

The individual departments of the pubcaster are becoming more savvy to the art of the deal. In some cases, Video Services will put money in to help pay for video rights, as will On-line. While PBS underscores its intent to remain content-driven, return on investment is becoming important in justifying expenditure.

The stations say their heightened business sense is good news for producers. ‘If you were an independent who pitched us an idea,’ explains Robinson, ‘and you hadn’t thought about a website or printed educational material, we have wonderful departments to help shape those projects to make a fuller package we can present to pbs for funding – or to let PBS know that we’re developing it and seeking outside funding. It becomes very attractive as a package to the underwriters.’

Going Digital: New-Age Plans

The interaction of finance and technology is especially prominent in the minds of pbs execs these days with the federal mandate to become a digital service. As the CPB will only come up with half the estimated $1.7 billion switchover cost for member stations, the importance of a forward-thinking financial plan is more important than ever. ‘We hope to get additional funding from the federal government,’ says Quattrone. ‘To match that, stations have already begun working on local sources of funding.’

Going digital will also impact producers: better technology, like hdtv, means bigger price tags. The obvious costs of digital production aside, the deals themselves will have to be modernized to keep pace with technology. The digital age means a new batch of rights issues.

‘What public television has traditionally secured is something like six releases of a program over four years, which, as long as we were only sending out one signal, served us well,’ explains Quattrone.

‘As we look towards digital opportunities and the possibility of spin-off services, you can see opportunity to have a lot of additional plays of a program, which might reach new audiences. There’s a rights question there which has financial implications if you’re a producer or talent, or any of a number of people who deserve to be compensated for the work they do. It’s a financial challenge.’

There is little doubt public TV will have a stronger broadcast footprint in the digital age, although PBS still has to cope with the basics of the switchover before it can tackle multi-casting. A potential complication from which commercial broadcasters are exempt is the common carriage system. Quattrone says programming could take several forms.

Among the possibilities discussed is a block of HDTV in primetime which all stations would share, or a few hd nights within the seven-day schedule. A solid block of HD programming would not largely alter common carriage for those who choose to participate, as it would still leave non-primetime hours open.

The Corporate Dollar

Change comes at a price. While the average American taxpayer only contributes about a dollar a year to support pubcasting, it’s unlikely revenue streams from the American public will change. PBS is therefore turning to the private sector to help fill the gaps.

In July of last year, four of the national producing stations – KCET in Los Angeles, WETA in Washington, WGBH and WNET – and PBS joined forces to form the PBS Sponsorship Group, which seeks corporate funding on behalf of the entire system. During its first six months, the group raised over $11.5 million dollars in new corporate sponsorship. Since the beginning of this year, it has already collected $7.5 million.

Traditionally, each producer had to knock on doors individually when trying to dig up corporate cash; under the new system, stations have corporate accounts and represent each other’s product, raising money in a concerted effort. The new system eliminates duplication of efforts, and gives PBS representatives an opportunity to go to corporations with a stronger portfolio – one which includes their shows and everything else on the PBS national schedule. The system is especially profitable for smaller stations who might not have a enough bench strength to deal with corporate underwriters themselves.

The sponsorship group will also help increase opportunities in some areas of PBS programming which have traditionally had difficulty finding corporate support. Right now, PBS is looking for partners for arts programming, and it’s proving challenging. Money from the National Endowment for the Arts is diminishing, and corporate sponsors are hesitant to pick up the slack on projects with little back-end potential. Live concerts, for example, by nature have a limited window for sponsor identification, and small revenue possibilities from video sales.

‘Every area of programming has its own challenges,’ laments Quattrone. ‘News and public affairs is an area in which it is difficult to find funding sometimes.

‘That’s something we’re really looking at in terms of making sure we’re securing our own future.’

Also in this report:
-Going Global: PBS partners abroad
-PBS Decoded
-The American Experience
-American Masters

About The Author
Daniele Alcinii is a news reporter at realscreen, the leading international publisher of non-fiction film and television industry news and content. He joins the rs team with journalism experience following a stint out west with Sun Media in Edmonton's Capital Region, and communications work in Melbourne, Australia and Toronto. You can follow him on Twitter at @danielealcinii.