Regardless of what you think of Pat Mitchell’s first year at the helm of PBS, you have to acknowledge that most rational people wouldn’t want her job. Public television – at large, not just in the States – is on some pretty tenuous ground, and the future is far from certain.
Even in the U.S., where the sheer enormity of PBS has largely insulated it from the ravages of the broadcast landscape, a number of factors have taken their toll. The economy is slowing. Competition has grown exponentially, and many of the new faces are tackling public TV topics like arts and science. There’s also new fronts to fight on, the most important being the internet. Public television has become a voice in a choir – no longer the de facto address for all things praiseworthy.
The question is what to do about it.
Viewers and public TV people themselves are awfully sensitive about proposed changes. To be fair, sometimes the attempted cure is as painful as the disease. In Germany, for example, A.G. Dok (the Documentary Filmmakers’ Association) recently filed a complaint with the E.U. over ARD and ZDF’s decision to pay DM225 million (US$100 million) for the rights to broadcast 24 games of the 2002 football world championship, and the suggestion that they might pay double that in 2006. While the pubcasters say the money will come strictly from their sports budget, that’s a lot of money taken out of the system which would have gone far in other fields (no pun intended). Mind you, those games will certainly attract a lot of viewers, and public TV needs viewers.
And that’s the problem – when it comes to public television, both sides are usually right.
It comes down to your definition of public service. Are you attending to public need by addressing underserved areas and tackling topics that get little attention on commercial outlets? Or, is the public served by giving them what they – in the majority – want? After all, they’re the ones paying the bills (or not paying them, as the case may be).
It’s a bit of a hair-puller. One road leads to commercialization and head-to-head competition – but it’s a road which many pubcasters have successfully taken. The other road leads to continuing cuts and ongoing fights for funding – but it better fits the traditional public service model. (And as a wise man once said, if you choose not to decide, you still have made a choice…)
In a decade, public television is not likely to resemble anything we have now. The market has become intolerant of the traditional ideals pubcasters like PBS were created to uphold. The question is what to do about it.
And that’s why you don’t want to be Pat Mitchell.