Pat Mitchell’s PBS

A little over a year ago, Pat Mitchell became not only the first female president and CEO of America's Public Broadcasting System, but the first producer to fill the role. Shortly after PBS reduced its workforce by nine percent, and three days before its board reviewed a new three-year strategic plan, Mitchell spoke to RealScreen about her first year on the job and her plans for the future
May 1, 2001

How would you summarize the past year?

It was the steepest learning curve of my life. Getting to know the system and understanding how public television works has required a great deal of learning and a great deal of listening. I’ve visited over 120 stations. I’ve met every station manager – that’s 347 – and I’ve engaged in every way I could to understand their issues and concerns so that we here at PBS can better respond to them. I think that was a paradigm shift that was called for. It was necessary for PBS to look outward and talk to the members about what was going on in every one of their communities. We’re in this incredible time of a changing media landscape [which] impacts each of our stations, their communities and the way we all do our work.

I came on board at a very interesting intersection of this communications revolution. We had more channels coming online all the time, so our viewers were having more and more choices. Additionally, we had distribution challenges where we had to transfer to digital – a huge US$1.7 billion price tag. That created additional burdens at a time that has not turned out to be great economically. There were a lot of challenges and I tried to approach them as ‘what are public television’s assets for facing these challenges?’ One of them is the 347 community-based stations. Pretty soon we’ll be the only media company that has that kind of local connection.

That community support is critical. You’ve received some press recently about a quote attributed to you that read, ‘This is not your grandmother’s PBS.’

A misquote. I said, ‘This is not only your grandmother’s PBS’. Gratefully, we were running a tape recorder on that interview. It’s unfortunate when things are taken out of context and in this case, completely misquoted.

What did you mean by that statement?

Our mission as a public broadcaster, going back to the beginning 30 years ago, is very clear: public television’s mission is to serve all citizens. How can we sit comfortably saying our core audience is one age group? That’s not our mandate. We have to be a PBS that’s relevant to young children, to teens, to baby boomers, to any age group, any ethnic group, any political leanings anywhere in this country, and we’re not doing that. We can’t afford to serve the very young and the very old and assume that we’re doing our job. We’re not.

Some have interpreted that as an intention to reduce the number of older viewers in favor of younger ones.

The age of our core viewer is getting older. Do we just wait until they die off and not replenish them with anybody new? That wouldn’t be very smart. We have the largest bubble of 50-year-olds coming of age than ever before, but they won’t automatically become public TV viewers just because they turn a certain age. We have to make it relevant and interesting for them. We should not think that because we have all the 60 and older [viewers] that that’s fine. Of course that’s not fine. You can’t stop there if you want to be a viable, sustainable media enterprise in the future.

Are ratings becoming more important within PBS’ funding model?

Interestingly enough, ratings don’t translate to pledge. Having a larger audience gives you a larger pool of people from which to draw supporters, but it’s who that audience is that matters. We often get large audiences for certain programs that don’t necessarily end up bringing members or donors to the station. It’s not growing our numbers, it’s growing an awareness among certain people who will value what public TV is and want to support it.

What was most challenging about moving from CNN’s for-profit environment to PBS’ non-profit mandate?

I did not find the kind of stodginess that might be associated unfairly with public TV, but it is different. We don’t evaluate our successes the same way and that took some adjustment. For me it wasn’t a big adjustment, because I’ve always done programming that was more service focused than profit focused. In fact, Ted used to say at Turner that I ran the only non-profit division of a profitable company. I’m surprised when I look back that I didn’t work for a public TV station in the past. As a producer, I always wished I had the format of public TV.

You’ve made it clear that PBS is open to working with independent producers, but it has a well-deserved reputation as a slow decision-making body.

I think one of my biggest contributions in year one has been changing the programming department and the way it works. We have a new programming team in place and a regionally based senior team, which has never been the case before. Independents and our stations now have a different kind of access to programming executives to talk about projects and to seek help and support. We’re out there in a way we’ve never been out there before.

The process of response, I have to admit, was quite distressing to me because as a producer I had submitted material and it seemed to go into a kind of deep, black hole. Now, we have tracking and submission systems. If you call at any point after you have submitted a proposal or film, we can tell you where it is and when the greenlighting team will be meeting on that project.

What is the estimated turn-around time?

I would like to think you would get an answer in a month. That might be optimistic, but I think we’ll be there soon.

Is it harder to entice factual producers to work with PBS, now that niche channels are airing more docs?

I haven’t found a decrease in the interest in working for us and in fact, I’ve found a little increase. Public TV is still providing a unique service. It is the only place where work can run uninterrupted by commercials. It’s the only place that is completely producer-friendly in that we are pretty hands-off compared to others, in terms of our respect for the creative process, and there are certain subjects that we will do that others will not.

Are you considering a new approach to common carriage – one based on a national primetime schedule?

I’m not sure we will do that. At the end of the day, it would be a lot easier to promote a schedule based on a [standardized] schedule. But, we are very aware of the need to balance what we offer our stations and what they do locally. We do see a need to increase the number of hours that we are all carrying at one time. We have very limited marketing dollars, so if we don’t maximize them through every last penny, we’re not getting the full leverage of the few resources we have. Whether or not we get to the step where we can actually balance the local
station’s need to connect and serve its community and our national programming in any other kind of common carriage, I’m not sure yet.

I understand the pilot schedule project raised viewer numbers and lowered demographics simply by moving shows around. Are new programs like Public Square and American High aimed at continuing these trends?

The point of Public Square [Mike Sullivan, executive producer] is not to raise viewership or to decrease our age demographic – it’s to put public television back in the business of big-time public affairs. We need to be the place where conversation on important issues is taking place. Public Square is a way to do that. Sure, I hope it brings in a whole bunch of new viewers and therefore new members and supporters for our stations, but it’s not about a demographic push. American High [R.J. Cutler] wasn’t only about saying to teenagers, ‘we care about you and your issues too’. It was also about saying we care about the parents of teenagers, the teachers of teenagers, and the communities coping with the same issues. So, it’s not about our demographic, it’s really about a mind set. Those are the people supporting public television, we just need to get more of them.

Are any changes planned for factual programming?

We have increased the hours for ‘P.O.V.,’ and ‘Independent Lens’ is another series we’ve been offering our stations. We would like to figure out how to do more of that and to find some funding for it so we can offer money from time to time and licensing fees.

I would like to see us launch a global documentary series. I think we are thoroughly lacking in the kind of really hard-hitting global reports that so many [broadcasters] are backing away from. They just don’t exist anywhere. ‘Frontline’ occasionally does them. I think the Drug Wars series this year on ‘Frontline’ was a good example of a global look at an issue. I would like to see us do more of it and do it on a regular basis. The programming team is actively looking for a way to put one or two, possibly more, new documentary series into our mix. Of course, to do that, we’re going to have to have more of those hours of common carriage.

Will PBS eventually have to open itself to popular fare (i.e. reality) to continue broadcasting important projects?

I think anything public television does can be popular. I’m trying to eliminate this distinction between public good or public affairs and popular. If you do it right it’s going to be appealing and, therefore, popular. We don’t have the same funding model issues that others do and we’re committed to being a place for hard-hitting investigative reports and for programming that won’t necessarily go anywhere else because of the concerns about its subject or content. We can do that. We can take risks and should take more, in my opinion. We should be a home for independent thinking and good work.

What happens to Pat Mitchell if these changes don’t work out?

I would probably leave voluntarily. I didn’t come to PBS to make my name, fame or fortune. I came here to make a contribution. I know that’s why I was hired, to bring in fresh and new thinking to a system that believed it needed it. I have said from day one, my very first day in front of the board and my very first day in the system, that that is what I was brought in to do. By and large the support for this, at this point, is that we’ve got to at least try to do something different. My concern is where public television is a year from now, not whether I have a job.

Where do you see yourself in five years?

I would probably go back to independent producing, which I love, and I would probably teach again… I thought long and hard before making this move and a lot of people thought I was crazy, but I’ve always thought that if we don’t have strong, viable public television, one that doesn’t have to do everything determined by the marketplace – it doesn’t mean we can ignore the marketplace, because when economics get bad it affects public television and we’ve clearly got some funding challenges going forward – but if you can’t fight to keep one media enterprise free of that bottom line as its only real measurement, then we’re in a pretty bad way as a country.

About The Author
Jonathan Paul is a Toronto-based writer into creativity, content, advertising, tech, comics, video games, film, TV, time and space travel.