Inside the PBS Annual Programmers’ Meeting

PBS president and CEO Pat Mitchell called in her private cavalry - including Robert Redford, Alan Alda, and Ted Turner - to rescue this year's PBS Annual Programmers' Meeting in San Francisco (June 23 to 26).
August 1, 2002

PBS president and CEO Pat Mitchell called in her private cavalry – including Robert Redford, Alan Alda, and Ted Turner – to rescue this year’s PBS Annual Programmers’ Meeting in San Francisco (June 23 to 26).

Unrest among the 349 member stations predates Mitchell’s arrival in 2000, but was inflamed last year by PBS’ bid for younger viewers, which enraged core donors when old favorites such as Masterpiece Theatre were shuffled into new time slots. Now PBS wants more primetime ‘must carry’ hours for its national branding campaign, irritating local stations seeking autonomy and ‘at least one uninterrupted 8 P.M. to 11 P.M. primetime block weekly to build local programming,’ said Brent Molnar of Indiana station WTIU.

Funding, better local-national trust, and digital multicasting were the meeting’s hot topics. Cutbacks in government subsidies make the US$1.2 billion tab for digital conversion painful. To pay bills, station managers have embraced ‘enhanced underwriting’ – commercial ads flogging everything from Audis to Zoloft. Shrinking production funds put indies in competition with Masterpiece Theatre and Ken Burns, PBS’ doc darling. Bill Moyers, of new public affairs hour NOW, spoke for struggling indies. ‘There is a danger in impoverishing independent producers who provide the diverse voices that fill 75% of public television’s broadcast hours,’ he said.

Mitchell, the first producer to lead PBS, continues to broaden opportunities: NOW solicits indie work-in-progress clips for ‘hard-hitting’ 12-minute segments, offering about $40,000 per license; Frontline World offers contracts for international reports shot on DV by independents; and POV celebrates its 15th year by adding mid-year specials to its 10-week summer run.

The Corporation for Public Broadcasting offered ‘Social Capital Initiative’ seed money to producers linking films to grassroots community action plans, encouraging websites, DVDs, educational and promotional strategies ‘that expand the long-term impact of public TV shows.’

Patric Hedlund

Patric Hedlund is the author of A Bread Crumb Trail Through the PBS Jungle: The Independent Producer’s Survival Guide.

About The Author
Senior staff writer Frederick Blichert comes to realscreen with a background as a journalist and freelance film critic. He has previously written for VICE, Paste Magazine, Senses of Cinema, Xtra, Canadian Cinematographer and elsewhere. He holds a Master of Arts in film studies from Carleton University and a Master of Journalism from the University of British Columbia.