The evolution of public broadcasting

PBS: Dodging the axe
September 1, 2006

PBS: Dodging the axe
Ratings present the ultimate paradox for public television, says Paula Kerger, president of PBS. On one hand, the goal of public TV is to serve a community and provide the audience with programming that can’t be seen on commercial nets. But ratings are how the industry measures success. ‘I’ve read people in the press who say, ‘Oh, you only had an audience of a million people,” she says. ‘But how many times would that fill an opera house or a theater? That’s more people than would see a Broadway show in a year.’ PBS is keeping its eyes on ratings, but Kerger says they aren’t directing programming choices.

Much attention is also being paid to PBS’ funding. It’s something that comes up every year, but Kerger stresses pbs has been chronically under-funded since its inception. ‘The most misunderstood thing is that federal funding is our sole source of support, or that we’re awash in cash,’ she says, adding the money the net gets from the government amounts to approximately one dollar per person, per year. She’s not minimizing the importance of this investment, especially as many of the smaller member stations would not be able to make up the eight to 10% this budget provides for its channel with private philanthropy if it were taken away.

But House Republicans are looking to reduce funding for public broadcasting (including npr radio) by US$115 million starting this October. The official reason for the proposed cut is that the money could be better spent in other programs, such as healthcare, but pundits believe the current us administration sees the pubcaster as having too strong a liberal slant. The Bush government also recently nominated This is Jim producer and contributor to the conservative National Review Warren Bell to the Corporation for Public Broadcasting board, which awards grants to PBS. Critics complain the Republican government is looking to change the direction of programming, but Kerger denies it. She says each of the 354 member stations decide which shows will serve their community best. ‘No one in Washington is pulling any switches or making decisions about what should air.’

The status of this funding proposal and nomination was still up in the air at press time, but Kerger says last year’s call for an even more drastic cut of $223 million was defeated thanks to the American public and lobbying by member stations. She points to a Roper poll which has reported public television is deemed by Americans as the best investment of their money, second only to defense. ‘What saved us last year and what will save us moving forward is that we’re television of the communities,’ she says.

On top of threatening local member stations, a funding cut would affect PBS’ plans to expand into the non-linear world. The pubcaster is taking steps into this new realm by offering about 10 of its most popular strands, including doc-friendly ‘Nature’ and ‘POV,’ on a VOD service. Since PBS doesn’t have the deeper pockets of a commercial net, Kerger’s working with her stations to determine what revenue can be brought into public television to support these initiatives, and what federal dollars pbs can shore up.

Meanwhile, her priority remains the core linear business. ‘For some time to come, we’re principally broadcasters. But you want to be thoughtful of these new platforms because they are an opportunity for reaching new and younger audiences,’ she says. The key programming tactic will continue to focus on programming that’s unavailable on the commercial nets. Documentaries and news/public affairs are important, Kerger says, because ‘there’s less thoughtful discussions on news than once existed.’ She is also keen to boost the arts output, which she says is grossly underserved except for on public television. LS

BBC: Reimagining Auntie
When Mark Thompson took over as BBC director general in 2004, he made it clear that his first move would be to make the Corporation more efficient. Even so, his decision to axe 5,000 jobs (including 3,000 in production) was a severe blow to the morale of a workforce still reeling from the abrupt exit of Thompson’s charismatic predecessor, Greg Dyke. Thompson, who also slashed budgets by 15% across the board, insisted that cuts of this magnitude were necessary if the BBC was to secure its long-term future. At a time when the government was preparing to lay out its own vision for the Beeb through to 2016, the new dg’s argument was that the BBC needed to prove it was efficiently run; as willing to work with independent producers as in-house departments; and ready to meet the challenges of an on-demand age.

The jury is still out on whether Thompson has made a credible case for such deep cuts. But he has done enough to ensure that the BBC will retain its dominant role in UK media for the foreseeable future. In March, the government published a White Paper outlining the terms upon which the BBC will be awarded its new Royal Charter (2007-2016). In it, the government decided to maintain the license fee as the BBC’s main source of funding (currently £3.1 billion/US$5.9 billion annually). And, despite lobbying from commercial rivals, it also decided against placing the BBC under the control of media regulator Ofcom, effectively leaving its regulation as an internal matter.

With the basics in place, Thompson then began the process of laying out his strategic vision. This culminated in mid-July when he unveiled his plans under the ‘Creative Future’ banner. At the heart of Thompson’s blueprint is the notion that the BBC must be more responsive to audiences. That means a fundamental commitment to on-demand content, says BBC chief operating officer Caroline Thomson. ‘Clearly, a large part of the audience is going to continue to watch linear programs, but we need to cater to the growing number who want to watch shows on any platform at their own convenience. So, from 2007, we will shift to 360-degree commissioning and production to ensure we have consistency across all media.’ The new BBC will have a flatter management structure and more transparent channels between creatives and budgetary decision-makers. In addition, the emphasis on audiences has led to the creation of a new unit called Marketing, Communications and Audiences. This, says Thomson, will sit at the hub of the new structure and act as a kind of inner conscience for creative decision-makers. ‘All big organizations have a tendency to look inwards. This is about ensuring the entire workforce has the right mindset with regard to audiences.’

As for content creation, the DG has divided activities into Journalism (incorporating news and sport), Audio & Music (which delivers network radio and audio content for new platforms), and BBC Vision (a vast entity headed by Jana Bennett, which will cover BBC Television, Factual & Learning as well as Drama, Entertainment & Children’s production). Sitting alongside all of these will be the Future Media and Technology (FMT) division, which will focus on developing new ways for audiences to find and use content via on-demand, mobile, broadband, et al.

BBC Vision is particularly significant because it ends the clear separation of production and commissioning introduced by then-DG John Birt in the ’90s. It will be welcomed by in-house production departments since it means they are more closely aligned to channel decision-makers. But does it means indies will again feel like second-class citizens?

No, says Thomson. ‘One of the big advances we’ve made in the last two years is in our relationship with indies. We can’t survive without their creativity. But, at the same time, we need a vibrant in-house production department if we are to compete.’ That sentiment is important for in-house teams that have seen large numbers of their workforce axed. In the case of factual, for example, Thompson sanctioned 424 job cuts (21% of the department) in order to save £22.9 million (us$43 million). He then dismantled the distinction between specialist factual and documentary, with a number of senior figures exiting as a result.

At press time, the key factual posts within Vision were yet to be filled. But for those who survive the cull, there are some reasons to be optimistic. The near £23 million ($44 million) saved by axing jobs has been reallocated almost pound for pound to factual production, with £9 million ($17 million) specifically earmarked for specialist factual shows on BBC1.

Before we all get too carried away with BBC 2.0, however, Thompson’s ability to drive through his vision will depend to some extent on factors beyond his control. The most serious will be how much money he gets during the next license fee settlement early next year. At a time when the media model is shifting towards an on-demand, pay-as-you-go model, the bbc has asked for an annual 2.3% above-inflation rise over the next seven years, arguing it needs the extra public money to switch to digital, remodel its distribution network, and improve program quality. In order to temper reaction to its request for more money, Thomson stresses the BBC will also introduce efficiencies during the same period. All told, she says the Corporation faces extra costs of £5.5 billion ($10.4 billion) between 2007 and 2014, which will be offset by £3.9 billion ($7.4 billion) in savings. In other words, the BBC is planning to meet 70% of the increased bill itself.

Nevertheless, the demand has met opposition from rivals such as ITV, MTV and Disney. The government also commissioned a report from accountancy firm PKF which picks numerous holes in the BBC’s financial rationale.

The medium-term picture will also likely be affected by two funding reviews which will be triggered after UK digital switchover in 2012. At that point, research will be done into the viability of funding the BBC in part by subscription, and into using license fee income for other broadcasters. While the former might mean more revenue for the bbc, the latter could see a share of the license fee relocated to, for example, Channel 4, which also has a partial public service remit.

Perhaps conscious of this risk, Thompson is planning ‘a far more ambitious strategy for BBC Worldwide, both in the UK and around the world.’ Under WW chief John Smith, the goal is to treble profits via activities such as program distribution, channel operations, home entertainment, publishing, licensing and new media. af

SVT Sweden: Balancing local and global
Sweden’s pubcaster recently cut international current affairs programming in favor of lighter drama and entertainment series. Axel Arno, commissioning editor at SVT, says ratings are playing an increased role, and even though the pubcaster can still get big audiences for docs, the schedulers are facing the challenge of engaging the 20- to 44-year-old set, who are migrating to the commercial nets. ‘There’s a threat that if we don’t get enough ratings, since they’re such a powerful instrument, we’ll be moved from primetime.’

The license fee-based broadcaster gets about 40% market share, and its primetime factual slot can sometimes get 10%, particularly if the films are about domestic issues. But Arno thinks the increased focus on ratings comes at the cost of factual programming with global concerns. To achieve a happy medium, where the younger audience is compelled while the factual programming looks beyond Sweden’s borders, Arno is excited about the upcoming (and timely) The Planet, a four-part series that’s been in production for about three years. The special will launch in November, and it’s part of SVT’s experiment to broadcast docs with an edgier style. Its director has a background in music videos (for the younger set), but it also interviews top scientists about where the earth is going (for blue-chip fans).

Although there’s currently talk of a doc boom across the industry, Arno isn’t completely convinced. He says there are a large number of producers creating work, but fewer broadcasters have the hours to acquire programming. ‘Our monies are going down and that’s a trend we need to stop,’ he says. LS

TV2 Denmark: Progress despite uncertainty
Denmark boasts two pubcasters, TV2 and DR, but the future for one has been on thin ice as early as 2001 – ever since the country’s Minister of Culture announced the government should off-load TV2 to private investors. Plans to sell the net were put on hold by the European Court after an investigation into how its license fees were used before it moved to 100% ad-supported in January 2005. Mette Hoffmann Meyer, TV2′s CE for docs, says most execs believe the network will not be sold for about five years. But that doesn’t mean the network is just waiting it out.

After September, TV2 will have a new director of programs and hire a marketing director. Hoffmann Meyer says these new members of the board have plans to expand the pubcaster’s brand into ventures beyond television, such as radio, print and non-linear. Come December, the net will debut Denmark’s first 24-hour news channel, TV2 Nyhedskanale, with a two-hour 9 p.m. block whose tagline roughly translates into ‘News that makes you smarter.’

Ratings aren’t a huge concern for TV2, if only because the net captures 40% of the audience. Hoffmann Meyer says Denmark as a whole has a strong appetite for factual, and it makes up about 500 to 600 hours of the net’s sked each year. Regionalized formats of familiar reality series and programs about decoration and gardening score high on the ratings chart, but a human-interest doc such as Brain Man can capture a 50% share. The only factual genre that doesn’t capture interest is history. ‘I always try to buy it, but it doesn’t do well for us,’ she says. LS

CBC Canada: Go big or go online
This past summer, a lot of people in Canada were telling their pubcaster ‘I told you so.’ It all stems from the CBC’s decision to simulcast the US version of Star Academy from the ABC network. Although simulcast is a common practice among Canada’s private broadcasters, some Canadians were having none of it from the Ceeb. And when ABC canned The One after two episodes, those opposed to the reality series said the net would be better to leave well enough alone for its future schedules.

But CBC management thinks the linear channel needs an upheaval. The pubcaster rarely appears in the top ten ratings chart, and to Kirstine Layfield, executive director of network programming, that means the channel isn’t speaking to the majority of Canadians. ‘The CBC cannot be in the business to be a niche broadcaster. You have to serve the public, which is represented by viewership and by numbers,’ she says.

That doesn’t mean the CBC is turning its back on specialty programming in favor of mass appeal. Rather, its long-term plan is to shift shows that appeal to a smaller audience to non-linear platforms, such as broadband. Layfield points to the recently cancelled program Zed, where viewers were invited to submit arts projects for each broadcast. ‘It was very innovative, but time caught up with it and there wasn’t room to move it to the next stage on the linear channel,’ she says. ‘With that style of programming, people don’t want to watch it, they want to interact with it.’

The move to being a more commercially popular channel isn’t the death knell for factual on the CBC. Mark Starowicz, executive director of doc programming, says he’s looking for primetime programming with a broad appeal, and Layfield says epic-style docs about Canadian history have traditionally done well. But it’s as much about the subject matter on the linear net as it is the audience numbers factual will attract.

Other CBC applications such as 24-hour newsnet Newsworld and the re-upped Documentary Channel will have room for more niche-style docs. The cbc took over the latter from Corus and says the paperwork for a relaunch should be completed by next spring. ‘The CBC’s got a great brand in information-style programming, and we’ll work with the team there to make it reach out to an even wider audience,’ says Layfield. LS

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