Growing up in public

Here, those behind the scenes and those who create content with American Public Television weigh in on its first half-century.
January 1, 2011

What do culinary queen Julia Child, legendary kids’ TV host Mister Rogers and opera’s Three Tenors have in common? (And, nope, there’s no joke – there’s actually a legit connection.) Answer: they all feature in shows that have been distributed by American Public Television (APT), a multifaceted Boston-based company that distributes programming to public television stations.

Take note, however, that since launching 50 years ago, APT has taken on more than distribution. Over the course of the past half-century, it’s changed its name more than Prince, each new handle reflecting another step in its diversification.

Back when APT originated as Eastern Educational Television Network (or EEN), it was a regional co-operative through which select programs were exchanged to a few stations within the Northeast U.S. Eventually, the company began distributing shows nationally, and then began acquiring content from domestic and international suppliers. Further broadening its scope, the company has moved into coproductions, international distribution and managing two successful multicast channels. Has anything stayed the same since APT/EEN incorporated in 1961? Yes, says president and CEO Cynthia Fenneman: “It’s still all about getting the best possible content to the public television stations.” Today, APT’s current library contains more than 7,000 programs, amounting to 3,831 hours and close to 1,000 titles.


When APT began, its content was primarily documentaries, live news and children’s shows, but cooking is also key to its history. First distributing The French Chef with Julia Child in 1963 makes APT, as Fenneman says, “the granddaddies of the cooking genre.” Today’s fixer-upper and flipped-house shows also have their roots in the gardening and home improvement shows that originated on public TV, she adds.

More firsts that made their way to American television via APT/EEN include Newsfront, America’s first daily, live and non-commercial news program, which EEN began distributing in 1970. In 1974, major acquisitions from international broadcasters such as the BBC and the CBC started making their way to American airwaves through EEN, with the madcap comedy of Monty Python’s Flying Circus among them.

Documentaries have always been a huge part of APT’s catalog. Historical docs are the company’s most popular. Nature, science, biographies and cultural documentaries also perform well, as do performance titles.

But, as part of its diverse model, APT also deals in drama. In fact, it brought the top five highest-rated primetime UK dramas to U.S. audiences in 2008. Then there’s APT’s film package, which Fenneman credits with much of APT’s success.

These broad offerings attract broad audiences. “We’re not just 18-to-34 or 25-to-54; we’ve got a strong audience of boomers,” says Fenneman. Boomers are a particularly large and lucrative population segment for APT to have in its back pocket, especially since that demographic has so much disposable income in theirs.

The content offering, then, has always been key. “Every year since 2004 we’ve delivered just under or over half of the highest-rated public television shows,” says Fenneman. APT board member and former Discovery president John Ford is impressed by APT’s wide range of genres and large pool of producers and program suppliers. “That provides programmers at public television stations with a really rich menu of options,” says Ford, who is now president of programming at ION Media Networks.


Beyond the programming itself, the services offered by APT over the course of its 50-year history have also nurtured the evolution of public television in the U.S., and the careers of scores of producers. Launched during the EEN era in 1978 as the Free Library, the APT Exchange service saves producers and program suppliers from knocking “door to door” to offer their wares. “There was definitely a need for a national clearing house broker, so to speak, for funded programming that could be sent to one place and then sent out to stations by satellite,” says Chris Funkhouser, APT’s vice president of Exchange programming and digital services.

Under this service, programming comes to APT fully funded by corporations, foundations or individuals. By offering their programs to stations free of charge, producers expand their potential for carriage. This is a huge benefit, says Rick Steves. The host of Travels in Europe with Rick Steves, he’s produced series with APT since 1990 through Exchange. “My philosophy is, if you offer a show for free, everyone is going to run it and then it’s of more value to an underwriter,” says Steves.

Ian Cross, managing director of London-based Pilot Productions, also raves about the extra exposure. He says his company’s Globe Trekker series, a primetime travel program, gets two million viewers a week and 95% carriage. He’s worked within both the cable and public TV systems and says, “Our audience is probably four or five times greater [on public television].”

Producers working within the Exchange model own their own product, and they’re also able to include a tag at the end of their program. This allows them to promote ancillary products, such as companion books or DVDs, as well as a website for their show. “If you have sufficient numbers of products to sell this is, in my view, a more preferable way of working than taking a license fee because it can be more profitable,” says Cross. Globe Trekker has 250 hours of catalog and sells a considerable number of DVDs thanks to the exposure public television provides, he says.

Besides the shows from Steves and Cross, Exchange’s other biggest success is America’s Test Kitchen from Cook’s Illustrated, a highly carried foodie program. A number of one-off documentaries have also done well through the service. Take the Eleventh Day Entertainment production For Love of Liberty: The Story of America’s Black Patriots, which took 10 years to find funding but is now enjoying great carriage success.


AP’’s Syndication service, through which the company acquires completed programs, launched in 1980. One of Syndication’s biggest hits was the biography, Muhammad Ali: Through the Eyes of the World, which many of the top 20 markets acquired in 2002. Many stations also took interest in a series APT acquired from the BBC called Battlefield Britain.

Over time, it’s become more difficult for public television stations to spend money on acquisitions, says Eric Luskin, vice president of Premium Service and syndication. “Appropriately, station managers are being much more specific in what they need and why they need it.”

One of the biggest benefits with APT’s content, says Fenneman, is it offers individual stations the chance to customize and differentiate their programming from that on other stations reaching their audiences. As Luskin says, “APT has, for as long as I can remember, been very important in not only providing programs to complement the PBS schedule, but also in providing programmers with the means to deliver what their markets want.”


In 1989, nine years after EEN changed its name to the Interregional Program Service (IPS), its Premium Service also launched. This service supports fundraising initiatives with primarily primetime programs. APT either commissions original programming or acquires finished product. It’s usually performance or self-help shows – the type of stuff viewers would want to watch again on DVD or give as a gift, says Fenneman. Ideally, viewers will appreciate it so much that they’ll pick up the phone and pledge.

One of the biggest programs through Premium was the original Three Tenors. It’s still available as a fundraising special through Premium Service, notes Luskin. “They’re the tenors that keep on giving,” he adds with a laugh. With the self-help shows in particular, though, it’s hard to predict which will be successful during fundraising, says Luskin. Sometimes there’s a much stronger audience response than pledge response, but Luskin says, “From one aspect, that reinforces the fact that it’s programming viewers value, because they’re watching it.”

In 1999, after seven years under the name American Program Service, American Public Television embraced its current handle, and celebrated with yet another service in its roster. Remember when fax machines hummed in offices? Judy Barlow does. She used to get fax inquiries from abroad about purchasing programs from APT. After several months of such requests, “there was enough business to say, ‘Okay, let’s launch an international division.’” Barlow, the division’s vice president (she’s also VP of business development), says it has sold about 1,500 titles around the world.

APT Worldwide’s non-fiction catalog includes documentaries, performance, lifestyle, nature and history programming. And it’s not just public television content; APT Worldwide also represents some A&E titles and Discovery programs, including Battleground: The Art of War. Among the international networks it’s sold programming to are Discovery, National Geographic Channel, NHK, ITV and Italy’s RAI-SAT.

As if its other ventures weren’t enough, APT also manages and distributes the multicast channels Create and World. It runs these channels in partnership with WGBH and WNET.ORG. Crediting APT’s experience in syndication and distribution, Jon Abbott, president and CEO of WGBH in Boston, says of the channels’ launches, “The machinery was already there, the gears were oiled and APT had the knowledge of the market and the station licensing community.”

APT used its existing inventory of popular lifestyle, how-to and travel programming to launch Create, notes Barlow.

“Nothing was commissioned, nothing was acquired; it was all there and Create was a way to get it out there for the producers who created it,” she says.

Create has an impressive reach: it’s available to more than 82% of U.S. TV households through the more than 230 stations that carry it. Neal Shapiro, president and CEO of New York’s WNET.ORG, says Create stands apart from similar channels in the commercial television realm. “It is truly dedicated to learning and skills, not selling products,” he says.

World reaches roughly 43% of U.S. TV households, and features docs, history, nature and science programming. Fenneman says the channel “takes the best of ‘NOVA’ and ‘Nature’ and those iconic series and complements them with programs that might be from independent producers.”

World is very 2011 in terms of its multi-platform trajectory. Fenneman sees a future in which the channel’s website will feature video blogs and social media exchanges. In its developmental stages now, “the idea is to bring in new voices to public television through online and broadcast,” she says.


Fenneman says APT’s ability to demystify the U.S. public television system for first-timers to those who come from a cable background attracts a wide range of producers to its services. “We know all of the public television stations and their key staff and clearly understand what they’re looking for,” says Fenneman. For his part, Cross believes APT is the premiere distribution system into public television. “For outsiders, it’s confusing to unravel that complex creature,” he says. “There are so many gatekeepers that it can become a project in itself just trying to find out who to send the program to.”

It also helps that APT’s own team is very accessible. “If I want to get on the phone and talk to the president of APT, I can,” says Steves. The lean company distributes about 300 new titles per year with only 28 people and four consultants.

With 50 years now behind it, Fenneman hopes APT will be generally thought of as an organization of like-minded individuals that made more people want to watch public television. “[I'd hope] that we made public television dramatically better with memorable programs that appeal to more of the masses with intelligent, engaging and entertaining programming,” she says.

About The Author
Managing editor with realscreen publication, an international print and online magazine that covers the non-fiction film and television industries. Darah is an award-winning journalist who has spent over two decades covering a wide range of issues from real estate and urban development to immigration, politics and human rights, primarily with The Vancouver Sun. Prior to joining realscreen, she was editor of Stream Daily, realscreen's sister publication covering the dynamic global digital video industry. She also served a stint as a war reporter in Afghanistan for television and print, and was a national business blogger with Yahoo Canada.