Big Bird to the Rescue?

Public television remains largely indifferent to calls to boost serious news coverage

Representative Earl Blumenauer stood before a microphone outside the Capitol building in February to make a passionate plea for continued federal funding of public broadcasting. The Oregon Democrat argued that news, specifically community news, is “not commercially viable. The public needs to be there.”

But in making his case, the bow-tied Congressman stood shoulder-to-shoulder with a life-sized, fuzzy-suited Arthur, the aardvark star of the popular pbs kids’ show. Stuffed plushies of Big Bird and Grover, the Sesame Street Muppets, perched on his podium.

And therein lies a conundrum: The public interest community wants public media to rescue serious journalism. But in public television, at least, Big Bird is the big draw.

Focused on self-preservation as they are, burdened with high overhead and declining income, the nation’s 356 public television stations have done precious little to fill a news gap in an era when newspapers are struggling for survival and commercial broadcasters increasingly embrace polarized opinion programming. Public television players are instead clamoring for safe programming that doesn’t alienate core viewers. The biggest programming news coming out of the PBS annual meeting in May was a new Antiques Roadshow spin-off.

Public media today is held up as the potential savior of serious journalism, the place with the potential to tackle the tough topics—complicated revolutions in Arab lands and zoning board shenanigans alike—that an informed citizenry needs to function. Bill Kling, the just-retired president and chief executive of American Public Media, predicts public broadcasting will be “the last journalism standing.”

Public radio has certainly taken up the cause. NPR has created an investigative unit, showcased foreign coverage, and launched multiple projects to bolster local station news reporting, which many stations have embraced. But public television?

With a few notable exceptions, it seems oddly absent from the fevered conversation about innovation and radical rethinking of the possibilities of journalism. The system certainly has the capacity to try some new and different approaches to delivering news, with nearly two stations for every population market except the smallest ones.

But only a few stations are experimenting with news. Others have yet to attract solid funding for their efforts and many of the rest aren’t interested in pursuing more news. The system overall has done little to address a Byzantine structure that can discourage local newsgathering. Nor has it helped forge a way for stations to work together on a coordinated strategy.

On the national front, PBS has two solid news offerings—PBS NewsHour and Frontline—but not much else. David Fanning, Frontline’s executive producer and founder, says that by not making journalism an urgent priority, public television is missing an opportunity. “I think this is about defining ourselves in the landscape,” he says. “Even if journalism on air is not always going to get you the highest audiences, it’s going to get you attention and it’s going to make you more relevant.”

Despite their high hopes for so much more, viewers who are counting on public television to fill the gap for serious news on a large scale are bound to be disappointed. Unless significant reforms are made, public television won’t be making everything A-okay for the news business.

News Is a Tough Sell

News, be it local, national, or international, has been a tough sell ever since PBS was founded in 1970. A preference for safe, non-controversial programming like Sesame Street is part of its DNA, says Lawrence Grossman, PBS president from 1976 to 1984.

One of Grossman’s first bold moves at PBS was to offer a new half-hour national news program, The MacNeil/Lehrer Report, to stations for free for six months. Station managers were outraged, insisting that, he remembers them saying, “Washington” shouldn’t dictate programming, and that “localism will determine our own curriculum.”

The managers’ protestations were not to protect locally produced news shows, Grossman explains. “No one does local news programming,” he says, calling it the “great contradiction” of public television. Rather, the stations were fighting to reserve the right to pick whatever programs they chose, and to air them when they pleased. If they were locked into a specific half-hour of MacNeil/Lehrer, they feared a small piece of their prized independence would be lost.

Despite the initial controversy, MacNeil/Lehrer’s brand of intellectually rigorous newsgathering was a hit with viewers. In 1983, pbs wanted to expand the newscast to an hour. It was another fight, says Linda Winslow, the NewsHour’s current executive producer.

“A number of stations traditionally felt they were just not convinced that news and public affairs was a big part of the mission of public broadcasting,” she says. Stations saw their role as providing an alternative to the commercial networks and questioned why they should cover the same events as ABC, NBC, and CBS.

Something else was at work in stations’ reticence to engage in news. Grossman believes the reluctance reflected their origins as extensions of controversy-averse universities and boards of education. “The idea was to avoid issues that would fragment, or raise hackles,” says Grossman. “It had a lot to do, I think, with the educational culture that says our job is not to antagonize anybody or to raise tough issues as part of education. Our job is to make everybody happy.”

The system’s risk-averse tendencies were reinforced by the reaction to a 1970 documentary, Banks and The Poor, distributed by PBS. The hard-hitting piece of journalism suggested members of Congress were complicit with exploitative banks. Soon after it aired, an antagonized Nixon administration started reorganizing the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, which began channeling federal monies for production away from PBS and toward the local stations themselves.

Bill Moyers, speaking at the 2006 PBS annual meeting, made reference to that brouhaha as a way to explain public television’s queasy attitude toward pursuing tough journalism, lest it jeopardize federal funding, which makes up about 15 percent of the system’s budget.

“Far too many other unconventional programs never had a chance,” Moyers told the meeting. “Even when the strings are not tightly pulled, you knew they are there, and the worst thing that came out of that ugly episode was that we have never been able to completely shake out of our collective mind the fear that the chicken snake might prove to be a boa constrictor.”

Today, at times a deeply seated conflicted attitude toward news seems to ooze from every pixel. During President Obama’s State of the Union speech in January, Washington’s WETA-TV—the same station that produces the estimable PBS NewsHour and Washington Week for PBS distribution—embarrassingly forgot to turn off automated station promos at the top of hour, interrupting the President. That said, WETA was one of a minority of public television stations carrying the speech live.

Most public television stations have chosen not to rock the boat and to stick with a decades-old formula of a little bit of something for everyone: daytime educational kids shows; the PBS NewsHour and Nightly Business Report in the evening; dramas, science, performances, and documentaries in primetime; and the Charlie Rose and Tavis Smiley talk shows to cap the day.

There are, of course, pockets of distinguished news coverage on PBS. Jim Lehrer in recent years has made sure that PBS alone among broadcasters has committed to full coverage of political conventions, and a much-needed overhaul of the NewsHour website has resulted in a 43 percent increase in pageviews in fifteen months. Frontline, produced by Boston’s WGBH-TV for PBS distribution, is attempting to become more nimble by presenting occasional magazine-style shows featuring multiple stories as a break from its signature long-form documentaries. Both have partnered with each other and with other news organizations, such as the nonprofit ProPublica, to co-produce timely investigative pieces.

But PBS is shrinking its Friday night public affairs schedule this fall by a half-hour—to sixty minutes, or half what it was until April 2010 when Bill Moyers Journal and Now on PBS went off air—partly in response to stations that would prefer lighter entertainment fare. Michael Getler, the PBS ombudsman, says PBS is at a “serious disadvantage” by having no news on the weekends.

At the local level, the Federal Communication Commission’s just-released “The Information Needs of Communities” study reported that 68 percent of noncommercial TV stations provided no local news in the course of three weeks. “Local commercial TV news has often been criticized for its insufficient coverage of serious issues—but the unfortunate reality is that local public TV has produced even less,” the report found.

Public television’s stance on news is a stark contrast to that of public radio stations, which over the past decade have doubled down on news and remade themselves into news and public affairs powerhouses. In May, San Diego’s KPBS became the latest of thirty-three public radio stations to jettison its hybrid classical music/news format, and go all news, all the time. The switches have created a powerful cycle: the listening audience has soared, leading to increased listener donations, allowing money to be plowed back into news coverage, particularly focused on local and regional issues.

A Compartmentalized Approach

Like at NPR, a majority of PBS’s board members come from local stations, which vary widely in size. The structure reinforces a compartmentalized approach that makes it difficult to achieve consensus on addressing programming challenges. Other elements of public television’s structure also serve to weaken stations’ ability to venture into news.

Unlike public radio, which made a key decision early on to allow member stations to interweave local news into the national reports, PBS NewsHour never allowed “cut-ins.” That’s a disappointment to Daniel Schmidt, the president and chief executive of Chicago’s WTTW-TV, which has programmed the local newscast Chicago Tonight on weeknights since 1984. He says, “One of the reasons local stations haven’t developed that ability is that they haven’t had that opportunity.”

Tom Karlo, general manager of KPBS in San Diego, which has both radio and television outlets, supports cut-ins as well. “What helped NPR really ascend was the fact that local stations were putting local content into Morning Edition and All Things Considered,” he says. His TV station runs local news headlines sandwiched between PBS primetime programs.

NewsHour’s Winslow isn’t convinced. “There aren’t enough stations that can justify doing it,” she says. “There are a small number of stations asking for it and a large number of stations asking for something else. I never heard a groundswell and, as time went by, fewer and fewer stations were producing local programming.”

Another force that undermines production of local news, some station managers say, is the PBS dues structure. Stations that successfully raise non-federal funds pay higher membership dues to PBS. In reality, most funds raised locally are restricted grants that can only be used for a particular local show and not for PBS dues, which support the national program schedule. Stations that produce national shows get a discount on their dues.

“We get punished for making local content by making our local dues go up,” fumes WTTW’s Schmidt, adding that PBS financial policies “force these Hobson’s choices.”

Paula Kerger, president and chief executive of PBS, counters that rewarding national production is appropriate because those stations are giving back to all the other stations. She adds that the federal grant system offsets some of the pain by rewarding local fundraising with increased CPB grants.

Al Jerome, president and chief executive of Los Angeles station KCET, the second-largest PBS member, got fed up with the dues structure. After successfully raising $50 million—$25 million from BP alone—to fund a bilingual daily program for childcare workers, KCET’s PBS dues bill soared. After a bitter, eleven-month back-and-forth over what Jerome believes were demands for excessively high fees to stay in the system, KCET abruptly announced in October 2010 that it would quit PBS on January 1.

Jerome quickly replaced the PBS news programs with a 4-7 p.m. block of international news from the BBC, Al Jazeera English, Japan’s NHK, and Israel’s IBA. The shows have been a rare ratings bright spot for the station. He is now attempting to craft an independent schedule that will rely heavily on local production—but first he must raise the funds.

He hopes to expand KCET’s SoCal Connected, a weekly news show, to daily production. A daily 10 p.m. in-depth interview show focused on Southern California newsmakers is also in development. “It will be reflective of public media, not oriented toward guests plugging their next movie or book,” Jerome says. A third show, Global Watch, would be a weekly international affairs newsmagazine focused on regions of particular interest to Southern Californians.

The Biggest Obstacle

Those like Jerome who want to do more news share the same problem: money.

Although public broadcasting successfully beat back efforts to cut its federal funding this year, states have been rapidly trimming or eliminating public broadcasting subsidies. Florida Governor Rick Scott, a Republican, was the latest to zero out funds in May. According to the CPB, between 2008 and 2009, non-federal support of public television stations fell by $260 million nationwide. For 2010, public radio and TV stations surveyed by CPB projected a 14 percent drop in revenue, due to state cutbacks and declines in corporate and philanthropic support and viewer pledges.

Philadelphia’s WHYY, licensed as a Delaware station, knows the problem well. In 2009, it ended the state’s only nightly newscast, Delaware Tonight, as a budget-saving move, subbing in a weekly program. Even New York’s WNET, a major station that wants to move more deeply into news and thinks it has found an inexpensive formula for doing so, has been stymied.

WNET’s Worldfocus international newscast lasted eighteen months before money ran out in April 2010. Its Friday newsmagazine for PBS, Need to Know, has been on the air for just over a year, but with funding likewise dwindling, PBS announced that in the fall it will cut it in half to thirty minutes. The station’s soon-to-launch MetroFocus was originally conceived of as a broadcast program, as well as an online and mobile venture. It will debut only as the cheaper digital effort, with tentative plans to start the broadcast component by the end of the year.

“If resources were available more stations would do more journalism,” says PBS chief Kerger. “It’s cheaper for them to acquire programs from us than to produce local journalism.”

The irony is that localism is the go-to argument that Kerger and others pull out when touting public television’s value in the media landscape. “We are the ultimate local organization,” Kerger told an April symposium on the future of public broadcasting.

Chicago’s Schmidt says of public television’s claims to localism: “As a system, we have good rhetoric about that. We like to say we have deep relationships in the community, and that’s what differentiates us from the cable channels. We talk a good game about all of our outreach and points of contact with our constituencies and Americans.”

But the reality, Schmidt says, is, “We are missing an opportunity to address this idea of being locally relevant.”

For some stations, there’s also a reluctance to duplicate what they see as vibrant local news offerings from their commercial rivals.

John Boland, president and chief executive of San Francisco’s KQED, wants his TV station to do more local news. But, he says, the format is an open question. “The knee-jerk reaction is we should have an evening news program on television, but I’m not convinced of it,” he says. Tom Rosenstiel, director of the Project for Excellence in Journalism, notes that public radio stations that have bulked up on news are filling a void left by commercial radio. Just thirty commercial radio stations nationwide currently program full-time news, by his count.

There’s been no such collapse of local television content. More stations are running local news than ever, and more of it. Stations in more than forty markets last year added a 4:30 a.m. newscast. “If you’re a PBS television station and part of what you think you’re doing is counter-programming, news is not as logical a thing to offer as news on radio,” Rosenstiel says.

Those arguments run counter to the high hopes that the public interest community holds for public media.

Leonard Downie Jr. and Michael Schudson, in their 2009 “Reconstruction of American Journalism” report for the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism, recommended that “Public radio and television should be substantially reoriented to provide significant local news reporting in every community served by public stations and their websites.”

Likewise, New America Foundation President Steve Coll, writing in CJR’s November/December 2010 issue, proposed channeling spectrum user fees collected from commercial broadcasters to a revamped CPB, to be used to beef up reporting operations, particularly the local capacity, of public television and radio.

And in a December 2010 Knight Commission white paper, “Rethinking Public Media: More Local, More Inclusive, More Interactive,” Barbara Cochran, a former vice president of news at NPR, called on public broadcasters to move faster into localism and take bigger steps to reform infrastructure if they want to maintain their claim on government investment.

Radio, which is admittedly far cheaper than television, has been able to cobble together innovative projects attempting to address the need for more local content. NPR’s new Impact of Government project, funded by a large initial grant from the Open Society Foundations, is attempting to place a total of one hundred journalists at NPR stations in all fifty states, to report on how state government actions play out over time. (NPR’s then-Ombudsman Alicia Shepard raised ethical questions in May about that grant, given the foundation’s well-known left-leaning funder, financier George Soros; his Open Society Institute has supported CJR.) The Argo Project, another NPR venture backed by the Knight Foundation, is training select local stations in how to expand local news programming in niche areas. CPB last year pledged $7.5 million for seven regional public radio and TV reporting collaborations.

PBS has been comparatively slow to offer help to stations. Instead, in 2009, on the advice of an outside consultant, it began developing, a “news navigator” aggregation site which some saw as competition to the newly beefed up NewsHour website. But in March, PBS pulled the plug on the aggregation site. “I don’t have the money right now to take it to the next step and I’m not going to half-launch something,” Kerger says.

PBS is now moving some of the money and technology earmarked for the website into technical resources and staff training to help its stations move more deeply into local journalism.

Some Successes

Against this backdrop, a few public television stations are trying to break the mold. In St. Louis, KETC-TV offered housing to the St. Louis Beacon, an online investigative newsroom formed in 2008 after steep layoffs at the local Post-Dispatch newspaper; the two have since collaborated notably on reports on the home mortgage crisis.

In Chicago, WTTW and the NewsHour just received an innovative, one-year, $250,000 grant from the Joyce Foundation that seeks to bolster the local/national model. Equal sums of $75,000 will fund national arts coverage on the NewsHour, and local reporting on WTTW’s Chicago Tonight, whose own ratings have soared in the past year. The remainder will pay for stories produced by the twelve-person Chicago Tonight news staff, which will air on the NewsHour, on issues of national importance from the Midwest.

San Francisco’s KQED merged its television and radio news services into a single operation last summer and added an online site, With an increase of $1 million to its $14 million annual news and public affairs budget—more than 25 percent of its annual spending—KQED increased its local news staff by more than 10 percent and tripled local radio newscasts.

The key to finding the money, KQED chief Boland says, is that “you’ve got to have a radio station; that really gives you critical mass. You’ve got to work across platforms and merge your resources. And then you need to partner outside the building.”

In April, KQED partnered with California Watch, the Center for Investigative Reporting’s online nonprofit news site, to produce an investigative report on seismic safety in California public schools. The project ran on KQED’s website, for five days on radio, and, in a first for the station, as a half-hour television special. “That’s a breakthrough for us, breaking out of the pattern of our regular weekly roundtable TV show, to put what’s essentially a baby Frontline on the air here in the Bay Area,” Boland says.

The most tantalizing success comes from San Diego, where station manager Karlo says, “We are growing because of our news.”

In 2009, KPBS merged its public radio, television, and web newsgathering into a single content production center, based on the success of its radio news operations. In the May 2011 Arbitron ratings, KPBS-FM shared the lead among all San Diego radio stations in time spent listening.

“I felt that there was a void” in commercial media, says Karlo. “I thought, if we could be number one in radio news why can’t we be number one in local TV news and online news?” Audiences have grown with each incremental news addition, prompting the switch to all-news radio in May, and coming in September, the launch of a nightly TV newscast. The new ventures have been paid for by full-court fundraising, soliciting major donors to underwrite three-year commitments, at $80,000 a year, to fund individual reporting beats. The reporters work for all three outlets: radio, TV, and online.

Another prototype of the future newsroom may be coming together in Cleveland, where the television station WVIZ and radio station WCPN have combined into a public media center known as Ideastream. Also under the umbrella, among others, are the Ohio Statehouse News Bureau and the Ohio Channel, a digital broadcast and online streaming service with C-SPAN-like coverage of state government and public affairs shows from the state’s other public stations.

Cochran, now a professor at the Missouri School of Journalism, says Ideastream is evidence that in the long run, it won’t matter if public television isn’t a player. “At some point this is all going to merge,” in a single digital news stream or community information center, she says, and “the difference between television and radio stations is not going to be significant.”

In late April, the NewsHour itself quietly began streaming its newscast online live, for free, on (it is also available after broadcast, on the PBS website). While the potential is there to cannibalize local stations’ viewing numbers, Hari Sreenivasan, a correspondent and director of digital partnerships for the NewsHour, says he hopes stations will embed the feed on their websites, drawing viewers and potential donors, who might not watch on-air.

Sreenivasan, a former correspondent for CBS and ABC who joined the NewsHour in December 2009, has become somewhat of a one-man evangelist exhorting local stations to do more local news. “A handful of local stations have very good newsgathering infrastructures, and some are simply repeating national content,” he says. He has begun offering local stations unused NewsHour footage on occasion.

He seeks out local content that can augment the NewsHour, which has a bare-bones correspondent corps and a minimal travel budget. Sreenivasan says part of what is driving his efforts is an attempt to replicate the correspondent pool reach of the commercial networks by tapping into talent at local public television stations. When news breaks out and there is no NewsHour reporter to go cover it, “it’s very bizarre for me,” Sreenivasan says.

He’s already gotten past the skepticism of some stations that thought the NewsHour was simply trolling for free content; the NewsHour, unlike NPR, has never paid local stations even a nominal fee for content they contribute. That’s yet another tradition that might have to fall if public television hopes to become a serious player in the news business.

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Elizabeth Jensen is a freelance journalist who writes frequently about public broadcasting for The New York Times.