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.