PBS: Where’s the Beef?
Elizabeth Jensen’s story “Big Bird to the Rescue?” (CJR, July/August) in your cover package about the lack of local news on public television was well timed. Just as it was published, New Jersey Network News, what may have been the last fully field-produced local nightly news program in public television, aired its final broadcast after forty years.
Usually such efforts don’t last nearly as long. Over the past forty years, there have been several noble efforts to produce high-quality local news programs on public television, from KQED’s Newsroom to WNET’s The 51st State to WGBH’s Ten O’Clock News. But the programs were killed off, usually due to the management culture of local public television, a culture I observed when I was a reporter for several public radio and television stations in the 1970s and 1980s. In this culture field-produced local news is seen as a drain on station managers’ ambitions for national production glory.
And that culture can induce some remarkable acts of greed. At one station I worked at, during an early-morning pledge drive, the station told young children that if mom and dad didn’t send money, they might have to take away Sesame Street. (That’s not an urban legend—I saw them do it. Twice.)
So what would happen across America if tomorrow almost all the local public television stations disappeared and only the transmitters were left operating? Nothing. It would be weeks, perhaps months—roughly around the time of the next pledge drive—before most “viewers like you” even noticed.
The typical local station is just a middleman. It takes the wholesale product—programs produced under the auspices of a few very large stations and PBS—and then “retails” it to viewers. But the “markup” is enormous: the cost of local personnel, studios, and equipment that produce almost nothing local aside from a weekly talking-head program perhaps and a special every six months about “the local arts scene.”
A far wiser use of scarce funds would be to eliminate the middleman—shut down almost all local public television stations and use the money saved for a strong national public television service and to support local public radio and affiliated websites where there is enormous potential for real public service at relatively low cost.
Having spent over a decade as a senior officer at NPR observing the cultures of public radio and public television, I believe the articles on public television in the July/August CJR miss a critical point. Few people realize that PBS is forbidden by its member stations from itself producing any broadcast programming. All broadcast content which it distributes must originate at, or be sponsored, by a member station. This rule selfishly protects the kingdoms of the local stations, ignores the interests of the public, and prohibits the aggregation at the national level of resources which could fund meaningful national news programming. Instead, each major producing public television station duplicates the infrastructure of the others, a profoundly inefficient way of doing business.
Because of this scandalous inefficiency, public television has only three significant national news programs. One is a solid but narrowly investigative program (Frontline, out of WGBH in Boston), another is a weak business news program (The Nightly Business Report, out of WPBT in Miami), and the PBS News-Hour (produced by a for-profit entity and sponsored by WETA in Washington) which has little real news, mostly relying for content on talking heads analyzing news reported by others. Thus, across all of public television, there is a deplorable lack of reportage.
Such a pitiful contribution by a public service broadcasting sector, whose budget is at least five times that of all of public radio, just can’t be justified. By contrast NPR and other national program producers and distributors provide public-radio listeners with a rich diet of hard news, breaking news, international news, news analysis, cultural news, as well as investigatory news. So by any standard, on the news front, public television gets a failing grade.