An Interview with Hamilton Fish

February 28, 2013

Hamilton Fish has devoted his career to preserving and strengthening independent media.  He recently joined Independent Public Media as its Chief Development Officer to help develop and deploy its acquisition and financing programs for financially-troubled public TV stations. In the interview that follows, he shares his views on the responsibilities and opportunities for public television, as well as how the system will need to adapt in the future to remain viable.

What is your role in Independent Public Media?
Independent Public Media (IPM) is an initiative that draws on the combined talents of a number of people who have spent their careers at the intersection of media and the public interest. Our foremost motivation is the preservation and revitalization of public television.

I am working as part of IPM’s executive team to develop our station acquisition and financing efforts and to spur the exploration of new models for public media in the digital age.

We create not-for-profit companies in markets where we are bidding on public television licenses, we recruit people from the community with a diverse array of skills and backgrounds to serve as stewards, and we seek out donors and investors for each of these projects.

What does public television look like today?
Public television stations are mandated to serve their communities. What form that takes varies widely. Some stations provide original, high-quality community-oriented content, and many simply recycle programming off a satellite.  Most have little or no meaningful presence on the internet. And far too many public television stations have to battle to survive financially.

What is Independent Public Media’s mission and how does this support the realm of public television programming in a larger sense?
Our primary goals are to protect the public television system and to help strengthen its programming. We want to help expand the flow of investment dollars into the system and to increase the amount of available charitable support. Take a look at public radio if you want to see how increased financial resources can lead to robust public media.

We also feel that one of the core functions of a vigorous public television system should be to address the information gap. We need a multi-platform public media that produces high-value, low-cost programming and focuses as much as possible on the local needs of the station’s viewers.

Public television can develop partnerships with the growing community of journalists and other independent content producers to create high-value, low-cost news and information programming, particularly in those communities where newspapers have cut back or closed shop.

How important is access to public TV channels and why?
Commercial television is dominated by private interests that promote narrow agendas. We have a critical, ongoing need for a strong public television system that offers an independent perspective and addresses the needs of underserved audiences.

As a result, public television will help its constituents achieve a greater level of literacy on social issues and cultural themes and become more informed citizens in the process.

What is the biggest threat to public television today?
Number one, access to capital. Number two, failure to have adapted sufficiently to the new digital technologies,

In addition, the FCC has announced it will hold an incentive auction in 2014 for license holders – public or private – who wish to sell their spectrum at market prices. There are parties who are less interested in preserving public television and more intent on exploiting the considerable market value of the spectrum.

But the real price under that scenario will be the permanent loss of public signals. IPM appreciates that some license holders with serious financial troubles may look upon the auction as an opportunity to liquidate their holdings in return for a big payday.  We argue they can have it both ways. Under our plan, the license holders can get access to much needed capital, they can protect the public signal, and they can continue to fulfill the community mandate far into the future.

As a longtime steward of independent journalism, how does investing in public television support your vision?
I have had many, very gratifying experiences in independent print journalism and publishing, and I’ve produced documentary films, but nothing compares with the power of good television. My colleagues at IPM and I share the view that public television has untapped potential to become a trusted source for authoritative, independent commentary and information for its viewers. We hope to make content available for viewers of public television stations that opens a window onto the outside world and, also more directly, reflects the needs of their communities. We believe that public television can cover the unfolding debates in City Hall, in the halls of Congress, and in the streets of emerging democracies.

Any additional thoughts about what Independent Public Media is trying to accomplish?
We’re committed to helping the current stewards of public television build and strengthen the stations they operate. In cases where the license holders no longer want to retain their stations, we want to persuade them of the importance of preserving the public signal in their markets.  This spectrum was originally allocated for a public purpose and we feel that’s a cause worth fighting for.

Hamilton Fish is a publisher, social entrepreneur, environmental advocate and film producer. The former publisher of The Nation magazine and co-founder and publisher of the non-fiction imprint Nation Books, he is currently publisher of the Washington Spectator. Mr. Fish has produced several documentary films, including “Hotel Terminus,” winner of the 1989 Academy Award for Best Feature Documentary. He sits on a variety of non-profit boards including Riverkeeper, which advocates for clean water and the Hudson River, and the Fund for Constitutional Government in Washington, D.C. Mr. Fish is also the President of the Hamilton Fish and Alice Desmond Library in Garrison, New York.