Ken Devine, Independent Public Media’s Chief Operating Officer, Reviews the Challenges Facing Public Television and Offers Solutions
Ken Devine has been a media executive and engineering innovator for more than 30 years. He most recently worked with public television station WNET in New York as Vice President of Media Operations and Chief Information Officer. Ken now joins Independent Public Media to help public television stations survive into the new, multi-platform broadcast era.
What led you to join Independent Public Media?
After years of working in public television, I became frustrated, convinced that public television’s existing governance structure and leadership are not adapting fast enough to save the industry. Despite precipitous declines in funding and rising costs, many station operators seem to be in denial. They continue with business as usual cutting personnel and programming budgets and in some cases, withdrawing from PBS because they can’t pay their bills. In an early on-conversation with John Schwartz, he convinced me that Independent Public Media is developing a model to preserve public television and that it was not a lost cause. Independent Public Media takes the direct approach of intervening with failing stations, telling the truth about the existing system, and presenting a solution that will maintain public television well into the future.
What would you say is the biggest challenge facing public TV today?
There are three tightly coupled challenges that feed on each other and must be addressed together for a successful outcome. One, audience demographics have become absolute. Public television has not figured out how to attract and serve a more diverse and younger (under 55) audience, and that is essential.
Two, the existing revenue challenges are monumental and can only be addressed by building a younger, larger engaged base. In order for that to take place, the legacy broadcast paradigm has to be flipped on its head. Content must be created for web and mobile platforms first, with the broadcast piece derived from those elements. The existing model has the “television” content production as the top priority with everything else in an ancillary “companion” role. The production budgets reflect this priority and direct the vast majority of committed funds towards making broadcast television programs. The “web” elements are added later in the process and struggle for resources and relevance. The end result is content that is broadcast a set number of times and is never seen again. This practice guarantees that younger people will not discover, sample, share, and interact with public television content in the places where they are most likely to be looking.
And three, public television has been unable to evolve its structure to leverage technology and implement more efficient ways of operating. Programming, production and fixed station overhead costs too much. Station leaders have not been willing to consolidate and centralize infrastructure and operations that do not need to be duplicated in every locality. With no central authority to enforce rational policy, each station has opted to maintain its own mostly empty studios, post production, master control suites, and back office operations. Without those things available to look at and touch every day, they aren’t able to feel like “real” broadcasters.
What workable alternatives are there to the current financial structures of public TV?
Transformative cost reductions and efficiencies that the system has been unable to put in place must be implemented. If we were creating a public television system from scratch today, it would be profoundly different that what we have in place today. Stations will be forced to do something as their money runs out. Status quo is not an option. Operations will need to be streamlined — this includes PBS or the stations retaining rights ownership for all platforms for the content they pay to create, rather than leasing just the traditional public television broadcast rights window. The production entities responsible for a major percentage of the PBS primetime schedule have evolved alongside public television and are mostly for-profit entities whose work product has been funded by public and philanthropic funds that flowed through local stations and PBS.
As an example, MacNeil/Lehrer Productions produces the PBS NEWSHOUR, public television’s flagship news program. News anchors Robert MacNeil and Jim Lehrer founded the company founded in 1981, and sold a controlling two-thirds interest to Liberty Media Corporation, John Malone’s massive conglomerate, in 1994. Some of the longest running and most venerable public television programs are produced and owned by for-profit entities. In many cases they operate their own websites reinforcing their own brands leaving the stations and PBS with limited inventory to incorporate into a web and mobile strategy.
Which leads to the question, “what are the workable alternatives?” The kind of cultural, structural and operational change that is necessary is not easy or painless. Public television leadership continues to look outside the system for its salvation, hoping for a rescue from government and citizens who have bigger troubles and are unlikely to respond. Until there is a shared acceptance that the system has to create a solution with the existing resources it has available, irreplaceable stations and their spectrum will continue to be lost.
What can public TV learn from public radio?
Public radio has been able to reinvent itself into a sustainable enterprise for a variety of reasons. Paramount is that radio has historically owned the underlying rights to the majority of its content. This has made possible an earlier and more comprehensive expansion to web and mobile platforms. As a result, public radio has managed to grow its demographics and expand its audience. This has driven support and revenue to the local stations, which continue to perform well even in today’s economy. NPR has focused and invested heavily in creating a successful web presence that has embraced social media and viral distribution to the benefit of its broadcast outlets. Its product is widely known and respected and is likely to continue to thrive as long as cars remain viable and dominant as the preferred mode of transportation.
How would you advise groups or individuals who have a strong interest in protecting and defending public TV to make a difference?
It’s important for everyone — the public, licensees and station leadership — to admit and acknowledge that public TV is in trouble. The assumption that government can or will provide critical life support to public television is unrealistic. Even elected officials who have been the strongest advocates for funding and maintaining the public broadcasting system as a critical resource are likely to face unprecedented circumstances where they must choose between funding education and critical social services, or public broadcasting. The truth that needs to be told is that if we want an independent system to continue to exist, we need to create a way to advocate that includes private investment dollars. Our goal at Independent Public Media is to raise awareness of the problem, and to inspire other non-profits to join us in saving as many stations as possible.