The new president-CEO of the Association of Public Television Stations says for his members to survive the economic crisis, many are adopting an increased emphasis on local programming, including news and public affairs. But they will also ask the government for $300 million to offset revenue shortfalls from state and private sources.
For nearly a year, the board of the Association of Public Television Stations searched for a new president and CEO to replace John Lawson who jumped to Ion Media in February 2008.
And, in the end, it tapped a long and trusted ally — Larry Sidman.
For more than a decade, Sidman has represented APTS on Capitol Hill and before the FCC and other regulatory agencies as an attorney/lobbyist with Paul, Hastings, Janofsky & Walker. He knows the ins and outs of public broadcasting and its Washington issues.
In this interview with TVNewsCheck Editor Harry A. Jessell, Sidman, just several weeks into his new job, describes an expansive role for public TV stations that may take them deeper into local news and public affairs and makes the case for $300 million in extra federal funding to offset shortfalls in state and private sources.
An edited transcript:
What’s your vision for public television stations?
We’re going to continue to provide the kind of high quality, locally oriented programming that covers core areas of education and really informs the local communities about local problems. It’s also cultural programming. Public television really is about the only medium out there that is doing anything in terms of cultural programming in the arts.
Another component is insuring excellence in journalistic content because we’ve got a situation where the sources of in-depth information and news are drying up. The newspapers are in terrible shape. Commercial broadcasting is more and more oriented toward its entertainment function and so public broadcasting sees that it’s tremendously important to fill that real need in a democratic society to educate and inform.
We also want to expand out educational mission so that it becomes a medium not only to teach, but also for civic engagement. We want public broadcasting to act as a convener within communities to deal with problems. One of our stations in St. Louis did a program about people in imminent threat of foreclosure and then convened community groups to reach out to people who are having problems and put them in touch with the resources that can help them.
You mentioned journalistic initiatives. Are public television stations thinking of getting deeper into local newsgathering?
It’s certainly one of the things they are looking at. The cost of local news is very, very high, and the line between local news and public affairs is getting blurry. So the real focus is how can public television stations really use the programming engine that they have to also spark a whole set of collateral activities that actually empower people to deal with problems that they experience in their communities.
What’s on the Washington agenda these days?
The biggest challenge that public broadcasting faces right now is a shortage of revenue that is related to the much broader economic contraction that’s facing the United States and, obviously, the entire world.
Public broadcasting has been trying to adapt and evolve to changing technologies while preserving its core excellent programming services and has been doing very well up until now. But now it faces a revenue shortfall, on average, of 15 percent from a baseline of a year or two ago and the declines are coming in every single major area of funding.
In some states, there are proposals to zero out all funding. Corporate underwriting is declining precipitously and it appears as though individual contributions are dropping sharply. So, public broadcasting really is going to be exploring innovative ways to try to stimulate private sector fundraising and also is going to be entering into a dialogue with the Congress and the administration about increased federal funding to tide us through a difficult period.
Right now, systemwide, we’re looking at a shortfall of roughly $300 million and that includes both public television and public radio. We’re going to be looking to the federal government for that.
I would think that the Obama administration and the Democratic Congress would be sympathetic.
We have very high hopes for both the Obama administration and the Democratic Congress. They understand the seminal role that public broadcasting plays in educating our society, educating our kids and promoting civic engagement. At the same time, we are cognizant that there are enormous demands being made on the federal treasury.
You mentioned that you had some ideas for stimulating private-sector funding.
One of the things that we’re thinking about is how to use the Internet more effectively. The success of the Obama candidacy reflects the enormous power of the Internet and that’s something that I think numbers of stations are looking at.
What about the underwriting?
The underwriting and foundations is just going to require more old fashioned legwork. I don’t see any magic elixirs other than a general improvement in the economy.
Does the association have a role in that or is that up to the individual licensees to go out and make the ask?
It’s principally a station-level activity, but it’s something that the association is going to be taking a hard look at in terms of how it can help individual stations.
In your Media Institute speech, you talked about some of the new initiatives public stations are taking to fulfill their basic educational mission. Isn’t this a time when it may make better sense to pull back on such initiatives and try to cut costs?
Public broadcasters — you see this all around the country — are cutting their costs and are actually experiencing layoffs, staff reductions, programming reductions. On my first day on the job, KQED in San Francisco announced a cut of roughly 10 percent. The same is true of WETA here in Washington. It’s true of many other stations around the country.
So they are doing everything that is necessary and prudent to cut costs while maintaining quality. But it would be a mistake to simply retrench and not try to utilize the new technologies where enormous cost efficiencies can be rung out of them to continue to broaden the reach of public broadcasting.
When commercial broadcasters talk about multicasting or the Web, they talk about them as potential sources of new revenue. For public stations, aren’t they just more costs?
For the public stations what they are is how you adapt to new technology to effectuate the core mission of education, which was at the heart of the 1967 public broadcasting act. Where you have, particularly, kids who are very, very much Web-centric in their orientation and where they look for educational materials, public broadcasting has to reach those kids. And in the classroom, teachers are using Internet-based materials now to teach. The beauty of public broadcasting is this: that we can merge successfully educational content through traditional video particularly through multicasting where you have multiple streams. You can use traditional video into the classroom, and then work with the teaching community and the education community to spin off interactive applications using the Web, and so you’ve got an easier in many ways merger of two powerful technologies that can galvanize kids attention.
Let’s talk about DTV. I know that as many as 40 percent of the stations involved in the Feb. 17 preliminary cutoff were public stations. What’s been the feedback on that?
We’ve had very good feedback in terms of experiencing very little difficulty and very little consumer disruption. Most of the problems that we heard about involved things like scanning and other technical assistance. I would hope that’s where the FCC and NTIA would focus as it moves into this grand contracting process for the very last phase of the DTV transition.
You’re talking about the call center?
The call center, but also programs that actually can provide technical assistance to people in their homes who are having trouble getting the digital reception either because of antenna problems or because of not being sufficiently conversant with the need to rescan the channels, etc.
Some of our public broadcast stations — in smaller markets admittedly — had engineers ready and, indeed, in some cases, had had people going out and helping individuals who called and complained. But the overall volume of complaints and concerns was very small and we hope that’s a good sign for what happens on June 12.
What about coverage? There is growing concern among the commercial broadcasters that the signal is just not getting to where they thought that it would.
We’ve had very little of that feedback. Obviously, what you do have is differences in the coverage area because the digital transmitting facility is located in a different place than the analog facility. Homes that received an analog signal aren’t receiving a digital signal and, conversely, homes that didn’t get an analog signal and are getting a digital signal. At least in terms of the feedback that we’ve gotten here, there doesn’t seem to be an enormous amount of concern about the inherent capabilities of digital technology.
I know that you’ve been active with the Open Mobile Video Coalition. What do you see as the potential for the new mobile standard?
There is an enormous amount of potential there. Public broadcasting has been involved. At this juncture, it’s probably going to be the commercial broadcasters that are going to be taking the lead. At the same time, given the propensities, particularly among younger people, to get content in a mobile fashion, there is a lot of potential there. But there is still a lot of work to be done with regard to what the business models are.
The big legislation focus for commercial broadcasters is the Satellite Home Viewer Extension and Reauthorization Act. Do you have a stake in that?
Public broadcasting really is concerned about three issues in SHVERA. The first relates directly to multicast. Public broadcasting has actually worked very hard with the entire multichannel video programming distribution community to get private carriage agreements and has succeeded in a wonderful agreement with NCTA and the cable industry, which involves four channels of multicasting. We have gotten a very good agreement with Verizon and its FiOS system similar to the one with NCTA and we have an agreement with Direct TV. So far, no agreement has been reached with Dish Network.
And your basic deal is for carriage of the main signal plus four multicast signals.
The deal with Direct TV is HD or two SDs plus some video on demand. Public broadcasting recognizes that these technologies are different and there are some satellite capacity constraints that we acknowledge, but we’ve still been able to work very good deals utilizing the elasticity and flexibility of each of the technologies to facilitate the possibility for multicasting.
In the case of Dish we’ve gotten nowhere and that’s very disappointing and there is a bill that has been introduced by Rep. [Anna] Eshew [D-Calif.] thatwould require any satellite carrier that has not entered into a private agreement with public broadcasting to do full multicasting. She has made clear in the hearing just two weeks ago that she will seek to have her bill integrated into the SHVERA legislation as it moves through the Energy and Commerce Committee.