Too good to be 2.0

It hasn't escaped the notice of viewers, critics or the Public Broadcasting Service itself that the noncommercial service seems to be slowly strangling itself on a diet of aimlessly scheduled science and nature shows.

While the PBS brand is one of the most recognized on television, ratings have been stagnant for years. For the past decade, PBS' average prime time rating has been stuck at 2, give or take a few tenths of a point. Its most popular show ever, Ken Burns' 1990 series The Civil War, captured an average 8.8 rating, no better than CBS' May 28 broadcast of the well-worn romantic comedy Sleepless in Seattle.

In seeking a replacement for PBS President Ervin Duggan, who left last October, the PBS board made programming a priority. And the board's unanimous choice, former TV talk-show host and Turner programming executive Pat Mitchell, plans to answer the call. Significantly, she is the first programmer to hold the presidency in the public network's 30-year history.

While PBS as a federally funded, nonprofit organization is not dependent on ratings, keeping those they have-and earning new ones-is key, says Mitchell, who was named to the post on Feb. 7 and moved into PBS headquarters in Alexandria, Va., on March 1. "At the end of the day, it really does come down to content. Whether or not we thrive will, in the end, depend on the content we provide."

Of course, as it is in Washington, it also comes down to how PBS relates to Congress, which made hay when news broke that some PBS stations swapped donor lists with political parties.

Mitchell's cable and programming connections weighed in her favor as PBS sought a new president, says W. Wayne Godwin, who co-chaired the search committee that chose Mitchell. The board wanted "a candidate who had a passion for the services that we provide," he says. "Pat Mitchell was by far the best candidate." In fact, "early on in the job, she has demonstrated much more energy and commitment than we could have imagined."

Mitchell, 57, has spent her award-winning career in commercial television, most recently as president of CNN Productions and Time Inc. Television. There, she developed award-winning nonfiction, sought partnerships and ancillary revenue, created promotions for programs that at first were out of the mainstream (for cable) and juggled schedules to find the best airtimes for those shows.

She'll be doing much the same at PBS. That's what she planned to tell the more than 1,300 representatives of PBS' 346 member stations this past weekend. They were gathered in Nashville for the 2000 PBS Annual Meeting.

Mitchell's first target is the schedule. Programs that, in some cases, have occupied the same prime time slot for decades will be moved to new days and/or times.

The moves are an experiment to be conducted for six to eight months starting this fall at six stations and one network: KPBS(TV) San Diego; wmfe Orlando, Fla.; WVIZ-TV Cleveland; WHYY-TV Philadelphia; WQED(TV) Pittsburgh; KUED(TV) Salt Lake City; and statewide net GPTV Atlanta. If the trial is a success, PBS will roll it out nationwide.

For example, PBS Sunday-night mainstay Masterpiece Theatre will move to Mondays. Ratings leader Antiques Roadshow will make the flip move from Mondays to Sundays and be repeated three days later. Science stalwart Nova will move up an hour on Tuesdays, to 8 p.m. A repeat Nova also is scheduled, for 8 p.m. Thursdays, but the repeat will not be of the current week's original.

Even public-affairs stalwarts Washington Week in Review, which has anchored the 8 p.m. Friday slot since its debut 34 years ago, and Wall Street Week, which has followed Washington Week since at least 1974, are not immune. They will be bumped back to 9 and 9:30 p.m., respectively. Nature will take over at 8 p.m. Friday, moving from 8 p.m. on Sundays.

And for the first time, PBS will offer a 7 p.m. national feed on Sundays: a history, science or adventure special.

The rescheduling will make for a better natural flow of shows and allow the pairing, for example, of science and nature programs, says John Wilson, senior vice president for programming services. Right now, "the PBS schedule is a real challenge for a viewer to find and develop [as] a habit," he says. "We need to create a schedule that is a schedule," one that is "viewer-driven and research-based."

PBS hopes the test schedule will attract viewers who are a bit younger and more, well, male. PBS' prime time audience now tends to skew older and female. According to TRAC Media Services, which compiles Nielsen data for PBS, women ages 50 and older generated a 2.6 rating during prime time at 59 PBS affiliates in November 1999. "This core audience continues to grow," TRAC says.

Meanwhile, men ages 18-49 consistently watch PBS affiliates but in much smaller numbers. The rating in that demographic at 63 PBS stations this past February was a mere 0.8. (Reports from the same months were not compiled.) "If we want to increase viewing by this group, we will have to offer more targeted programs," TRAC concludes.

Along with scattershot programming, the lack of a consistent image is hurting PBS, executives say. Research shows that some viewers don't even know that they've tuned into PBS shows. PBS plans to address that by rebranding itself. A new slogan, three new spots and a national print campaign will roll out this fall.

No longer wondering "If PBS doesn't do it, who will?" the new slogan calls on viewers to "Stay curious." Local stations also are being encouraged to run "bugs" in the corner of TV screens that promote both PBS and the local call letters.

Although some of the changes at PBS have been planned for a while, Mitchell already has advanced some ideas. For one, national programming should be more diverse, she says. While local stations' programming does manage to reflect the racial and sexual makeup of their communities, PBS needs some new series that mirror the country's diversity.

In addition, "we need to look at a strong and vital future, and that means building support with the next generation," Mitchell says. That means cementing the perception that PBS is the best children's programmer on TV (see story, page 18).

Behind the scenes

Mitchell is crafting other important changes behind the scenes. Headquarters staff will be restructured into teams so that "business affairs, promotion and marketing, online, and a programming executive ... are on every project from the beginning," Mitchell says. "From the conception and the development of a project, we can follow it through with the same team." Meanwhile, consultants are looking at the best way to structure PBS' revenue-generating businesses. Products such as PBS-related CDs and books currently are not headquartered in the same unit.

On the programming side, the job of senior vice president of communications and brand management, now vacant, will be divided into four jobs. Each new programming executive will be headquartered in a different region of the country.

The way Mitchell sees it, that will get program executives closer to the local stations, which then can have more of a voice in national programming and a stronger connection to PBS. Locals and independent producers in the regions also will be encouraged to produce more of their own shows that might go national.

"I want to make PBS programming more acceptable," she says, "and open the membership and make sure we are targeting our resources in a way that produces new and better programming."

Wilson has been named to one of the posts. He will continue to be based in Alexandria and lead the service's scheduling efforts. Gustavo Sagastume, general manager of PBS affiliate WLRN-TV Miami, will also take on a regional post based in his city. In Los Angeles, Mitchell is tapping former business partner and TW crony Jacoba Atlas. An executive in the Midwest has yet to be named.

Local stations have long been the bane as well as the beauty of the PBS system. Not only have they squabbled among themselves, but relations between them and the national service have been testy at times. Former FCC member Duggan's tenure was marked by such clashes, as well as by criticism from Congress.

Despite the perception that his reign was a tumultuous one, Duggan's accomplishments at PBS were considerable. In his five-year tenure, one year short of his contract, revenue grew 70%, to $309 million expected this year, principally because of new ventures such as PBS Records. He was a champion of preschool programming and new media. He launched and developed it into one of the nation's premier Web sites. He also spearheaded the creation of the digital PBS Kids Channel.

From the point of view of the Association of America's Public Television Stations (APTS), the local stations' lobbying arm, Duggan didn't pay enough attention to the local stations. Nor could he calm the squabbling between them and PBS. However, "it would be a miracle ... to get 100% acceptance" from PBS member stations, APTS' Nancy Neubauer says. "It's a very disparate group."

Mitchell may have better luck. Reaction from the locals has been "very positive," Neubauer says. "I haven't heard anything negative, which is unusual."

Coming in, Mitchell has pledged to meet all the general managers from each PBS-member station. So far, she has met more than 100 of them, as well as visited about 20 stations.

To bolster her support for the locals, Mitchell named Godwin executive vice president for member affairs, a post that now reports directly to her.

Criticism from Hill

While PBS technically does not lobby for its members-APTS does that-the president's job is a lightning rod for criticism from Capitol Hill. The service relies on the federal government for about 14% of its budget.

Recently, Rep. Billy Tauzin wrote a letter to Mitchell expressing concern about the reported cancellation of National Desk, a series with a conservative outlook that, he said, he thought was designed to balance allegedly liberal-leaning Frontline. Last November, segments of National Desk were criticized by feminists organized by the group Fairness and Accuracy in Reporting as "relentlessly antiwoman [yet] packaged by PBS as impartial journalism."

The subject came up during a recent courtesy call Mitchell paid on Tauzin, Mitchell says. Tauzin (R.-La.) is key to PBS because he chairs the House Telecommunications Subcommittee, which oversees federal funding for public broadcasting. As for a specific show, "he didn't continue to give me programming advice," Mitchell recounts.

But the congressman warned PBS' new president that, while he thinks the service strives to be apolitical, others on Capitol Hill continue to doubt that, according to Tauzin spokesman Ken Johnson.

That was exacerbated by last summer's brouhaha over the swapping of lists of potential PBS-station donors with Democratic and Republican groups. The swaps were halted (and are now banned by law), but Tauzin reacted by tabling a reauthorization measure for the Corporation for Public Broadcasting. CPB dispenses the money to PBS and other public broadcasters.

PBS will back APTS' efforts this year to get reauthorization back on the table and also to help fight for more federal dollars to convert public stations to digital, Mitchell says.

But to avoid yearly fights over federal funding, PBS must correct the perception that it has liberal leanings and make several other "long overdue reforms," Johnson says.