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Tough Road for Public TV

Kenneth Tomlinson, chairman of the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, walked into a firestorm of controversy sparked by the resignation of CPB President Kathleen Cox last month. A string of stories in the national media have portrayed him as leading a Bush administration plan to install Republicans in senior CPB posts and purge liberal views from public broadcasting, prompting some Democrats to demand an investigation.

Tomlinson will preside over a struggling organization, with cuts in corporate donations and dues from member stations stagnating. Budget pressures prevent state and federal governments from making up the difference.

Last week, Tomlinson, a former editor in chief of Reader’s Digest, spoke with B&C Senior Writer Bill McConnell about his push for more political “balance” in the PBC lineup and the more sweeping overhaul of public broadcasting.

What is the biggest problem facing public broadcasting today?

The economic model for public television is broken. We see dark clouds on the horizon that we need to somehow dissipate. We’ve got to find new sources of support for public television—or we can’t continue. That’s why CPB is focusing on cracking major donors.

You’ve said public TV must broaden its audience base by appeal to a broader political spectrum, meaning by including more conservative perspectives. Critics say this is simply a Bush administration plan to squelch independent news coverage. Bill Moyers, former host of PBS’ NOW, claims attacks from the right led him to leave PBS. What is your aim?

My urging of leadership to be more concerned about balance is sound. It’s advice that will result in wider and more diverse support for public broadcasting. For the first 18 months of my chairmanship, I worked very quietly within the public-broadcasting community to sell people on the importance of diversity of voices. Somehow in recent weeks, my activities became a threat to someone, and The New York Times article was a result. But once you come out with a congressional call for an inspector general’s investigation based on inaccurate press accounts, I have to get out the truth.

Calls for “balance” set off alarm bells among journalists, who are already accused of liberal bias. Does that concern you?

It shouldn’t [set off alarm bells]. I’ve never advocated taking any show off public television. I don’t want public television to be any less attractive to our liberal viewers, who are an important part of the support base.

But if we have liberal advocacy shows on public TV, then we should also have conservative advocacy shows, because the law requires us to be balanced.

This isn’t rocket science. It only requires fairness and a willingness to face up to the realities of the political spectrum.

Critics say that, besides Reader’s Digest, you spent part of your career working for the propaganda arm of the U.S. government, the Voice of America [whose governing board he still chairs]. Have those influences clouded your decisions at CPB?

It’s not a propaganda arm; it’s not by law. When VOA went on the air during World War II, VOA said the news may be good from the standpoint of the U.S., or bad—but you’ll hear the truth here. How anyone could criticize my background with Reader’s Digest and involvement with Voice of America is beyond me.

Your recent call to preserve classical music on public radio was interpreted in some public-radio circles as being an attack on news, because news is now the prevalent format on public-radio stations. How important is news to CPB’s mission?

The cultural component is important. I want to preserve as much classical radio programming as I can. My favorite radio station is WKCR in New York, the Columbia University station with a proud tradition of jazz, bluegrass and gospel.

We’ll continue funding national news talk, but encouraging local-news coverage is one of the most important things we can do. Because of media consolidation, we don’t have those 5,000-watt AM stations covering high school sports or local boards and commissions. The focus on local is an important part of the future, but it’s all going to be done in a balanced way.

What’s wrong with children’s programming?

We need to re-emphasize the educational component. This is where the public should really see the difference between commercial and public television. People need to see that public television is an answer to problems in educational achievement. We want them to see that kids really learn to read after watching public children’s programming, that kids become interested in math and science.

What’s your opinion of Teletubbies and Boobah, which critics say are less for educating kids and more for selling stuffed toys?

I don’t want to be critical of any one thing, but the general public-television community sees a need to re-emphasize the educational base. Our consumers are the parents of this country, and they need to associate public television’s children’s programming with education.

Another tricky balance for PBS is getting ratings while preserving its integrity. How do you assess highly rated shows such as Antiques Roadshow, which is often derided for contributing little to the educational/cultural mission?

We don’t have public broadcasting for Antiques Roadshow, but it’s part of the mix. You’re talking to the former editor in chief of Reader’s Digest. If Reader’s Digest didn’t have the best jokes, we would not have attracted as many readers to our serious articles. You have to build an audience.

Aside from more balance, how can public broadcasting build audience and attract big donors?

Public television is largely lost today in satellite systems and is sometimes difficult to find even in cable lineups. Twenty-five to 30 years ago, my wife and I would set our clocks by the MacNeil/Lehrer Newshour and by Fawlty Towers at 10:00 on Sunday nights. We had four or five choices. Today at my farm in Middleburg, Va., I have 300 choices by satellite.

We need to give people more of a reason to support public broadcasting. We need to upgrade the educational base of our children’s programming so that the educational component is seen as something very, very important to the future of the nation. We need to support cultural programs. We need programs Americans want to support because they enrich their lives.

How do you find more donors like McDonald’s heiress Joan Kroc, who wrote a $200 million check to NPR?

We must to a better job of selling corporations on the importance of being associated with the standard of public broadcasting and civic responsibility. You can’t tell me Mobil didn’t greatly benefit from its association with Masterpiece Theatre.

Won’t big donors end up with outsized influence?

That’s always a risk. It’s something we must guard against. If we get in a situation where we must placate certain interests to get donations, we will be threatened with the same threats facing commercial broadcasting. We have to be vigilant.

In Congress, some Republicans, like former Sen. Larry Pressler (R-S.D.), once called for ending federal support entirely. Is that threat still alive?

Congressional support is as strong as it’s ever been. The role public broadcasting plays in local coverage of events is outstanding of congressional support. In South Dakota, the main coverage of local sports is provided by public broadcasting. It’s no wonder Larry Pressler didn’t find a willing constituency.