Public TV's Identity Crisis

Can PBS reach new viewers and still stay PBS?

Chicago public-TV station WTTW11 caused quite a stir in the Windy City in June when it tapped former rock DJ Bob Sirott, a Fox and CBS personality best known for lighthearted entertainment coverage, to host its oh-so-serious 18-year-old flagship public affairs show, Chicago Tonight. One newspaper likened the hiring to Madonna singing with the city's Lyric Opera, while a local wag wondered whether WTTW11 might next revive another Chicago icon, Bozo the Clown.

It didn't help perceptions that Sirott was hired to boost Chicago Tonight's sagging ratings by a former Fox colleague, Randy King, who had produced the scrappy network's Super Bowl coverage and kids' programming and is now executive vice-president at WTTW11's parent, Network Chicago. Station honchos insist that when the new Chicago Tonight has its debut in November, viewers will not hear happy talk or see cable-style shouting pundits. Says Network Chicago CEO Daniel J. Schmidt: "The show will still be very smart and most of it very serious."

The brouhaha in Chicago underscores the dilemma executives at public television's 349 stations are facing these days: how best to draw in new viewers while maintaining the quality programming that has been public TV's mission. The Public Broadcasting Service's average nightly prime-time ratings are down 23% over the past nine years, to about 1.8 million households at any given time. Another problem: Public TV's loyal audience is aging, closing in on retirement. The explosion of cable channels, which has drained viewers from networks CBS (VIA ), NBC (GE ), and ABC (DIS ) for years, has begun to take its toll on PBS. Cable's prime-time ratings collectively are up 122% since 1992-93.

Meanwhile, PBS's corporate underwriters, pinched by tough times, are getting harder to find. System managers are considering calling this fall for Congress to set up a trust fund to secure funding and avoid chronic anti-PBS politicking, often stoked by conservative critics. Layoffs have been imposed at some stations around the country, and some series production has been scaled back. All this has left public TV struggling with an identity crisis as the old guard clashes with mavericks trying to redefine programming. "For public broadcasting to be vital and viable, we are going to have to embrace some changes," says PBS CEO Pat Mitchell, 58, a former CNN Productions president hired in early 2000.

But change comes slowly and sometimes painfully to a system known for giving the public what it needs rather than what it wants. While commercial broadcasters chase fickle younger audiences and kill waning shows as quickly as Nielsen Media Research can count viewers, public TV has clung to programs with shrinking audiences. Wall $treet Week with Louis Rukeyser hung on for 32 years until last March, when Maryland Public Television executives decided they needed a new direction to halt a viewership slide, and a resistant Rukeyser decamped angrily for CNBC (GE ).

Yet within public TV, a battle rages over whether the drive for a broader audience could backfire. Even though PBS's average prime-time audience is now in its mid-50s, some producers fear any effort to woo younger viewers will serve to water down public broadcasting's education and service mission. Stick to a high-minded approach, they say, and viewers will warm to it as they age and grow weary of commercial TV's shallow glitz. "Public broadcasting has the ability to survive if it doesn't overreact and become like everything else in the schedule," argues Ken Burns, maker of acclaimed documentaries on the Civil War, jazz, and Mark Twain.

A balance can be struck, say PBS executives. Case in point: the documentary Frontier House that aired last spring. Instead of a sepia-toned look at life on the American frontier, the producers put three modern families into 1883-style clothes, wagons, and cabins and taped them preparing for a Montana winter with tools of the age. A highbrow Survivor? No, says John F. Wilson, a senior programming exec at PBS, insisting the result was "hugely challenging and hugely engaging."

PBS veterans shrug off worries about competing for viewers with the likes of cable's Discovery Channel, the History Channel, and A&E, which offer similar programming. Public-TV producers insist their programs remain far meatier. For instance, when PBS aired On Our Own Terms: Moyers on Dying in September, 2000, dealing with better end-of-life care, it not only reached 16 million viewers, but spawned discussion groups in over 250 communities. What's more, PBS still rules the playground set. Such programs as Arthur and Barney have helped boost PBS's ratings in the under-five category by 18% since 1992-93.

Certainly, the stakes are high if public TV can't expand or retain its audience. It has blunted sporadic attacks from politicians, but its government funding--about $717 million of its roughly $1.6 billion in annual revenue comes from local, state, and federal sources--is periodically threatened. Even with more commercial-friendly formats, corporate backing--about 16% of funding normally--is down, forcing layoffs in cities such as Chicago, Dallas, and Philadelphia, and at PBS headquarters. Now, if public support dwindles with viewership, PBS could slowly starve. "Congress never gave public broadcasting adequate funding, so almost from the beginning, it has been operating behind the curve," says Edward J. Pfister, a former president of the Corporation for Public Broadcasting.

Unquestionably, public TV is a refuge from mediocrity, but fewer people say they need it. Unless PBS and its far-flung stations find ways to lure choice-saturated viewers, they'll be in for more grief. Certainly, they are in for a lot more soul-searching over just who they want to serve and how best to do it.

Read a Letter to the Editor about this story.

By Joseph Weber in Chicago

    Before it's here, it's on the Bloomberg Terminal.