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Thursday, November 27, 2014
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PAT MITCHELL
Remarks to WinConference 2001/Thought Leaders
Thursday, July 5, 2001
Interlaken, Switzerland

"Change and Challenge for World Media"

A conference sponsored by one of the world‚s leading financial groups may seem like an unusual forum for the President and CEO of the only noncommercial, not-for-profit television service in the United States.  But we share more in common than you might think around the theme of this year‚s conference, Change and Challenge.

Representing public service media as I do here this morning, I believe we can and should explain, explore, and add global perspective to the changes happening at cyberspeed all around us as well as defining the challenges these changes represent for all.

You, representing the global business community, as well as military and political leadership, are responding to change and challenge by being here to participate in the Thought Leaders Programme, and contribute to an exchange of ideas and new strategic thinking.

Many of the participants here and, in particular, the WinConference sponsors, the Winterthur Group and Credit Suisse, are already engaged in innovative solutions to global change and challenge.

If together∑ global media and international business∑ forge a new commitment to build social capital, along with financial capital, we will most certainly contribute to safer, healthier, more secure and sustainable communities, countries, and world.

How to do our part in a shifting and ever-changing and more competitive media landscape is the challenge I wish to discuss with you this morning.

It‚s somewhat intimidating, however, to do so from the same podium where such great leaders and thinkers as Mikhail Gorbachev and Kofi Annan have spoken and where Senator George Mitchell, one of the most respected political leaders in the United States, spoke earlier this morning.

In fact, I am reminded of the story about the man who survived the famous Johnstown flood that devastated the small Pennsylvania town.  All his life, he would tell everybody he met about his experiences with the flood.  When he died, he went to heaven, and asked St. Peter to round up an audience so he could talk about the flood.  St. Peter said, „I‚d be happy to.  But you have to remember one thing Ų Noah will be in the audience.š

So to all the őNoahs‚ in the room, I begin by recognizing that you come to this conference with significant experience and serious thinking about the issues of our time.

I come to this conference thinking a lot about a world that is now quite literally connected by an electronic nervous system that can instantly send and receive print, audio and video.  Will this make our world a more humane, more harmonious place to live or will this contribute to a greater gap between those who have what they need for connectivity and sustainability and those who do not?

Answering that question, along with the others that arise in a digitally wired world, is one of the most significant challenges for those of us in positions of media leadership in every country.

A brief historical review of previous communications revolutions offers some perspective.  Most of us are old enough to remember when radio created the first electronic family circle with its reports of a world beyond our own borders; in my case, a very small town in the state of Georgia.

Then came television with both sound and image and the experience was instantly and totally transforming for everyone who sat in front of its mesmerizing light.  It didn‚t take long for a debate about the nature of that transformation and influence to begin and it continues even now.

What happened in between the Golden Age of television, as we now fondly and perhaps with more nostalgia than actual memory refer to those early days and the multi-channel universe often described as a ővast wasteland‚, can be answered, in part, by the evolution of mass communications into the most powerful mass advertising medium ever invented. 

When it became possible to measure the number of eyeballs aggregated for the sale of products∑ ratings∑ the bottom line measurement for a successful program was established for good or not so good, depending on where one was in the chain of impact.  As companies moved to more short-term earnings reports to stockholders and the financial markets, more short-term thinking began to drive decisions in all aspects of the media business, from content to distribution.

What also happened was that many of the early media barons, who were also visionaries attracted to the possibilities of a world connected by common knowledge, common concerns, common pleasures of art and culture, were replaced in the rash of consolidations and mergers with executives focused more on optimizing profits than maximizing positive impact on society.

I was fortunate enough to work for a man who is known throughout the world as a media visionary, Ted Turner.  Ted believed in the power of television to change the world and with the establishment of the first 24-hour global news network, CNN, he did just that.  While Ted no longer leads the company he created with vision and passion, he remains a force for good in the world through his personal philanthropy.  But sadly, there is only one Ted Turner.  Had there been more executives in the commercial media business as courageous and committed to positive impact as Ted, I might have continued my career there.

I had been drawn to television, as a former teacher would be, by the opportunities to communicate to an even larger őclassroom‚, and had focused my work in news and documentaries designed to inform and, dare I say, őeducate‚.  I have experienced the power and influence potential of television at its best.  But far too often during those 25 years with the commercial networks and cable companies, I witnessed a powerful tool for positive impact shifting focus to profits above social responsibility.

Of course, the media business is a business, granted commercial licenses for use of the broadcast spectrum.  But in the late sixties, the U.S. Congress, urged by a few media visionaries, took steps to ensure that at least one part of the spectrum would be set aside for public radio and public television.  In 1968, President Lyndon Johnson signed the Public Broadcasting law which set up the system to grow Educational TV, as it was known then, into a nationwide public service media enterprise.  President Johnson said, „There are plenty of miracles of communications, but now it‚s time to manage those miracles for public good.š  He went on to challenge public radio and public television to use their communication powers to inform, to educate as well as entertain and to provide a diverse and uplifting voice for all citizens.

And it‚s that mission, that birthright if you will, that is the foundation of support for the 347 PBS member stations and the more than 500 public radio licensees.  Even in the face of more and more competition for hearts and mind and time, we will sustain our support in the States and strengthen our partnerships worldwide with other broadcasters if we stay committed to our mission, rooted in the values of our birthright and resist the temptations to become commercialized or compromised.  If we continue to provide distinct and differentiated content intended to serve, not sell, and to use media to educate and enlighten and engage, I believe the value of public service media in the United States and around the world will be seen as an essential component in every free and open society. 

One hundred million people in the U.S. watch public television at some time during every month, and we attract more than 12 million unique visitors every week to the PBS.org web site.  When all the public television and public radio stations are connected together, broadcasting together, it represents the largest broadcast network in the world.  What reach.  What an opportunity to be an agent for change.  What responsibility to rise to the challenges in front of us.

One of the most formidable challenges for PBS is finding the resources we need to stay strong and vital.  Only about 17% of the annual one billion dollar budget for PBS and its member stations comes from the federal government.  Yearly appropriations must be solicited from Congress and state governments whose contributions vary greatly, and for most public television stations, the challenge is raising nearly 80% of their operating costs every year.  Surprising to some, the largest amount of it comes from individuals who value the content and services and the rest comes from businesses and foundations. 

There are exceptional examples of corporate support in the 30-year partnership of ExxonMobil Masterpiece Theatre and General Motors‚ support for Ken Burns‚s series like Jazz (which is being broadcast now by many public broadcasters around the world), but we need a stronger alliance with global businesses in order to produce and distribute content that has worldwide impact and lasting value.

You can imagine how much we envy the fully state supported public broadcasters like the BBC and NHK; especially now that we, along with other broadcasters around the world, are going through a mandated conversion from an analog delivery of signal to digital transmission.  For PBS, the price tag on this conversion is 1.8 billion dollars and the deadline for completion of the conversion is less than two years away.

Unlike our commercial colleagues who are playing a waiting game, waiting for more customers to be able to receive a digital signal and waiting for some technical format issues to be resolved, public television stations have been moving forward, embracing the new technology as new means to deliver on our mission, and being an innovative leader as we have often been with other technological advances.  We see the new channels that digital transmission will create as new platforms for delivering distinctive, high definition and interactive content, which we are already doing on a limited basis, as well as educational services that will in turn generate new social capital in the communities we serve.

Digital technology, besides creating a new connection system for the entire planet, also offers the potential to turn every computer and every television that can log on into a new programming source, a library, a theatre, a classroom, or whatever we want to make it and it means that watching television will be truly interactive, with the capacity to receive and use data simultaneously. 

There are other technological changes that are creating challenges for all broadcasters: these devices called TIVO and REPLY which can turn a 500-channel universe into a one-channel universe.  They allow viewers to make their own schedules by searching all available content and selecting what you want to see and weeding out what you don‚t want to see.  When you choose to watch the programs you have chosen to record, the device also allows you to zap right past the commercials. 

It‚s clear what the threat is here for everyone, media and business, and there‚s a scramble to find a new model for advertising.  I‚m confident one will be found and for public broadcasters, the challenge is to find a way to solicit the funding now gained through what we call pledge drives.  I can tell from the smiles in the audience that some of you have seen these drives and perhaps, even some of you have responded to the call of support from őviewers like you‚. 

There‚s still another challenge impacting the way global media delivers news and information as well as entertainment.  The rash of consolidations, mergers, and acquisitions of the past few years have virtually transformed a diverse set of media owners in each country into a few mega companies with global reach. 

The recent AOL/Time Warner merger results in what advertisers call a ővirtuous circle‚ of consumers captured at every content intersection with an opportunity for a transaction; that means that AOL/Time Warner‚s brands touch consumers more than 2.5 billion times each month.

Nothing wrong with that and, in fact, it‚s good news for stockholders.

But will it be good news for citizens as well as consumers?

There is also the growing concern that with fewer owners of media companies, in particular news and information driven enterprises, that the editorial voice becomes compromised as well as consolidated.  Recent studies of front page news and top-line stories on television broadcasts, as well as interviews with prominent print and TV journalists, reveal a disturbing trend to avoid the stories that might negatively impact on the owners of their papers or magazines or
television networks.  It‚s hard not to run into the possibility of impact when the company owns papers, magazines, television, web services, as well as distribution systems.

There are many challenges around this issue of distribution and more to come during the transition period from analog to digital.  But one thing is clear:  more channels, wider distribution of content, more means of delivery will only mean more positive impact if we stay vigilant about keeping the access to all citizens open to those who serve as well as those who sell.

Such consolidation of media empires makes for powerful distribution gatekeepers.  PBS and its stations are engaged in seeking governmental and regulatory support for a őmust carry‚ agreement that guarantees carriage of public television signals via cable and/or direct satellite delivery, but rather than waiting for the strong arm of legislation, we are also actively negotiating for voluntary carriage on the basis that public service media is just that:  a unique public service that the public deserves and values.

Another challenge to anyone committed to using media to enrich the lives of individuals and build social capital is the race to reach the largest possible audience by aiming at the lowest common denominator.  With the greatest technology any generation has ever seen, we are increasingly using it to create the most degrading and disengaging programming the world has ever seen.  The new reality shows, like Survivor, Temptation Island, and The Weakest Link, are making media the weakest link in the chain of responsible behavior.

Not only do I think we can do better Ų we have the responsibility to do better.  In this interconnected world, nobody is better poised than global media companies to help us see the world in all its complexities.  Nobody is better positioned to help us understand each other, appreciate our differences, and put them aside for the sake of our common survival than the global media.

Here are a few stories we need to be telling and telling in such a way that the world community sees and understands and, hopefully, becomes engaged in designing solutions.

As we begin a new century, half the world‚s people struggle to survive on less than $2 a day, and nearly one billion live in chronic hunger. 

Almost a billion of the world‚s adults cannot read and in the age of endemic cell phones, pagers, palm pilots, half the people on the planet have never made a phone call.

Half the children in the poorest countries are not in school.  Millions of women are victims of violence and suppressions of individual freedoms every day.  Over the next half century, the population of the world is expected to grow from six billion to nine billion Ų with the greatest increase coming in those countries that can least afford it.

The irony is, with 24-hour news cycles and international news networks like CNN, we know these issues.  Even if we try, we cannot avoid all the images in print, on radio or television of the struggles of those who don‚t have enough to eat or medicine to heal or a future to anticipate.

We no longer have the excuse of ignorance.  We can choose not to act; but we can no longer choose not to know. 

So what is happening between the knowing and the responding?

Not enough and here, again, I believe we, the world‚s storytellers, must shoulder our share of the blame.  We have not done enough.

With new technologies, we are better able to connect the world, educate the world‚s citizens and engage them in positive responses than ever before and, tragically, we seem to be have less will for doing so than ever before.  The reach is almost universal but the impact is far from what we might desire.

Consider this recent story in The New York Times about the introduction of television and the internet for the first time into the isolated Buddhist kingdom of Bhutan.

In 2000, the King of Bhutan had finally agreed to allow television and the internet into his small, totally peaceful, pristine country.  In welcoming the arrival of modern communications technology to his remote kingdom he urged his citizens to use good sense and judgment, saying that „television and the internet can be both beneficial and harmful to the individual and to society.š  Now one year later, the king and many others in the country worry that the impact has been far from beneficial.

Bhutanese children are imitating World Federation Wrestlers, teenagers are dressing like MTv and begging for brand name cosmetics and everything from language to music is changing dramatically.  The king had hoped that with television and the internet, his citizens would gain a greater understanding of the outside world but, so far, the news of earthquakes or political elections is having far less impact than the advertising that accompanies the programming on nearly every channel beamed into the country.

Bhutan is experiencing a new wave of antisocial behavior and its first generational gap.  There‚s been a profound shift in values that threatens, with little more than a year of exposure to television, the fabric of a society.  As one elder put it, „stories are our way of transmitting social values and as sitcoms and action films replace our stories, our society becomes more fragile.š

I submit that in far too many other countries media is contributing to an ever-increasing fragility of values because we are no longer telling the stories that keep a society strong and connected and sustainable.  We have replaced those stories with reality programs like Fear Factor and Big Brother, and replaced news that puts events in perspective and issues in context with quick sound bites and eye candy, intended to tune us OUT not tune us IN.

For example, recent research by the Annenberg Policy Center indicates that last year in America, there were 24,528 stories written about the TV show, Who Wants To Be A Millionaire Ų but just 8,335 stories on the millions of dollars being saved through global debt relief.  There were 12,476 stories written about the TV show Survivor, but less than a quarter of that amount about the millions of people who aren‚t surviving the spread of HIV and AIDS. 

As we go forward, we in the media will constantly face a choice between profits and public service; between focusing on what is entertaining or what is newsworthy; between what matters and what amuses.  But if we are going to achieve our full potential as a global village in the 21st Century, there needs to be more of a balance than there is today. 

Here are a few new reality shows I‚d like to see.

How about a series of programs on the recent debt relief deal signed by 23 of the greatest debt ridden countries?  I can assure you that if I suggested such a topic, there would be a stare of disbelief and a reminder that nothing is harder to make compelling than economics on television.  But let‚s just imagine that we followed the money from the developing countries that had been servicing the debt to the poor countries that struck a new bargain.

What did they do with the money?  In Uganda, twice as many kids are now going to school.  In Mozambique, debt payments are down by 42 percent, allowing health spending to increase by $14 million this year.  In Cameroon, a 28 percent reduction in debt payments is freeing up $114 million, much of which is going to fight AIDS.

Compelling stories, don‚t you agree?  Positive problem solving that could be replicated elsewhere.

What about more stories on AIDS?

Today, 36 million people are infected with the AIDS virus worldwide.  Of that, 24 million live in Africa.  AIDS is already the leading cause of death, killing ten times more people than all the armed conflicts on the African continent last year. Already in South Africa, Botswana and Zimbabwe, half of all the 15-year-olds are expected to die of AIDS.  Over the next ten years in Africa, AIDS is predicted to cut the GDP in some countries by as much as 20%. 

This is not simply an African problem.  The fastest-growing rate of AIDS in the world is not in Africa, but in the Caribbean and in Russia.  Number three is in India.  And in China, while the incidence is still low, only four percent of the adult population in China knows how AIDS is spread.  If we don‚t do anything, by 2005, instead of 36 million AIDS cases, there will be 100 million.  And in a world where a person can step on a plane in Russia and land in New York, this disease knows no natural borders.

Last week in New York, the Secretary General of the United Nations, Kofi Annan, repeated his call for a trust fund Ų funded by the developed nations Ų to close the gap between what is spent and what is needed for treatment of AIDS; to help pay for life-saving medicines that prevent the spread of viruses between mother and children.  And let me be the first to commend the Credit Suisse group for pledging more than $1 million to help meet this effort.

Media should follow this story every day for progress reports and give plenty of print and TV time to those who are stepping up with financial and social capital to help bring an end to the divide between the infected and the fearful, those who can afford treatment and know about prevention and those still in the dark and still suffering.

There is another story that should be capturing the global media spotlight on a regular basis:  the threats to sustainable life on Planet Earth.

Global warming is a reality and there are no borders to the impact of climate change.  It may be more incremental in its impact in some places, but the fact is that unless all nations do their part to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, little else is going to matter at the turn of the next century. 

The six warmest years since the 15th Century have all been in the 1990s.  Unless we change course, scientists predict that seas will rise so high they will swallow islands and coastal areas.  Storms and droughts will intensify.  Those hit hardest will be the poorest among us.  And diseases like malaria will be borne by mosquitoes to higher and higher altitudes and across borders threatening more lives.

Today the United States is the world‚s biggest contributor to greenhouse gases, and I am hoping that we will assume our rightful place as a leader in finding solutions to what has to be seen as the biggest potential disaster facing all of us.

There is a $1 trillion market today in the world, mostly untapped, for available new technologies that promote alternative energy and energy conservation; we have just scratched the surface of telling the world‚s citizens about these technologies and the difference they will make. 

At PBS, we do tell these stories and they make a difference.  Recently, Bill Moyers, a respected and renowned journalist in the States whose work is exactly what differentiates public service media, produced the first global report card on environmental degradation and what is being done to reverse the damage in five ecological zones.  Our FRONTLINE documentary series and the independent film series called P.O.V. also tackle the tough issues regularly and, regularly, the impact is measurable.  And we measure impact, not ratings, for all the documentaries, specials, historical and science series, the daily NewsHour and the analysis programs on PBS.

You should expect and demand the same of the media in your countries and when possible, support the efforts of public service media to produce and distribute content that builds trust, connects people to each other and offers them opportunities to be proactively engaged in addressing the changes and challenges in all communities, all countries.  That will close the gap between knowing and responding.  That will help stem the decline of social capital and begin to build its reserve.

As crucial as our laws and institutions are, democracy and freedom are only truly sustained when citizens are engaged and involved, showing through their actions that they believe everyone is entitled to a fair chance at the pursuit of health and happiness and a secure, sustainable community in which to live.  That is the essence of building social capital.  That is the essence of a world we want to live in and leave to our children.

More than five centuries ago, this concept of social capital was alive in Europe Ų but it didn‚t become widespread and truly functional until the printing press helped to spread a large body of shared civic knowledge to an informed and engaged public.  In a world that is increasingly connected by one touch of a computer key the only limit to the number of people we can reach with information that empowers, engages and positively impacts are the limits of own imaginations and aspirations.

No generation has ever had the chance we do to build a global economy that leaves no one behind and, in the process, to create a new century of peace and prosperity.  It‚s been said that the media writes the first draft of history.  Today, more than ever before, we, you and I, media and business together, have a chance to write the first draft of the future that will be better for our generation and all those to come.

I hope we make the most of it.  Thank you. 

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