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The Ombudsman Column

Madness Again. It Must Be March.

To millions of people, March Madness means the final throws and throes of the National Collegiate Athletic Association basketball tournament. To millions of PBS viewers, it also means Pledge Month. I'm sure that many of those viewers understand that PBS needs money and that one way it gets it is through these on-air campaigns in which viewers like you are asked to join in supporting your local station so they can continue to bring you the programs you like. In many cases, these pledge drives interrupt normal program scheduling, which also should be understandable and bearable, if not overdone. And in many cases, these drives are accompanied by special and often lengthy pledge programs that feature concerts, or spiritual advisers or financial gurus. That's where the trouble starts for some viewers, at least as far as I can tell from my mailbag.

Last year at this time, I also wrote about this subject. I was still new in this job and so it was a new subject for me. Nothing much has changed. Although most people undoubtedly understand the need for these programs, although the effort raises much-needed funds for local stations, and although many people probably like at least some of these programs, they also seem to make a fair number of people madder than anything else that pops up on PBS screens during the year. Actually, pledge drives take place more than once a year but it seems the March drive is the one that really gets the juices running.

In response to complaints, PBS points out that these drives amount to less than 2 percent of total broadcast time, that they deliver new members more effectively than any other funding method, that they provide 21 percent of public television's total annual revenue (the largest single source), and that the amount of time viewers are asked to stay the course on contribution pleas is minor compared to what an average viewer sits through watching advertisements on commercial television.

Enter, the GAO

I don't intend to go over the same points made last year. I do feel obliged to record (below) some of the letters received this year, and also to report a couple of relevant findings in a new study titled "Issues Related to the Structure and Funding of Public Television" that was carried out by the hard-working and under-appreciated people at the Government Accountability Office, and that was completed in January.

The report states the obvious: "Funding has been a continual concern for public television." But is also concludes that which may be less obvious: "Substantial growth of nonfederal funding appears unlikely." That was less obvious, at least to me as a newcomer to the world of PBS, and therefore qualifies as news to me, and maybe to you.

I've included a couple of paragraphs (below) of the GAO general finding. But what it says, essentially, is that, with the exception of one area of possible potential growth — that of major gifts (like the one National Public Radio got of more than $200 million in 2003 from the estate of Joan Kroc, the McDonald's heiress) — what you see is literally what you get. In other words, federal funding (about 15 percent of PBS licensees' annual revenue) continues to be crucial because the rest of the current hodge-podge of sources that PBS relies on to scrape together its annual needs aren't going to grow much, if at all.

In fact, in another place, the GAO reports that, while basic membership is an important source of revenue for PBS-affiliated stations, the number of public television members has decreased to 3.6 million in 2005 from 4.7 million in 1999. At the same time, the average annual gift from these viewer-members has increased to $97 from $79, but the combined numbers means that revenue from annual membership has dropped about 6 percent.

There are lots of reasons — and they are affecting all aspects of the media — from vastly expanded viewer choices on cable, broadcast TV and the Web — to less familiarity with public television, to increased competition for gifts from an increasing number of nonprofit organizations.

Armed with the new GAO report, PBS officials are now heading for Capitol Hill this year to make the point that federal funding remains crucial and to try, once again, to restore a Bush administration proposed cut of about 25 percent in the FY 2008 budget of the Corporation for Public Broadcasting. The CPB receives and distributes the federal appropriations.

New Thinking, Anyone?

What's missing from the GAO report, and I guess was not called for, are new ideas or concepts for financing. There must be some out there that are better than the vulnerable stew that now exists: pledge drives that seem to be necessary but annoying; noncommercial commercials that are increasing in number, causing some to worry that they infringe on PBS's charter to remain noncommercial and to serve the public rather than chase ratings; other sponsorships that, at times, make people wonder if they somehow influence content despite PBS assurances that that is not the case; and federal and state money that will always irritate some taxpayers and provide an inviting target for politicians.

The GAO, in its classic style, produced a dry but thorough, factual, non-judgmental report. Its analysts interviewed scores of people, including officials from 54 of the organizations that hold public television's 173 licenses. That is a great deal of interviewing and information gathering. Yet there is little in the study — beyond the important point that nonfederal funding appears unlikely to grow — that takes us into new ground or yields new insights. There is no new thinking evident or reflected. There are a few sparsely-worded conclusions, but no recommendations. Is it possible that nobody among those scores of experienced people interviewed expressed a new idea worth airing about how to stabilize PBS funding or do it differently? Or was there some of that but it didn't fit the charter for the report or was taken out? I don't know, but reading the report sure made me, and perhaps anyone else interested in this subject, want to ask: What else did you learn?

For me, as still a relative newcomer to PBS, one of the more interesting segments of the study was a summation of arguments about whether it would be a good idea to loosen restrictions on on-air underwriting for sponsors as a way to attract more nongovernmental funding. Eleven licensees favored that approach and 19 opposed it. This is not a new debate, but it is one that continues, is well summarized in the report, and captures an important tension among PBS-affiliated stations. I've included some excerpts from this section, as well as excerpts from the conclusion.

'What GAO Found'

Here's what the GAO concluded:

"Public television is a largely decentralized enterprise of 349 local stations, owned and operated by 173 independent licensees. The stations' operations are funded in part by the Corporation for Public Broadcasting (CPB), a nongovernmental entity that receives federal appropriations. The Public Broadcasting Service (PBS), a nonprofit organization funded by fees paid by member licensees and CPB grants, operates a satellite-based interconnection system to distribute programs to local stations. These programs are created by producers inside public television and by outside production entities . . .

"In 2005, public television licensees reported annual revenues of $1.8 billion, of which 15 percent came from federal sources and the rest from a variety of nonfederal sources including individuals, businesses, and state and local governments. Federal funds help licensees leverage funds from nonfederal sources. Thirty of 54 licensees GAO interviewed said that cuts in federal funding could lead to a reduction in staff, local programming, or services. In general, smaller licensees receive a higher percent of revenue from federal sources and 11 said that cuts in federal support might force the station to shut down.

"Substantial growth of nonfederal funding appears unlikely. The one area with growth potential is major gifts, which many licensees are pursuing with help from CPB. Program underwriting by businesses and foundations has traditionally been an important source of revenues. A few licensees believe that these revenues could be increased if restrictions on the content of on-air underwriting acknowledgments were relaxed. Many licensees, however, believe that this would go against the noncommercial character of public television and could cause a loss of funding support from other sources.

"Public television sometimes benefits from business ventures associated with its programs, but these opportunities are infrequent and do not generate significant revenue. Public television does not have the financial resources to invest heavily in the cost of program production to secure a larger share of any resulting back-end revenues. Moreover, the sale of merchandise associated with a program generally returns only a small percentage of the retail price to the program's producer and investors, as is also true for commercial television programs."

Here's what the study says about changing the rules for on-air underwriting:

"In response to the changing environment, some licensees favor less restrictive underwriting regulations and policies. In particular, 11 licensees favor greater flexibility for on-air underwriting acknowledgments, including perhaps permitting calls to action and price quotes. The licensees favoring greater underwriting flexibility serve large television markets or an entire state. These licensees said that greater underwriting flexibility:

— would enable the licensee to increase underwriting revenues;

— would allow corporations to use the same advertisement on commercial and public television, thereby enabling them to avoid the cost of developing multiple advertisements;

— would not represent a significant change, since underwriting acknowledgments and pledge drives have already become commercialized; and

— would not threaten the licensee's mission, because licensees operate as nonprofit entities and therefore would not focus on low-quality, high-ratings programming . . .

Among licensees with whom we spoke, 19 oppose greater flexibility. These licensees said that greater underwriting flexibility:

— would not generate increased underwriting revenues, since corporations and advertisers desire programming with high ratings and a targeted demographic, which some licensees said public television cannot deliver;

— would upset viewers and contribute to a decline in membership support;

— could threaten a licensee's ability to receive financial support from a state government; and

— would be inconsistent with the mission of public television and could alter programming decisions."

Here Are the Letters

I would like to commend you for hiring the handicapped, especially the mentally handicapped; but . . . must you place them in charge of programming? This is the only explanation I can think of for why we have been assailed by Ms. Orman's condescending monologue twice a day (occasionally three times within twenty-four hours), every day, for over two weeks now. I tune to PBS on Saturday afternoon and she is on; Sunday morning, there she is again; noon, Sunday, she's still there; 6 PM Sunday afternoon and she's still on; clicking through the channels at 2 AM Monday and what is on PBS? You guessed it — more Orman; 10 PM Monday night and there she is again, pre-empting Tavis Smiley. And this was just one weekend! Check your schedule from March 1 through today and notice how often you've run this horrid drivel; I counted nineteen times during one nine day period.

Something intelligent and thought-provoking, such as Joseph Campbell and the Power Of Myth, we are lucky to see once a year; something entertaining, such as the black-and-white Roy Orbison concert, maybe a couple of times during a pledge drive; yet you inflict upon us this tripe not just daily but multiple times a day for weeks on end. Certainly you can't believe anyone actually wants to watch, more than once, this arrogant female striding around the stage in her self-important, condescending, manner, talking down to the audience as if they were a pack of semi-literate. It's not just that I find her "program" detestable, I would complain nearly as vociferously if you were to air any program with this annoying, and monotonous, frequency. One of your announcers called Ms. Orman's "program" an "unforgettable television event"; of course it's unforgettable, when you are bludgeoned over the head with anything fifteen times a week for weeks at a time, it's fairly certain you will remember it.

Another bit of hypocrisy: your spokespeople constantly tell us that PBS offers us an alternative to standard network television programming — yet your increasingly more frequent airing of such as Ms. Orman, Dr. "Deadly Dull" Dyer, Rich Dad, Brenda Watson's HOPE Formula, the South Beach Diet man, etc. belies this statement. This is exactly the type of "lowbrow" drivel I expect on network television, but I've always looked to PBS for something better. PBS, you are getting down and wallowing in the bottom of the barrel with those very networks to which you've always claimed to be an alternative. I have my own HOPE formula: I hope PBS will exorcise all these repellent extended commercials from its schedule and return to the literate, intellectual, programming upon which its reputation was built.

JG Fuller, Columbus, OH

Yes, I know — they're a necessary evil, but do they really have to be so blessed long, and do we have to see the same tired shows for weeks, many of which are of no interest. We're practically charter members and depend on our PBS stations to hold back the proverbial "electronic wasteland," so our support is rock solid — except during pledge drives.

Fred & Trudi Bender

I am sick, sick of your fund drive. Mostly infomercials found on other paid advertising stations. You now show commercials. You are past your third week in your fund drive, showing basic junk, and this you are doing every three months now. You are going too far off course. Your value to me is diminishing to nothing. Change your greedy and worthless fund raising techniques or lose more of us, "your precious viewers."

Echo Uzzle, N. Fond du Lac, WI

I've had it with the interminable fund-raising prime time schedule diversions (at least in the Pittsburgh area). They're nauseous in repetition, attempting to attract donations far beyond the means of their constituency, and arrogance in substituting hoary old programs any time it wants. I'm 71, and kissing the local PBS station, WQED, goodbye — permanently. I have supported previous fund drives in the past, but they are so frequent anymore and so irritating to watch, that enough is enough is enough!

Victor Kelley, Monroeville, PA

My husband and I consider our now 30+ years of PBS-watching to have contributed an essential part of our worldview. We think a healthy PBS is essential to American democracy. We continue to be contributing members of our local/state network, and are proud of their recent and past productions, and also proud of their leadership in national public broadcasting circles. However, we are concerned that this current carnival-barker, rake-in-money- at-all-costs attitude threatens to dilute the PBS brand to the point that soon it will be viewed, especially by those with no memory of its glory days, as little better than its competitors on cable and satellite. We wonder if it wouldn't be better to get by on less money, but offer only programming befitting PBS' high standards. Wouldn't reruns (even REALLY old ones) or even a test pattern, be better than airing intelligence-insulting snake-oil salesmen and fake garden-gurus dispensing dubious information? What would it take to return to those PBS glory days, I wonder? A concerned viewer . . .

Baton Rouge, LA

I wish to add my voice to those deploring the growing commercialization of PBS and its affiliates, and in particular its readiness to associate intimately and uncritically with pseudo-scientific New Age religion as touted by the likes of Wayne Dyer. When PBS presents such one-sided, evangelical programming as Dyer's for many hours, year in and year out, during ever more frequent pledge drives, simple reason sees this is as effectively an endorsement of the content therein, official shoulder-shrugging denials notwithstanding. That PBS managers cannot recognize, or choose to disregard, the double-talking, manipulative, commercialized and frankly sectarian nature of this material, and their complicity in making it seem legitimate and uncontroversial, is either a testament to their gullibility or to an unprincipled, blindered quest for pledge money however it's obtained. Whichever the reason, this tack has become sufficiently distressing for me and other supporters of PBS to now withhold our donations, until responsibility is restored. PBS has been receiving this feedback for years now, and yet no change has occurred, nor any real recognition of the depth of this ethical lapse. To suggest that the survival of PBS is in jeopardy no longer moves us to help — we consider it already moribund at the hands of a utilitarian, corporate obtuseness run rampant. Sorry to be blunt, but more mild appeals have fallen on deaf ears. There are not unlimited chances to listen to friends before they surrender you to your own folly. If the former philosophy of sober educational programming based on reason and balanced skepticism does not return to PBS, it will die a deserved death, degraded and disgraced in its final years, and will be mourned only for what it had been in its prime, not for what it became.

Bruce Springsteen, Lawrence, KS

PBS has changed. Several minutes of advertising before each show. I watch PBS to escape the hype. All weekend New Age shows about love, female empowerment, yoga, investing, and similar nonsense appear to be more infomercials. Hours and hours of "classic" rock and pop, often performed poorly by the elderly original artist. I watch PBS to see new and different things. If I wanted so much music, I'd watch any of many cable channels dedicated to music. PBS used to have a whole evening of great programming. Now there's maybe an hour a night of good programming and the rest is junk. I guess PBS is going the way of commercial network television, but with one difference. In addition to airing junk programming, PBS caters to the affluent who can contribute big bucks. I guess that makes PBS more like a political party than a television station for the masses.

Williamsburg, VA

I concur with Mr. Reid Spencer's e-mail observation of Dr. Dwayne Dyer's "hours of platitudes" with "nothing of substance" while "lining his pockets" as a double insult. This pop pseudo spiritualist is succeeding with his "intention" to convince us, in his self-laudatory and trumpeting manner, that he is humble and enlightened (along with his kid geniuses) while "interconnecting" naive people's money with his bank account. Hey, it worked for him. I would expect more sophistication from PBS in the selection of subjects for true spiritualism. Seek and you shall find.

Kevin Finnegan, Minneapolis, MN

When you pre-empt this old house to raise money I purposely do not donate. You treat the viewer's of this old house like so many gnats, just shove them out of the way for cooking shows. I support KCPT with ad dollars from my clients and my own donations to local news programs, yet you will never get the big bucks as long as you ignore those of us who like TOH. I am disappointed in your attitude towards us TOH viewers. We don't even get a notice at the time TOH is supposed to air explaining why you are pre-empting our favorite program.

James Olenick, Prairie Village, KS

How long are you going to be running the non-stop commercial programming on your "Educational" channel? We really miss the good public broadcasting programming. Without benefit of cable in our area, it is disheartening to have your station pander to the infomercial non-educational waste of air-space (pseudo-faux-buy-my-products/fake-self-help garbage promoters). We devoted a lot of time volunteering at Channel 7 and donated generously in the past. However, we can no longer support a station that doesn't provide the programming we were hoping you would acquire with our funding. Who decided to run (kick-back) infomercials for days/weeks on end? Other ETV stations listed in adjacent areas are running good solid academically based (read: worth watching) programs from the standard PBS schedule. Of course I do not expect a response from your station; but be aware there are a lot of very disappointed ex-fans out here who have turned you OFF . . . we're watching CDs purchased thru the PBS website with $ once sent Channel 7 to fill the hole in our entertainment hours.

Jacksonville, FL