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PBS Ombudsman

New Warning from Boston: The Ads Are Coming, the Ads Are Coming!

For the second time in the past two weeks, a top executive from PBS's flagship investigative series Frontline has publicly questioned the direction of public broadcasting.

Late last month, Lou Wiley, who served for 30 years at WGBH in Boston and retired in 2009 as executive editor of Frontline, wrote a sharply critical essay in the May 31 edition of Current, the trade periodical for public broadcasting. Wiley still serves as a consultant to the series and made clear he was expressing his personal views.

In his article, Wiley wrote: "I am alarmed by two 'experiments' PBS has embraced that will insert commercials into the body of its programs. One has already begun. Online commercial ads are being rolled in at various points during video streaming on PBS.org." The other involves a proposal to move "promotional and funding" spots deeper into the hour of television broadcasts. Both "experiments," he said, "threaten the hallmark quality of PBS programs."

I've written about this issue several times — on May 12, June 2 and June 10 — and referred to the article by Wiley in the June 2 mailbag that also reported on PBS explanations of why these "experiments" are being considered and are potentially important and valuable.

Et Tu, David

Now, along comes David Fanning, the widely honored executive producer and creator (in 1983) of Frontline, to also ring some alarm bells that may well resonate even louder because he is such a prominent force in the world of public affairs journalism. Fanning spoke at a June 14 luncheon in New York at which he received the 18th Annual Fred Friendly First Amendment Award from Quinnipiac University's School of Communications.

You can read the full text of Fanning's remarks here. They are well worth reading in their entirety. Some portions are also printed below. In his speech, Fanning also proposes a new way to fund journalism on public broadcasting — through what he calls a Public Journalism Fund — that would, he believes, protect the mission, independence, national relevance and ability to produce "rock-the-boat" journalism.

I've written about Frontline dozens of times in this column in recent years. Sometimes it is to deal with criticisms, by viewers or by me, of a specific point or program. But it is always in the context of what I describe as "a routinely excellent and courageous public affairs series that is at the top of whatever remains of this kind of investigative reporting within American television." So Frontline is important, and so is Fanning, and so the public commentary of these two veterans of some of the best programs PBS has offered over many years struck me, as an observer of PBS's editorial qualities, as unusual and worth noting.

WGBH, a Productive Producer

Frontline, and Fanning, are based at WGBH in Boston, an independent member station of PBS that is home to production teams turning out about two-thirds of the service's national primetime programming, including NOVA, American Experience, Masterpiece and Antiques Roadshow. So it, too, is very important within the PBS constellation.

What is also interesting is that Fanning's voice is one of the few remaining within the PBS system that is broadly recognized, deeply immersed in public broadcasting's history, addresses the larger issues and carries journalistic weight. The PBS NewsHour's venerable anchor, Jim Lehrer, retired earlier this month. Bill Moyers, often controversial but also often eloquent and passionate throughout his long career about the need for hard-hitting journalism and interviewing outside of the comfortable center, is now gone from the system, as is his successor at the NOW on PBS program, David Brancaccio. NOW is also gone.

It may be that Fanning's vision for a new Public Journalism Fund will be the enduring mark of his New York speech. But what he said about today's public affairs broadcasting environment interested me most.

Here Are Some Excerpts:

Citing the late Fred Friendly, a former president of CBS News who played a major role in the creation of PBS, Fanning recalled Friendly saying of public television that, "Its most precious right will be the right to rock the boat."

In his remarks on Tuesday, Fanning said: "That right, I'm sad to say, is under serious threat. Fred would not be happy about what's happening to public broadcasting . . .

"Now, hard times on the Hill and in the economy are putting extraordinary pressures on stations, on PBS and NPR, and on the producers who want to do good work, and the journalists who want and need the broadcast time.

"The problem is that with all the concentration on fundraising, and without any secure and sustained funding sources, stations are scrambling. Journalism is far from their minds. And 'rocking the boat,' as Fred expected, is the last thing they want.

"And the system's leadership has changed over the years. Where once stations were led by broadcasters and educators who believed deeply in the mission of public broadcasting, now as money gets tighter, a new generation of leaders comes in, brought in by worried board members who almost inevitably turn to the person in charge of fundraising to help manage the station."

'Our Deepest Embarrassment'

"With that comes programming choices that are safer, and the pursuit of audience for the sake of audience, and membership for the dollars. Why do we find it necessary to attract members with pledge programming that has nothing to do with our core programs?

"This is our deepest embarrassment, especially for public television. I have heard the arguments, and I understand the imperatives for local stations, but to have created such a schizophrenic programming strategy is not just misguided, but will ultimately erode our identity and our mission . . .

"After all, we were supposed to be an alternative to the rest of broadcasting. One of the reasons Fred Friendly resigned from CBS in 1966 was because he saw the beginnings of the network's retreat from journalism . . . It's why he believed in public broadcasting's mission, and in our non-commercial identity, independent of the pressures of ratings and advertising dollars . . .

"Now, all the talk in public television is of eyeballs and revenue streams and monetization . . .

"It started on our websites, slipping around the FCC provisions which don't govern the internet, with what are euphemistically called 'sponsorships,' but which are essentially commercials all over public broadcasting websites, local and national, radio and television.

"I believe we are threatening our special status as non-commercial media. I'm told that in surveys the public doesn't notice the ads online, and is not offended. I'm not surprised — we all swim in a sea of commercialism — but that's precisely why we need to keep ourselves clean of it.

"Because one day, I'm afraid, when most of our work is going to be experienced on the web, we will wake up and the public will say we're no different from the rest of them. Why should we give you our membership money? And why should the government give you our tax dollars?"

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