Southern Californians were shocked last week when public TV station KCET announced it would not renew its affiliation with PBS. The 46-year-old station will remain noncommercial, but will not run PBS programming. The station argues that its upcoming $7 million dues are too much of a budget strain. After months of negotiation, a deal couldn't be reached.
What does this mean for PBS fans? Come Jan. 1st, you won't find "Sesame Street" in Los Angeles! OK, that's improbable; there are three smaller public TV stations at-the-ready. KCET, if it takes its new job seriously, is in a sink-or-swim position where it must provide programming specific to the needs of Los Angeles' diverse community.
It is without question that other PBS affiliates will be facing similar budget constraints, making the KCET incident a potential precursor to the sea change in distribution methods that lies ahead. For PBS, this multimillion-dollar hit could be a blessing in disguise, forcing the company to more seriously explore alternatives methods to reach their audience -- namely, their lagging digital initiatives. The Internet is, after all, the publishing and broadcasting beacon of free public thought and enterprise.
Like all media entities, public television is in the midst of recreating its identity. Recently, a new mission statement was created by the leadership of Corporation for Public Broadcasting, PBS, National Public Radio, and the Association of Public Television Stations. It touts a vocabulary shift from "public broadcasting" to "public media":
"Public media informs, educates, and inspires by providing content that sustains the civic and cultural life of society. Public media is universally accessible, free from commercial or political pressure, and used by millions of Americans on all platforms including television, radio and on-line. Going forward, public media - from our local radio and television stations to our national organizations - is building on the hard-earned trust and goodwill of our audience by becoming even more diverse, networked, nimble, innovative, and focused on serving the needs of our changing society. With the support of the American people, we will continue to evolve as creators, curators and connectors on the local and national level in order to fulfill our mission of informing communities, enriching our culture, and inspiring dialogue."
Of course, in the next paragraph, the consortium backtracks to the importance of broadcast:
"For the foreseeable future, given Public Media's mission to bring service to all of the citizens of the United States, over-the-air broadcasting will remain critical. In fact, millions of households still rely on over-the-air reception to view public television, including many with limited distribution alternatives or limited resources to spend on subscription services. ....Whether received over-the-air or by cable or satellite, in addition to its ubiquitous reach utilizing technology and facilities across the country, broadcasting will continue to be a very cost effective medium for reaching mass audiences. In fact, the Public Media system could not afford to stream its content to all its viewers and listeners due to the cost of bandwidth. As a result, public media organizations are mixing their distribution capabilities, making smart investments that integrate broadcast, online and mobile platforms in a seamless experience for the American public."
Fair enough. PBS' video portal has improved, but is limited in content and tends to follow, rather than lead, in terms of site-building. Here's an opportunity for PBS and company to engage visionaries (maybe ones that are reinventing television and trying not to "do evil") to integrate a true online PBS portal into TV's next iteration. As a noncommercial venture, it can still use its trademark "brought to you by" funding approach. With IP addresses, content can be limited to geographic regions devoid of PBS carriers so that independent stations can survive. This online entity then could solicit funding and in-kind donations to bring broadband and emerging technologies carrying this new network into underserved homes. Isn't that really the mission of "public media"?
Face it, kids without digital savvy are already behind. Sure, "Sesame Street" is an amazing teaching tool, but it premiered 41 years ago. Things have changed and "public media" needs to change with it. More and more teens and twentysomethings don't even own TVs, meaning their kids will be nurtured on broadband. As Joan Ganz Cooney, creator of "Sesame Street," said in her Archive interview, "You wouldn't say let's put in ten minutes of entertainment and ten minutes of education. Every piece of education would be entertaining and every piece of entertainment would be educational." Shouldn't we expect the same today?
Of course this is a very simplistic version. There's an alphabet soup of agencies, affiliates, funders and producers to worry about. But, it's clear that public broadcasters, like their commercial counterparts, have the opportunity and responsibility to innovate.