PBS Chief Invites Affiliates and Public to 'Stay Curious'

TIMES STAFF WRITER

When Pat Mitchell came to the Public Broadcasting Service as its president and chief executive in March, "dysfunctional" was used freely and often to describe the complicated, fractious relationship between the programming organization and its 346 member stations, as they struggled to compete in a rapidly changing media world.

No more. Mitchell, taking a cue from former boss Ted Turner's prohibition of the word "foreign" in his Cable News Network offices (he prefers "international"), has banned the word "dysfunctional." Use of it around PBS merits a $1 fine, with the proceeds to be used to buy Mitchell, former president of CNN Productions, a digital TV set for the office.

"I think language reflects the way you think," says Mitchell.

Much of the language is changing around PBS, which is holding its first annual meeting under Mitchell's leadership through Tuesday. A new slogan, "Stay Curious. PBS," was unveiled Sunday to replace the 5-year-old "If PBS Doesn't Do It, Who Will?" With cable network competition nibbling away at PBS staple genres such as nature, performing arts and drama, Mitchell says that PBS shouldn't be asking a question for which it doesn't have "a very good answer." Instead, the new PBS slogan is meant to invite in audiences, and "get rid of the slight sense that we're a little too elitist and aloof."

More than just changing the language, however, PBS, which is being led for the first time in its history by an executive with a programming background, is taking some of its boldest steps in recent years. Among the changes is the seven-market test of a new program schedule that will see some signature PBS programs move from time slots they have held, literally, for decades.

And a new executive structure, announced Saturday, will put more programming executives in the field--new programming vice presidents will be based in Miami, Los Angeles and somewhere in the Midwest--to help identify new voices and genres that should be on PBS' air. Gustavo Sagastume, a Miami public station general manager, was named to the Miami post, and Jacoba Atlas, a longtime colleague of Mitchell's, who is currently a vice president and supervising producer of CNN Productions, will take the Los Angeles job. The Midwest post hasn't been filled.

Some of the moves are unsettling to the station executives who have a strong say in how PBS is run, because unlike the big commercial networks that can dictate programming and strategy to their local affiliates, PBS is a member organization, and local stations prize their autonomy in serving their local communities. Nonetheless, according to several general managers attending the meeting, stations, although fearful of how the changes will affect them, are mostly agreed on the need to pull together.

"Once people see that this isn't death, just another way of doing things, it will be good for us," said Al Jerome, president of Los Angeles public station KCET. "The artistry, of course, is to not throw the baby out with the bathwater." Still, he says, PBS and its member stations "can't be risk-averse in this environment."

Mitchell and her deputies refer repeatedly to PBS' local presence in its communities as one of its greatest strengths, something that cable can't match. She hopes it will play out on the programming side, noting that the new regional programming executives could help stations develop documentary forms with regional components, a way, she says "for us to look a little more diverse, which is part of our mission." And PBS already has funding to develop a hybrid children's show, with local hosts introducing a nationally produced program along the lines of the "Romper Room" shows of decades ago, says John Wilson, senior vice president of programming.

An ambitious pre-presidential election special is also in the works that will include not only input from communities around the country, but also will unite the resources of "The NewsHour With Jim Lehrer" and documentary producer "Frontline" as well as National Public Radio, the first time all three entities have worked together. It's one of what Mitchell and Wilson say they hope will be many more live or current shows on the schedule, a challenge, Wilson says, because "we're America's storyteller, but we also have to be of this day, and relevant."

Some changes will take time to be implemented--Mitchell is hoping to work more closely with NPR, for example--but other changes have been immediate. Many producers are thrilled with a new emphasis at PBS on scheduling quick reruns to take advantage of buzz around heavily promoted shows, a strategy employed effectively by cable networks, which air multiple runs every week of their big-event programming to catch viewers whenever they are available.

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For example, in a first, stations are being pushed to air Ken Burns' much-anticipated 18 1/2 hours on the history of "Jazz," debuting in January, a full three times per week over its nearly monthlong run. But while many stations have already signed on, others are questioning how they can tear up their normal schedule to squeeze the programs in.

Stations and producers are also watching cautiously the upcoming test of changes to the schedule. It's designed to "reduce the confusion," Wilson told stations, by providing better audience flow between what has become a mishmash of genres, and putting shows in time slots where they are more likely to find viewers. Ultimately, more viewers and more time spent viewing by current viewers will translate into more viewer financial contributions, PBS hopes, and higher ratings nationally should make it easier to find corporate underwriting support.

The plan, which could also alienate longtime viewers, was already in the works when Mitchell arrived, but she put it on a fast track; if the October-to-March test is successful, some changes could be made systemwide by next April.

In the seven test markets--which include San Diego station KPBS, as well as Pittsburgh, Salt Lake City and Philadelphia, among others--the pilot schedule will see "Masterpiece Theatre" switch from its two-decade home on Sunday nights at 9, where it has to compete with the big-barreled commercial network miniseries and movies, to Mondays at 9, where it will offer an alternative to football and sitcoms. It will flip-flop with "American Experience" documentary programming, which will have the genre largely to itself at that time. Other major changes: "Mystery!" will move from Thursdays to Tuesdays at 10 p.m., and "Frontline" will take its place at 9 p.m. on Thursdays. "Nature" will move to Fridays, from Sundays. And the long-entrenched "Washington Week in Review" and "Wall Street Week With Louis Rukeyser," will move to the 9-10 p.m. Friday time slot, from their current 8-9 p.m. home.

Two popular shows, "Antiques Roadshow" and "Nova," will be used as PBS' version of "Who Wants to Be a Millionaire"; both will air twice a week, as 8 p.m. lead-ins to jump-start the night.

The new focus on content had many annual meeting attendees feeling optimistic, because "people judge this service based on programming, not on political, internal issues that have been around forever," said Gary Knell, president of "Sesame Street" producer Sesame Workshop. The meeting, he said, "is more upbeat than it has been in years."

Indeed, Mitchell got a standing ovation as she ended her first presentation to stations, insisting that "we have everything we need to face the future without fear and internal strife."

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