How to save public television: The PBS Channel


Epiphanies can come at you from the damnedest places. Mine was delivered by a cute, doe-eyed, bilingual animation character named Dora the Explorer.

“Dora the Explorer” is the kind of morning children’s show that epitomizes public television. It’s gentle, funny, educational and culturally sensitive. Kids gobble it up. But “Dora” isn’t produced or aired by PBS. If it were, it would cost tens of millions of dollars and become the subject of a thousand pledge breaks that might just help it to break even. “Dora,” by contrast, is produced by and aired on Nickelodeon, and the show is seen by twice as many kids as PBS can muster. Not only that, in its 10 years on the air, thanks to product licensing, it has earned its parent company many millions of dollars, not even counting money the show generates through advertising.

Why does such disparity exist? Why is public television, both nationally and locally, awash in red ink despite its enormously popular programming while Nickelodeon (and its fellow networks including the History Channel, A&E, National Geographic and Animal Planet) are making money?

If you asked Dora, she could answer in a second — in Spanish and English: “Cable.”

So now we come to my epiphany: PBS should market itself as a network to cable and satellite providers rather than having each individual affiliated station across the country offer itself for free.

The PBS Channel, with its strong lineup of shows such as “Sesame Street,” “American Experience,” “ Frontline,” “Nature” and “Nova,” would have no trouble whatsoever getting every cable and satellite provider across the country to carry it. It would get paid by the providers just like every other network that is part of the basic cable package, and the need for those annoying pledge breaks would vanish overnight.

So simple, so elegant, and yet probably impossible to pull off. Why? To understand the difficulty, we need to look back in history.

Early public television (what we used to call educational television) was a delivery system in search of a product. From the first public television station in Houston in 1954, the operation was conceived as strictly a local affair, broadcasting educational programs into schools a few hours a day, always during school hours. Regular citizens couldn’t even pick up the UHF stations without buying a converter box for their TV sets.

By 1960, there were more than 200 public television stations covering every major city in America, but no network. But though the public television stations in the 1960s didn’t have a network, they became very good at joining forces to lobby Congress for money. In 1969, both the Corp. for Public Broadcasting and the Public Broadcasting Service, or PBS, were created, and American public television was off and running (ironically, however, the first public television national hit in 1969 was “The Forsyte Saga” from the BBC).

The national system for public broadcasting created back then was cumbersome and expensive. But it was the only system we had. It would be more than five years before premium cable network HBO and Ted Turner’s WTBS “superstation” would change the delivery of television programming forever.

Cable television in the 1970s was fresh, loaded with potential and instantly hated by the powerful commercial television networks. A series of draconian laws were enacted to keep cable television literally out in the backwoods, relegated to those areas of rural America without strong signals. Even if public television executives could have imagined a PBS cable network in the 1980s, it would have been political suicide to suggest it. This was the time when President Reagan was successfully cutting millions of dollars out of the Public Broadcasting Service budget, and the National Assn. of Educational Broadcasters went bankrupt. It was a time to hold the fort and wait for better days. But the good days never returned.

Public television hit its peak, both in viewers and donations, in 1987, and it’s been a slow but steady decline ever since. From a peak of almost 3 million viewers, its Nielson ratings today seldom creep above 1 million. At the same time, cable’s share of viewers has grown prodigiously, with some cable shows such as “The Closer” outdrawing its competition on the four major networks.

PBS is losing staff, market share and money, but before it can go cable, it must address the rhinoceros in the living room — the more than 300 local public television stations. Some, including WGBH in Boston, produce numerous national shows and are thriving. But many would die, some very quickly, without the PBS affiliation that allows them the right to air the network’s shows in their markets. KCET, the flagship public television station in Los Angeles, produces few local programs, among them the poorly rated “SoCal Connected.” With its $60-million annual budget and pledge breaks so interminable they have been described as “the fundraising equivalent of waterboarding,” KCET would sink without PBS and, recent protestations to the contrary, station management must know it. In a new system, production facilities and staffs at places such as WGBH might be kept on to become the backbone of the new PBS Channel, but those with little to contribute would be dissolved.

It probably doesn’t matter. Most public television stations will merge or go broke in the next five years anyway, and PBS in its current configuration can’t be far behind. But as Dora the Explorer knows, there are always new frontiers to conquer. The PBS Channel should be the next one. The technology is there; the money would be a cinch. Do we have the political muscle to make it happen?

Jack Shakely is president emeritus of the California Community Foundation.