“Speaking Freely” show recorded Feb. 26, 2004, in Nashville, Tenn.
Ken Paulson: Welcome to “Speaking Freely,” a weekly conversation about free expression in America. Our special guest today is the president and CEO of the Public Broadcasting Service, Pat Mitchell. Welcome.
Pat Mitchell: Thank you. Great to be here.
Paulson: And we are so eager to talk to you about the state of PBS, but if we could begin just by talking about the state of television today. You were quoted not long ago as saying, “Television has gone from Ozzie and Harriet to Ozzy Osbourne.” And I gather you think that’s not a good thing.
Mitchell: I don’t mean that as a personal offense to Ozzy Osbourne. [Laughs] I don’t know the man. And nor do I think we can go back to Ozzie and Harriet. But the fact is, for some— from my perspective of having worked on the dark side, as we— as my colleagues in public broadcasting refer to it sometimes. The dark side of commercial broadcasting is that it’s built on a model, Ken, as you and I know, that’s totally about how many consumers can you get in one place to sell them a product. And the fact is, Ozzy Osbourne and programs like that are what is selling products.
Paulson: To what extent is— is that the result of the cable revolution? I mean, you think about America in the ’60s and ’70s. I suppose some people were talking about indecent content but not to the extent that they are today. There seemed to be kind of self-regulation in there. If you’re one of only three networks and everybody’s talking about you the next day over the water cooler, a different kind of pressure on the programmer than— than today. What’s happened in America that has loosened the, loosened the standards, pushed the envelope, and— and made that commercially rewarding?
Mitchell: You know, there’s so many changes, and all of them have contributed to— to what I describe as the race to the bottom. And some of it had to do with the fact that cable opened up the possibility for pay. You know, when public broadcasting came into being in the days of those three great giants of the networks, everyone assumed television would be free to Americans forever. We also assumed that whatever came free over the air into our living rooms was going to be decent, um— uplifting—I mean, in some way—entertaining. It was always the pushing of the envelope on— on profanity, on vulgarity, on, um, certain kinds of format. That all happened, really, with the birth of— of pay cable and with the proliferation of— of cable as a delivery system. But beyond that, the more the ownership has consolidated, the more we have one, two, or three big companies that are global companies—not just media companies—they’re in all kinds of businesses. The more they have increased pressure to meet bigger and bigger bottom lines, the more we’re going to see them pushing the envelope to, you know, to get—to get the larger audiences, to get the water cooler conversation. And it’s getting harder and harder to do that, as you know.
Paulson: You talk about the race to the bottom. Is that—is that race being propelled by programmers with— with, let’s say, the intent of making profits, or is it being driven by American society that more and more wants that content?
Mitchell: This is the old question, isn’t it? The chicken and the egg? Is it the— are we giving the public what they want because that’s what they show up for? Well, yes, I mean, in some ways, but my answer to that always is, “Why aren’t we giving them what they need occasionally, too?” And how do they know what they need if we’re only giving them what they want? And I know that sounds a little circular, but think about it. If your choice— if you’ve got, as people have observed, hundreds of choices now when we used to have four or five or six— but those hundreds of choices are offering pretty much the same kind of menu, and that menu’s being driven by lower the cost of producing the programs, compete in clutter for attention, which means you push the edge more and more, then you’re— you know, you’re going to have— the result is going to be the kind of programming that— that we’re seeing.
Paulson: Well, as somebody who’s concerned about the content of television but also as somebody who, I’m confident, feels very positively about the First Amendment, you’ve got to get a little bit uneasy about legislators, people in Congress talking about indecency on television and the need to do something. In fact, not long ago, legislation was introduced in the House that would have banned certain words around the clock, not just during the hours kids were watching. And, of course, over the years, PBS has pushed the envelope. I mean, there has been— there was partial nudity on public broadcasting before there was on commercial broadcasting. There were four-letter words before there were on commercial broadcasting. Does that make you a little bit uneasy?
Mitchell: Well, censorship makes me uneasy in any form. I mean, there’s a really strong— there are a whole bunch of reasons which you look at every week on this program as to why the First Amendment is first. I mean, it really protects so many other of the rights that we hold dear in this country. So, yes, I’m concerned when you hear legislators or, um, any other regulatory body trying to fix this only with regulation or censorship. I don’t think that’s the solution. But media companies are operating in the public interest. They are using public spectrum that, in fact, belongs to the public, just like public land and schools and museums and libraries. So, they have a license to use it. I think that license—and not just “I think”—that license comes with an agreement to be in the public interest. Public television has an even greater obligation to respond to the public interest. But over the years, as the choices have proliferated, uh, and deregulation has, has gone the way that it’s gone, I think we’re looking at a universe or a landscape now where media is not regulating itself and for all the reasons that we talked about: the economic pressures, the clutter, et cetera. So, what’s the right response then? Is the— on the one hand, I find myself believing that we’re too powerful—”we” meaning all media—to be left to the marketplace itself. We— we have too much to do with the way people think about themselves, the way they think about each other, the way the world sees us. We import and export, uh, images about this country and about the values that we hold dear. So, I’m just— I don’t think you can just throw media to the marketplace. But how much do you regulate, and how much do you require self-regulation has a lot to do, I think, with looking at that public interest part of being in the media business.
Paulson: Of course, that applies to stations that are licensed.
Paulson: But how in the world can you encourage content revision— an escalation in content quality on cable channels, where there are no regulatory authorities?
Mitchell: Well, that was sort of when deregulation began, I mean, when cable wasn’t held subject to the same provisions. You know, nearly every country in the world is looking at this now, because cable and satellite have really changed the world. And they, by the way, are only— they’ve only changed the world you and I live in now. What’s going to change the world next are the technology— the emerging technologies. It’s not going to be cable. It might be cable and satellite, but it’s going to come in on your pager or whatev— your, your PVR, your whatever. But as— so as we move to that world, it’s going to become harder and harder to regulate content and even harder and harder to regulate the gatekeepers, I mean, the people who— which is why we are standing, really, at a precipice. I mean, we are about to enter a third communications revolution in many ways. And it will be one in which you’re probably going to have to look anew at how you protect the First Amendment.
Paulson: I read recently that you’ve got fewer donors, fewer individuals helping fund local PBS stations who are contributing more. But that would not seem to be a comfortable trend.
Paulson: What’s going on out there?
Mitchell: Now, what is most worrisome, I think, to all of us, um, at the station level and at the national level is that all financial trends have not been good in the last three years. There was this really terrible intersection of forces where we were converting to digital, as you know we were mandated to do. That means change the signal, get new equipment. It was a huge amount of money, almost two billion dollars that had to be raised at exactly the same time that American philanthropic behavior began to change towards all nonprofits. Then you had a bad economy. Then you had corporate America, as you and I have been discussing, feeling forces to move products more and measure impact in that way. All that came at one time. So, financially, yes, it’s been our most challenging three years. But as you said earlier, it’s also been— we are now at an opportunity to make it stronger and more valued than ever.
Paulson: You’ve taken some heat because you’ve— for the biggest supporters, you’ve increased the sponsor time up to 30 seconds in some shows. And it’s an interesting debate, because clearly people in the PBS community—some of them—felt very strongly about it and spoke out about creeping commercialism. I’m not sure that a public exposed to the kind of commercial level they are on a daily basis would notice.
Mitchell: [Chuckles] Right.
Paulson: But did that signal a shift in your culture in any way?
Mitchell: Actually, the good news is, the public doesn’t notice. They’re so grateful to have uninterrupted programming, which is what they do identify with PBS. And also they know that in a PBS hour the most you’re going to see: two, three minutes of messages, and you’re going to see 14 to 17 minutes of commercials if you’re watching commercial or cable. But, yes, it worries me. It worries me, again, because these marketplace forces that I think are so powerful, we do need to be immune to them to a certain degree, because our mandate has to do with creating a marketplace of ideas. Those ideas have got to be able to exist. You’ve got to have investigative journalism, non— educational, non-commercial children’s programming, one-hour news. You’ve got to have the kind of programming we do. But given our funding model, we can’t do it without help from corporate America and from individuals, viewers like you.
Paulson: [Chuckles] A phrase we’ve heard before. The, the model for PBS— and I think a lot of people are actually confused about what it is. It’s a system, not a network.
Paulson: And what does that mean?
Mitchell: It— I don’t even like the word system. I think of it as an institution— and in many ways, by the way, the largest educational institution in the country, which always surprises people. But let me— let me just do the quick primer. The Corporation for Public Broadcasting gets the allocations from Congress. That’s 15%. That money goes directly to the stations, 349. That money is about 15% of each station’s budget, sometimes less, sometimes— but never very much more. Then the stations, to aggregate their resources and to get the best programming they could get, pool their money together. And that money comes to PBS. PBS uses that money to create the National Program Service, which goes back out and is distributed and enhanced in value by the local stations who also do local programming and who do outreach activities, partnerships with institutions, et cetera. So, we are fundamentally a local— locally-based institution. And in today’s media landscape, I think that’s never been more valuable.
Paulson: So, people who watch a program in San Diego, that decision’s being made in San Diego about what to put on the air, by and large?
Mitchell: By and large. What we agree to do, because we aggregate our money together, is, we do agree that to, uh, make sure we’re leveraging the investment in the programming, the investment in whatever promotion we can afford, the investment in the long-term value— that we do try, and— and we— that we don’t just try, we suggest a schedule. We send out a schedule, and, in fact, most of the station community complies, because we do it in consultation with the station community. But the program commissioning and the aggregated funds are spent by PBS. But that is also done in consultation with the stations, who, as you say, make their own decisions about where it’s best in their community to use it.
Paulson: So, it truly is a marketplace of ideas in each market?
Mitchell: Yes, yes. And enhanced in value. I mean, it’s really— it’s a great model when you think about it. But if you look around the world at other public broadcasters, there are none that have this model. Most of them enjoy a lot more government support, in the case of the BBC, 100% from license fees. American citizens pay less than one dollar a citizen for public broadcasting. And yet when we ask them every year, as we do, “Where do you value your taxpayer dollars going?” This year, last year, and the year before, we are second or third in a list that starts with military defense and then goes to us. Well, the difference in what we’re paying for military defense—although, not a judgment there—and what we pay at less than a dollar a taxpayer for public broadcasting, says that there’s a huge differentiation between what taxpayers are actually paying for a viable public broadcasting system and the value they place on having it.
Paulson: There clearly is some ownership in— in PBS that there is not elsewhere. Yes, people will write and complain about CBS or write about NBC, but there is a sense that we help pay for this and we have a right to say what goes on. And if you look back over the past few years in terms of flaps, you’ve— surprising number involving children’s programming. “Teletubbies,” there was some criticism there. The HIV-positive “Sesame Street”—
Mitchell: Which was not— never a reality.
Paulson: Let’s talk about that for a minute because it might shed some light on the dynamics of programming. That was a character designed for a South Africa program, a country in which HIV—AIDS—is a major challenge. And I gather they were trying to introduce the topic to children in a society in which—
Mitchell: And they have, and it’s been very successful.
Paulson: And someone at the Sesame Workshop apparently said, “And we’re looking at bringing it to the U.S.” I don’t know if that was a reality or not, uh, but I’m curious if there had not been a flap. And I— and I know that afterwards you came out, and you said, “Look, for the U.S. market, this isn’t— this is not a character that really works, and there’s no plan to do this.” But if there had never been any controversy, would the creators of “Sesame Street” had a free hand in bringing that character if they felt editorially that was important, or would there have been a point at which someone at PBS would have said, “Whoa”? How would those dynamics work?
Mitchell: It’s an interesting question, and it’s not an easy answer. But let me try and walk you through how something like that would happen. Our producers do work with a certain kind of independence that producers probably don’t enjoy in any other media enterprise. And I think that’s a good thing. They do have more— they exercise their First Amendment rights, but they also, by the way, pay. They bring their own resources into the programming so that we benefit. Obviously, “Sesame Street’s” a great example. “Sesame Street” never really received money from PBS for 20 years, or so. It raised all its own money through its own resources. But they meet with the PBS programming team on all decisions like this one, creative decisions. This had not come up as a discussion at PBS because, frankly, I don’t think anyone felt that it was time for that sort of evolution in a character. But had it come up, it— we would have, in a sense, polled our stations. We would have talked to the stations and said, “What do you think? Is this— would this have value in your community?” There would have been an interchange about this. And, of course, there would have been a lot of conversations with “Sesame Street” about how it would be done. I don’t think our decision—in fact, I’m sure our decision—would not have been impacted by a letter from anyone on Capitol Hill, except to say, “The question’s been raised, and here’s our answer.” Had our answer been, “We believe this would help American children and families coping with this disease or any other,” we would have fought for that.
Paulson: Have there been occasions where there’s programming that you’ve believed in that you felt should be in every PBS market in the country and that others across the country were nervous, uneasy, and didn’t put it on the air?
Paulson: Can you give some examples of that?
Mitchell: Um, I’d have to look back through the program schedule to, to reflect with examples. One comes to mind because it was recent. And it wasn’t that stations chose not to play it. It was that they chose to play a different version of it. And that was the drama “The Gin Game.”
Mitchell: And, um, and there’ve been other documentaries as well where— what we do, by the way, is, we flag a program where we think there might be community standards issues; because, again, we are not a network. We are a community-based organization. So, we’re not going to sit in Washington and say to Nashville, “You should play ‘The Gin Game’ with all of the profanity that comes in that last five minutes, ’cause that’s the way the author wrote it.” And personally, I feel that if we’re going to do “The Gin Game,” we owe it to the Pulitzer prize-winning author that we do his work as it is. But I’m not sitting in Nashville or Atlanta or L.A. or anywhere else. And the people who are, who are connecting and serving that community, they know best. So, we do make the decision from time to time to flag a program and say, “You might want to look at this and consider whether you do a special opening, whether you say obscenity or profanity in this context, or whether you don’t air it at all.”
Paulson: So, this alternate version, did it have a lot of darns and hecks, or did,-did it end five minutes early?
Mitchell: [Laughs] No, it just bleeped.
Paulson: I see, okay.
Mitchell: Which is not a good solution either, actually, because then everyone knows it was bleeped. So, there have been other examples. But while I— you know, I personally think, well, this has its value, or we wouldn’t have agreed to put it in the national program service; I am still a complete believer that we say we are a mission-based, value-based community-based organization; we have to live that way.
Paulson: You’ve talked about the digital future. And, uh, and clearly, PBS is ahead of the world, because most people can’t even receive the programming yet. When they do get the equipment with which to receive this bounty, what will they get?
Mitchell: For us, digital was like technology catching up with our mission. We already, through the stations at the community level, are doing so many different kinds of services, but we’re locked in to this one analog delivery so that if you’re serving a school system, you have to serve that curriculum overnight, feed it overnight, because you don’t want to take the great programming of, you know, “News Hour,” “Nova,” “Frontline” off the air. Digital gives us the opportunity to have several different channels of delivery so that you as a consumer don’t have to make a choice either. And, uh, and digital makes it possible for us to deliver.
Paulson: And if you’re a consumer and you’re at the end of this pipeline, does that mean you’ll get more different shows or more interactivity with the existing shows?
Mitchell: I think interactivity will be a part of it, at least for a part— for a generation. I’m not sure it’s ours, uh, completely. But the personal video recorders have proven that we want a lot more control over our content and how it comes into our lives.
Paulson: On that topic, the key to a TiVo or a personal video recorder is that you eliminate commercials. And as a keen observer of the television industry, uh,there’s still a revolution coming, isn’t there?
Mitchell: Completely. I mean, in some ways, again, as you— we are better positioned than ever because we don’t depend on the delivery of consumers to sell product. We depend on getting citizens for impact. So, in this world, where you are making your own television schedules, where you are deciding whether you want your programming on your pager or your television or your computer or your cell phone, we can be there with the top-quality kind of content that you’re going to want to receive. And we can do it if we stick to our mission of noncommercial, nonprofit television. The rest of them, frank— I wouldn’t want to be sitting at the head of commercial networks these days. They’ve got to be scrambling. I wouldn’t want to be Nielsen either, ’cause I think, I think all— this is going to change so much of the way we measure media today.
Paulson: I’m sure it’s exciting and more than a little bit frightening for people in the field.
Mitchell: Yes, yeah.
Paulson: You— you were a pioneer in programming and, in fact, developed the first talk show for women and, uh, and highly regarded and highly respected. And when I read your clips, um, I think nine out of ten still refer to you as the “first female CEO.”
Paulson: Clearly, it’s still— describing someone as a female television executive is still, uh, an identifier that is somewhat novel. I know you believe in diversity, and I’d just like to have your sense of how well the media industry as a whole is doing in terms of providing diversity in both leadership and content and— and both gender diversity and racial diversity. How well does— do the nation’s media reflect the communities they serve?
Mitchell: Not nearly well enough. We’re doing a lot better than we were doing in the ’70s, when I came in as part of that first wave when television networks were literally forced to hire women and minorities. We’re not being forced. We’re doing it voluntarily, gratefully, these days. But, look, all these many years later, I’m still the only woman leading a national media company. Now, that’s, that’s not good enough. And if you look at minorities, it’s— the record’s even worse. So, what I commit myself to doing because of the spotlight you just mentioned— ’cause if you are the first or the only, there’s no question people are going to observe you more carefully. They’re going to look at your every choice, your every decision and say, “Is that, you know, because she’s a woman she’s doing it that way?” Well, if be— if taking that spotlight helps illuminate the fact that we are not still looking enough like the audiences we serve in the ranks of the people who make the decisions about the programming that goes there, then we’ve got a long way to go. And— and as a leader, I’m committed to that. Public television’s committed to that. And one of the things I think I’m proudest of is not only the diversity at PBS among the staff there, but the diversity of the programs that we’re also putting on the air. It’s part of our mission to refle— to look like the communities we serve. But in my opinion, we have a way to go. And I certainly want to use my pulpit and, uh, my position, however singular it may be at the moment, to keep— to keep pushing that forward.
Paulson: One last question, maybe an unfair one. What does PBS look like ten years from today?
Mitchell: Ooh, well, it’s not that it’s unfair, Ken, but it’s a very difficult question to answer because I don’t think we could even say what will NBC, CBS, or FOX or anyone else look like ten years from now. I— I do believe— and I talk to enough people who are on the edges of this to, uh, believe them when they say that nothing about the way we are using media and— and, as consumers, creating media, bringing media into our home, nothing about it is going to be the same. So, it’s a very exciting time to be in these positions. And I do believe one thing, though, that whatever it looks like and however we’re getting our media and using our media, that there’s still going to be this great need for one source of content that is trusted, that is reliable.
That’s not going to go away. We’re still going to need to have that editorial gatekeeper. And there is where public broadcasting sits proudly.
Paulson: Thank you for joining us today. It’s been a pleasure to have you.
Mitchell: Thank you.
Paulson: Our guest today has been Pat Mitchell, president and CEO of the Public Broadcasting Service. Please join us again next week for “Speaking Freely.”
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