By Erik Gunn
A frightening nugget turned up in a public broadcasting audience survey a few years ago: Asked where they saw a particular public TV documentary, focus group members gave the wrong answer.
“They actually thought they saw it on the History Channel,” says Garry Denny, director of programming for Wisconsin Public Television.
Such “look-alike” cable channels mining the same turf as the Public Broadcasting Service constitute just one of many challenges facing PBS and its member stations, such as WPT.
Denny and other public TV executives are grappling with an explosion in competition from old and new media and with demographic and cultural shifts in viewing and donation habits. Add the strains of a contracting economy and the result is probably the most testing era in public broadcasting’s history.
Public broadcasters are fighting to hold on to their existing viewers while cultivating new ones, especially younger generations, says Steve Behrens, editor of Current, a national newspaper covering public broadcasting. “They’re under some pressure to make a new start.”
Take ratings: In the Madison market, WHA-TV garners about 1.5 percent to 1.6 percent of the TV audience, down from 2.1 percent a couple of years ago; nationally public TV’s audience fell to 1 percent from 1.7 percent in the same period. “That’s a pretty precipitous drop in just two years,” says Denny.
Membership and donations are suffering — a trend “consistent with all membership non-profits out there,” notes Clint Walz, WPT’s membership manager. From 2001 to 2008, donations rose 11.6 percent, to just over $5 million — a pace well behind inflation. And, making that worse, the number of donors fell 6 percent in the same period, to 47,311. The lion’s share of that drop came in just the last four years. Revenue lost would have been even worse if individual contributions hadn’t risen.
The recession is one source of money troubles. Age is another: Viewers of most public TV shows — the mushrooming array of kids’ programming is an exception — tend to be 60 or older. And there’s a cultural shift in charity: Donors “want to feel like they’re more part of the organization and have a say,” says Walz.
So public TV is shoring up its fiscal foundation while looking for ways to innovate. At WPT, five positions have been cut — two unfilled vacancies, a third unfilled retirement, and two staffers whose contracts aren’t being renewed, says James Steinbach, WPT director of television. “I fervently hope there will be no more,” he says of the non-renewals. “But I can’t predict what the Legislature and governor will do, or what the economy will bring.” Hiring has been frozen and travel expenses cut. One of the network’s flagship shows, the half-hour weekly magazine “In Wisconsin” with former “WeekEnd” co-host Patty Loew, has trimmed production by a third — to 13 new episodes a year from 19. See more on Loew: http://www.wpt.org/pressroom/index.cfm?did=12027
But “we can’t cut our way out of these issues,” Steinbach adds. WPT has also been investing in new programming, such as a new show, “Director’s Cut,” built around interviews with Dairy State filmmakers. With analog broadcasting giving way to digital, new channels have opened up for even more programming. Those channels become venues for reruns from the main channel plus additional material keyed to viewer interests: more children’s programming, how-to shows or documentaries.
Milwaukee Public Television, which is a service of Milwaukee Area Technical College and is separate from the Wisconsin network, has faced similar challenges and responded by freezing both hiring and salaries, cutting back on the use of freelancers, and dropping programs that had no underwriting support, says General Manager Ellis Bromberg. MPTV operates on two channels, 10 and 36. “As long as we can find underwriting support for it, we’re doing everything we can to protect production of local content,” Bromberg says.
WPT execs say they value the older viewers at the core of their audience, but they want to extend their appeal downward. Younger parents are watching kids’ shows with their children, Denny says, adding: “We want to be able to tell those parents and those caregivers that public television has these other great shows that you might be interested in.” But the network also wants to be sure programs advertised during children’s shows won’t offend parents or be “unsafe” for younger viewers.
The network is forced to think outside the box — literally — as it confronts an audience increasingly getting video media streamed from the Web or displayed on mobile phones.
“For a long time television was one of the only games in town. All of a sudden it’s just one of many,” says Gene Purcell, executive director of the Educational Communications Board, a partner with the UW-Extension in operating the network. “Do we put more things on the Web? Do we change the way we do production so they’ll be more suitable for a small screen like a hand-held device?”
Putting shows on the Web means “our programs will find more audiences over time,” says Malcolm Brett, director of broadcasting and media innovations at UW-Extension. Notwithstanding the current economic troubles, he adds, “I’m very bullish on public broadcasting.” So is MPTV’s Bromberg: “As long as we stick to the knitting in terms of producing content that is unique — and I would argue that we do — and get it out to as many platforms as we can and continue to explore new platforms, I think we still have a very important place in this media environment.”
The concern, says Steinbach, is “how do we make sure people know there’s a difference between something they get from us versus from some other source?” At least one answer is to boost brand identity, which PBS is trying to do.
But it’s also critical that local stations get included, says Purcell. National content is funded by local station dues: “If you bypass the stations how does all that stuff get paid for?” the ECB executive says.
Budgets have been largely static or trending slightly downward. In 2008, WHA recorded operating expenses of $14.7 million, and the ECB’s TV side another $9.8 million, both down slightly from the year before. Federal grants fell for both entities, while state funding — accounting for about a third of their combined incomes — rose about enough to keep pace with inflation. Most donations, grants and membership income sources fell slightly. (Most recent budget audits for WHA can be found here http:// www.legis.wisconsin.gov/lab/reports/09-2full.pdf, and for ECB here http://www.legis.wisconsin.gov/lab/reports/08-17full.pdf.)
As his colleagues across the country survey the rapidly shifting landscape, “everybody’s got questions,” Purcell says. “What I haven’t seen is a lot of clear direction: This is what we’re going to do and this is how we’re going to do it.
“We’re about as nimble as we can be, but it’s tough.”
–Racine-based freelance writer Erik Gunn covers the media for Milwaukee Magazine and reports on politics, business, education and other topics for several publications.