Changing Landscape for Public Broadcasting

Reading Time: 2 minutes
By Fred Barzyk
The new year, 2025, may bring new challenges for Public Television and Radio.  The inroads that streaming have made into viewing habits, puts linear TV in jeopardy.  (My 2 grandchildren, 22 and 25 ,do not own a TV and have no plans to buy one)
 
There is also concerns that the economy may do a correction next year.  The downsizing of our Springfield TV station (Boston Globe article) shows a troubling sign. The latest information that some NPR  (WBUR, Boston Globe article) are losing advertising underwriters, puts the long term existence of the system in question.
I assume that the CPB, PBS and GBH are now in discussion on how to cope with this new reality. The obvious questions: Can TV, as we know it, downsize and will our content have to be reformatted to on line? Can the system change quickly?
Here are some simple questions:
  • Do you watch more content on line?
  • Are you watching less standard TV?
  • Do you think shows for the internet (YouTube, etc.) will be different than the shows we do now?
In a changing world, Public TV and Radio, may need to retool and redefine its stated goals.  One thing is for sure…Without the steady flow of cash, the system is vulnerable GBH has changed over the years and has stayed relevant and is considered one of the systems flag ship stations.  The future?  GBH may be facing one of its biggest challenges yet.
How can the Alumni help?
Unknown.
But there may be creative ideas you have….
Share them..
Send them to the Web so we can all consider.
And so it goes.
Fred

11 Comments

  1. Jack Caldwell on March 29, 2024 at 3:49 pm

    WGBH is old enough to have few mentors to counsel current staff. How did all of that “history” happen?

    It’s worth taking a look. Much to consider. Too much for this note.
    Thought: Invite to the studio as many “old timers” as you can find – to tell the present staff and management what they did to create the lead PBS station.

    Remember that “back in the day,” GBH entered the scene absent a PBS or CPB or satellites or an internet or “long lines.” Everyone entering the untravelled road called television was trying to figure out how to make it work and capture an audience. Not everyone had a TV set.

    Then WGBH General Manager – Hartford Gunn – made some critical decisions:
    He put in place the most state of the art technology and kept pace with new technology. He set up the BU scholars program. He attracted crusading people who wanted a shot with this new communications medium. And he stayed out of the way to let people “figure it out.” Yes, how to produce and direct and fundraise and partner.

    Along the way he spearheaded the creations of CPB and PBS.

    I would urge the current staff and management to take serious note of how WGBH morphed into GBH. Is GBH out in front as the lead organization with current technology?

    Let’s face it. “Tall towers” are history. Should CPB become CPC – The Corporation for Public Media? Same for PBS.

    Magazines are buried. Broadcasting is aged. Streaming is alive and growing. And what about M&A? (Mergers and Acquisitions)

    How about GBH and WETA? Create a for profit corporation. Merge with a major newspaper. Create a new internet product. GBH.com? It’s 2030! Who is creating outstanding news and entertainment? How is it delivered? How do viewers and listeners receive it? And how is it funded? Time for leaders to lead. Time for some serious “out-of-the-box” thinking.

    In summary, know your history; embrace new technology and people; repeat history.

  2. Russ Fortier on March 21, 2024 at 1:11 pm

    When I worked at WGBH, from 1965 to about 1984, first as a cameraman, and then as a television director, I remember frequent discussions about how to make public TV more “relevant,” that is, to people. At the time, I concluded that relevance would only be achieved when the public had affordable access to the tools of television: cameras, mics, recording media and distribution.
    That time is here and as a result, television has morphed into relevance because what viewers find useful or appealing survives and the rest is jettisoned.
    The challenge for institutionalized television, as I see it, is how to get trim, flexible and immediately responsive to the public’s need whether that need is important or frivolous.

    Though Google might not have its facts straight, it says GBH now employs 1,300 + people which seems like a very large number. Profit-making companies have been cutting their workforces recently and thus, lowering their overhead. While I agree that GBH, NPR and PBS need to shift their focus, find new revenue streams, and reinvent themselves, revamping their top-heavy structures might buy them time to accomplish all of this. In my opinion, without a top-to-bottom overhaul, very soon, public TV and radio won’t be nimble enough to stay in the game.

    • Frank Capria on March 24, 2024 at 3:25 pm

      Russ, that was a very thoughtful and thought provoking summary. All organizations in the modern economy need to be agile and efficient. While 1,300 sounds like a lot of overhead, consider this: When I left WGBH in April 2000, there were approximately 1,100 people on staff. Less than 20% growth in 20 years and an explosion of delivery platforms, doesn’t seem so bloated.

      Does GBH need to get leaner? Probably, but they must remain well enough staffed to answer today’s shifting market demands. Having spent the last quarter century in tech and private equity, I state with confidence that GBH’s biggest challenge is not becoming leaner. It’s far more efficient than Disney and Comcast. GBH’s challenge is maintaining relevance, something impossible on a shoestring.

      It’s not going to be easy -because it won’t be long before AI-generated pablum will be “good enough” for media enterprises and their audiences. GBH’s value proposition needs to be effectively communicated loudly and frequently in order for public broadcasting to survive. It’s not hyperbolic to warn that if the accuracy and intellectual rigor of public broadcasting are not valued enough to keep it, along with our most trusted publishers solvent, the American experiment will end in failure.

      • Ray Joyce on March 29, 2024 at 5:55 pm

        Well said Frank.

  3. Hollis M. on March 18, 2024 at 3:00 pm

    The first thing I thought of when I read this was how David Liroff did such an amazing job of preparing GBH for the analog to digital transition. GBH needs another visionary like David! Whether we watch our programs on a tv, laptop or phone, people are still going to want to watch quality programming. More local programming is always good but I don’t think GBH will have to change drastically just because the watching devices change. If GBH is going to survive this transition, it should’ve started already. Traveling on an airplane is the perfect example. As I walk up and down the aisles I see a range of devices being used as much as I see a range of programs being watched. Accessibility is the key. Due to the Bay Area being such a high-tech environment, KQED is making this transition because they had no choice if they wanted to survive. And just like GBH customized its programming for classrooms, they’ll have to customize their programming to fit different viewing venues. Schools and universities are also having to adjust to these changes. It’s challenging but not impossible to change with the new technology and, like satellite radio, will open up to a wider audience.

  4. Bill Cosel on March 18, 2024 at 8:34 am

    We enjoy PBS passport for the wealth of available PBS programs. So nice to not be pinned to a broadcast schedule. We don’t miss a beat this way. Local programs are available the usual way.

  5. Ed Baumeister on March 18, 2024 at 8:10 am

    The past is prologue and, alas, not the future. So many ideas about where to go from here, especially in the commercial world, turn on how to game the system, or the demographic landscape, or the technology, emerging or actual. In my years at WGBH, the “where to go” was provided by creators, from Alan Lupo to Fred Barzyk to Julia Child to Russ Morash to the Romagnolis and on and on. WGBH provided the resources for the creators. I doubt the very estimable David Ives understood, deeply, all the programs he supported. But he understood the importance of identifying and supporting creators.

    • Charles Kelley on March 22, 2024 at 4:09 pm

      I could not agree more. I worked as a lowly summer replacement studio technician for two summers in college during those years. The atmosphere of trust and encouragement to take initiative and be (responsibly) creative permeated even down to the studio floor, and took its example and inspiration from the people you mentioned in your post (and others). It was “in the air,” as they say (who ever “they” is). I also recall that the number of employees at the time was somewhere between 200-225; that may have had something to of with the flourishing of those creators (in tight quarters) in a way that spread through and engaged the whole organization (something Russ Fortier alluded to another post). I think you are right, too, about David Ives – he knew his people and knew how to support them. I have never forgotten that whenever we passed or encountered each other, he always addressed me by my first name. That he even knew my name was astounding enough; that he acknowledged me by name made me feel so much more valued, important and committed, as well. So that when you were doing a story on The Reporters, nothing was more important to me than clicking through those slides just the way you wrote it – because I was invested in that story, as well.

      To this day I tell people that WGBH was the best place I ever worked (even better than the two organizations that I headed myself!)

  6. Jock Gill on March 17, 2024 at 7:02 pm

    I worked on Alan Lupo’s The Reporters. It was about as local as you could get. But apparently that was not enough as the program had a short life. My guess is that current programming, I am not a viewer but do have a screen for streaming, is not very relevant to the existential threats we are facing. Are the hard questions and conversations being had? Who is championing the possible? Who is exposing greed at the expense of every living thing on this our one planet? Who is exposing the failures of the status quo business model? Who is celebrating the emerging new business models? Where is the muck raking? Can GBH escape corporatism and become the voice of the local and the personal? What has GBH done with the futurist Tony Seba or with the champion of electrification Saul Griffith? Has GBH done anything to explore why foreword looking utilities are exiting generation and distribution as fast as they can? Has anything been broadcast about the new energy model based on PV and wind supported by storage which enables local micro-grids? There is so much that is positive, as well as far too much that is negative. Old habits die hard. But they may kill us if we can not move beyond them very quickly.

  7. steveolenick on March 17, 2024 at 4:33 pm

    Content is king. On TV, streaming, VHS tape, thumb drive, Video Disc, ¾” u-matic, cans of 35mm film.

    IBM didn’t make typewriters, they made “business machines.” This approach allowed them to survive as technology evolved.

  8. Alex Pirie on March 17, 2024 at 12:51 pm

    Thanks for your persistence, Fred! No idea of how to do it, but figuring how to turn back to the Gunn years and risk taking from the corporation dependent Calderwood years is, to me anyway, crucial. Maybe (and I hope) our grandchildren and their cohort are leading the way (not perfectly and with many stumbles) back to more intense and more locally based programming. I remember Hartford’s fantasizing, way back then, of using a geographically limited (can’t remember the technical aspect) broadcast mode to produce (cast, write, and produce) neighborhood dramas that are shown to and belong to the neighborhoods. The at the time seething South Boston was the fantasized target area, if I remember correctly. That’s probably gone by the boards but thinking like that. There’s a lot going on – the institutional members of the academic world are having to choose between University Inc. and being institutions of higher learning. Global warming is (or will be shortly) be lapping up Western Ave. “Influencers” are everywhere – will they come together at some point? Just came across a recent reference in the New Yorker to The Advocates, another long ago success! Big is convenient and seductive, but not necessarily productive. What about putting a bunch of influencers into Studio A (sic transit) with Michael Dukakis? ;-)

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