Of walled gardens and quality

I’m back after a short trip to Las Vegas for the annual Public Broadcasting conference. Public Broadcasting, I learned, is facing the same disruptive innovations that are attacking the foundation of commercial broadcasting, so I felt right at home with these station managers and PBS executives. In many ways, their problems may actually be more acute, because the bulk of their funding comes directly from viewers. They also have to dance their way around corporate funding, which is profoundly impacted by the laws of reach and frequency. Shrinking audiences are shrinking audiences, regardless of the ownership of the TV station.

PBS.org is one of the highest trafficked Websites online, and I was naturally interested in the business presentation regarding the site. It’s an enormous aggregation of 1,300 sites reflecting PBS content. Some idiot (that’s being kind) actually suggested they drop the Website and use the money to buy another program! Can you imagine such? PBS stations contribute $7.5 million to run PBS.org (75% of the PBS Interactive budget), and those responsible for the site are acutely aware that the money could disappear in a moment. That’s why they’re offering a plan for self-sufficiency that includes advertising for sponsors and a “premium content” section. There was talk of paid search, wireless, podcasting, and games. In addition to “standard services,” PBS Interactive would charge the stations fees for other services, although the specifics weren’t discussed.

PBS.org is an important portal on the information super highway, and it needs to be alive and healthy. I would caution them that building walled gardens with “premium content” is a slippery slope, one that could just as easily backfire as produce self-sufficiency. The law of unintended consequences often rears its ugly head along this path. Despite the reality that PBS has a history of charging for content (tapes, etc.), expectations on the Web are different, because the person whose hand is on the mouse is in charge. It was noted that a page written in 1997 about Tsunamis was one of the most popular locations on the Internet during the Tsunami crisis a few months ago — evidence that the Web’s long tail includes PBS. This is the way it should be for an archive supported by the public.

Our session was called “Putting the public back in public broadcasting.” As with commercial broadcasters, I told them that revenue isn’t the problem — audience is the problem, and that citizens media offered an opportunity to them (and all broadcasters) to get involved with that audience on a whole new level.

The Achilles’ Heel of Public Broadcasting is actually its core competency — trustworthy, quality programming. Those lofty attributes served it well in a Modernist, top-down world, especially when viewer choices were limited. PBS had the history, arts, documentary and education niches all to itself. Not so anymore, and the cry “but we offer such quality” falls on the deaf ears of a public that views such a claim with the same skepticism it does any other media claim these days. Quality is such a subjective term, especially in today’s marketplace. The inference I gathered from the people with whom I spoke was that quality to PBS — among other things — includes the filtering that only an educated élite can provide. I’m not trying to be unkind, but this is the impression one gets when the word is tossed around like an official mandate, a justification for all kinds of difficulties in a world of disruptive technologies and innovations.

My fellow presenters, Heidi Swillinger of the San Francisco Chronicle and Meredith Nierman of WGHB-TV in Boston, both work directly with input from readers or viewers. Heidi runs the “2 cents” section of the Chronicle; Meredith is in charge of the program “Zoom,” a show by and for kids. The first question we were asked following our presentations was revealing.

“How do you know the stuff these people are giving you is truthful and accurate? Don’t you need to verify what you’re given?”
This seems the fairest of fair questions, but it reveals a deep distrust of the public and the belief that people need protection from falsity, myth, emotion, and (God forbid) chaos.

As long as PBS clings to the notion that its ability to protect people from such has sustainable value, it will continue to face difficulties in a world that increasingly says, “I want to make up my own mind.” I heard somebody say, “We help people make up their own minds.” To the extent that PBS provides various perspectives on matters, I say that’s a good position to take. But when it means “we filter out the nonsense,” it comes off as self-serving and disingenuous.

These are interesting times we’re in.

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