Sunday, June 1, 2008

Sorry, You Can't Help: Public Broadcasting & the People

Welcome to the site developed exclusively for content producers like you. The links above provide an overview of key PBS priorities and processes that we hope will open the gate to exciting new proposals from a fresh pool of creative talent. Dive in and explore the possibilities. Producing for PBS website
Right up front we can all generally agree that the public broadcasting is good for our civic life and produces high-quality content. It's also great that it accepts independent and affiliate produced content that meets the overall mission of public broadcasting by seeing if it informs, inspires & educations.

Can't Get There From Here
However, while public broadcasting does try to solicit independent content there are too many high barriers that are constructed. The result is that that while it maintains high quality standards it leaves behind content that would actually accelerate accomplishing it's mission. In our digital world of ubiquitous distribution channels the $400 million plus annual public media system is powerless in capturing the content that is changing the daily lives of people as they find health care, participate in our civic life, improve their financial assets and generally try to improve their lives.

We might question if the current structure of how public broadcasting invests in independent content really results in independence, but right now I am more concerned about The Three Tests.

Where is All Comes Together
The Three Tests are the yardsticks in which all of content is measured for the taint commercialism prior to distribution through PBS. This is the narrow end of the funnel that takes the soup of affiliates, independent producers, production houses, etc. and filters the content both in video and online.

Briefly the tests are: the Editorial Control Test, the Perception Test and the Commercialization Test. The PBS Standards & Practices site (which is excellent by the way) summarizes them as:
  • Editorial Control Test: Has the underwriter exercised editorial control? Could it?
  • Perception Test: Might the public perceive that the underwriter has exercised editorial control?
  • Commercialism Test: Might the public conclude the program is on public television principally because it promotes the underwriter's products, services or other business interests?

Saving Us From Ourselves
The natural inclination is to set the public broadcasting system apart from commercial media for the very reason for the creation of the system in the first place, namely the corrupting influence of commercialism on our civic ideals. The cynic in me says "hmmm, too late on that one", but the notion that somehow public broadcasting saves us from our ourselves is at the root of why public broadcasting is missing out on the greatest democratic movement in the hundred years.

Public broadcasting, says Bill Moyers, [is a] medium that can dignify life instead of debase it. This makes of our mission a moral transaction.
The point of public broadcasting is the mission; using media as a tool for a particular public purpose. The point of public purpose media has become increasingly obscured behind the organizational structures of public broadcasting. The wars around underwriting are just a symptom of the ascendancy of the system over the focus on an outcome. A couple of provocative questions:
  • Is a public broadcasting affiliate simply defined by a broadcast license or should be by purpose of the type of content it distributes?
  • Is there worthy content that informs, inspires and educates on the Discovery Channel?
  • Is Digg a better judge of what's useful than an appointed editorial committee?
  • Are African-Americans, Latinos, Asians and Native Americans turning to the web because it produces more content for and by them?
Waking Up Poor
At Google there is a phrase that describes a condition where employees who were a part of the early days as not coming into long-held jobs because they were "waking up rich", meaning they suddenly realized that they didn't have to work. Until public broadcasting stops wrestling with these questions in favor of taking concrete action to open their distribution channels to all Americans I am afraid that we will wake up some day and not have PBS or NPR anymore and we will be the poorer for it.

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