April 04, 2020

Taking aim at PBS’ closed doors

In early April, the Public Broadcasting Service announced it had signed a multi-year satellite service contract with GE Americom. The agreement calls for PBS to start using two GE satellites later this year. In January, after AT&T Skynet lost its Telstar 401 satellite — a massive solar burst or discharge of particles probably zapped and disabled this satellite — PBS found itself temporarily blacked out as well. Subsequently, PBS shifted its programming distribution via satellite to Telstar 402R which is now owned by Loral Space & Communications Ltd.

Since the late 1970s, PBS has been one of the pioneering TV networks when it comes to using satellite TV technology to beam TV programming nationwide. In the early 1990s, PBS spend almost $160 million to develop and erect its space segment. Designed to propel PBS well into the 21st century, this large outlay was no secret. However, in 1997, the American public is being left in the dark about crucial details surrounding this new PBS satellite agreement with GE Americom.

PBS refuses to say how much money is involved. What’s up? Has the Public Broadcasting Service suddenly gone private? Ask PBS why this sum is not being disclosed, and they tell you that certain aspects of PBS operation are off-limits, and that this longstanding and seldom mentioned policy of non-disclosure is permitted under the Public Broadcasting Act of 1967 which created the modern entity we know as PBS.

OK, but everywhere you turn, local PBS stations are pushing their fundraising efforts to the limit. At a time when the upward spiral of operating expenses at PBS appears to be the driving force behind this activity, it is quite puzzling for the PBS powers that be in Washington, D.C. to approve any policy that relies on silence and secrecy, particularly when the topic concerns what might well be one of the single largest expenditures by PBS this year.

How many millions of dollars is PBS committing to satellite TV operations in 1997? How much is GE Americom making on this deal? Why is PBS so reluctant to allow the American public to be better informed about this very large transaction?

These questions are very simple, and PBS should not hesitate to provide answers. Yes, there are links between PBS and the private sector, and growing questions about how PBS is reshaping itself in the process. Mounting competition from other TV networks is no doubt a factor, too. The public does not need to be reminded that only through diligent oversight will the integrity of PBS be maintained. By the way, this writer is not suggesting that PBS is about to be subjected to any sort of intense scrutiny due to mistakes in terms of dollars spent, or dollars wasted.

Producing a profit is not part of the PBS equation, although the partners of PBS are not precluded from reaping a generous reward in the process. Witness the widly successful commercialization of Sesame Street and Barney as examples.

Satellite contracts and TV programming ventures are all part of the PBS decision-making process, while the management at PBS does not conform to any conventional corporate models. PBS constantly strives to remind people of its unique status. And when the folks at PBS headquarters go up to Capitol Hill on occasion to win support for whatever PBS sees as necessary or in its best interest, the public interest is seen as the essential underlying catalyst for any action undertaken by PBS executives.

But consider what transpired last September when PBS and its supporters in Congress attached an obscure amendment to an even more obsure piece of legislation known as the Satellite Home Viewer Act of 1994 (SHVA). Outside of the satellite TV and broadcasting TV industries, SHVA is virtually unknown, and it is likely to remain so. One outcome of this PBS-backed amendment last fall would have ensured an additional — and expanding — revenue stream for PBS amounting to 12 cents for every new DBS satellite TV subscriber.

If this specific amendment had been passed by Congress last year, PBS would have enjoyed a new source of revenue. An annual royalty fee for PBS of more than $400,000 from the roughly four million or so DBS subscribers would have resulted. The amendment died in committee, but the issue of money alone is not why we are discussing the PBS/DBS amendment here, rather this has to do with the impact of this proposed piece of legislation on local PBS stations. Why was PBS pursuing this satellite TV arrangement, and was it doing so in the public interest?

Consider this paragraph which was attached to the amendment as a means of explaining where PBS was heading.

“The PBS Board, which includes representatives of PBS member stations, has approved the concept of creating a nationwide DBS feed because such a service would provide much needed revenue to public television, while steps could be taken to protect local stations from lost revenue.”

“Lost revenue” is perhaps an understatement of some weight for many local PBS stations in rural states. The small DBS satellite dish just happens to be the hottest selling consumer electronics item in the history of consumer electronics. Would this plan in effect raise money for PBS-HQ, while thinning the ranks of local PBS viewers in many rural states by making it easier for PBS viewers to migrate or switch from their local PBS station’s TV signal to a national PBS satellite TV signal? After all, DBS satellites offer strong TV signal to a national PBS satellite TV signal? After all, DBS satellites offer strong TV signals with very clear pictures all across the country.

Whereas alarm bells should have started ringing, here again the silence is deafening. How did PBS intend to supplement local PBS stations, and why? Which states would have been the most severely affected? PBS supporters in rural states probably had no idea that PBS headquarters was about to trigger something that might slash revenues with little or no comment — not to mention steep legal bills from the high-priced Washingtion communications lawyers who would have tackled the sticky copyright and licensing issues which would need to be addressed — as a result of this supposed pro-PBS fee proposal.

Keep in mind, as well, that in rural states like Vermont, Montana, and Maine, the percentage of satellite TV dish-owning households is much higher than the national average. That figure is approaching if not exceeding 20 percent of all TV households in some of these rural states. Often these same states have substantial local PBS infrastructural funding needs — and diminished resources — on a per capita basis due to a burdensome combination of sheer geographical size, topographical constraints which can adversely affect broadcast TV signal strength, and lower population densities. Finally, do not overlook the fact that a large majority of DBS dish-owning households tend to own PC’s as well. This PC dimension serves as an important indicator that this fast-growing DBS cluster of households is quite affluent, and, it is precisely the category of households that local PBS stations in rural states need to retain and recruit.

Put it all together and you see why this writer gets so uncomfortable whenever PBS refuses to answer questions about satellite TV-related issues. PBS should abandon its veil of secrecy. The PBS decision to withhold the details of this agreement with GE Americom is unacceptable. The satellite TV environment as a whole is far too complex to allow for further establishment of any PBS policy of non-disclosure. PBS does an exceptional job in terms of its educational, informational, and entertainment-related TV programming. If it is going to wave its public interest banner, PBS should provide answers about where public television is heading, and how it is spending our money. Besides, PBS asks, “If PBS doesn’t do it, who will?” In this instance, the answer thus far seems to be, “Nobody, not even PBS.”

Peter J. Brown is a free-lance writer specializing in the North American satellite TV industry. He lives in Mount Desert.

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