PBS President Pat Mitchell will leave her post in June 2006, when her current contract expires, she told general managers of member stations in Washington last week. A PBS spokeswoman said Mitchell’s intention to leave next year was already well-known among PBS board members, whom she informed when re-upping for a second three-year term in 2003.
Mitchell is stepping down as public TV becomes increasingly mired in America’s culture wars and scrambles to secure its place in the 500-channel world of digital TV.
Most recently, howls from the right prompted her to refuse distribution of an episode of children’s program Postcards From Buster in which the cartoon bunny visits a pair of lesbian parents. Earlier, some on the left complained when conservatives Tucker Carlson and Paul Gigot were added to the PBS lineup to counterbalance liberals like Bill Moyers.
Moreover, PBS is finding it increasingly difficult to scare up corporate funding even for marquee programs like Great Performances. Program underwriting has dropped from $221.9 million in 2001 to $184.3 million last year. PBS has struggled to stay atop the market for cultural programming by facing down competition from high-brow cable channels like Bravo, A&E and Discovery.
The corporate cutbacks have made public TV dependent on Washington for funding and vulnerable to political pressure. PBS hopes to secure more independence by persuading Congress to earmark perhaps millions of dollars in proceeds from a future auction of analog TV channels that will be returned to the government after stations convert to digital-only operation.
Conservatives, however, have balked at both the expense and the notion of giving PBS more freedom.
Mitchell says she will use her remaining time to try to secure a portion of those auction profits or some other permanent funding. Also, she’s working with station operators to broaden public television’s use as a classroom aid and expanding its children’s programming.
Broadcast news directors are pushing Congress to protect news operations and their confidential sources.
Following a court ruling last week that reporters have no right to shield the identities of confidential sources from legal investigations, the Radio-Television News Directors Association joined other news groups in asking Congress to step in.
“The courts are making it clear that reporters cannot rely on First Amendment protections,” says RTNDA President Barbara Cochran. “This decision underscores the need for federal legislators to enact a shield law to establish reasonable standards for compelling and shielding disclosure of sources and information.”
Cochran raised the alarm after print reporters Judith Miller of the New York Times and Matthew Cooper of Time were ordered to tell a grand jury who leaked the information that Joe Wilson, a critic of the Bush administration’s Iraq war policy, was the husband of CIA operative Valerie Plame.
TV reporters face the same threat, Cochran notes. While no reporter has an unqualified exemption from subpoenas, she adds, allowing the government to flush out confidential sources will “criminalize investigative journalism.”
Bills to enact a shield law have already been introduced in Congress.
House Commerce Committee Chairman Joe Barton (R-Texas), who last week promised legislation to speed the DTV transition, learned that the folks back home aren’t exactly confident he’ll be successful. At the Ennis, Texas, Best Buy near his house, he asked a salesman whether one of those fancy plasma HDTVs would be a good buy. Unaware of Barton’s identity, the salesmen informed him that Washington has the digital transition so messed up it’ll never happen. “I thought Congress was going to do something about that,” Barton said. Forget it, the salesman responded and directed him to a $300 analog model, which Barton bought.