One In A Crowd

As PBS chops away at its distinguishing elements, its fans wonder if it will start looking -- and programming -- like everybody else. TV and Radio Column

March 27, 2002|By David Folkenflik | David Folkenflik,SUN TELEVISION WRITER

The mission used to be indispensability.

From its birth 33 years ago, PBS sought to create and distribute programs that Americans couldn't find anywhere else on the television dial. Big Bird, Julia Child, Monty Python, Evelyn Waugh and Ken Burns all cut memorable figures on the country's cultural landscape, the subjects of praise and parody, thanks to PBS.

Now, the aim is relevance.

In the past week, Louis Rukeyser's ouster from Maryland Public Television's Wall Street Week With Louis Rukeyser has directed a spotlight on public broadcasters as they scramble to compete with cable outlets and their commercial cousins.

Just like PBS, which nationally distributes Wall Street Week, HBO produces award-winning documentaries and celebrated American dramatic series, but with more daring. Just like PBS, A&E offers biographies on American presidents. Just like PBS, Animal Planet airs programs on big cats and small pets. Individual channels are dedicated to other subjects that were also once nearly the sole dominion of PBS - the financial markets, home improvement, cuisine and classic movies - further eroding its distinctive niche.

PBS and its partners have taken notice, taken stock and taken action. Under President Pat Mitchell, PBS is embracing market-driven research as it seeks to reshape its fare for adults. Masterpiece Theatre has been revamped and its schedule switched. Several well-received shows dropped by the networks have been picked up by PBS. Partnerships have flourished with Bloomberg, The New York Times and other outlets.

"If we continue to just do what we've always been doing and hope for the best, that seems a sure recipe for irrelevance," says John Wilson, senior vice president for programming at PBS. "We want to look at how these shows can reinvent themselves."

While he promises that no change should be so jarring that it would alienate current viewers, Wilson adds, "the median age of PBS' audience is 56 years. We'd like it to be somewhere around 44, 45 to 50."

PBS must attract younger viewers to bolster its aging audiences or popular support for the network will wither, Wilson says. Despite the existence of commercial competitors, he says, PBS will survive because of its quality.

More than 70 million of the nation's 105.5 million homes have at least basic cable, while another 17.1 million homes receive myriad channels through satellite television.

Robert J. Shuman, Maryland Public Television's president and CEO, says he doesn't simply want younger viewers. "We're not selling advertising," Shuman said. "We're really doing it for the point of view of serving the public and understanding the public."

But MPT's efforts to adopt that philosophy met with a rocky start last week. The state television system announced that it would start a new version of Wall Street Week in partnership with Fortune magazine in the fall but offered nary a word about Rukeyser, the show's host for all of its 32 years. Rukeyser, 69, declared that he would not accept the diminished role offered him at the end of his contract, which lapses in June.

Last Friday night, on a program broadcast live, Rukeyser went a step further. Rukeyser told viewers that he had been ambushed by his employers and was working on a new show, to be offered directly to public television stations - although not through MPT or PBS.

MPT officials responded that Rukeyser had breached his contract and fired him Sunday, saying he was never again to appear on their airwaves. This Friday, a new version of the program will emerge on MPT featuring two Fortune editors.

Rukeyser termed the banishment "a childish temper tantrum." The ugly fight has spurred headlines in newspapers across the country.

In explaining their abrupt shift, MPT officials pointed to the age gap between the average viewer of Wall Street Week With Louis Rukeyser (currently above 60 years old) and Fortune magazine readers (about 49 years old). PBS officials say they hope to attract a more diverse array of investors to watch the program, saying they are not serving the public if they are only reaching older Americans.

But for some, that raises questions of whether public broadcasters - subsidized by tax dollars and shielded from taxation - are mimicking their for-profit peers.

"It is right on the edge of commercialization," says Roger Caplan, head of the Caplan Group, a Columbia-based marketing and advertising firm.

MPT's efforts to attract younger viewers resemble moves made recently by major networks. Earlier this year, the pursuit of David Letterman by ABC and its parent company, Disney, prompted outrage from many journalists, as he would have dislodged Ted Koppel and Nightline. Letterman withdrew from talks with ABC partly because he did not want to force Koppel from the air.

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