Thursday, March 10, 2011

The Stumbles of Two Public Broadcasters

Vivian Schiller
One insider described the recent missteps at NPR as leaving the impression that it's become "the Charlie Sheen of broadcasting." Ouch.

Under the presidency of Vivian Schiller, NPR has found itself dealing with a series of gaffes that have added up to a large and ongoing public relations mess.

Schiller came to NPR two years ago from NYTimes.com, and seemed like a good fit at first. But from the member stations' point of view, she seemed less assured when it came to balancing the complexities of a membership organization. She may have paid lip service to the role of the customers - in this case, the 700 + stations that air NPR content and who pay program fees and membership dues. But the feeling outside of Washington, DC was that she just didn't get just how nuanced, complex and important that station relationship can be.

And inside the news organization with many strong and competing cultures (aka the "tribes"), Schiller was also seen as someone who valued the NPR website (which is excellent, by the way) over the program and radio elements.

Combine all that with two high profile dismissals that evoked the third rail of race: the highly regarded trainer/producer Doug Mitchell was laid off and commentator Juan Williams was summarily fired for statements he made on Fox...it seemed only a matter of time before Schiller would run out of room and the NPR board would run out of patience. VP of News Ellen Weiss was fired after the Juan Williams fiasco and some at NPR felt that she took the fall for a decision made up the line.

Recent threats of budget cuts to public broadcasting have had the member stations openly worried that the NPR president should have done more to dissuade the cutters in Congress.

The last straw came when the head of fund raising, Ron Schiller (no relation) was punked by James O'Keefe in a case of truly malicious, conservative entrapment. R. Schiller was invited to lunch with members of a purported Muslim foundation offering NPR a $5 million grant (which was never accepted).

At one point, Schiller "took off his NPR hat" and then went to town on Tea Party conservatives, Jews in the media and other bits of red meat so dear to conservative opponents of NPR. An example of hubris and foolishness (doesn't anyone at NPR perform some due diligence on prospective donors?) on his part. He paid the price by being fired twice in one week - once from NPR and then from the Aspen Institute which originally agreed to take him off NPR's hands. 

When Schiller's table talk was posted on Youtube yesterday, the NPR Board fired Vivian Schiller today. Presumably the previous embarrassments didn't help. Despite all these recent p.r. disasters, NPR's audience continues to grow.

Kirstine Stewart
Meanwhile the CBC has just sent out an all staff memo announcing a massive shift in managerial responsibility.

Under the leadership of Kirstine Stewart, the recently appointed head of CBC Radio, Television and Online, the managerial changes concentrate on categories like sports on which there will be heavy emphasis. The memo mentions "commissioned and scripted programming," "studio and unscripted programming," and other categories that will likely sound odd to non-CBC-ers as examples of a large management structure that seem to pay less attention to product and more to process.

It's too soon to say whether these changes will work at the CBC. The public broadcaster has had some successes with its entertainment shows but on the information side, the ratings have been poor. CBC Radio still does well, but resources have been shifted to help out the priorities in television and radio staffers are anxious (as usual) about the changes.

The CBC is also a large and complicated operation also with many warring tribes. Stewart will have her work cut out for her.

Some initial observations: like NPR, CBC has its political opponents also on the right and who also believe that public funding of public broadcasting is inherently wasteful. For the CBC to proffer a large and somewhat obscure managerial structure at a time when impressions are also important, this could appear to be the act of someone with little regard for appearances.

The role of news and information at the CBC seems clearly to be in decline. Or at least less of a priority than in years past.

Even more astonishing is the complete absence of any mention of the recently revamped CBC website which now looks extremely good. But in the Stewart document, CBC’s online strategy is very hard to decipher. "Inside the CBC," the official blog, has gone silent for two months, with no explanation.  CBC.ca has no links to Facebook, Twitter, etc., making it one of the few information web sites in the world that doesn't.

As someone who follows these things observed, "Blogs and social media represent open, two-way communication but CBC seems more comfortable behind cloistered walls, like a true state broadcaster."

12 comments:

  1. Based on experience, they can’t find anyone willing to take on the thankless job of running the Inside the CBC blog. It is functionally impossible to write a post there that isn’t immediately pilloried by one faction or another. The obvious option – turning off comments – is too obvious to be put into practice, of course.

    ReplyDelete
  2. I thought it might be that. But the point of a blog is that it allows for people to express themselves (in a civil way, we hope). It becomes a safety valve, of sorts. To only praise everything the company does (or keep quiet) feels more like North Korea than public broadcasting.

    ReplyDelete
  3. Having worked for CBC Television, I can say that it hasn't been a true public broadcaster for years. It's not providing what it's supposed to, is irrelevant and unnecessary.

    CBC TV execs focus on ratings, demographic studies (when I was there, TV and online news were told to tailor stories and programming to Greg, a fictional urban male in his late 20s who loves sports, high-rated US shows like CSI and Survivor, and gadgets) and product placement (seriously, entire scripts were written around endorsement deals).

    The infighting, needless bureaucracy, nepotism and politics inside the company are truly unbelievable and really prevent decent work from being done. It's full of people who fell into a job or who knew someone there and yet keeps out new talent by stringing people along on contracts. It's incredibly top-heavy, full of luddites and generally out of touch with Canadians. There's lip service made to the mandate, but really, little is done. They want American ratings, have American executives and continually produce shows that Canadians don't want to watch. The much lauded co-productions, Dr. Who, The Tudors, ain't about Canada or Canadians and while decent shows, only funding is contributed and not Canadian talent. They're there to shore up the ratings. Ratings and advertising dollars have long been the focus of executives -- the problem is, they're not good at generating either.

    Hundreds of thousands of dollars, if not more, were spent to try to replicate viral you tube videos (like lonely girl) and turn them into TV series -- the thinking was, we don't have to pay unions, talent, writers etc., we can use the internet. We'll create our own viral videos. Except it was done in CBC fashion, with endless business and marketing meetings (all anybody seems to do in that building), the hiring of high-paid executives, setting up departments, and pouring money at it without really thinking it through. Essentially, nothing was produced.

    CBC Kids' TV imports the bulk of its content, produces none of its own and spends a lot and has a huge staff to produce interstitial programming (Sid, Patty and Mama Yama) so it can claim to be Canadian.

    Movie Central, HBO Canada, Showcase and even CTV produce far superior Canadian comedy and drama. TVO and Knowledge produce far superior Canadian current affairs shows and documentaries. Discovery and Oasis produce far better educational, science and nature shows. CTV does a far better job at local and national television news. The budgets at all of those channels are a lot less than they are at the CBC.

    Online news recycles wire stories (and makes them boring) and that's about all it does. It's a huge department, senior staff is behind the times (and many don't have news experience) and the amount of red tape is extraordinary.


    CBC Radio has plenty of internal problems too, but it largely does what it's supposed to... and there's no one else out there doing the same.

    And Inside The CBC is an internal blog written by online staffers, as directed from above. For a public company, there's a LOT of secrecy, within and to the outside, which isn't surprising.

    I guess my point is that the problem is a lot bigger than who's at the top.

    ReplyDelete
  4. Whoa, Jack! Who woulda thunk that I defend the State Broadcaster for anything, but watch Wednesday night's two original shows, Dragons'Den and Republic of Doyle. Each has flaws; each is uniquely Canadian and each is wonderful to watch. CBC is imperfect and wasteful and walled up, yes. Maybe even hopeless. But, not without merit. Managed differently, maybe it would find it's core mission. Nobody has the guts to do what has to be done.

    ReplyDelete
  5. Dear Anon - Neither of those shows exhibit any qualities that could define public broadcasting. They could just as well be done by CTV or Global. Possibly even better. CBC has abandoned its core mission and no one is holding it to account.

    ReplyDelete
  6. I don't agree, Jeffrey. They are local. They do things that other broadcasters don't do. I'm not interested in what private broadcasters could do; they didn't make these shows. The real star of Doyle is St. John's. The real star of Dragon's Den is capitalism. Nobody made those shows in Canada; the shows feature ignored but valuable parts of the national fabric. If that isn't a public broadcaster's value, what is?

    ReplyDelete
  7. I disagree my dear Anonymous. Most of commercial tv is only about capitalism. CBC wants to prove that it doesn't have any of those unspeakable alternative trends, thus making it more acceptable to its paymasters in Ottawa. The value of a public broadcaster is the same as a public university: it needs to present the world as it is including some alternatives. It should not be seen as informational comfort food.

    ReplyDelete
  8. The CBC is going to be whatever Anonymous and other CBC audiences/taxpayers want it to be, comfort food or otherwise. There is a strong connection between the changes occurring now (initiated in 2009) and the extensive amounts of audience research CBC has done recently.

    ReplyDelete
  9. Then the CBC really is the successful commercial broadcaster that you say it is Steph, so, should it still be receiving government money? That's the question we need to ask. I'm not opposed to good programming and high ratings, but what passes for public broadcasting on CBC TV, isn't. Sports? Dragon's Den? Does popular = public? Moreover, the audience research doesn't make sense. Why won't CBC release the research numbers, sample size, the framing of the questions, and return to sample data?

    ReplyDelete
  10. The CBC is a hybrid broadcaster, in that it receives a government appropriation and also sustains itself through advertising revenues (from television and increasingly online). This makes it difficult to defend the CBC solely as a public broadcaster, because some of its decisions/actions follow a commercial logic. This is where those CBC research numbers become difficult to get a hold of--the corp. won't release them for competitive reasons.

    In my opinion as someone who studies news media, popular does not equal public. I think a lot of the recent changes we've seen at the CBC are in response to declining ad revenues as opposed to genuine a re-imagining of the role of a public broadcaster in society.

    As a taxpayer, I would like to see more money put into the CBC. The broadcaster's parliamentary appropriation has not increased to meet inflation for a few decades now, and add to that the harsh cuts that started in the 80s and continued into the 90s. And the CBC's appropriation has never been able to cover its television operations. The CBC has a complicated context that needs to be incorporated into debates/conversations about its status in Canada. I don't think anyone has done a good job of that thus far, in terms of the blogs and newspapers.

    ReplyDelete
  11. Steph, is CBC TV a sheep or a goat? Public or commercial? The current mix enables CBC to be a second rate commercial broadcaster and an almost invisible public broadcaster. It sells commercials to business and coercials to the taxpayers. I would be happy with either role for CBC TV, but not both.

    ReplyDelete
  12. I suppose you think InSecurity does not fit the template of public broadcasting because it is a silly espionage comedy while Intelligence did because it was a deadly serious anti-American espionage drama.

    For the love of God: Not every single show has to be Opening Night to qualify as public broadcasting.

    ReplyDelete