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PBS, Fighting for Relevance, Loses Its Chief

February 17, 2005|Bob Baker | Special to The Times

When she took over PBS five years ago, Pat Mitchell seemed expertly qualified. She had been a college professor, a local TV producer, reporter and anchor as well as a correspondent on NBC's "Today" show and a CNN producer -- the first producer to become the public broadcaster's president.

But three years into the job, Mitchell was saying, "I had no idea how hard it was going to be." The Public Broadcasting Service's ratings, which began to fall as cable TV spread in the '90s, continued to sag, prompting Mitchell to warn public TV programmers in 2002: "We are dangerously close in our overall prime-time numbers to falling below the relevance quotient."

This week, under attack from the right and the left, Mitchell announced she would quit as PBS president when her contract expired in June 2006. She pledged to dedicate the next 15 months to a series of fundraisers to help improve PBS' programming, and to choosing her successor.

But whoever replaces Mitchell is likely to be confronted with deeper problems at the private, nonprofit media enterprise. Once a broadcaster with its own distinctive niche and a reliable supply of funding, PBS is struggling on many fronts.

Dependent on the federal government for 15% of its budget, PBS faces a significant cutback -- President Bush's new budget effectively proposes a 25% cut for public broadcasting.

Cable networks such as A&E, Bravo, the History Channel and Nickelodeon, which reach most American TV homes, offer many of the documentaries and children's fare that PBS once had nearly to itself. PBS' average viewer is 58 years old. And the increasingly polarized political climate puts pressure on programming decisions.

Mitchell said Wednesday that politics played no role in her decision: "There are no dots to connect." The 62-year-old TV executive said her only immediate plans after leaving PBS would be to take some time off and to stay involved in public broadcasting.

Asked Wednesday if she was leaving PBS in better shape than she found it, Mitchell answered, "I'd like you to ask me that in June of '06."

Marvin Kalb, a member of the new PBS editorial-standards panel and former NBC News reporter, said whoever replaced Mitchell would struggle with today's political climate.

"This is a difficult time to be in broadcasting. One has to be so incredibly careful about what one says ... the slightest thing can be hyped so that it takes on political colorization and suddenly you're a liberal."

Alberto Ibarguen, publisher of the Miami Herald and chairman of the PBS board, said the PBS presidency was "a job that wears people down quite a bit."

"It's an organization built on the assumptions of lots of government funding, corporate contributions and no competition," he said. "There's increasing pressure to do more with less and be competitive" against cable channels.

Mitchell announced her decision not to seek a contract extension at a meeting of public TV station managers. She said in an interview she wanted to use the rest of her time at PBS to raise funds to improve children's programs, to "deliver the promise of the digital [television] age," and to improve investigative reporting.

She said her announcement should not have come as a surprise because she told the PBS board when she signed her last contract in 2003 that "two terms would be enough."

Mitchell said she was proud that criticism had come from both ends of the political spectrum.

In what was viewed as an effort to deflect accusations of left-wing bias, Mitchell cut the length of liberal commentator Bill Moyers' show "Now" from an hour to 30 minutes after he retired. She also gave some conservative commentators, such as Tucker Carlson and Paul Gigot, a home on public broadcasting.

Critics also decried PBS' announcement last month that it had cut a scene from the movie "Dirty War," about a chemical attack on London, in which a nude woman was shown being scrubbed down after exposure to a "dirty bomb." Mitchell said she felt the preemptive move was necessary in an environment of heightened Federal Communications Commission scrutiny.

Then, she found herself navigating another controversy -- this time, a flap over an episode of the children's show "Postcards From Buster," hosted by a cartoon rabbit. Last month, Education Secretary Margaret Spellings upbraided PBS with a sternly worded letter for an episode in which Buster, the rabbit, encounters a real-life Vermont family with two mothers.

Mitchell decided not to distribute the segment to PBS' 349 member stations -- and said she'd made that decision before receiving Spellings' letter. Again, liberals fumed -- convinced that PBS had become so sensitive to the conservative agenda that it was self-censoring.

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