PBS TV Stations in a Financial Crisis, Out of Step with the Times

The digital revolution spells certain doom for the PBS funding model of a bygone era. Today, nearly ALL of the most popular PBS programming is available on Netflix.com and other online services for as little as $7.99 a month.  A cool digital gadget, called Roku, sells for less than $100 (one time only), interfaces between the Internet and your TV, and opens an enormous spectrum of PBS and other TV programs via online video services.

pbs_3Generally clueless local public television stations in the U.S. are in serious, serious financial trouble, and what they are doing appears designed to drive away an already dwindling audience. PBS viewers must suffer through now-quarterly disruptions of programs to allow the stations to plead for donations.

The number of PBS stations that have gone off the air is alarming:

  • The New Jersey PBS Network went off the air in 2011. Its equipment was sold to commercial TV stations in New York and Philadelphia.
  • The PBS TV station in Orlando, FL, is on the verge of being acquired by a religious group and converted (no pun intended) to religious programming.
  • The local PBS station in San Jose, CA, fell into financial straits and was sold to KQED, the landmark PBS operation in San Francisco.
  • KCSM, the PBS station in San Mateo, CA, reportedly has been put up for auction because the College of San Mateo could no longer run the station.
A whole boring evening of rock greats from the 1950s ... and you, too, can own the CD.

A whole boring evening of rock greats from the 1950s … and you, too, can own the CD.

You get the picture. The legacy local PBS funding model no longer works in the digital era, and the lack of seasoned broadcasters at the helm creates a crisis with few answers.

Give you an example … Maryland Public Television preempts the entire 30-minute broadcast of BBC Nightly News to run infomercials for self-help programs and a retrospective of Jerry Lewis’s life along with pleas for contributions. That’s … well, lunacy is a polite word. And, they wonder why the phones are not ringing.

A group of top PBS executives met in Washington last year to share their woes and try to find solutions. I attended the meeting and can attest that PBS has no shortage of executives, many if not most with backgrounds in community relations and fund-raising, not running television stations in today’s highly competitive world.

Sure enough, they left the conference room with no solutions to the growing financial crisis other than to continue a tactic they’ve done for decades – interrupt prime PBS programming to beg for funds from viewers each quarter. Just how many of the same old trash and trinket mugs and tote bags can they offer?

But, today, the alternative programming PBS stations air during fund-raising periods is highly commercial and canned infomercials from fitness, financial, and other self-help hucksters. The lengthy commercials are given to the local PBS stations. In turn, the stations must offer (sell) their commercial merchandise to viewers.

It’s no surprise that the biggest threat to PBS is itself.

I’m switching to Netflix for a recent PBS series … without commercial interruption.


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2 Enlightened Replies

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  1. There are many shows on PBS I have enjoyed over the years. I supported PBS for a number of those years. Now that we have literally hundreds of stations to choose from, I wonder if it is still necessary for a publicly supported station to exist at all. I am not talking about the shows, but the station itself. Surely we do not want to see shows like Sesame Street disappear, or many of the PBS news programs. But surely there must be another way for the stations to raise funds or support the stations. Like you, I have been driven away from the incessant fund raising drives. I must also take into account, as we witness and are affected by the budget problems facing our local, state and national communities, the choices that now must inevitably be made, it would be nice if we did not have to make choices, that we could do everything that we wanted, but we can’t. What with Cable, Netflix, Roku, the internet, I am afraid we have reached a time where we must begin to make the hard and difficult decisions. Alas, nothing stays the same or lasts forever.

    • DH says:

      Thanks for your comment.

      I recall the late Steve Jobs once predicting that in a few years, most television programming would be available digitally, online. With the fast-growing influence of Hulu Plus, Netflix, Amazon and others, the time is upon us. People can view what they want, at a time they desire. Viewers are more in control. Traditional television broadcasting stations, with their expensive to operate transmitters, are slowly becoming like dinosaurs. What I find particularly troubling is that PBS is slowly losing ground due largely to the incompetence of the people who run the local stations. They reveal themselves by clinging desperately to ages-old fund-raising methods, not knowing what else to do. I feel they have lost touch with the audiences.


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