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(Tele)vision quest 

Public broadcasting's getting plenty of attention these days, nationally and locally.

Corporation for Public Broadcasting chair Ken Tomlinson made headlines by applying political pressure to the Public Broadcasting Service to correct a perceived liberal bias in the network (see "What Next," June 8).

That incident and a push by local activists to influence public-radio programming here (see "Radio daze," below) likely accounted for the good-sized crowd that turned out last Wednesday night to see PBS President and CEO Pat Mitchell, who used Rochester as the launching pad for a nationwide tour she's embarking on.

Though billed as being about the future of PBS, Mitchell's address, and the Q&A session that followed, were divided equally between that and promoting PBS. For a synopsis of the latter, check out her remarks to the National Press Club in late May (www.pbs.org/aboutpbs/news/20050524_pressclubspeech.html).

About the former, the tidbits Mitchell shared were interesting, if a bit incomplete. Digital Futures Initiative is the bland name PBS gave its plan to overhaul the way it serves up content. The project calls for the conversion of content to digital files that will be searchable and available in every conceivable format, from television to handheld mobile devices. "Media on demand" is the catchphrase Mitchell used to describe this goal.

WXXI's already ahead of the digital curve, using its TV signal to broadcast four separate digital channels simultaneously. Of course, WXXI and PBS can't take all the credit for the sea-change that's coming to public broadcasting. The federal government has already mandated that analog television stations switch to digital in the next several years (the frequencies freed up by this move will be sold off to telecommunications firms and other companies). But they do get credit for taking the challenge as an opportunity to rethink how they offer programming.

City Newspaper caught up with Mitchell for a quick interview during her stop. Following is an edited transcript of that conversation.

City: Tell us a little bit about this tour and why you chose to start it in Rochester.

Pat Mitchell: The campaign begins here for a lot of reasons. One of them is that Rochester is modeling that digital future right now. Because they are fully digital, because they are broadcasting digital multi-cast channels, and because they're already doing a lot of the services that we know we're going to focus on going forward, this seemed an ideal place to come and talk to a community about "what benefits are you getting now from WXXI? What services do you value the most?" and then to lay out our plans for this digital future.

We've spent the last nine months or so with this group of what I call "thought leaders." They looked at what we do now all across the country in communities like this one --- the vast amount of our educational services and the work we do in workplace training, the work we do in public affairs and civic engagement, and the work we are beginning to do in homeland security and emergency procedures --- and they said "OK, going forward, technology's going to make it possible for you to do more in every one of these areas." So they mapped out a kind of blueprint.

We have at the national service hundreds of thousands of hours --- if you counted up the 35 years of programming in history, science, children's programs, just so much --- and to make that a searchable archive, that really becomes a sort of national learning archive for all ages. Rochester's already doing that. Rochester is leading this whole state with an educational program that right now is distributing --- what is it now, 26,000 video clips? So this would essentially be an education-on-demand service, but it would be done through our local public television stations and the contacts they already have.

City:What do you hope this tour will accomplish?

Mitchell: Raise the awareness of what public broadcasting is doing right now. So much of what we do is an unknown story. The press and the public know our programming, but we do so much more beyond programming, and that's going to be large part of this tour.

Secondly to lay this blueprint for the digital future and say to the community: What other community groups do we need to work with more closely? How do we strengthen what the health-care providers are doing with our health-care information? How do we strengthen our teacher prep with what we know about technology and teachers? So reaching out to the education institutions, to the hospitals, the museums, libraries, etc...

And then the third thing is to raise support. We cannot pursue any of these grand plans if we don't find new revenue sources. We barely have enough to do what we're doing now.

City:There's been a lot of talk about why we even need public broadcasting anymore with cable and other new media. You've probably read [media critics] Jack Shafer [of "Slate"] and Dave Shaw [of the "LA Times"] ---

Mitchell: I've read them all and yet they're comparing apples and oranges.

City:Well what can public television offer that we can't find on cable?

Mitchell: Even if we're just talking about the programming level, the choices themselves tell the story. But beyond that, twice as many Americans every night of the week are going to PBS as going to any of these cable channels. PBS in a 500-channel universe is still number six in the choice of viewers. Now that means somebody thinks it still is essential even as a programming option.

When I said they're comparing apples and oranges, these channels don't do what we do. We do so much more than television. We not only put out a top-notch schedule --- that I'd put up against their schedule any night of the week and make the same choice viewers are making, which is PBS --- but we take our programming as the beginning of a learning experience for all ages. We don't produce it to get ratings or sell products. We have a whole different system of evaluating what we do.

Do you know what Discovery's number one show is? Monster Garage. It may be a very entertaining show, but I don't think I'd put it up against the educational value of Ken Burns or the science of Nova.

City:This whole notion of balance and the whole thing with Ken Tomlinson ---

Mitchell: You guys sure are making this man famous. You just keep talking about him. He's just an unpaid political appointee. You certainly are giving him a lot of press.

City:Well how would you define balance?

Mitchell: It's not a matter of how I define balance; it's a matter of how our standards define balance and how the congressional statute that created public television defines balance. We have the same editorial standards of all media institutions, only ours are even stricter. We define balance as a schedule. Over a schedule we are reflecting the great diversity of opinions that make up this country.

It's a big tent. And we not only do a variety of genres of programs but we bring in ideas and approach them from as many different ways as possible.

Across our schedule we have standards of fairness, objectivity, transparency, and balance. And they're very clear to every producer who works with us.

And so my answer to Ken Tomlinson and anyone else is that our editorial standards are ensuring that our content is balanced, transparent, fair, and objective. And additionally all the public opinion polls verify this. Eighty percent of the American public --- and that has to include every political perspective if it's 80 percent --- believes there is no bias.

And I'm not as obsessed with political balance. We ought to be just as concerned about ethnic balance, cultural balance, background balance, economic balance, and when we look at our schedule we take all those things into consideration.

We didn't have the African-American experience, and that's why Tavis Smiley's on the air. We thought Tucker Carlson would bring us a youthful perspective. He was not hired for a conservative perspective; he was hired to bring in a different group of people.

So much of the media has become partisan. We're not going to be defined that way, because we belong to the public and that means everybody.

Radio daze

Even though Democracy Now! is primarily a radio show, Mitchell's appearance provided an opportunity for a rally by the activist group Metro Justice, which has a committee working to get the show aired on WXXI-AM 1370. Before the event, supporters stretched out roughly 3,000 petitions near the Strong Museum Auditorium. And inside during the talk there were plenty of hats, pins, T-shirts, and signs promoting the program.

During the Q&A session, audience members submitted written questions to Mitchell. The first, a complaint of liberal bias on PBS, was interrupted by a chorus of boos. The second dealt with the station's refusal to air Democracy Now!

"You're not going to like this, but we stand up to pressure from the right; we're going to stand up to pressure from the left, too," said WXXI President and CEO Norm Silverstein, who shared the stage with Mitchell.

Indeed, many did not like that. Amid much grumbling, 20 or so audience members got up and left after that answer.

The Metro Justice campaign's media spokesperson, Beth Meyers, said she was disappointed in the audience's rude reaction to the first question. But she was also not satisfied with Silverstein's response.

"It's more about WXXI being responsive to the community," she says. Where should that responsiveness give way to editorial independence? Meyers didn't have an answer.

But Mitchell, doing her best to stay above a fray that wasn't hers, gave a clue in a comment about bias and balance that followed Silverstein's response.

If you're pushing one show to correct bias in another, "then you've really gotten into the game of political equivalency," she told remaining audience members. "That doesn't lead to balance."

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