Struggling for the Soul of WTTW: Public Broadcasting Going Private

Posted by Mitchell - April 3, 2004 (entry 167)

by Mitchell Szczepanczyk

(originally published in the February 2004 issue of Third Coast Press)

Chicago's major PBS affiliate, WTTW-TV Channel 11, spent 2003 as a veritable punching bag in a twelve-round bout. The first blow against the station involved allegations of financial impropriety, particularly regarding CEO Dan Schmidt's extravagant $288,000 salary and Lexus bonus. It became a one-two punch with layoffs of at least 56 jobs, a quarter of the station's workforce since January 2002. Add to this slugfest an accounting scandal where charges of embezzlement fly to the tune of $600,000.

Then there was a lengthy feature article in the July 27, 2003 issue of the Chicago Tribune Magazine. The article reported how Schmidt's vision for WTTW may have led to financial disaster. Tribune reporter Jim Kirk described a vision of synergistic programming collectively called Network Chicago -- "An interlaced structure of television, radio, a newspaper, the Internet, and public events". But after three years of promotion and $22 million dollars of investment, the newspaper tanked, funding sources for the other ventures dried up, and Network Chicago remains little more than a vision. As a result, WTTW faces possibly the worst financial crisis in its nearly 50-years history.

But there's still more to the story. Though the Tribune didn't mention it, Schmidt's Network Chicago was a tool for increasing corporate control of WTTW's programming -- a fact known since the plan was unveiled, and detailed in a report published in 2000 by the Benton Foundation, an advocacy organization devoted to public broadcasting policy. That report said that key commercial and government interests (who already command the media landscape) would play active roles in programming, defining "real success" by "bring[ing] on board partners from the business, commercial, and government sectors of the community".

The corporate tie-ins are already underway. The report described a "budding relationship" with the Chicago Sun-Times, and both the Sun-Times and the Tribune (the Jim Kirk magazine piece notwithstanding) provide journalists to contribute on WTTW programs like such as Chicago Tonight, Chicago Stories, Artbeat Chicago, and the latest offering, Sound Opinions. It's a symbiotic match: The Tribune and Sun-Times get increased visibility and prestige, while WTTTW gets to rub elbows with rich funders and let the corporate boys provide analysis and commentary and little added cost.

And what does the public get in this "public" broadcasting? Damned little. Consider the following:

No African-Americans host any of WTTW's regularly scheduled locally-produced shows. Indeed, if the local programming on WTTW resembled anything like the actual demographics of the city of Chicago, a serious portion of programming would serve Hispanic, Polish, and Chinese Chicagoans. But serving the breadth of Chicago communities is simply not the aim of WTTW, and WTTW even said so openly. Dan Schmidt told Chicago Tribune Magazine in 1999: "It's a misnomer to call us public television. It implies that we're like the public library system. We're a non-profit cultural institution, like the Chicago Symphony." That same 199 article also reported: "The target audience [of WTTW] is Baby Boomers and their children."

The board of directors for WTTW (which governs the station's broadcast license) has a decidedly unwholesome representation of high-ranking corporate officials, including reps from Boeing, Exelon, and Verizon. Little wonder the points of view of poor, working-class, and union Chicaogans are considered utterly inconsequential at WTTW. While business, Wall Street, and conservative perspectives have regular shows, WTTW has no shows about labor or workers rights in the City of the Broad Shoulders. Moreover, the board itself is self-electing and self-selecting, so heretofore neglected viewpoints may well remain neglected.

The one non-business political show on WTTW with a backbone--NOW with Bill Moyers--is evidently a hot potato for the station. The show has been subject to erratic scheduling changes. While many stations air NOW on Friday nights, WTTW has moved the show to early Sundays. Even the airing of episodes is erratic; some episodes of NOW never get aired in Chicago.

WTTW is heavily prone to adcreep--more on-air commercials, or should I say "underwriting"? In fact, WTTW carries a bit of historical infamy as being the only station fined by the FCC for excessive commercialism. Maybe I'm old-fashioned here, but I thought the whole point of public broadcasting was to shave off some of the 20,000-plus ads we see every year.

The only avenue for public input into the station is a Community Advisory Board, which is a dead end. There is no mechanism in place to make the board's decisions affect the station's overall trajectory.

Arguably, the linchpin to all of these issues is that the station's funding streams are increasing corporatized and commercialized. But taking this route is almost a necessity because of long-standing endemic funding problems to public broadcasting in this country.

The United States never had much of a public broadcasting system, unlike a great many countries around the world which began with broad-based public broadcasting services, like the BBC in the UK or the CBC in Canada. These stations are funded by a licensing system. People have to be licensed to own a TV or radio, those license carry a fee, and those fees pay for the media system.

Instead, the U.S. got out of the public media starting gate in about 40 years after most of the rest of the industrialized world, and the funding scheme was restrained. A plan to implement a limited licensing system was itself scuttled under corporate pressure. That's why public stations have pledge drives and have to pitch their programming to the well-to-do. Sure, WTTW could air programming serving labor unions, poor Hispanics, and African-Americans, but those are constituencies which (in the opinion of WTTW) don't have much money to give during pledge drives. Moreover, they're not not the preferred target audience of corporate underwriters -- upscale Baby Boomers.

At this point, I'd like to raise a red flag of caution, and it's due to a slew of red ink. There is a possibility that WTTW, saddled with increasing debt and precarious finances, would sell its coveted broadcast license to some commercial firm, and thereafter drop its pretense about being a public resource. TV broadcasting licenses are a coveted resource, and can fetch hundreds of millions of dollars.

But the situation is also ripe for change in a more positive direction. We've seen the beginnings of this change. In Chicago, a group of some 40 activists met with WTTW in March 2003. The activists were hoping to launch a series of documentaries and public forums, particularly including critical perspectives on the then-impending war against Iraq. The station had aired similar programs in the past, but not in 2003. The station dropped the ball on the proposal, and more generally on the issues of poor and working class Chicagoans. But pressure continues and will likely escalate.

Immmediate tangible proposals which could improve the situation are now on the table. Firing Dan Schmidt and enact a government audit of WTTW for starters. Others propose replacing the current board with a less corporate directorate, whose members serve brief, staggered tenures.

In case you think this is a pipe dream and that WTTW and PBS are forever in the realm of the Dark Side, remember that in early 2003 the FCC's media ownership policies were considered over and done, but a year later they're more like well-done. That success came to pressure, education, organizing, and activism. The same recipe could be in store in 2004.

The current struggle for public broadcasting in 2004 could prove to be a bellwether in the future trajectory of WTTW, and perhaps set an example for PBS affiliates nationwide. WTTW and PBS could finally meet the mission for public broadcasting as articulated by the Carnegie Commission on Educational Television in 1967 -- to serve as a "forum for controversy and debate" and "provide a voice for groups in the community that may otherwise be unheard."

Special thanks to James Owens and Larry Duncan for their contributions to this article.

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