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Renaming PBS: Will It Be Public Service Media?

Will the Public Broadcasting Service be changing its name to Public Service Media—along with changing the way it does business? Recently PBS released the 133-page Digital Future Initiative report by a panel co-chaired by James Barksdale and Reed Hundt in which Public Service Media was the theme. To find out what it might mean to PBS and quality journalism, Leonard Witt conducted this IM Interview with Jacoba “Coby” Atlas, PBS’s Co-Chief Program Executive. It is part of the Journalism and the Public: Restoring the Trust series of IM Interviews underwritten in part by the Ethics and Excellence in Journalism Foundation.

Leonard Witt: Hi Coby, let’s start out with a simply question: In five years from now when I go to PBS programming, what am most likely to see? Will it be any different from what I see today?

Coby Atlas: In some ways it will be the same. What you can count on is the same level of excellence and complexity and respect for our viewers. What will be different will be the way people can access our content. We’re seeing these radical changes everyday, right now. I’m sure in five years the concept of anytime, anywhere media will be a reality for almost everyone. Right now, we’re already doing podcasting and streaming and video on demand. In five years there will be even more different platforms.

Witt: So you will be more interactive. Does that play into the idea of the Public Square concept, and just what is the Public Square concept?

Atlas: Public Square is a digital service that will be offered to our stations in fall of 2006 that will combine new programming produced for exclusively for Public Square combined with the some of our best non-fiction programs that you currently see on analog PBS. Public Square will concentrate on national stories as well as international stories and will be designed to give viewers a true understanding of the way the world sees us. At the same time giving us an understanding of how other countries see the world. It will definitely be interactive. It will definitely embrace new technologies. It is designed very much to be a public forum for an exchange of ideas.

Witt: Can you give me a specific example?

Atlas: Sure. One of the first programs that we will launch is called GLOBAL WATCH. That’s a working title. This will live 24/7 on the Web and will curate news segments from around the world, put them in context for US audiences with analysis and further debate about what that story is telling us. From the Web site a one-hour daily program will be produced for television that will replicate for broadcast what we’re seeing on the Web. It will be anchored from the West Coast — from either Los Angeles or San Francisco — we’re still working that out.

Witt: Interesting. Who is going to pay for all this?

Atlas: We’re pleased to say that we have two initial grants — one from the Knight Foundation and another from the Ford Foundation and we are now in serious fundraising mode.

Witt: The 133-page Digital Future Initiative report for Public Service Media was just released. Why the term Public Service Media rather than Public Broadcasting? What’s that about?

Atlas: When you read the report it goes far beyond what a broadcaster can and should do. It’s embracing all of the concepts of the DFI. Such as education — from our smallest children to adult learning — to communicating information about health issues, to homeland security. It’s really beyond traditional broadcasting.

Witt: In what ways?

Atlas: For example, the educational component is about early literacy, getting into classrooms, engaging caregivers — it’s really hands-on education that goes far beyond the more passive relationship between a viewer and a television broadcast . This is all about localism, and we have locally owned television stations that can take the lead in these types initiatives.

Witt: What role will hard hitting, but sometimes controversial journalism, like NOW, that got so much Bill Moyers attention, and Frontline, have in this mix?

Atlas: I assume “the mix” you mean is in Public Square. Investigative, trusted journalism — which is the hallmark of Frontline, NOW and other series on public television will continue on Public Square as it will on the PBS analog service. This is one of the most important areas of public broadcasting. To provide dynamic, accurate, fair, investigative reports that never shy from tackling any issue of importance to this country.

Witt: It seemed the Corporation for Public Broadcasting was trying to defang this kind of journalism. Has this administration’s perception of how journalism should be practiced had any influence on this report ?

Atlas: On the DFI report? Absolutely not. The DFI report was an independent study that had no political influence of any stripe.

Witt: How about on PBS programming in general?

Atlas: PBS programming is independent of political pressure. We pride ourselves on providing a diverse array of points of view on issues facing Americans. What we strive for is a respect for our viewers, their capacity to understand and embrace complexity. PBS does not frame things in a left/right paradigm or a Republican/Democrat paradigm. The world is much more complex than that. We get pressure from political groups of all kinds. Our job is to provide excellent programs that adhere to the highest journalistic standards. An annual poll looking at how Americans see public television confirms that we are a trusted source of news and information.

Witt: Well, okay. Sounds safe to me. On to another topic. The report speaks of Public Service Media Web Engine and the ability to quickly find all public broadcasting programming. How will that work, who will benefit?

Atlas: The public will benefit because people will be able to access our content whenever they want. We have a very talented interactive staff, lead by Cindy Johanson, who in collaboration with our producing stations is working very hard to make sure that PBS content is easily accessed. As you know, there are many obstacles to this that are often not in our control or our producers’ control — including copyright issues, Guild issues, third-party rights issues, etc. All of this has to be sorted out before you can provide content anywhere, anytime for free. So it’s fair to say that this is an ongoing issue that everyone in public broadcasting is working hard to think through. The goal is always to put the public first. We have great content and we want it to be a resource for anyone who interested.

Witt: I want to go back to the Public Service Media vs. Public Broadcasting. You are a co-programmer, what different kind of mindset do you have to carry into the future? Can the old-guard make the transition or will we be seeing a whole new set of Public Service Media managers in the future?

Atlas: The mission of public television won’t change. It’s to educated, inspire and engage. Anyone coming into the system will embrace that as the core value of what we do. But obviously, there will be fresh ways of communicating, and fresh ways of getting our content out there.

Witt: But changing from a one-to-many model to a many-to-many model is no easy task. How will you accomplish it?

Atlas: That’s what we’re working on. There’s a lot of smart, future-thinking people who care about the mission of public service media and are committed to making sure it will be robust in the 21st century. I think it’s safe to say we’re all finding our way. But we’re lucky have some very smart people are figuring this out.

Witt: So are we going to see a name change from PBS to PSM for Public Service Media?

Atlas: I doubt will see that anytime soon. And we have more than 300 stations who will decide how they want to be identified. Public service media is more of a concept right now — not a new name. Not yet, anyway.

Witt: I like the not yet part.

Witt: When I was getting ready for this interview I did research for more information about the Digital Future Initiative report, but found very little press. Why not? Is that a reflection of the status of PBS in the media Parthenon?

Atlas: I don’t think that’s true. We’re pleased that we get a tremendous amount of press for our content. However, the DFI report was an in-depth examination of the future of public service media in the digital age. That’s not going to make headlines until we act on it, which is what Public Square does — it puts the ideas found in the DFI report into action.

Witt: One final question, we read a lot about a possible death spiral of the commercial mass news media. What kind of conversations does a nonprofit like PBS have about that issue? What will the role of nonprofits be in the future of journalism?

Atlas: Like Mark Twain said about his own death, I think the news of the death of commercial news organizations is greatly exaggerated. They still do great work, and there are many people at ABC, CNN, the Washington Post, LA Times and many other entities that are devoted to journalism. Commercial entities, however, are at the mercy of the bottom line and it takes dedicated executives to say, “What we do matters, even if it isn’t financially rewarding,” but that’s their issue. For us, we don’t measure ourselves in any way by commercial standards. We measure ourselves as to how we serve the American public. For that reason, public service media must and will continue to provide excellent, in-depth journalism. That’s our mission. At the same time, we do need to figure out how to fund what we do. But we never have to worry about selling a product. We only worry about getting it right and serving the public. But if you know anyone with an extra billion dollars lying around, we’d be glad to take it.

Witt: Here is one name you might think about Jim Barksdale.

Witt: Thanks for a great interview. Anything you want to add?

Atlas: No. Just thank you!

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