Public TV’s appeal has always stemmed from its total indifference to your bad taste. There’s something comforting in the knowledge that you will never see Indecent Behavior 4 on its channels. But you will see Legendary Lighthouses Part 2 of 6, conclusive proof of the Public Broadcasting System’s lack of concern for Nielsen ratings.
So it’s a little jarring to hear David McGowan, senior vice president of news and public affairs for D.C.-area PBS station WETA-TV, discuss his programming decisions. Like an NBC exec, he rattles off ratings, cites economic equations, theorizes about sustainable programming, and agonizes over the “overall financial health of the enterprise.”
McGowan is the man responsible for choosing which news shows air on WETA, one of the country’s most respected PBS stations. And this year, McGowan has decided that D.C. Politics Hour won’t be one of them. After three years of airing the WAMU radio show on its TV station, WETA will cut the program next month and eventually replace the show with a softer public affairs program that “may be of more interest to our many viewers who live outside the District,” as McGowan puts it. He will not reveal much more about the new show at this point, except to say that it will surely address the concerns of 90 percent of his audience, who live in Northern Virginia and Maryland.
Until the mystery show begins next year, WETA will carry no local news program. The station’s only local show will be Around Town, a weekly arts discussion forum. Viewers, however, can continue to rely on the blitz of national punditry that has always usurped the station’s budgetNewsHour With Jim Lehrer, Washington Week in Review, and This Week in Business, to name a few.
The shelving of D.C. Politics Hour, says McGowan, reflects no disregard for the District of Columbia. “[Local programming] is a dead, money-losing proposition,” he says. “We do it because we do feel some obligation to cover the public affairs of the District and other areas we serve.” Whatever the obligation, WETA, the third-largest producer of national public TV programming, is offering threadbare coverage of local affairs at a time when other public stations around the nation are creating groundbreaking nightly local news programs.
WETA’s interpretation of “local community” has always run from the White House through Congress and then circled out to its millions of suburban viewersit’s just one more regional institution that’s happy to regard D.C. as the hole in the middle of the doughnut. “In a way, [WETA is] a perfect picture of how local institutions use the city,” says longtime D.C. Politics Hour co-host Mark Plotkin.
WETA’s uninspired coverage of its back yard dates at least back to the 1980s, when it produced a show called Metro Week. A localized version of public-TV standby Agronsky & Co., Metro Week amounted to a blabfest among local reporters on city politics”a very standard kind of program” that was “not terribly successful in its viewership,” according to McGowan. Not long after he arrived in 1992, McGowan canceled the show after 13 years on the air. Channel 4 reporter Tom Sherwood, a regular panelist on Metro Week, says the decision was hasty. “There were problems, but the solution was to kill the program rather than fix it,” Sherwood says, adding that, to his knowledge, McGowan never approached any regular guests on the show for advice on making it better.
Even before the decision to end the show, WETA kept changing Metro Week’s time slota chronic complaint of Around Town panelists, as well. “You can’t build a program if the audience can’t find it,” Sherwood says.
In 1995, McGowan replaced Metro Week with a glitzier program called Here & Now, which was hosted by Derek McGinty. Thanks to its field reporting and in-depth analysis of local public affairs, Here & Now was nominated for eight Emmy Awards and won three. But WETA canceled it after just one season, citing unsustainable costs. “It was better than Metro Week, but it wasn’t better enough to justify that kind of money,” McGowan says.
It took hardly any money to come up with a successora local show created by gluing cameras onto D.C. Politics Hour, a radio program that other people produced. When WETA began broadcasting the show in the fall of 1995, District officials were losing control of the city’s finances and its political machinery. The station’s commitment to the show was suitably light: a couple of cameras, a producer, and an editor. The rest took care of itself, sort of: Radio generally makes for less than riveting television, and D.C. Politics Hour was no exception.
WETA also aired the show at 11 o’clock on Friday nights, an inconvenient slot even for the geeks who obsess over D.C. politics. And, according to Plotkin, the station did little to promote the show or find corporate sponsorship. This past summer, during the crucial weeks before the District’s primary elections, WETA took the show off the air for a 10-week hiatus.
Still, the show at least kept WETA in the local news game.
“It was [WETA’s] only connection with the real action,” says Jonetta Rose Barras, a columnist for the Washington Times and a contributor to Washington City Paper. And so WETA held on to the show for a couple of yearsuntil McGinty left and McGowan decided that this fall was “as good a time as ever” to broaden the station’s local focus.
D.C. Politics Hour was never a favorite among WETA bigwigs. “I always sensed that there was an uneasiness on their part that this was just about District politics,” says WAMU Program Director Steve Martin. “And I don’t think they particularly hid the fact that their primary interest in the show was Derek McGinty.” Good point: When McGinty was on the air, about 11,400 homes tuned in to the TV version of the show. After he left, that number dropped by 40 percent, to about 6,800 homes, McGowan reports. (WETA’s new local public affairs show, McGowan is happy to report, will also be hosted by McGinty.)
The sagging numbers prompted WETA to cut the show, even though it had no replacement on deck. “I was taken aback when they said, ‘We’re going to cease and reach out to a wider audience, but we don’t know what we’re going to do yet,’” says Martin.
The station’s nonchalance about local matters defies the broadcasting philosophy of Elizabeth Campbell, the grande dame who founded WETA 37 years ago. Campbell, who is in her 90s, did not return a call requesting comment, but in a 1991 article in Current newspaper, she said, “I’m very conscious of the community. Every television station needs to be much more related to its community in order to serve it.”
As public-TV execs never tire of declaring, funding difficulties drive all programming decisions. And the problem, they’ll tell you, is particularly acute when it comes to local shows.
Large corporate donors have little interest in putting their names on shows that will be seen by just a fraction of the national audience. And compared with other cities, D.C. has few prospective benefactors who make the Fortune 500 list. To compound matters, the federal government has steadily reduced its funding of public broadcasting. And WETA does not receive state funding, unlike most PBS stations.
In television, the production costs for a show broadcast locally are just as high as the production costs for a national show. The most WETA has ever raised in underwriting for local shows has covered no more than 15 percent to 20 percent of the shows’ costs. McGinty, one of WETA’s most valuable hosts, says the programming void doesn’t stem from lack of effort. “They are really trying as hard as they can to take the dollars they have and do as much as they can with it,” he says.
For clues on how to pull off quality local programming, WETA brass might consider consulting their counterparts in other large markets. Boston’s WGBH produces Greater Boston, a nightly public affairs show hosted by a popular anchorwoman. The show airs in the prime-time slot of 7 p.m. and repeats each night on the station’s second channel. The station also runs a 30-year-old weekly program focusing on African-American issues in the Boston area and another weekly show on local Latino affairs. To top it off, WGBH carries a monthly half-hour magazine series following the local arts.
Chicago’s PBS stationWTTWairs more local programming than any other such station in the country. And, contrary to WETA’s claims that local shows do not draw viewers, WTTW traces its overall success to the appeal of its hometown content. “We’ve sort of endeared ourselves to the community, and I really do think it’s because we cover news and events close to people’s lives,” says spokesperson Joanie Bayhack. WTTW spends up to $7 million a year producing local shows, Bayhack says. WETA spends roughly $800,000. The Chicago station airs a nightly news show Monday through Thursday at 7 p.m., which repeats three times a day. Still, Bayhack says, the station must be “very aggressive” in seeking funds.
Even Maryland puts the District to shame with its local programming. MPT, Maryland’s PBS station, devotes about a third of its annual budget to local shows, which gobble up about 300 hours of programming a year, says Everett L. Marshburn, vice president for regional productions. In addition to Newsnight Maryland, a prime-time program, the station churns out a weekly outdoors show and an “almost weekly” cultural program. “We have always had a strong commitment to local programming,” Marshburn says. “You really have to want to do it. You just have to decide that it’s your mission.”
McGowan dismisses the comparisons, citing a stronger “public-spirited ethos” in other towns. But an ethos is something that is cultivated. And instead of combating the District’s obstacles to local programming, WETA seems to have surrendered to them.
WETA’s cousins at WAMU face similar obstacles and produce a different outcome. “With us, it was a philosophic decision that we made many years ago,” Martin says of his radio station’s commitment to the District. “We just took a step back and said, ‘We’re licensed in D.C. The city itself is the hub of the region. We can maybe put all of our resources in one place and do it very well; and it’s important to the people in the region what happens to the District.’” Like WETA, WAMU has an audience of less than 15 percent District residents.
Howard University’s public TV stationWHUThas started airing D.C. Politics Hour and may pick it up permanently after WETA drops it. The contract has yet to be signed, Martin says, but WHUT is trying to scrape together the funds. And it’s worth noting that WHUT has significantly less cash to play with than WETA.
In the meantime, WETA is airing two D.C. mayoral candidates forums this fall and is finalizing its plans for a new local show, which McGowan vows will be “more ambitious” than D.C. Politics Hour. WETA has not yet found anyone to underwrite the show, but McGowan says it will be less expensive than Here & Now and thus should be more sustainable. And he wishes D.C. Politics Hour the best of luck. Plotkin is less politic: “This is a political city. And if anything bothers me more, it’s that the place is not thought of as a real place….I wish very much that WETA would treat D.C….as their hometown.”CP