Posted by: mbtrotter | October 12, 2010

Don’t use the PBS model to save journalism.

In case you haven’t heard, journalism is in need of a new business model. If it didn’t, Ken Doctor wouldn’t be a minor media restructuring celebrity for his ideas about a six-legged stool model or for touting NPR’s model.

All that talk is great, but nobody’s figured out a sustainable model yet.

What about the PBS model? It seems to be doing OK. In 2008, the Corporation for Public Broadcasting reported $2.85 billion in revenue (PDF).

Of that, 44.1 percent came from membership and subscription contributions, friends groups, and for-profit entities, which makes watching PBS often sound like this clip from Family Guy:

Despite its effectiveness, there are problems with the PBS business model, the first of which is the drawn-out thank you to donors. It’s a trade-off for no commercials on PBS — although the company’s content isn’t ad-free online. I’d like to point out the writers forgot to end with “and viewers like you.” (And there’s no pledge drive mention, but that’s something The Simpsons covered years ago. Pardon the poor video quality.)

With the level of corporate sponsorship portrayed in the clip — one not unimaginable with nearly 18 percent of revenue coming from for-profit entities — comes a necessary amount of skepticism from audiences, even with PBS’ editorial standards.

For example, why would Exxon Mobil sponsor a nine-part series on street signs? The more street signs there are, the more drivers have to stop, which means they use more gasoline, boosting the company’s profits.

Besides the continuous-loop sponsor spiels, PBS has contended with reputation issues for years, despite its programming quality. A decade ago, when Pat Mitchell became president and chief executive, the organization was seen as “a little too elitist and aloof.”

Nowadays, PBS is boring. Thom Beers, producer of Deadliest Catch, recently blasted it as such when his show lost out on an Emmy to a Ken Burns documentary about the National Parks system.

The other issue PBS faces is a certain level of inaccessibility, as Peter alluded to in the clip. It’s difficult to jump into some multiple-part series, and several times you do need to see the first several to avoid feeling “completely lost.”

While Family Guy showed media companies why not to use the PBS model to save journalism — ongoing sponsor thanks; potential conflicts of interest; and programming seen as inaccessible, elitist and aloof, and/or boring — there still isn’t an example of what model to use. Perhaps The Simpsons can tackle that first, too.

All video in this post is the copyrighted material of 20th Century Fox Television and was purchased by the author for not-for-profit use.


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