In the nearly two years since he left his job as head of South Carolina’s public broadcasting organization to become CEO of Seattle PBS affiliate KCTS, Moss Bresnahan says he’s saved money by not having to buy sunblock, and that he’s rediscovered the joys of bicycling in a place where the redneck mentality doesn’t rule the roads.
Bresnahan also appears to have brought stability to the once-troubled public TV station, and is about to midwife an ambitious plan to lead Channel 9 into the next era of local media. In the works (and in some cases, already underway) are several new projects and a new approach to fundraising that have the potential to connect the station to the community to a degree that would have been unimaginable less than a decade ago.
KCTS got into well-publicized financial troubles under previous management (Intris, anyone?), and for many years assumed an “ivory tower” approach to local programming. The series and specials produced by KCTS were polished, but felt as if they had little connection to the broader community. The sense among many local non-profits and cultural institutions, circa 2003, was that editors at commercial TV, commercial and public radio, and the newspapers were easy to reach and willing to listen to pitches for coverage or program ideas (if not always forthcoming with same). With KCTS, it was a different story. Nobody even knew who to call.
So it was startling, in a good way, to sit down with Bresnahan recently to hear what KCTS has been up to, and to get a preview what’s in store for the future.
“Startling” is also the word Bresnahan uses to describe the findings of a survey KCTS commissioned last year to examine the state of local professional journalism in the wake of the Seattle Post-Intelligencer ceasing publication and other cutbacks by local news organizations.
“We did a study of local journalism, and it’s declined about two-thirds if you measure by how many local reporters are on the beat or how many local news stories are generated,” Bresnahan says.
Thus KCTS later this year will formally launch what Bresnahan calls an “initiative” focused on civics and public affairs. The station will partner with public-radio station KPLU FM and Investigate West, a nonprofit journalism group, on a number of projects. And it will forgo the usual summer hiatus of the weekly public affairs program "KCTS Connects" (making it a year-round production).
For Bresnahan, this new approach does not simply mean creating a new TV program. “When we talk about initiatives, we’re talking about content that would be on the air, online, and also in the community in the sense that we might work with significant partners, we might have events. What we want to do is begin to focus on real community engagement and how we can have an impact. And that’s more than just having a show,” Bresnahan says.
Also in the works are similar-scale initiatives for arts, history and science.
“The new model of public media is really about creating content that serves to build community and really lends itself to engagement,” Bresnahan says.
But what about KCTS’s much-publicized money troubles of the last decade? Bresnahan says KCTS, which has an annual budget of roughly $20 million, is now debt-free. The station reduced expenses by eliminating national productions, and consolidated debt into a low-interest loan from an anonymous supporter (now paid in full).
He also says the station continues to receive annual funding from the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, and that the station has 130,000 members in Washington and British Columbia.
While membership numbers are fairly flat compared to previous years, Bresnahan is upbeat. “ 'Flat’ is the new 'up' in public television,” he says, while also pointing to the area’s Spanish-speaking population and to British Columbia as surefire areas of growth for KCTS.
Bresnahan is enamored of the KCTS audience and its appetite for public TV, which might be explained (like the region’s literary consumption rates) by the combination of rainy weather and all those advanced degrees. “What distinguishes KCTS more than anything is its viewership. It’s not unusual at all for KCTS to be number one in the nation in terms of viewership for a program. Sometimes we’ll have more people tune into KCTS (for a particular national program) than in Chicago or Los Angeles.”
But viewer numbers (or “ratings”) for public television don’t translate into revenue in the same direct manner that they do for commercial television.
“In public television, we say, ‘We don’t care about ratings’ — except when they’re good, then we love them,” Bresnahan says, with a hearty laugh. “In the commercial world you monetize ratings: If you have a newscast and it’s up a ratings point, you charge that much more for your advertising. That’s really not the case for public television. . . . It matters to us and we want people to watch, but we don’t do things for ratings. That’s the big difference,” he says.
One thing that does matter to television, whether public or commercial, is revenue. And in the old KCTS model, that meant pledge drives. And pledge drives. And more pledge drives. Bresnahan says that the station is changing the way it thinks about fundraising, to become less dependent on those infamous telecasts that one KCTS veteran calls “beg-a-thons.”
“We’re trying to do more major giving, so we’ve really taken steps to get to know a lot of our donors. We’ve been very good about saying, ‘Send us $100 for a DVD,’ but that person might also have the capacity to give us $10,000 or $50,000 for a project that they really feel passionate about. So we’re getting to know our donors better, and that’s resulting in more major giving,” Bresnahan says.
And Bresnahan says he has good news about the beg-a-thons: “It looks like we’re going to do fewer pledge drives this year than last year, and I hope we can continue that trend. [We did] about 120 last year, and we might do a little over a hundred this year,” he says.
That’s probably excellent preparation for the on-demand future of television, when it’s hard to imagine anybody sitting through a pledge drive. “I don’t think we’ve solved it,” says Bresnahan of this looming problem. “We’re definitely going to (always) be dependent on an element of philanthropy.”
Another problem yet to be solved is the changing relationship between local audiences and nationally distributed programs, and how this affects local fundraising. Public-radio stations are already wrestling with this as traditional radio listening declines and more and more listeners go directly to the websites of NPR, PRI and other producers for streams and podcasts of popular national programs, effectively bypassing their local stations.
Bresnahan says that, so far, TV is different from radio by at least one critical measure: “The good news for those of us in the TV business is that people are watching more TV than ever before. So even though they have more choices, they’re still watching more traditional TV,“ he says.
Online viewership of KCTS programs is still a tiny fraction of overall viewership, but Bresnahan says it’s growing. And if the local audience eventually gets Frontline or Nova or Antiques Roadshow directly from PBS, Bresnahan is OK with that. “Our future is the strength of localism. It’s up to public media to do local history, local investigative reporting. These are competitive advantages that we have going forward.”
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