The Future of Vermont Public Television

Don’t look back… except to learn from past mistakes and make change. Look ahead, and welcome new opportunities.

In the ‘80s, when cable and satellite opened unlimited channels to the private sector, the likes of A&E, History Channel, Discovery, and National Geographic went after the PBS franchise and made steep profits on PBS’ original mission. I know. They were all my company’s clients.

This same competitive pressure eventually drove all their own programming down-market. The History Channel, which once thrived on historical documentaries, now offers Pawn Stars and Big Rigs. The Arts & Entertainment Network barely lasted a NY-minute purveying arts – and now offers Modern Dads and Dog, the Bounty Hunter. National Geographic Channel, now majority-owned by Fox, has soiled its once venerable brand with the likes of American Chainsaw and Alaska State Troopers.

Their race to the bottom now strengthens PBS’ opportunity. But risks remain: among them, the venerable audience that watches Lawrence Welk reruns, and maintaining terrestrial broadcast technology that may soon be rendered obsolete as Americans disconnect from rabbit ears, cable, and satellite, and go online for the declining time they spend watching television.

PBS-VT can no longer rely solely on the “jewels in the crown” offered by the network mother-ship. The Brit Lit specials like Downton Abbey, Foyle’s War, and Call the Midwife are tethered for their survival to the ageing cohort of PBS’ audience, while Nature, Nova, Frontline, and The PBS Evening News are indeed durable and of broader relevance. But depending solely on the 2700 PBS program offerings will not ensure the continued success of regional PBS affiliates for the next generation. In fact, PBS’ own survival would be best assured by leapfrogging the struggling affiliates entirely and going online, like Netflix.

Our own Vermont affiliate has known for some time that it must localize programming but it’s been stymied by the posture that if they don’t produce it, it won’t meet broadcast production standards and that production is expensive. But networks now run cellphone footage on evening news and Sundance has a category for films made on iPhones as standards change with technology.

VT Public Television is a public trust. Its mission should be to produce AND seek out engaging film and video content of interest to Vermonters of all ages – especially from within our own regional community. At the heart of great content are rich content libraries and independent producers. Vermont-PBS will need to partner with news resources, cultural non-profits, filmmakers, and educators to produce and broadcast the best that our region has to offer.

And for a new leader, they need someone who can look around corners and not get stuck in old production and broadcast shibboleths. The game has changed. Distribution networks are becoming the new commodity, and the only scarce commodity is relevant content.

To secure its future, Vermont-PBS must become more relevant to Vermonters and the region and rely less on the ephemeral star power that is vulnerable to fads and can switch networks in a heartbeat.

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