July 31st, 2005
Getting a Foot in the School Door
By Matea Gold
Los Angeles Times
When the Corp. for Public Broadcasting announced in the spring the launch of an ambitious program aimed at expanding middle- and high-school students’ knowledge of U.S. history and civics, it seemed to fit squarely with its traditional public service mission.
But an emphasis by corporation officials on how corporate investors could profit from the project has provoked controversy about the role commercial interests will play in the initiative and hints at new areas of conflict in public broadcasting’s reliance on private-sector support.
The CPB — a private, nonprofit corporation that distributes federal funds to public broadcasters — plans to dole out $20 million in grants over the next three years as part of its American History and Civics Initiative. The money will go to projects that use websites, video games, podcasts and other new media to teach students about history and politics.
To get high-tech companies to participate in the initiative, CPB officials have urged producers to stress the profit to be made as schools across the country are exposed to their products. At briefings about the project, a CPB consultant suggested telling corporations that public television will be “a Trojan horse” to gain them entree into schools, according to attendees.
That idea has alarmed some producers, who fear the project represents a commercialization of public broadcasting.
“It’s a radical departure from what the mission of CPB and public television is,” said Deborah Kaufman, a Berkeley-based independent producer, who attended a briefing in New York for potential grant applicants in late May. “It’s like a product plan for high-tech companies, which is inappropriate.”
But supporters — including some of the larger PBS stations that produce the bulk of public television programming — view the project as a savvy way to broaden financial support for the system.
“With long-term funding for public broadcasting so uncertain, it’s a really good move for us to be thinking about other business models to augment what we have,” said Richard Winefield, vice president of interactive and educational services at San Francisco’s KQED, which is applying for a grant. “I think we can do good and do well at the same time.”
Ronald Thorpe, director of education at Thirteen/WNET in New York, agreed, calling the approach “good common sense.”
The competing viewpoints come at a time when lawmakers have scrutinized the value of spending taxpayer dollars on public television and radio. While the system appears poised to escape the deep cuts proposed by House Republicans in the spring, the threat of a reduction in federal funding triggered anxiety about public broadcasting’s financial stability.
Turning to corporations for funding is not new. Private-sector companies often underwrite individual PBS programs and frequently contribute directly to local stations. In 2003 — the most recent year for which data are available — businesses gave more than $351 million to public television and radio, 15% of the total revenue in the system.
But as corporations have shifted from passive donors to full-fledged partners in programming initiatives, public broadcasting advocates have grown increasingly nervous about commercialization of the system. When PBS and Sesame Workshop announced in April that they had joined with Comcast to create an advertiser-supported digital channel of popular children’s programming, critics bemoaned the deal as a sellout.
CPB officials said their pursuit of commercial investment in the history initiative is simply an attempt to leverage federal funds, adding that corporate participation could sustain the project long after the three years of public support have run out.
“The key thing for us, as is always the case, is whether the project fulfills the mission of public television, is in the public interest and actually helps educate kids,” said Michael Pack, CPB’s senior vice president for television programming.
“I think as long as it does that, the fact that there might be a commercial entity involved that might be making a profit is not a bad thing. I don’t see it having a negative impact.”
To teach history
The initiative has a lofty aim: to measurably improve what students across the country know about the U.S.’ history and political system. Although projects must include a television component, CPB officials have advised producers to develop their content primarily for interactive technologies such as websites.
To receive one of the dozen initial grants expected to be offered next year, producers have been urged to partner with a technology company that will not only develop a new-media application for the content, but invest its own money in the project.
“We hope that the tech community will see this project as an opportunity to make substantial inroads into schools that will potentially lead to substantial profits,” CPB senior consultant James Denton said at an April 29 briefing held at the the corporation’s Washington headquarters, according to a transcript posted on the corporation website.
“To achieve our goals, we understand that the commercial tech sector will expect a return on its investment and we will facilitate that,” he added.
Some of those who follow public broadcasting called the emphasis on corporate profits inappropriate, saying that the approach could limit the kind of stories that are told.
“The problem is with having corporations drive the agenda,” said Patricia Aufderheide, a communications professor at American University who sits on the board of the Independent Television Service, which produces public television series such as “Independent Lens.”
“I think we should have a great level of discomfort as taxpayers about spending our money this way,” added Aufderheide, who noted that she was not speaking on behalf of the television service. “What keeps it from being a $20-million subsidy for corporations’ promotion of their own products?”
Pack said that grant applicants are not required to secure commercial investment and acknowledged that some projects could have trouble doing so. In that case, “we are perfectly fine to have a project that cannot find a commercial support but [has] traditional support from foundations,” he said.
But at the briefing in April, he stressed the need for corporate participation.
“While we welcome, and indeed encourage, government and nonprofit-foundation support, please be mindful that we also place high value on commercial investment as an early indicator of the project’s long-term financial sustainability,” Pack said, according to the transcript.
At that same meeting, Denton advised producers on how to persuade corporations to participate in the project. Noting that he is an outside consultant and not speaking for the Corp. for Public Broadcasting, he suggested: “Why not use public television as a Trojan horse to get into the school system? It’s one thing to approach the schools as a commercial vendor. It’s another thing to approach the schools as part of a public-private partnership that is working together to solve a great national crisis.”
Pack said that Denton was merely trying to help producers sell the initiative to the private sector.
“The difficulty is not going to be beating these commercial partners away — the difficulty is in attracting them,” he said in an interview.
Denton has worked as a consultant to the corporation since January 2004. Denton — who ran two nonprofit groups that worked to support democratic institutions around the world — does not have broadcast experience, Pack said, but was hired for his expertise in grant-making.
His father, former Alabama Sen. Jeremiah Denton, is a retired Navy rear admiral and conservative Republican who founded and runs the Admiral Jeremiah Denton Foundation. The foundation aims to “re-establish God’s Ten Commandments as the basis of our law” and believes that students are being taught “an erroneous and deeply harmful concept of America’s history,” according to its website.
James Denton declined to comment on his work for CPB or whether he agreed with the goals of his father’s organization, pointing instead to his career history. He served as president of an earlier version of the Denton Foundation, when it was known as the National Forum Foundation and focused largely on anti-communist efforts in Central America and bolstering nascent democratic groups in Eastern Europe.
He then went to work as executive director of Freedom House, a nonpartisan organization dedicated to promoting democracy around the world. Colleagues there describe Denton as evenhanded and non-ideological.
“It was quite clear he is Republican, but in his hiring decisions and work at Freedom House, there was never any kind of political bias,” said Arch Puddington, director of research. “Everybody knew about his father and we all assumed Jim was pretty conservative, but it didn’t intrude in his work here.”
A meeting in L.A.
Corp. of Public Broadcasting officials are scheduled to hold another briefing on the history initiative on Tuesday in Los Angeles, where they will answer questions about the program for potential grant applicants. Initial proposals from producers are due Nov. 1.
Thorpe of WNET, which is considering applying for the grant, said he expects the process to be very competitive. After CPB announced the initiative in April, he was bombarded with calls from organizations that want to participate in the project, including many private-sector companies.
“I’ve never seen such interest,” Thorpe said. “It just went on and on and on.”
- Posted by Zeke on August 1st, 2005