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Boxed In

Can Vermont Public Television survive in a changing media landscape?

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Many Vermonters breathed a sigh of relief earlier this spring when Congress spared the Corporation for Public Broadcasting — which funds both Public Broadcasting Service and National Public Radio — from the chopping block. But, when it comes to PBS, those Vermonters may have to keep holding their breath. Even with continued federal funding, public TV is struggling to stay relevant in an increasingly crowded field.

The challenges facing PBS are massive — some say insurmountable. Once the only television network with thought-provoking documentaries and cheeky British comedies, PBS now faces competition not just from commercial television, but from Netflix, Hulu and the rest of the wildly accessible Internet. The network doesn’t have the money to put up much of a fight — and it doesn’t have NPR’s fiercely loyal following or innovative brand, either.

Still, if there’s one state where people respect local public institutions, it’s Vermont, home of the town meeting. So, how is our home-grown public TV doing?

In terms of member support and technology, not so badly. In terms of innovative content and staying power, not so well, say many observers. They charge that our PBS affiliate, Vermont Public Television, lacks vision, doesn’t follow through with area producers and has spent the last several years clinging to its national content rather than cultivating local productions.

VPT operates on a roughly $6 million budget — about $1 million less than Vermont Public Radio across the street. VPT has an average of 121,000 viewers each week, but most of them are kids under 5 and adults over 50. At its peak in the mid-’90s, the station had 30,000 member households; now it has 23,000.

That’s good compared with PBS affiliates around the country, many of which have seen double-digit decreases in membership over the past few years. “We were jumping up and down with glee to only be down 4 percent,” says Ann Curran, community relations director for VPT. While the network exceeded its quarterly fundraising goal during its most recent on-air drive, it fell short of its overall annual goal — about $3 million — by roughly $200,000.

Producing quality television is expensive. VPT, which is in the final stretch of a 12-year, federally mandated, $11 million digital conversion, went high definition in January. For the first time in about 20 years, its Colchester studio boasts the finest equipment, including slick character generators the staff is still learning to use, and a digital master control suite. This summer, VPT will install a brand new lighting grid, replacing the heavy, antique system it has used since 1967.

The station also created a new position for someone to direct programming across media platforms. The goal is to make more content available on VPT’s website, which is currently difficult to navigate and lacks basic information, including who works there and how to contact them. VPT also plans to develop mobile broadcasting so viewers can stream its programs on their cell phones.

But some local critics say embracing technology isn’t enough to keep the station vital to Vermont viewers. As the media landscape changes, content, as they say, is king. “If VPT is going to justify its infrastructure investment and bring back any kind of relevance, it’s going to have to move from national programming — with the exception of their signature productions,” says Bill Schubart, an author, regular commentator on VPR and chair of the Vermont Journalism Trust. “It’s going to have to move to local programming.”

About 5 percent of VPT’s content is locally produced. That includes three weekly series: “Profile,” in which Fran Stoddard sits down for meaty conversations with noteworthy Vermonters; “Outdoor Journal,” which features outdoorsy people doing Vermont-y things; and “Vermont This Week,” in which local journalists offer analysis primarily on political news from around the state. There’s also a monthly program, “Public Square,” hosted by WCAX senior political reporter Kristin Carlson, in which legislators take questions from VPT viewers; and periodic series such as “Emerging Science” and “Making Sense New England.”

The rest of the programming comes from PBS affiliates and other distributors. The most popular of these shows are “PBS NewsHour,” “Masterpiece,” “Nature,” “Antiques Roadshow,” “Nova” and “American Experience.” VPT prides itself on the 53 hours of children’s programs it airs every week.

VPT president and CEO John King believes the network is on the right track. He says he likes to carry around the daily television grid so he can point out that the History Channel doesn’t actually air many history programs — it’s all “Ice Road Truckers” and “American Pickers” these days. His point is that commercial channels tried to turn a profit on PBS-style niche television, but it didn’t work, so they turned to reality shows.

“That’s why public television does what it does,” says King. “We do things in communities that no one else will do, because the commercial model doesn’t work.”

But is the alternative as good as it could — and should — be? For several years, VPT’s programming manager, Kelly Luoma, has worked remotely from California. Vermont filmmaker John O’Brien describes VPT’s programming as “in-house and risk averse.” Says Schubart, “When I look at VPT, I find about eight hours a week I want to watch, and that’s it.”

It’s tempting to compare VPT with VPR, its radio counterpart. The two receive funding from the same sources — the Corporation for Public Broadcasting and contributing members — and they boast roughly the same number of contributing members. But there’s no question VPR has a stronger identity. You see it all over Vermonters’ Subarus: the ubiquitous VPR Euro-style decal. People still talk about what they heard on VPR around the proverbial water cooler.

Radio’s big advantage? You can listen to it in the car and while you cook. Before his phone interview, Schubart says, he was out in the yard raking and chain-sawing while he listened to Gov. Shumlin on VPR. Television simply doesn’t have that flexibility.

Another hindrance? TV production is often cost prohibitive. Dan Harvey, who worked at VPT for 20 years until 2004, used to joke about this with his colleagues. “We’d show up at the Statehouse with 10 crew members, a remote truck and two vans full of gear. VPR would show up with Bob Kinzel, a microphone and a phone line,” he writes in an email. “That’s not quite fair, I know, but it’s not far from the truth.”

In many ways the VPR-VPT contrast is simply a microcosm of what’s happening at the national level. While PBS sputters amid competition from the History Channel, the Discovery Channel and HGTV, NPR’s competition has fallen away. “During precisely the years that FM radio has lost the diversity and the free-form progressivism of its 1970s heyday,” Mark Oppenheimer wrote recently on Slate, “NPR, which debuted in 1971 with live coverage of Senate hearings on Vietnam, has steadily gotten more adventurous, more popular, better.”

He continues: “Today, if you want to do creative television, chances are you would take a job at HBO, AMC or Showtime; it is unclear why, given the greater freedom — and money — those cable stations offer, you would work for PBS.”

“Public television is not a hotbed of innovation,” confirms Jason Mittell, associate professor of film and media culture at Middlebury College. “It once was, in some areas: documentary, educational programming.” But aspiring TV documentary filmmakers, he says, aren’t clamoring these days for gigs with PBS.

It was different in 1985. When Harvey landed a full-time production technician job at VPT fresh out of college that year, he beat out more than 100 applicants for the position. “I felt very lucky to have gotten that job,” writes Harvey, now the University of Vermont’s assistant dean of the Graduate College and chief of staff for the Office of the Vice President for Research, in an email. Public television was thriving. Then, federal and state funding was strong and consistent, and the network had a healthy percentage of Canadian members in addition to its U.S. contributors.

Over the next 20 years, Harvey moved up the ranks — from studio director to production manager to vice president of production to general manager. His long-term goal? To produce as much local programming as possible. It helped that in the early ’90s, VPT scored funding from USDA Rural Development, as well as from foundations and private donors.

The network bought some new equipment, built its own multicamera remote truck and traveled the state. VPT taped UVM basketball and hockey games, performances at Burlington’s jazz festival and goings-on at the Statehouse. It started “Vermont This Week” and “Outdoor Journal,” which remain two of VPT’s most popular local shows. And it began reaching out to more local talent — performers and filmmakers such as Rusty DeWees, Jay Craven and John O’Brien. “At one point, we had at least one local program running every weekday night,” writes Harvey.

In the late ’90s and early 2000s, government funding began to shrivel as competition from “lookalike” channels grew. Harvey left for UVM in 2005, but he says VPT continues to do the best it can. “I know that some of the funding streams that I was able to take advantage of have dried up, but they are still doing outstanding local production,” he writes. “Probably not as much as when I was there, but we did a lot and we always knew it would be hard to sustain that level.”

This year’s annual budget for “Vermont This Week,” taped in the studio, is $42,000. For “Emerging Science,” which is taped on site, VPT budgeted $166,000, though $130,000 of that came from a Vermont Experimental Program to Stimulate Competitive Research grant. The station’s nonlocal content is much cheaper: An annual fee of $710,000 pays for all the external PBS-originated programming.

Scott Campitelli ran VPT’s education department from 1992 to 1997. He left because he saw a better opportunity to produce local educational content in public access television. Now the executive director of South Burlington’s Regional Education Technology Network (RETN), he says, “I believe in local. That’s the bottom line for me. We need to continue cultivating a local media ecology.”

During Campitelli’s tenure at VPT, the station was making $100,000 a year by licensing instructional materials to schools. VPT has since discontinued its licensing operation. These days, many schools and libraries get such materials through Discovery Channel’s parent company, Discovery Communications, says Campitelli, simply because it markets its product more aggressively. “People are going straight to whoever markets most to them,” he says. The kicker? Discovery Communications licenses older educational material from PBS.

VPT was no more motivated to market the state’s iconic images, says filmmaker O’Brien. He recalls working with the network to secure underwriting for the PBS “soft feed” of his 1996 film Man With a Plan, which brought dairy farmer Fred Tuttle to national attention. (A soft feed is programming offered to other PBS affiliates, which choose whether to air it.) “VPT’s own underwriter came and said, ‘We tried everybody; we couldn’t find any money, including Ben & Jerry’s,’” he says. O’Brien and his associate producer, Jack Rowell, decided they’d appeal to Ben & Jerry’s themselves. O’Brien was surprised when B&J agreed to underwrite $25,000. “Then VPT took 15 or 20 percent because they were the host station for the movie,” notes O’Brien.

Salesmanship may not be PBS’ forte, but that was by design, Mittell points out. “There’s always been a sense that public broadcasters shouldn’t compete with private broadcasters; they should fill the gap,” he says.

When PBS started in 1970, it filled a huge gap. Most cities had only three broadcast channels: ABC, CBS and NBC. The station found its niche immediately, offering unprecedented children’s programming, such as “Sesame Street,” imported English television like “Masterpiece Theater” and long-form, talking-head evening news shows. The long-running “MacNeil/Lehrer Report” is now “PBS NewsHour.” Viewers could learn to cook with Julia Child and gawk at renovations on “This Old House.”

Now, of course, there’s hardly a gap to fill — except, says John King, for the 15 percent of the state’s population who can’t connect to cable or satellite TV, either because their location doesn’t allow it or because they can’t afford the service. He says those people were delighted after the digital conversion in 2009, when VPT began broadcasting additional national content on two standard-definition channels: VPT Create (travel and lifestyle) and VPT World (news and documentaries).

Even the network’s critics seem cautiously optimistic about VPT’s new hire, chief content officer Kathryn Scott. She came to VPT last June from Los Angeles, where she did nonprofit work, but has a long history in both public and commercial media. Scott produced the PBS science program “Newton’s Apple” and documentaries for the Discovery Channel, and was later part of the startup team for the Newseum in Washington, D.C.

Public television’s future, Scott writes in an email, “will come down to whether citizens value the unique mission to which we public broadcasters adhere” — that is, providing free and unbiased programming that offers education opportunities and exposure to the complex world — “and whether for-profit broadcasters can or will ever provide the same.”

Of PBS content, she says, “It’s a proven performer.” But Scott also feels strongly about VPT’s commitment to local coverage, especially politics. She notes that VPT was the only local broadcaster to host debates among all the candidates on the ballot last election season, rather than just the two front-runners. Just last week, the network hosted a live, call-in question-and-answer session with Gov. Peter Shumlin as part of its occasional “Public Square” series.

“We also have a very rich cultural community in Vermont,” Scott says. “There are a lot of filmmakers, a lot of people who are passionate, who do documentary or have interviewed interesting people. So we often take advantage of those productions, as well.”

But not all of Vermont’s filmmakers have positive things to say about those experiences. Jay Craven produced a series with VPT in 2004 called “Windy Acres” — a comedy about a New York City woman who impulsively moves to Vermont, where she meets a love-starved farmer played by DeWees. A Vermont writer wrote the script, and most of the crew members were local film students. “The idea was to create something ongoing … that would employ local actors, hire local crews and could also go out to the larger public television world,” says Craven.

VPT liked the project and agreed to help fund it — $60,000 if the network was able to secure a grant from the Department of Agriculture, $30,000 without the grant, according to Craven. It won the grant, and the crew began shooting. But halfway through production, Craven says, VPT called to say the money was no longer available. “We were sort of left high and dry,” says Craven.

In the end, after much haranguing, according to Craven, VPT scrounged up about $10,000 for the project, and Craven borrowed another $50,000 against his house to make up the difference — and finish the series, which won two New England Emmy Awards and was sold to 10 other PBS affiliates. “I’m still paying it off,” says Craven.

Of the funding debacle, VPT president John King says, “That’s a myth that we’ve heard repeatedly, that we didn’t bring our part to the table. That’s absolutely false and that’s as far as I’ll go with that.”

A few years later, Craven returned to VPT with another pitch — a series based on Vermont author Archer Mayor’s mystery novel Bellows Falls — except this time, he says, he wasn’t asking the network for money, only to cosponsor some grant applications and give him the opportunity to find and credit sponsors. After a meeting in which Craven says the VPT producers seemed oddly distracted, he waited for a promised follow-up phone call, and heard nothing.

Scott says she’s been experiencing the same futile pursuit from the other side: She meets with local filmmakers on VPT’s behalf, asks them to follow up with more information and then never hears from them again. “I think there’s a rumor out there that we are unfriendly,” she says. “But we have a solid track record that disputes that, and we continue to talk with folks.” Indeed, VPT has aired several Vermont films recently, including Camilla Rockwell’s Mother Nature’s Child and Victor Guadagno’s Bloom: The Plight of Lake Champlain.

Mittell says the biggest problem with public television is the manner in which it’s funded. “As long as public broadcasting funding is dependent on congressional budgets, it will never be vibrant,” he says. “It’s a political hot potato.”

A better system, he suggests, would be to impose a licensing fee on households with televisions, the way they do in England. The result is the world’s biggest, oldest and most revered public broadcasting station, the BBC.

The fee — roughly $240 per home each year — brings in about 80 percent of the network’s total income. Not everyone likes it: People complain that the BBC is too powerful. A recent New York Times article reports that every week “more than 97 percent of the British population watches, reads or listens to something produced by the BBC, which operates 10 TV channels and 16 radio stations domestically.”

It would never fly in the U.S., Mittell predicts, where “anything that is public is being challenged these days as not American.” He says he doesn’t see a future for public television as we know it today.

Campitelli holds out hope for VPT. “I know they’re in a tough position; it’s one of the reasons I didn’t want to be in broadcasting,” he says of the station. “But I don’t think it’s a lost cause. It’s going to require all of us to really look at TV differently.”

Gone are the days when “you’d get three channels, and if you were watching TV, you were watching the same things your neighbors were,” says VPT’s Ann Curran.

Then there’s the fact that television is rapidly moving online, where viewers don’t feel constrained by schedules — or local loyalties. You don’t have to own a TV to know that television, as we once knew it, is over. “Ten years from now, we’re not likely to recognize it,” Campitelli adds.

Try programming for that.