Sep 21, 2010

Ira Glass on "The Simpsons"? As Montgomery Burns would say, "Excellent."

Rumor has it that Ira Glass of This American Life is making a cameo appearance on the season premiere of The Simpsons. "Elementary School Musical" also co-stars . . . Jemaine and Bret. All you Flight of the Conchords fans may commence squeals of joy, while you Ira Glass fans continue your enthusiastic applause.

"State of Public Television" report: Haven't hit financial bottom yet, CPB Board hears

The CPB Board today (Sept. 21) heard an ominous "State of Public Television" update that predicts that licensees haven't yet seen the worst of declines in state support, underwriting and philanthropic giving.

CPB management commissioned Public Radio Capital for a systemwide analysis of fiscal year 2008 and FY2009 to assess pubTV station solvency. During that time, non-federal funding fell 16 percent. Although federal support to stations increased, aggregate revenues "continued their steep downward trend," the report said. Community licensees saw a 22 percent decrease in corporate underwriting, with national producing stations particularly impacted. Individual philanthropy is down 11 percent regardless of licensee type or station size.

And according to CPB, three more stations have requested assistance through its Stations in Financial Distress program: WTCI/Tennessee Valley PBS in Chattanooga, Tenn.; WOUB in Athens, Ohio; and WMFE in Orlando, Fla. (UPDATE: In a statement to Current, WMFE President Jose A. Fajardo said, "WMFE-TV/FM has not filed for CPB's Stations in Financial Distress program. We have inquired about the program and have discussed this option with CPB, but have not officially filed any paperwork with CPB. To state so is premature.")

The only relatively positive news was that following their deep budget cuts, most pubTV stations "appear to have adequate levels of short-term cash to meet current obligations" — however, those reserves are down by an average 10 percent. Also, the number of stations with high levels of longterm debt is on the decline.

In other news, the board:

— Tabled a recommendation by the Community Service Grant policy review panel to raise the NFFS requirement to receive a CSG from $800,000 to $1 million (see story in the latest Current, Sept. 20). The board considered tackling the complex issue at its next meeting in November, or in a telephone meeting. "If this were a perfect world this would be done in a month and stations would know for budget planning purposes," Chairman Ernest Wilson said, "but my hunch is this will stay at $800,000 for the next year." The board also tabled the panel's suggestion for $2 million in additional funding for "minority qualified stations," pending a definition of those grantees and research into the legality of the set asides. The board passed the remaining CSG panel recommendations, most of which supported current policies;

— Approved CPB's request to the Office of Management and Budget for a $495 million advance appropriation for FY2014, up $35 million from the probable FY2013 funding; and $48 million for FY2012 digital support, up $12 million from that FY2011 appropriation;

— Heard from CPB President Pat Harrison that the corporation continues discussions with the Federal Communications Commission for its "Future of the Media" report due out in January 2011. That will contain FCC policy recommendations, Harrison said, "including possible revisions to the Public Broadcasting Act, which would have implications for CPB and public media."

— And received an update on the American Archive initiative from board member Bruce Ramer, who said law students at several universities in California, including Stanford and UCLA, are assisting the project with research on the tricky issue of copyright clearance for the massive amount of historic pubTV and radio content currently being inventoried.

"Big Uneasy" over NPR's response to Shearer film

Was NPR's decision not to devote more airtime to Harry Shearer's documentary on New Orleans--even if it was paid for as underwriting--a case of censorship, quibbling over credit language, or fainthearted journalistic commitment to covering problems with the levy system constructed by the Army Corps of Engineers? All three theories played out over the blogosphere after Shearer wrote for the Huffington Post about his difficulties in getting NPR's newsmagazines to report on his documentary The Big Uneasy and in placing underwriting spots promoting its Aug. 30 debut. "NPR has decided its initials stand for nothing," Shearer wrote, taking a jab at the network's recent decision to abbreviate its name on-air. "What the network itself stands for at this moment sounds a lot like censorship."

NPR Ombudsman Alicia Shepard looked into Shearer's complaints last week and found that his desire to promote himself from a guest on Talk of the Nation to Morning Edition or All Things Considered, the NPR shows with the biggest audiences, were misguided--and complaining about it in the Huffington Post was disingenuous. "But NPR has devoted extensive coverage over the past five years to Katrina and the aftermath. And NPR did cover Shearer’s new film – just not in the way he wanted it," Shepard wrote [emphasis in original]. His beef with NPR's legal team could have been avoided, she wrote, "if both sides had been willing to compromise."

But another public radio journalist/blogger, Molly Peterson of Southern California Public Radio's KPCC, says Shepard was too quick to defend NPR's post-Katrina coverage of New Orleans. Peterson ought to know--she's reported extensively on the failures of the levy system in the award-winning series Pumps Under Pressure. Like Shearer, she offered her investigative story to NPR and was rebuffed. "It is not generally speaking the custom of the station-based public radio reporter to out their inner workings with freelance pitches, particularly to NPR," Peterson writes in response to the "silly flap" over Shearer's censorship complaints. "I’ll make an exception to say that NPR was offered these pieces, or segments thereof, or a conversation about them. The message I received was that they had their own coverage plans, and anyway, there had been enough about Katrina around that ‘versary."

Bob Collins, author of MPR's News Cut blog, also has been following the controversy and generating lots of comments. Collins admitted last week that his initial blog post was too quick to dismiss Shearer's complaints about NPR, and he challenged Shepard to reengage in the online discussion.

University cancels ag doc to ensure it's "scientifically sound"; was to air on TPT

The decision by the University of Minnesota to cancel broadcast of the documentary "Troubled Waters: A Mississippi River Story," continues to generate controversy. The film, exploring agricultural pollution and possible solutions, had been set to air on Twin Cities Public Television on Oct. 5. The story was broken by the Twin Cities Daily Planet, a local news site.

University News Service director Daniel Wolter told the Daily Planet that the Bell Museum is responsible for halting the release. That's part of the College of Food, Agricultural, and Natural Resource Sciences, and where the film was to premiere on Oct. 3. "We are an academic and science-based institution, and we want to ensure a production like this is scientifically sound," Wolter said. The film's director, Larkin McPhee, told the Daily Planet in an email: "I do not understand why the University postponed the film's broadcast. I am, along with many others, awaiting explanation from the U."

But now the Star Tribune is reporting that Barbara Coffin, head of the film unit at the Bell Museum, calls the situation "our messy internal confusion." She adds: "Unfortunately, an impulsive late-hour decision to pull the film from broadcast was made without wide internal discussion."