National Center for Outreach

Public television stations have always been dedicated to airing programs that help their communities. But after the programs have aired, how can inspired community members actually take up the cause? For three years, the National Center for Outreach has tried to help expand public TV’s mission by orchestrating community activities with local and national stations. But the NCO isn’t only a service for stations. As many filmmakers have learned, it doesn’t hurt to have an outreach plan when pitching to public television.

What are some of the ways you encourage stations to engage in their local communities?

Let’s say a station shows a film on Alzheimer’s Disease. That’s a great public service, but if you combine that with a local phone bank where experts on Alzheimer’s answer the phones, that extends the impact of the broadcast because it helps people get in touch immediately with the resources that they need.

What was the precedent for NCO?

Years ago it was called The Public Television Outreach Alliance. It was five television stations that got together to encourage people to do something around the broadcasts they aired. They were the pioneers of what we do today.


Do you try to get the filmmakers involved?

We really seek out organizations in three broad ways. Obviously, there’s the public television stations: PBS, and Corporation for Public Broadcasting. Beyond that we work with producers who are thinking about what kind of impact they want to have with their broadcast. And we work with national organizations to find out how they can partner with the public television stations. We’re pretty much the catalyst of those three groups coming together. With producers, they work on getting their show on the air and then there’s this afterthought of what should happen around the show so it’s not a one-night stand. We work really hard so that’s not the case. And now funders are saying, “It’s a great idea you want to do a show on say, suicide, but we want to know how that’s going to have an impact on the community.”

Maria Alvarez-Stroud, the Executive Director of the National Center for Outreach, giving the opening talk at the 2003 NCO Annual Conference.


So, if a producer has a plan for outreach to go along with his/her film, it’s more intriguing for stations?

It’s a huge selling point.


Is most of the effort to increase awareness made by the public television stations or the filmmakers?

It’s a little bit of both. And with national community organizations like United Way, Boys and Girls Clubs, the American Library Association, and museums, there’s great symmetry in what those community organizations are trying to do and what we want public television to be on a local level. We have the most contact with the public television stations, but we have an annual conference every year and that’s where the producers that are doing outreach for their broadcasts come and present their videos and their plans to all the outreach managers in public television. It’s sort of the kickoff to the next year. Outreach people tend to work about six months ahead [of the broadcast]. The show can still be in production and outreach folks are already working in the community to build the partnership. It’s very much on the front end of production that a lot of the work happens, and it often culminates the night of the broadcast and then continues on.


What are some of the reasons public television stations should be involved with NCO?

We’re a free resource [laughs]. We provide consultation and we even travel to stations that are having a hard time trying to figure out how to build stronger ties to their community. The typical question from stations is, “Well, how much is this going to cost us?” And we’re like, “Nothing.”

We also provide training on how to connect and be a better partner on the local level. We try to keep people informed about what’s going on nationally; being a clearinghouse is a major function of what we do. And then, in addition to that, we also provide funding to public television stations with a granting program.


Can you explain these grants?

We’ve really honed in on the connector grant which is focused on a particular issue in a community and then building a campaign using broadcast as one of the components. It could be phone banks, or print material, or classroom presentations, or a leadership organization. Beyond that we do some special grants. This next year we’re going to be rolling out a grant encouraging stations to do local leadership summits where local leaders in the communities go into their stations and listen and work together on how the stations can be better for their communities.


Are there different dollar amounts for the grants?

The leadership summit grants are going to be small, probably a couple thousand. The connector grant is $14,000.


What are the deadlines?

January and July.


What’s the process a station has to go through in order to get involved with NCO?

It’s on varying degrees, but we basically provide services to every public television station. We send out newsletters; everyone’s invited to come to our conference. Stations can request for us to come and do things with them, so it’s not like it’s a member organization.


What is the NCO Outreach Pipeline?

The Pipeline is a tool for all the broadcasts that want to see some kind of outreach activity happening around them. It provides information about the suggested activities, about the resources that are available, and if there are any grants that will be awarded. It’s something that we update four times a year. At our conference we have a Pipeline session, and everyone at the conference gets a videotape of all the Pipeline shows so that they can go back to their stations and show everyone. We also do a monthly newsletter that mentions the Pipeline.


What is the greatest benefit that National Center for Outreach has provided?

We’re getting stations to think in a different way about what it means to be a public television station, and making the word “public” stand out in public broadcasting.

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