Rebecca Carroll: Where are we with public television? What do people—both those who are watching and not watching—need to know about public television now that’s different from 10 years ago?
Tamara E. Robinson: Perhaps the most important thing to underscore is something often taken for granted: Public television is free of charge, and available to all. We’re a full-time provider of quality programming to a very diverse, very demanding population. We’re also one of the country’s most powerful and cost-effective educational forces. That hasn’t changed. But the broadcast landscape has—dramatically.
Ten years ago, there were three major networks, public television, and a handful of cable alternatives. We’re now operating in a 500-channel universe, which means confronting and overcoming numerous challenges. We’re more vulnerable than ever to the vicissitudes of the economy. Funding is a full-time effort. We’re also working hard every day to take advantage of the latest technologies the market has to offer. Today, Thirteen/ WNET is expanding its service through a range of pioneering efforts—including its merger with its sister-station, WLIW21, and the inauguration of new digital and Video On Demand channels. In the end, it’s all about better television.
RC: What are some of the biggest misconceptions about public TV?
TR: That public television is stodgy, old fashioned, hard to watch, not timely, not relevant, has no humor and is for women over 55. The reality could not be more different. Our viewers reflect our programs—they’re interesting, they’re curious, they’re diverse.
RC: What kind of cross-pollination occurs between public television and independent film?
TR: There has always been cross-pollination between public television and independent film, and Thirteen/WNET continues to be a leader in this area. Thirteen/WNET was one of the first—if not the first—to provide a regular forum for independent film and producers, starting from the TV Lab, to becoming a founding partner of American Documentary Fund, which gave birth to P.O.V. Our portfolio includes: “Reel NY,” “Cantos Latinos,” “Due East,” “Umoja!,” and “Out!.” As well as a plethora of programming provided by independents as a part of our ongoing strands: “Great Performances,” “American Masters,” “Nature,” “Wide Angle,” and virtually all of our limited series, such as the recent Slavery and the Making of America, which the New York Daily News called “the most powerful and important television work on the subject since ‘Roots’ in 1977.”
It’s worth noting that series producer Dante J. James is an independent filmmaker currently pursuing a master’s degree at Duke University while developing new projects. Mr. James also produced the Emmy-nominated Marian Anderson and Politics: The New Black Power, chosen by The New York Times as one of the best documentaries of 1990. We’re proud of our association with independents like Mr. James.
RC: And what are the differences between the two? I think some people feel as though public television is this sort of “other” entity, and because independent film has this hip cache, never the twain shall meet kind of thing. Your thoughts?
TR: Most of the work on public television is produced by a diverse slate of independents, many of which have received the highest honors television has to offer. Public television, especially Thirteen/WNET, has always been fueled by the independent creative spirit, which we’ve nurtured since day one as the presenting station for such now famous documentarians as Frederick Wiseman, Ken Burns, Ric Burns, Alan and Susan Raymond, Anne Makepeace, Sam Pollard, Mustapha Khan, Nam June Paik, and a host of others.
RC. What is WNET’s position on commercial advertising? Both as a station model and as a station that needs to maintain and grow itself?
TR: It’s simple: We do not take commercial advertising. We are a private, nonprofit corporation. As such, Thirteen members remain our most reliable source of financial support. This keeps us unencumbered and beholden to no one and helps us provide a positive, non-cluttered environment for our viewers. At the same time, dedicated philanthropic organizations and private corporations have long been a vital source of general operating support for Thirteen.
RC: How can independent filmmakers get involved with public television?
TR: Independents are an integral part of Thirteen and we are always in the market for challenging ideas and new proposals from a fresh pool of creative talent. Anyone can pitch ideas to any public television station like Thirteen, which accepts treatments, full-length proposals, and completed programs for evaluation. Or, filmmakers can send in a letter of inquiry to see if there is possible interest before sending in full-length materials.
RC: Are you constantly aware of the moral high ground public television represents? Or is assigned? And is it fairly assigned as such?
TR: Our mission statement is pretty clear: “Through its productions, broadcasts, and educational outreach activities, Thirteen/WNET New York pursues a single, overarching goal: to create television and interactive media experiences of lasting significance for all segments of the population—in the New York metropolitan area, across America, and worldwide.” We are very mindful of this and would never to anything to jeopardize the public’s trust.
RC: What are some of the programming choices that you would never make for WNET? And why?
TR: We would never produce programming that would intentionally mislead or provide false information to the viewer. We take very seriously our duties as broadcaster, educator, and benefactor. Programs like “NOW With David Brancaccio” and “The Wall Street Journal Report” offer viewers forums for exploring, understanding, and debating the most important issues of the day.
RC: Who are the forgotten heroes of public television? Of public television as a concept, a medium, an art form, and as something to be protected and revered?
TR: Hartford Gunn, first president of PBS, who set the vision; Samuel C.O. Holt, first head of programming, who set the standard for quality and intelligent programming; Robert A. Mott, first head of station relations for PBS, who understood what a membership means, how it works and how a national organization needs to be accountable; and John Macy, first head of the Corporation for Public Broadcasting. These people and countless others understood that the “S” in PBS really did mean service and each day they demonstrated that in every aspect of their work. Now, it’s our responsibility to carry those principles forward, to continue asking the big questions, and to rededicate ourselves to the longstanding tradition of making uncommonly fine TV.