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PBS flagship station's strategy for success, survival and ... spotlight.

A determination to institute operating efficiency, along with practical visions of television's future, including a renewed emphasis on education, are changing both the organization and the program approach of WNET, Channel 13, the flagship station of the Public Broadcasting System, celebrating its 30th anniversary this year.

M/Video Age interviewed Harry Chancey, Jr., WNET's vicepresident and Director of Program Service, the dynamic spirit behind a multi-faceted effort to bring the spotlight back to programming and to shape it with a view for the coming decades.

Q: You have restructured WNET on various levels. What has that involved?

A: We have reorganized into a program service which acknowledges that a television station may be only a subset of other distributions, and that the production center, which was actively pursuing projects for broadcast, is in fact more appropriately a part of the program service. A broadcast is a part of a product that may have applications in the classroom and in the community. It may have a print life. It may have computer life; and organized as a program service we are able to poise ourselves better for the future media landscape.

Q: Where does PBS Jennifer Lawson in Washington come in? Does she have to approve what you do?

A: Jennifer Lawson is one of our primary customers. We seek to produce programs for Public Television, and we look very often to PBS for the funding. No, Jennifer does not dictate everything we do, because some things are fully funded by corporations or foundations. The symbiosis of the relationship is that she very often provides seed money and very rarely full funding.

Q: Do you see, in the future, when there are many more cable channels, a competition for WNET? After all they will offer niche programming.

A: I see problems not so much in terms of duplication of product, but in terms of distribution. I think that the vision - at least my vision - is there will have to be access for public television services on more and more of the distribution outlets, and cable is certainly one of them, although it's not the only one if the Baby Bells get involved in the business. Public television is uniquely suited for the delivery of several different services.

We could niche programs on several different channels if we had those outlets, and I think when we start compression video, we will be that much closer towards the delivery of an instructional television service, a health care and information service, a cultural service, a news service, and all of the different services we could be if we had those distribution outlets.

Again, this goes back to our reorganization. It is why we are a program service now rather than a television station and a production center. The Program is central - its development, its growth and its distribution.

Q: In other words, you feel you should have the facility of putting out several programs simultaneously at prime time ?

A: I think that we should. I think we should have the distribution capacity to allow for expectations to be built up, so that if someone tunes into public television cultural, their expectation would be cultural, if someone tunes into public television education, their expectation would be educational. Real time scheduling, I think, is becoming a thing of the past.

Q: To what extent does government money and criticism influence your thinking in terms of programs?

A: Most often when I hear the voice of criticism, no matter from which quarter it comes, whether it is from Congress, elected officials, or from self-appointed pressure groups, I professionally try never to reflexively become defensive. I look for truth in the criticism, or the validity in the criticism, and act accordingly.

There is, I think, an agreed upon mission for public television to reflect the diversity of this country and in so doing there is inevitably going to be controversy about that because diversity includes dissent, and dissent of all

different sorts is probably one of the comer-stones of public television, because it is not protected in the market place. Dissent very often is minority, and minority is not a market place commodity. Majority is a market place commodity, which is one of the reasons d'etre for public television.

Q: I look at some of these mediocre programs they have on the commercial networks, and you have many excellent programs on public television. Yet, when you compare the viewership of NBC, CBS, etc. with yours, it doesn't really measure up. Is it possible to sell quality to the public?

A: I think we are aiming for the mass audience, but as an educator we are working against the tides of culture which, to a certain extent support a form of materialism and a form of entertainment that feels good after a tough working day. Public Television programs are very often tough. They require a bit more inter-action than strictly light entertainment.

Q: If you had more money to publicize and promote your programs, would they then be more widely tuned into?

A: I think our publicity is woefully underfunded.

I have always felt that public television is being lumped into an industry where the only thing it shares is the format itself. Yet we use the same criteria to judge it as the Nielsen ratings. Those numbers should essentially be a report card for how many did watch. But when they became a sine qua non of the program itself, then it raises questions about the purpose of public television.

I become concerned when public television is merely hooked up to the standards of the industry of which it is a pan, and yet it is a stand alone.

Q: How about plans for the next year or two?

A: We are not thinking about the next year or two. We are thinking about the next 10 years or even longer. Strategically, we have challenged ourselves not to be developing project by project but in terms of a body of work. I have "the body politic," under the direction of Fred Noriega, programs of people as our political and social selves. I have, under the direction of Jac Venza, "the body electric ,"the challenge to develop programs about that part of us which expresses itself artistically differently from politics. And then we have George Page, who will be narrating Medicine At the Crossroads.

George is developing "the body natural," so to speak, under the rubrics of food, clothing, sex and shelter. We are looking at four and five year plans.

All of the folks working in development are setting their minds not only on a single project, but on an elaborated project that may unfold over several years.

Q: How happy are you with the solution in Washington with the money for PBS? Does it answer your problems for the moment?

A: No, but I am a great believer that if you criticize something, you better have a better plan. I am not sure that I have the exact system that would make things better except the obvious give me more money, let me do what I need to do, and don't give me a hard time. But that's not the real world.

Q: Are you planning any closer cooperation with other PBS stations ?

A: We look outward across the globe, and we look inward to America, and I think that technology being what it is now, and the resource of public television stations being interlinked, there is absolutely no reason why we won't be having close coproduction partners across the country over the next several years. There are active conversations going on fight now.

Q: Structurally, are you changing the station ?

A: Prior to the reorganization, we had a Chief Operating Officer and several functional areas, and I believe there were up to 12 senior executives and that is what the company looked like. It was a hard organization to manage for a lot of reasons.

Now we have a new organization: The President, the chief operating officer, the program service, which I represent, the educational resources center, which Ruth Ann Burns represents, and the revenue center, or the marketing and membership and development and communication center, of which Jon Olken is the head. The synergy of this is that there are certain things which I must do with the marketing people in order to make something happen, and there are things which all three of us would engage in.

My job is to take programs and to develop them, produce them, distribute them, broadcast them, prepare their budgets, do all the administration, handle that program, and make sure that I am involved with the educational and marketing departments to massage it through, to give the maximum impact. This organization is deemed to be more future oriented than the old one.

Q: Are the corporate sponsors affected by the economic climate ?

A: Yes. I think the days of corporate philanthropy were the golden years where you'd just go and knock on the door and say, 'Hi vice president, corporate philanthropy, what do you think?' And he replies, 'It's a great idea. We'll just give you a bucket of money.'

This doesn't happen any more. I think it requires that we get better at representing a project to a company.
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Title Annotation:WNET, New York; interview with Harry Chancey Jr.
Publication:Video Age International
Article Type:Interview
Date:Nov 1, 1992
Words:1552
Previous Article:Past, present and future.
Next Article:'We want to tap into a wider range of partners.'
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