Public broadcasters face grave risks of losing credibility and trust through increasing commercialism of their work, says David Fanning, founding executive producer of the award-winning series Frontline.
It is “shameful” he says about the ways some public stations use pledge drives to market products for local sponsors. “This is our deepest embarrassment as public broadcasters…we spend more of our energy and promotional time pushing programs that have nothing to do with our mission.”
Fanning delivered remarks at the annual James L. Loper Lecture in Public Service Broadcasting in November before an audience of public broadcasting leaders, community leaders, scholars and students.
The program also honored USC Annenberg School dean Ernest J. Wilson, III, (pictured, left, with fellow CPB board member Bruce Ramer) who was recently elected to chair the Corporation for Public Broadcasting Board of Governors.
While sharing his inspiring career trajectory as a young filmmaker in South Africa to executive producer of a weekly documentary series for PBS, Fanning spoke about the tremendous potential Frontline films have to impact policy. He recalled an experience shortly after 9/11, which he described as an “awesome responsibility for journalists.”
“Hunting Bin Laden was made two and a half years before 9/11. It was the film we rebroadcast two days after that tragic event, to extraordinary public response,” Fanning said. “In fact, the morning after, PBS got a call from the White House, saying Vice President Cheney wanted a copy …Those next days, in packed screenings on Capitol Hill, we were literally briefing the Congress and the US government on who was Osama Bin Laden and what was Al Qaeda.”
According to Fanning, such narrative documentaries are highly expensive and make little economic sense for networks. “It only makes journalistic sense. And that’s if you believe that in an increasingly complex world, someone needs to pick through the mass of information that comes flooding at us day and night, and choose a path through it.”
Fanning discussed the unique responsibility of public broadcasting and the funding challenges facing the industry. To survive, he believes, “we should be arguing that the best hope for this whole system is to build it around a mission for journalism.”
On a cautionary note, he adds, “I am particularly concerned about a threat to our essential public identity. This is already happening. They’re called “sponsorships”, but they are essentially commercials all over public broadcasting websites, local and national, radio and television. I’ve argued strenuously that we are threatening our special status as non-commercial media … we all swim in a sea of commercialism, and that’s precisely why we need to keep ourselves clean of it.”
“One day, I’m afraid, when most of our work is experienced on the web, we will wake up and the public will say we’re no different from the rest of them. Why should we give you our membership money? And why should the government give you our tax dollars?”
For Fanning, it all comes down to a question of intelligence. “It is, and has to be, our watchword. If we can’t say that the idea, the story, the film, we’re working on is intelligent, then we shouldn’t be doing it. In fact, we shouldn’t be given the means to do it. Someone should take away the money they give us to produce these films.”
Also attending the program were public broadcasting pioneer James L. Loper, Ph.D. (pictured with his wife Mary Lou) the honorary chairman of the Loper Lecture series, and philanthropist H. Russell Smith, former board chairman of KCET in Los Angeles. The Loper Lecture is made possible through the generous support of the H. Russell Smith Foundation.