‘Fix Channel 11’ challenges renewal of WTTW execs

 

Dan Schmidt

Dan Schmidt

Window to the World Communications, the nonprofit parent company of public television WTTW-Channel 11 and classical music WFMT FM 98.7, is facing harsh criticism from members of the community it’s licensed to serve.

Declaring that the public broadcaster “has not lived up to its potential as a local player for a long time,” an ad hoc citizens group called “Fix Channel 11” is calling on the management and board of trustees “to commit to changing directions and their assumptions about its future.”

In a message posted on its website Friday, the group specifically challenged the board’s plan to renew the contracts of WTTW’s two top executives, president and CEO Dan Schmidt and chief financial officer Reese Marcusson, at its annual fiscal year session June 24.

“The two top guys have been in charge of Chicago’s major Public TV station the entire 21st century and have earned in the neighborhood of $8 million total salaries and benefits during their tenures. It’s hard to point out any significant improvements during that period,” the message read.

“It appears that their reappointments to multi-year contracts is a fait accompli, despite no public review or even media discussion of their performances, and despite the undeniable reality that the public station has limped along or declined during their watch.”

WTTW logoIn response to the post, WTTW’s manager of media relations provided this statement Monday: “As always, we welcome members of the community to offer suggestions, feedback, praise and criticism of what we do. We take the ‘public’ in public media very seriously, and it is central to our mission to be responsive to the people in the Chicago area who value what we do — especially our longstanding focus on local content. In fact, we are guided by feedback from the community, as well as by our audience, our strategic planning process, our Community Advisory Board, and our Board of Trustees.

“We see this position as one perspective in a landscape of many, and make it our business to seek input from all sides of the community in order to have context and balance in not only the feedback we receive but our reaction to it. We met with the leadership of this group, and we’re very open to continuing the dialogue,” the statement said.

“Fix Channel 11” identifies itself as “a group of media professionals, journalists, educators, and other engaged Chicagoans who believe in the power of local public television to improve lives and communities by revealing our city in thought-provoking ways.” Organizers include veteran Chicago producer Tom Weinberg, founder and chairman of Media Burn Independent Video Archive, and Elizabeth Coffman, associate professor in the School of Communications at Loyola University Chicago and founder of Loyola’s Center for Global Media and Documentary Studies.

The group has been public since April 2013, when about two dozen citizens gathered in a back room of Manny’s Cafeteria and Delicatessen “to share concerns about the lack of innovative programming and management at WTTW,” as I reported in Time Out Chicago. Representatives of the group also have attended meetings of WTTW’s board of trustees.

 

Here is the complete text of the group’s post:

TIME TO CHANGE THE CHANNEL?

When the Board of Trustees of WTTW/Channel 11 meets for its annual fiscal year session on Tuesday, June 24, at the Union-League Club, it will have a new Chair, James W. Mabie, 78, an investment banker, long-time North Shore resident, and outstanding supporter of literally dozens of Chicago cultural organizations.

The first order of business will be to vote to renew the contracts of the two top executives, President Dan Schmidt, 59, and Chief Financial Officer Reese Marcusson, 56, both of whom have also been long-time North Shore residents.

The two top guys have been in charge of Chicago’s major Public TV station the entire 21st century and have earned in the neighborhood of $8 million total salaries and benefits during their tenures. It’s hard to point out any significant improvements during that period.

It appears that their reappointments to multi-year contracts is a fait accompli, despite no public review or even media discussion of their performances, and despite the undeniable reality that the public station has limped along or declined during their watch.

The Board of Trustees of this PUBLIC nonprofit entity has 58 members. They are an earnest civic-minded group, mostly 60+ year old white men, nearly all of whom come from the top tier of Chicago commerce and culture. Most serve or have served on multiple boards and contributed large sums to many Chicago black-tie cultural organizations.

This is par for the course in big city cultural institutions. However, we think public television has a different impact and responsibility than the opera, the ballet, the symphony, the Art Institute, or the Field Museum.

In fact, so does the government: only broadcasters are subject to federal regulation and licensing.

It should come as no surprise that change has been nearly absent at WTTW, given the size and make-up of the board and the lack of turnover in management.

Even as its viewership and influence has waned, millions of us in Chicago still watch WTTW. It does provide an alternative to nearly all other channels—broadcast and cable—in no small part because it doesn’t have 15 minutes of commercials every hour.

But, it ought to be better. WTTW has not lived up to its potential as a local player for a long time. Because Channel 11 has practically stood still for so long, we think it’s missing the most important trend in broadcasting. Not unlike what Tip O’Neil said about politics, all television is local. Localism is the lifeblood of TV, particularly in a 500-channel, digital content, YouTube, DVR universe.

This has not been lost on the smartest players in town. Local TV production and programming is enjoying a major growth spurt: WGN-TV will up its local news to an unprecedented 59 hours of every week starting this fall–six every morning, two at midday, two at dinnertime, and one at 9 (plus a “Best of Morning News” on Sundays.); WCIU-TV just expanded its daily locally produced morning show by 50%; even WFLD (Fox Chicago) airs more than 30 hours a week of locally-produced programs.

WTTW has resisted taking chances.

Nothing changes in a vacuum. Over at least the past few years, under Chairman Norman Bobins and CEO Schmidt, quarterly meetings of the Board have been primarily perfunctory show and tells. Major focus has been on the charitable giving of the Board and public. Not a word of controversy has arisen in these public sessions. Once earlier this year, the Chair politely invited the public visitors (us) to leave so it could go into executive session and discuss the finances of a matching money deal.

The Board members of Window to the World Communications Inc., the parent corporation for WTTW and WFMT are nearly all current or retired executives of banks, investment banks, investment advisors, or other high- level corporate entities. Not a single member of the Board has professional television experience, other than in financial matters. Contrast that with perhaps the most successful public TV station, WGBH in Boston, where for more than 20 years, the chair and vice chair each had outstanding careers in television and media top management. Their expertise (plus the seven college presidents and scholars on the board) has helped WGBH to stay on top of the ever-changing world of video and digital communications.

So why does it matter?

Most people would probably say that WTTW does a good job. They like it. We can see and respect the strengths and continuity that have been built up over fifty years. We also know that the majority of programs people watch and identify with WTTW are the national PBS shows for adults and young children. Downton Abbey (imported from Great Britain to PBS by WGBH) is the most watched drama series ever on public TV, but just like all but a couple programs on WTTW, Channel 11 does not produce it, has no input into the content, and is a passive player in the process (other than paying a blanket annual fee for PBS programs). WTTW engineers push a button and we get to see all those programs.

Channel 11 program managers have told us that they have a demographic problem with the viewership of the station. “We’re in a bind…we’re good with viewers under 12 and from 50 to dead. It’s everyone in between we aren’t reaching.”

Current management has not been able to make a dent in this critical audience. It also represents an opportunity for new thinking, new producers, and new local participation.

Tens of thousands of Chicago young people watch WTTW Kids seven days a week. It’s less crassly commercial than its cable counterparts. Fewer adults watch Chicago Tonight, which has lost its pizzazz since the official retirement (1999) and death (2009) of its founder John Callaway. Chicago Tonight is broadcast four times a week for an hour and on Fridays, the slot is held down by Chicago Week in Review. WTTW spends a significant chunk (they don’t specify in the annual report or 990 federal tax form) of its annual $48 million annual budget on Chicago Tonight. However, its current Chicago audience reach is far less than the viewership of cable news on FOX News, CNN, and MSNBC. All Things Considered and Evening Edition on public radio (WBEZ in Chicago) have more listeners (and more buzz) than Chicago Tonight has viewers.

Chicago Tonight is a consistent and responsible local presence on TV, but we must raise two questions: 1) does the cost justify the reach? And, 2) does it behoove WTTW to find innovative ways to breathe life into a format that has been virtually stagnant since its debut 25 years ago—when we lived in a very different world and media environment?

We could raise similar questions about the commitment of more than 70 weekly hours of PBS Kids on WTTW (again, none of which it produces itself…all is from PBS national). We are pleased that Channel 11 has committed to co-produce a national children’s show with talented locals, but the question remains as to how extensive the ordination of the series will be and at what opportunity cost for limited personnel and facilities. On a larger question, with so many options for young children to watch, is it an intelligent use of air time and resources for Channel 11 to broadcast PBS Kids from 6 a.m. to 6 p.m., effectively shutting out more locally-produced (and less expensive) programs for older youth and adults.

Our purpose here is not to tell one of the country’s most-watched and longest lasting public TV s stations what to broadcast or how to spend its money. But, we are adamant that some of these matters need to be addressed by the Board of Trustees and top management of WTTW.

So many exciting possibilities exist now to involve the public in public TV.

The powers that be are decent and well-meaning. But, we submit that it is critical that they open their windows and see the world the way it is outside—for the young and the middle-aged, the white, black and the brown-skinned, and for the 99% who live and work in the neighborhoods of Chicago and the suburbs.

Celebrating and exposing local talent and culture (not just “high culture”) must be a priority. It’s also good business.

Our ad hoc FIX CHANNEL 11 group has been meeting and writing plans for nearly two years. We have specific plans for programs, structure, and operating strategies ready. We and many others need to have our input and ideas taken seriously on an ongoing basis.

The management and board need to commit to changing directions and their assumptions about its future. All levels of programming, personnel, financial management, and technology must be examined, evaluated, and improved.

Viewers like us have too much at stake to sit idly by and watch the same old same old. Chicago is too important as a city to not be more recognized for its original, public broadcasting content.

We look forward to your response.