- The Washington Times - Tuesday, June 4, 2002

TV host Louis Rukeyser is kicked off the air after a nasty spat with his Maryland Public Television bosses.
National Public Radio employees march in a picket line to protest management.
Advertisements for PBS programs pop up on commercial stations.
This is public broadcasting?
It is in an era of big media competition. Increasingly, public broadcasters are acting more like their private counterparts paying closer attention to ratings and research, doing more promotion, taking a harder stand against employees in labor disputes all in an attempt to be more efficient and competitive.
"Public broadcasting is trying to be more responsive to its listeners, and some people perceive that as being more businesslike," said Ken Stern, executive vice president of National Public Radio Inc., a nonprofit organization that provides commercial-free news, music and cultural programming to more than 600 radio stations across the nation.
NPR and the Public Broadcasting Service, a commercial-free network owned and operated by about 350 television stations, are the nation's dominant nonprofit broadcasters.
The public-broadcasting industry receives roughly $2 billion in annual funding; about 30 percent of that income is taxpayer money from federal, state and local governments.
Yesterday, NPR and a union representing 80 of its technical employees met with a federal mediator to resolve a 3-year-old labor dispute. The talks are scheduled to conclude today.
The main sticking point is whether to allow the nontechnical employees to do some of the work now handled by NPR's recording engineers.
NPR has agreed to give its technical employees a three-year, retroactive pay raise, but management and the National Association of Broadcast Employees and Technicians union have been unable to agree on the size of the raise.
Last month, the employees staged a protest outside NPR headquarters in downtown Washington. Employees wore T-shirts that read "NPR: The Sound of Experience Fading Away" during the demonstration, which was described as peaceful.
"There is a feeling that [management] is more concerned with the bottom line than they used to be. There is a lot of criticism that public broadcasting is becoming more like a business," said Mark Bejarano, an NPR electrical engineer involved in the negotiations.
The NPR labor dispute follows Mr. Rukeyser's ugly exit from PBS in March. Maryland Public Television officials said they wanted to reduce his role on "Wall Street Week," the Friday evening program he hosted for 32 years.
According to some reports, MPT wanted to replace the 69-year-old Mr. Rukeyser with a younger host in an attempt to draw new viewers. When Mr. Rukeyser objected to the plan and complained about his treatment on the show, he was fired.
Increased competition is driving the more businesslike attitude in public broadcasting, analysts say.
Until the explosion of cable-TV networks like Animal Planet and the Food Network, PBS was virtually the only place on television for nature documentaries and cooking shows.
NPR affiliates, in the meantime, face tough competition from private broadcasters. In Washington, for example, the two local NPR stations strive for the same audience as classical music station WGMS (103.5 FM) and all-news station WTOP (1500 AM and 107.7 FM), both owned by Bonneville International Corp.
"The public broadcasters are having the same thing happen to them that happened to the TV networks. Their audience is being fragmented, but the public broadcasters don't have big corporate parents to bail them out," said Tom Wolzien, senior media analyst for Sanford C. Bernstein & Co.
PBS, for example, bought airtime on major network affiliates in 20 of the nation's biggest cities to promote "Frontier House," a three-part documentary about life in 1880s Montana. More than 6 million viewers tuned in to the series, roughly twice the size of the typical audience for PBS' evening lineup.
PBS generally draws far fewer viewers than the main broadcast networks, according to Nielsen Media Research Inc.
The network has even borrowed a page from ABC, CBS and NBC by shuffling its evening schedule for the first time in its history. "Masterpiece Theatre" and "The American Experience" swapped time slots in 2000 in a bid to boost ratings for both shows.
"We are not ratings-driven. That's not the mandate of PBS. But we do want to expose our programming to the widest possible audience," said Jacoba Atlas, a senior vice president.


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