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The Honolulu Advertiser
Posted on: Sunday, April 22, 2007

COMMENTARY
Stay tuned for more local programming

By Leslie Wilcox

Leslie Wilcox, PBS Hawaii President and CEO.

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THIS WEEK

Editorial and Opinion Editor Jeanne Mariani-Belding puts Big Island Mayor Harry Kim on The Hot Seat for a live blog chat Tuesday from noon to 1 p.m. at www.Honoluluadvertiser.com/opinion

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Have you checked out The Hot Seat? It's our opinion-page blog that brings in your elected leaders and people in the news and lets you ask the questions during a live online chat.

On The Hot Seat last week was PBS Hawaii President and CEO Leslie Wilcox.

Koauka: With funding permitting, will PBS bring back the many local productions that filled the air time during the '80s and '90s?

Leslie Wilcox: I'd love to see the kind of vibrant local programming that marked the 1980s and early '90s.

I saw it firsthand, hosting a few shows over 10 or so years, as a part-time job, while I was a news anchor and reporter for commercial TV stations. Everyone here at PBS Hawaii is working for more local programming, more involvement with people, more involvement in civic affairs. Back in the '80s and '90s, this was a state agency and 100 people worked here. Today, we are a private nonprofit broadcaster with a staff of 28, and viewers' donations are our main source of support. Fortunately, Islanders have been very supportive as we rebuild. With support from the public, we will bring more people and ideas together in producing more local programming.

Starting in July, we are expanding "Island Insights" into a live, one-hour, call-in public affairs program. We're also adding a new half-hour "profile" interview program.

Donald K.O. Wong: When is PBS Hawaii going to be broadcasting on Oceanic Cable in digital and HD?

Wilcox: For months, PBS Hawaii has been sending out its high definition signal over the air. However, most viewers receive our programs by cable. Oceanic Time Warner Cable has verbally agreed to connect us to the cable system.

However, it has not taken action yet and we are most eager to see this happen. I fully expect it'll take place soon. As I said, we are more than ready; we're already transmitting the signal over the air.

Steve Doyle: I think that the viewers of PBS stations around the nation are disappointed at the funding cutbacks to PBS by the Bush administration, but I am sure that the dollar shortfall will be eased by dedicated viewers' donations and corporate contributions.

I would like to ask you whether PBS Hawaii and other PBS stations are receiving subtle (or maybe not so subtle) interference from Washington, D.C., regarding programming and content and do you still feel that PBS has the freedom to be non-partisan and independent?

Wilcox: The Bush administration has cut funding for PBS children's programs before, and at least twice Congress, in a broad bipartisan vote has restored the money.

I do believe PBS has the freedom and indeed a mandate to be nonpartisan and independent. For four consecutive years, the influential Roper poll has ranked PBS as the most trusted institution in the nation, above our courts of law. Political decisionmakers know that people trust us, and that we will continue to strive to be balanced and fair.

Bob Roast: Keeping democracy safe in America has always required an informed electorate. However, today with our news media controlled by corporations, the papers or TV stations tend to favor news stories on issues that support the corporate agenda and won't run stories that are not supported by the corporate agenda. If the people don't hear both sides of a story, they don't get information they need to know on important social issues or government programs. Our news media in Hawai'i has failed us in providing both pro and con analytical support on social issues and government programs. Corporations are owners of papers, but should not be the censure of news.

If the privately owned news media will not meet our needs on being informed, then all we have left in Hawai'i is public broadcasting.

Leslie, now that you are the president of PBS Hawaii will you try to fill this void, by getting PBS more involved in providing the electorate information on things Hawai'i residents need to know about government, both in Hawai'i and the national scene, on events that effect the way we live in Hawai'i?

Wilcox: In a world of commercial media conglomerates, public television is the only locally owned television provider in most communities. Hawai'i is no exception.

Because the goal of commercial television is to maximize profit by attracting as many viewers as possible to expose them to advertising, its programming philosophy is driven by ratings as a measure of its success. Public television, on the other hand, strives for impact and measures its success by the extent of our ability to educate and inform, to enlighten and entertain.

We want to help create better citizens by bringing more understanding of our world. Because PBS Hawaii is the only locally owned television station and because we have a community outreach effort operating statewide, we are actively involved in the community. We know the territory and we want to do programs that resonate with our unique community. We need a higher level of funding from the public in order to produce more local programs, bringing people and ideas together.

Harrison: Do you receive any state funding? And how much does PBS rely on government funding?

Wilcox: We receive no state funding. We receive federal funding distributed by the Corporation for Public Broadcasting. This federal funding amounts to $1 million or one-sixth of our total budget. The largest single source of our revenues is our donors.

Charles P.: Why the heck did you decide to take the PBS job? You've done so well in journalism.

Wilcox: I'm fortunate that I continued to have passion for covering the news for more than 30 years. I remained an active field reporter and I was able to anchor No. 1-rated newscasts. I'm very grateful to commercial broadcast news for all the time I spent there.

But over the years, I watched as staff diminished and the number of hours of news expanded. A journalism school study has called TV news "an undernourished product in oversupply."

PBS Hawaii has in its mission statement its belief in "high-quality programming and services." The mission of public television is tremendously appealing. While it wasn't easy leaving the excitement and adrenaline of news coverage, and the joy of the Lokahi Giving Project, I am finding this job to offer new horizons in quality coverage that I don't see opening in commercial TV.

Donald: My question is will Leslie still be doing the Lokahi at Christmas?

Wilcox: I'll be supporting the Lokahi Giving Project, which I co-founded 16 years ago at KHON2 with Mariellen Jones, as a "civilian." I won't be out front; I'll be cheering from the sidelines. KHON2 owns the rights to the Lokahi project and I'm confident the project will continue to grow.

Lisa: What do you hope to see happen in the next five to 10 years at PBS?

Wilcox: I see a place in the crowded television market where people can come together to share ideas, examine their differences and find common ground. Hawai'i has always been PBS Hawaii's home and we intend to offer programs that resonate with our community. Ours is an ambitious goal opening minds, touching hearts and changing lives. We're already multicasting, and I expect we'll add more channels of quality content.

Lauren: Because of the plethora of cable channels, offering everything from cooking to history, what has become PBS' programming niche?

Wilcox: I believe the answer changes as we seek to remain vital and relevant and as we strive to provide an alternative to commercial television.

I mentioned before that in most television markets, the public television station is the only locally owned station. I believe our future is in responding to the needs of the community, in providing a venue for full and fair discussion, and giving access to local diverse voices, in addition to providing insightful and visually stunning national programs.

Chris: I am a longtime fan of PBS and I think you will do great things over there. I would like to suggest PBS examine the housing and land crisis we have in Hawai'i.

It would be fascinating to see a comprehensive look at how off-island speculation and land oligarchies are linked to the homeless situation and exodus of locals from Hawai'i. It would be interesting to see how these elements are linked with our use of natural resources and what this spells for our future.

Are there any shows planned that examine our current land crisis? I think interviews with the homeless kids living on the beach would be compelling television.

Wilcox: I agree with you completely. We at PBS Hawaii have already conceived what we think will be a powerful weekly program looking at many key issues, including land speculation and homelessness. It's a program that will get us out of the studio and into homeless camps, workplaces of minimum-paid workers, and board rooms to tell some of Hawai'i's many stories.

In the short time I've been here at PBS Hawaii, I've learned it's easier to come up with good ideas and capable producers than it is to fund programs. But nobody said this job was going to be easy and I'm going to work with our board, our staff, viewers, the public, and every stakeholder I can, to provide quality, information, and understanding in covering issues of importance to Hawai'i.