Friday, August 3, 2007
Can this woman save public broadcasting?
It was only 1 o'clock, but they were downing margaritas by the carafe. Lunch at Tio Leo's felt like the awkward reception after a funeral. I'm sure the food was great, but no one had much of an appetite. The producers, reporters and photographers of Full Focus were mourning the death of their public service.
After eight years, the show had reached just 1 percent of TV households in San Diego - a pitiful 13,000 homes. Now, it's gone. Three million San Diegans no longer have an alternative to commercial local news on television. That's because KPBS canceled Full Focus without any strategy to replace it.
The death of the show is our contribution to San Diego's media devolution. At the Union-Tribune , shrinking circulation, low advertising revenue and pathetically low morale is threatening to extinguish our only paper of record . There are rumors of another round of lay-offs at the paper. The North County Times recently dealt a series of lay-offs. The Associated Press currently staffs its San Diego bureau with just two writers. (There's no Reuters bureau to speak of.) As for radio, KOGO is dropping its local news coverage in favor of an all-talk format in September. That means KPBS-FM will have the only radio newsroom in town. It makes my bosses happy, because it's easy to be No. 1 without any competition.
Indeed, journalists complain about the dearth of news outlets because San Diego is such a big market with so many rich stories. In a comment on Off Mic , Stu Williams writes: "I moved to San Diego from Tucson, Arizona, where the local PBS affiliate, KUAT , has successfully run a weekday TV news magazine, "Arizona Illustrated," for about 25 years ... This is a metropolitan region more than three times bigger than Tucson (three times more stories to cover, three times the listener/viewer base)."
The Full Focus team mourned at Tio Leo's because they believed in the journalism -- not the ratings. Believe me, the producers were aware the numbers were bad. I think that's what public broadcasting is all about. We serve the "vegetables" -- it doesn't always taste good, but it's good for you.
For example, Full Focus was poised to launch a major series of investigative reports on San Diego County's mysterious supervisors -- five elected officials who are barely accountable to the public. No commercial news station in San Diego would touch the subject. It's too hard, too confrontational, and too boring.
Former Producer Pat Finn laments that a little bit of Lindsay Lohan might have saved the show. In commentary on voiceofsandiego.org , she writes: "Perhaps there really are only 13,000 households interested in seeing local people talk about the War in Iraq, health care, Sunroad, Carol Lam, the city budget, the Dead Sea Scrolls or even Mike Aguirre. Hearing about this stuff on the radio is one thing, but sitting down and watching it? Maybe not in today's media environment."
If no one wants to eat their vegetables, we can't survive. Perhaps that's the real tragedy of the show's demise.