March 1, 2001

Staying Curious: Pat Mitchell Reflects on Year One at the Helm

From left to right: Actor portraying aviation pioneer Frank Whittle in Carl Byker's <em>Chasing the Sun</em>, photo: Ken Green; high school student Kaytee of R.J. Cutler's <em>American High</em>, photo: Actual Reality Pictures; Artist Mel Chin of Hart Perry and Michael Owen'.s Contested Ground: American Art in the 20th Century, photo: Don Perdue.

(Adapted from A Breadcrumb Trail Through The PBS Jungle: The Independent Producer's Survival Guide)

 

I'd never seen her before, not even a picture, but there was no doubt that the petite woman moving with swift, determined steps through the Beverly Hills Four Seasons Hotel lounge was the person I had come to meet. I checked my watch. Her PR people had called to offer a generous 90 minutes for this conversation. Then they dropped the startling news that she was still on her honeymoon...

One year ago Pat Mitchell slid into the driver's seat of the nation's Public Broadcasting Service and slammed into high gear. As the fifth President and CEO of PBS, she is the only documentary producer ever to be offered the job. She started her career with a small production company, then rose to head CNN Productions and Time, Inc. Television, where her projects won 44 Emmys. "I didn't come here because I wanted a better job," she says about her move to PBS. "I came here to make changes."

She realized this first year would be a critical time for setting new priorities. Perhaps that's why she and the chemical engineer who had been her sweetheart for five years chose to get married only a few weeks after she took her new post. Mitchell has an instinct for balance. That talent is precisely what her new job demands.

Signs of organizational conflict plagued PBS for several years before Mitchell signed on in March 2000. Her predecessor, Ervin Duggan, resigned abruptly with over a year left on his contract. During his six years as President and CEO, he defended PBS eloquently against a hostile Congress, but Duggan's top programming executives left him in 1999 for The Discovery Channel. Filmmakers trying to bring fresh projects to public television found it progressively more difficult to make sense of the system.

A few months before Duggan resigned, my company Dendrite Forest, Inc. and some IDA colleagues had a meeting to figure out why even experienced producers whose films have won Academy Awards® and been featured on Frontline were having such a rough time financing and airing programs through PBS. Our quest became an investigative story that evolved into a book (www.forests.com/breadcrumb).

Now, as Mitchell walks toward me with her hand outstretched, her greeting is as cordial as if we were old friends. Her hair and sweater are rosy in the afternoon light, and she settles casually into the corner of a couch, eager to explain why she took time out from her honeymoon to meet.

"As a producer, I'd gone to PBS and to PBS member stations myself," she says. "Frankly I never could figure it out. That's why, after 25 years in the business, I never worked for PBS. In fact, one of the first questions the PBS Search Committee asked me was, 'We looked at your credits, and you've produced documentaries for all sorts of people; why never for PBS?' I said, 'I think that's a really good question.'"

Mitchell is a born Southern storyteller with the kind of quick mind that bubbles with small anecdotes and dialogue, always moving toward a focused point. "My first day on this job I took your Breadcrumb Trail story into the meeting with my programming team and used it as a kind of roadmap for what we have to do better,” she relates. “I said, 'Look, there are a lot of questions here, and we need to answer them.'"

"I asked, 'Why did I never get through the maze of PBS? Where was the avenue in for independents? And why, now, does every producer I meet say, 'I've had a proposal there for eight or nine months and still have no answer,’” she adds.

Negotiating the PBS maze was only the beginning, as Mitchell soon discovered. "First I needed to find out, 'Okay, what's going on here?' I looked at what was going on in Alexandria [PBS headquarters],” she continues. “I've devoted much of this first year to going out to meet the member stations. It is my 'Listening Tour.'"

Now, a year into her vow to visit every one of the 346 member stations, she has succeeded in meeting over 220 of the general managers and has visited 100 of the stations. Those whirlwind visits around the country include meetings with governing boards, donors, community groups and representatives of state governments.

As her “Listening Tour” evolved, she started to implement changes. "Two thousand proposals are coming in over the transom," Mitchell maintains. "That begins to explain how papers got piled up on desks in the past. There wasn't any well-defined greenlighting process. Rather than name a Chief Content Officer—a model we may eventually move back to—right now we need two things. First, we need to open up the process so people see there is an open door—both to our stations and to outside producers. Second, we need to clarify a process that is easier to navigate and from which it is easier to get results. To make that happen, we need a team with different voices, different perspectives, different experiences, so that we start to reflect that kind of diversity in our content."

And the team is taking shape. John Wilson is the Senior Vice President of Programming in Alexandria, the home office. Gustav Sagastume is Vice President, Programming from Florida; Jacoba Atlas holds that position in Los Angeles. Cindy Johanson, Senior Vice President of Internet and Broadband Services, is also on the team. Alyce Myatt, formerly program officer at the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation, is now Vice President, Programming in Chicago, and Cheryl Jones, Senior Director, Program Development and Independent Film, is the liaison with independent filmmakers and manager of the program submission pipeline

By most accounts, the team members have applauded Mitchell's team management skills and how she's encouraged programming decisions with a consensus approach. "That's the way we work," she states. "I believe in it. It's very hard for one person to make all the decisions about something as important as content. Yet there is one person who must ultimately be responsible, and that's me. But now there is a process in place.

"Every proposal has to be submitted in writing*," she continues. "It can be ubmitted by e-mail, but a submissions release is going to be signed. It's a great tracking system to know exactly where something is at any minute. It's a way of knowing, 'On July 12 I signed this agreement,' and [filmmakers] shouldn't be sitting there the next July waiting for an answer. [Submission releases] are protection for the producers as well as the company, and I instigated them at Turner. I found them incredibly valuable. At PBS, there is an actual greenlighting sheet we are going to use, so now we can track how we are making our decisions and can evaluate what is working and what isn't. On the website [www.pbs.org], there are criteria for what we are looking for in every genre."

And these genres include Kids, News and Current Affairs, History, Biography, Science, Exploration and Independent Filmmaking. "Independent Filmmaking is not a separate genre," Mitchell explains. "But I am assigning a separate content team to work with the independent community to develop new franchises. Teams are not just from the programming department; they include our promotion and marketing people, online people and business affairs people. Once the senior team has commissioned something, the genre teams take over and manage it through the producer and with the producer. We work together."

This new structure is Mitchell's greatest source of pride for her first year. She sees evidence that new greenlight and submission policies are resulting in faster response to producers about proposals and a more “big picture” approach to scheduling.

"In the few months since this has been in place we have clarified our objectives for programming content on TV and online," she notes." We have acted on more than 50 proposals, and we have three new series already in the schedule for April and September with more to come."

Prior to coming to PBS, Mitchell had spent her entire television career in the private sector. Despite the differences in the two milieus, the transition to the public sector was relatively smooth. "As a producer, I have always done the kind of work that should have been on PBS to begin with! If you look at my work, I've always had the same interest in the issues and the content that is at the heart of public television. But what's different is that I am actually bringing a very—I hope—effective way to approach the business of production. It is based on my experience as both a producer who ran two small companies and as someone who ran a $60 million dollar budget when I was at Turner."

And Mitchell is aiming to spur the more intrepid, progressive kind of PBS programs like P.O.V. "I think that is exactly what we ought to be doing. Our mandate is to serve the American public—that is, all of us,” she says.” That's as many diverse voices as we can find. I am a huge fan of P.O.V. I'm asking the producers of that program and some of the minority consortia leaders how we can come up with a couple of other umbrella series. There's not enough places for that yet.

I think you're surprised to discover that I'm really a producer at heart," she continues. "That is what motivates everything I do. Without being critical of what went on before, there is now -- at the top -- a different awareness of how this process needs to work to bring in the best talent, the best ideas and the best projects. At the end of the day, all of our other challenges are going to be based on whether we have the best content --for broadcast, online and every other distribution platform. Content is king. I'm committed to finding ways to get the absolute best, most interesting work on PBS.” Mitchell feels she’s getting the process working so that it's friendly to the creative community. "At heart, I care deeply about the kind of work PBS ought to be doing, in a way that is true to our mission," she states.

Now, on her first year anniversary, Mitchell is still on an 18-hour-day/seven-day-week/e-mails-at-midnight schedule. "Everyday I move the rock a little bit farther up the hill and, like Sisyphus, even when it slides an inch or two during the night – sometimes due to entrenched interests or old thinking -- I just start pushing again to regain lost ground the next day,” she explains. “I'm just hoping to find a little time in the middle of reinventing PBS to see that man I married and have time to think more, travel less and stay curious and courageous."

* Submit proposals in writing to PBS Program Development Office,1320 Braddock Place, Alexandria, VA 22314; fax : (703) 739-5295

 

Patric Hedlund is a writer and producer whose book A Breadcrumb Trail Through the PBS Jungle: The Producer's Survival Guide is available online at www.forests.com/breadcrumb.

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