Dubbed the “Polar Explorer” and even “Steven Spielberg,” television producer Bill Baker spoke about the evolution in television — specifically public television — at a Calhoun College Master’s Tea Thursday.
The president of PBS Channel 13, Baker is also one of the first people to stand on both the North Pole and the South Pole. At the tea, which was attended by about 20 students, professors and community members, Baker said public television holds a unique place in American culture by focusing on education.
“I don’t want to just give people what they want,” Baker said. “We don’t want to be a schedule-driven media but a producer-driven media so we can give the people what they need.”
Even though programming like Ken Burns’ Civil War documentary, made up of mostly still photos, may not be a ratings winner, Baker said it is important for PBS stations to broadcast educational shows. He said other channels think it is “crazy” not to air profit-making shows.
“All these polarizing television shows on cable with people yelling at you, what I call ‘infotainment,’ exist because of economics,” Baker said. “It’s much more expensive to go out and find out what is meaningful. In a business as powerful as television and radio – arguably the most powerful given its values or lack of values — to aim only for the bottom line is to aim too low. Our goal is not to make money. Our goal is to make the show.”
Baker, a former chief executive of Westinghouse Broadcasting Co., left a lucrative career in corporate television to work for not-for-profit PBS.
“It just goes to show [Baker] has the courage of his convictions,” Calhoun College Associate Master Betsy Sledge.
The American media are to blame, Baker said, for what he considers the weakening quality of television. Jokingly calling HBO a “pornography service,” Baker said he thinks television stations focus too much on sex.
“It’s heartbreaking that the United States has no taste for balanced fact-based news,” Baker said. “It’s because America is too busy and distracted. American media has so indoctrinated the population that everything must be in sound bites and quick. We’ve created our own monster. We cater to the lowest common denominator.”
Students generally said they think Baker’s commitment to public television is enlightening.
“It’s refreshing to find someone who doesn’t just give what the people want,” said Lee Ngo ’05, a Yale TV producer. “I agree that television is the most powerful medium. It’s a dangerous trend that the main sources of news are merging to just a few networks.”
Many in the audience were surprised to learn that despite the rise of cable television almost half of Americans still get their information about candidates and campaigns from local television, according to a PEW Research Poll that Baker cited.
To highlight the importance of public television in the country, Baker related a personal anecdote.
“When I ride on the subway in New York City, the people who come up to me and thank me for my contribution to public television are usually the poorest people. Some don’t even have a home,” Baker said.
Last week, a man tried to scam Baker on the streets of New York but stopped midway when he realized that Baker was “the Channel 13 Guy,” leading the man to apologize, Baker said.
“It makes you say, ‘Geez, we’re doing something really valuable,’” Baker said. “Free television is important.”