PBS TAKES CALIFORNIA TV SERIES NATIONAL — AMERICA'S HEARTLAND TO SHOWCASE RURAL ENTREPRENEURIALISM
by Candace Krebs
It might look like Linda Hubalek is selling buffalo meat, hides, books, knickknacks and tours, but she has another name for it.
"It's a nostalgia thing," she says at the tidy visitors' center and gift shop near Lindsborg, Kan. Guests are greeted by an old wagon full of bright pumpkins and a small herd of bison cows and calves weaving in and out of tall sudan grass.
Her objective — to educate the public about agriculture — is similar to that of a team of TV producers who recently spent a day shooting footage of her farm. Their coverage will run as part of a glossy magazine-style agricultural television program, called America's Heartland, which started appearing this fall on roughly 142 PBS affiliated stations nationwide with plans to reach 60 percent of the national viewing audience by next year.
So is this new TV show out to peddle nostalgia?
Not at all, insists Jim O'Donnell, director of program marketing for KVIE, the Sacramento, Calif., PBS affiliate that produces and distributes America's Heartland.
AG'S ENTREPRENEURIAL SPIRIT
"This is not a history show," O'Donnell says. "It is as much about the future of agriculture as anything else. It's our belief, after producing 400 episodes in California, that people just don't understand the entrepreneurial spirit, the hard work and the scale of farm production. It is not a bucolic pastoral setting. Farmers apply all kinds of innovation to what they do. People are interested in that."
As KVIE prepares to take a successful California hit national — one with an eight-year track record of producing more than 2,000 feature stories — the leading concern for a wide range of constituencies is agriculture's accurate portrayal. Scheduled to include 20 episodes a year averaging five features each, the show will cover the full spectrum of geography, crops and entertainment value, all with artistic flair, O'Donnell says.
To support their efforts, they've put together an extensive advisory council of industry leaders who serve as ambassadors while also providing input. Among them is John Braly, vice president of industry and member services for the National Cattlemen's Beef Association. He was already familiar with the show from his previous 16-year post at the California Cattlemen's Association.
"We have roundtable discussions, where they tell us what's going on, and we pitch story ideas and let them move forward with their creative abilities," he explains.
ONE OF THE MOST WATCHED PROGRAMS
"This was one of the most watched programs in the 50-year history of public television," O'Donnell says. "We had the biggest audience in urban markets where viewers were able to reconnect with the food chain."
Bob Vice, former president of the California Farm Bureau who helped get the show off the ground is a program consultant who admits to some surprise over its success. "When we started this, we knew we could produce an interesting program," he says. "What we didn't know was whether the urban audience was really interested. That was proven in spades.
"We've got to start doing something to talk to the general public about agriculture," says Vice, who is now retired from running the Calavo Cooperative at Fallbrook, Calif., a citrus, produce and horticultural supplier. "Our system in agriculture is pretty much the same as the medical profession. It can be abused, but that doesn't mean the whole system's bad. How do we get the message out? The best way to do that is to get on television."
Many industry leaders agree.
"It is important to show America stories about where their food and fiber come from," says Greg Anderson, a farmer from Newman Grove, Neb., and chairman of the United Soybean Board, one of five commodity groups supporting the effort, which also includes the National Corn Growers, U.S. Grains Council, American Soybean Association and the National Cotton Council.
In comparison to the general television audience, PBS viewers are "by and large more educated, better off financially and slightly older than the hue and cry of broadcast television," O'Donnell says. "PBS supposedly reflects the socio- and economic makeup of the nation, but internally we've always considered our viewer just a little bit smarter and tremendously more curious."
The show's two primary sponsors — Monsanto and the American Farm Bureau Federation — say the demographic is made to order.
"There is a special appeal about public television viewers," says Julie Doane, director of U.S. Customer Relations for Monsanto. "They are typically opinion leaders, actively involved in their community. Independent research indicates that they are much more likely to do things like write their congressman, be involved in local civic activities such as the PTA and proactively interact with the media. Obviously there are benefits if these individuals are exposed to a balanced story of where their food comes from and how it's produced in the most abundant and safest way."
"Public TV has a very respected brand and a very respected audience," adds Don Lipton, director of public relations for the American Farm Bureau Federation, which held a reception to celebrate the show's launch at its Washington, D.C., headquarters in early October.
"I think it brings a lot of credibility to the program," adds Mimi Ricketts, director of marketing communications for the National Corn Growers Association. She says the show combines a rich historical perspective with an honest and compelling portrayal of the dilemmas facing modern farm families.
"One of the segments features a farm family from the Dakotas. It did a great job of conveying their way of life," she says. "But it also left you with the question, are their children going to continue in it?
"The series is not going to get into farm-policy-type issues, but it will convey in captivating ways some of the issues modern production agriculture must deal with, such as conservation of natural resources," she continues.
Willie Vogt, corporate editorial director for Farm Progress Co., is also enthusiastic.
"I think they have a noble cause and will strive for a balanced presentation, and that's important. It's so easy on the consumer side to 'knee-jerk' on the artisan farm thing — and it's OK if there's some of that — but that's not really America's heartland," he says. "I felt from the pilot that it was honest and true to what we know as American agriculture. It's a long-time industry gripe that we don't tell our story well, and public television has not always been a great venue for agriculture. This is an opportunity to take a new approach."
AN UNEXPECTED LESSON IN ACTIVIST MANAGEMENT
Agricultural leaders aren't the only ones concerned about how their industry is portrayed.
Jim O'Donnell admits to being a little blindsided by the political protests that arose from food and consumer groups even before the show was unveiled, mostly aimed at its two synergistic but sometimes controversial lead sponsors, Monsanto and the American Farm Bureau Federation.
In a letter sent to public television managers, 70 groups — including Public Citizen, Friends of the Earth and the Organic Consumers Association — suggested stations should either forgo showing the series or schedule complementary programming to expose it as a "piece of propaganda," despite having never seen the show.
O'Donnell took this approach: Offer a positive response, educate those who are open-minded and stick to your plan.
"I was surprised, but the real surprise was that having an intelligent conversation about our intentions and having them recommunicate that to their membership fell on deaf ears," O'Donnell says. "We were happy to explain our mission and our past performance. Nobody protested in California. We got over 3,000 letters and e-mails, and never once were we accused of shilling for corporate interests. The tone, the style and the presentation of the show are essentially the same."
He says the protest efforts — mostly facilitated by user-friendly e-mail technology — haven't accomplished much. "Two out of 100" stations have put their programming plans on hold until "the protest thing settles out," he says.
"We didn't change anything we're doing here. Not only is it good television, but there's no questionable material here," O'Donnell adds. "Monsanto has been a model sponsor by all methodologies. For us, it has been business as usual."
Check your local listings for viewing schedules or visit
www.americasheartland.org for more information.