Few people in the world have achieved quite as much as Pat Mitchell in this industry. She chatted to Peta Krost Maunder.
When Pat Mitchell only introduced Vagina Monologues author Eve Ensler at a recent women’s event, many wondered why she wasn’t the main attraction. She is the president and chief executive officer of The Paley Center for Media in New York City and the former president and CEO of the United States Public Broadcast Service (PBS) – the first woman, producer and journalist to hold this position.
Through her career, Mitchell worked for three broadcast networks, several cable channels, achieving success as a reporter, news anchor, talk show host, White House and special correspondent, producer and executive. She started her own independent production company in the mid-1980s producing documentaries, series and specials for broadcast. In 1992, she became an executive in charge of productions for Ted Turner’s cable networks. Over the next eight years, as executive producer, her documentaries and specials received 37 Emmy Awards, five Peabody Awards and two Academy award nominations.
Mitchell has received numerous awards, including the Women in Cable and Telecommunication Woman of the Year Award, the CINE Golden Eagle for Lifetime Achievement, the PROMAX Century Award for contribution to the television industry and the Sandra Day O’Connor Award for Leadership. She was named one of the most influential female executives in media by The Hollywood Reporter and honoured as one of the first 50 women in The Museum of Television and Radio’s ‘She Made It’ initiative. And that is not all.
Speaking at a rate of knots (not surprising she has managed to achieve so much if she works as fast as she talks), she explains she got her first job in television at an NBC station in Boston because of affirmative action in the US. “Television companies were required to hire women and minorities and so in the late 1960s and early seventies, you began to see women’s faces appearing on previously male-only news programmes,” she says.
“We were encouraged to ‘protect our turf’ (meaning be competitive and not supportive of other women as the idea of women in numbers was a true threat to the status quo) and the other message, equally present for all women reporters, producers and writers was ‘stay as far away from women’s stories and issues as possible’,” she recalls. Supposedly the idea was to avoid getting ‘ghettoized’ in the same way as women’s sections in newspapers and magazines.
“There was a lot of time and energy spent trying to prove women could report the same stories as their male colleagues in the same way and since most of us early pioneers were the ‘first’ women to report from a political convention, war or to anchor a news broadcast, there was always additional scrutiny and criticism…more often about our hair and clothes than our reporting.
Early in her career, Mitchell questioned this direction for herself. “I realised that the opportunity we had as women finally inside the media was to make a difference…to prove we could do the same story in a different voice and bring new stories, new insights, and new perspectives to news and television programmes.” She realised second-guessing men at decision-making tables was pointless, as was not representing more than half the audience whose lives, issues and interests were largely ignored by mainstream media.
So, over the next 20 years, she committed herself – as an on-air reporter, talk show host and producer to do programmes that spoke to women, addressing their issues and recognising their accomplishments. She produced and hosted the first US women’s talk programme called Woman to Woman and set up her own production company producing documentaries about women and children. “It was a more challenging career path than staying on the network fast track to big anchor positions but, for me, media was a chance to have impact, to make a difference, and being the first woman repeatedly was my way of breaking barriers and stereotypes and, more importantly, seizing the opportunities to optimise the power of the media to inform and empower other women and girls.”
So many years later, she admits: “We still have a very long way to go to get to anything close to gender equity in the media sphere.” But she says it is clear that where women are at the helm in this industry, the way the world is reported, viewed and understood reflects reality in a ‘more balanced and comprehensive’ way. In the US very few women head programming and news divisions and even fewer are CEOs of media companies, notes Mitchell. “There is plenty of evidence to indicate that when companies have a more representative management team, their programmes perform better, their reporting is more accurate and trusted and their bottom line profits improve as well,” she explains. “The companies that recognise these facts and bring more women into management at every level will be the ones to thrive.”
In her current position at the Paley Center for Media, she is still at the epicentre of debate in the media industry. The centre is a think tank for the media industry both in the US and internationally. Twice a year, the centre convenes a global media executives conference in different venues around the world. Every two weeks, the Media Council (comprising senior media executives) holds off-the-record, no-holds-barred discussions and debate about industry issues at the Paley Center. “When there are huge ongoing debates, we bring in whomever we need to thrash it out. For example, on the digital issue we gathered the content people and heads of Google, Microsoft and Apple. It was a great confrontation but they all realised they needed to find solutions.”
In terms of the digitalisation of media, she believes: While many may be nostalgic for the days when the media created what we wanted people to know and we decided who will read it and when, those days are gone. Now, news is immediately available to anyone and it’s not paid for and sometimes not legal but it’s there.
“The fundamental change is that power is no longer with the executives but the consumer. So everything is shifting to find level grounds. In the last 18 months, billions of dollars of advertising has gone from television to online and the advertisers are holding the cards.”
She says we can be optimistic because media is drawing more independent, innovative and creative talent. However, she points out the newspapers in the US are in “deep peril”, and network news is behind the times, but they will succeed by being open-minded and innovative.
“There is a huge challenge in figuring out how all the technologies that are bringing down barriers and allowing new ways to access content is going to impact the age-old revenue models that have been based on getting consumers to pay for content,” Mitchell says. “The media companies and producers have to find new sources of revenue to keep producing programmes and reporting news because doing this is expensive. So the revenue model that made this work is going through great stress which leads to less robust news operations, fewer reporters and less investigative journalism and weaker publications and programming.” Mitchell believes the strong well-funded companies will make a plan and get through the transition.
Her brief encounter with South African media impressed her: “I didn’t have time to watch television but I found the newspapers to be robust and highly informative. I also read many magazines published here and found them very compelling and well done.”
Perhaps next time she sets foot on these shores, she will make a point of addressing the media.
This story was first published in The Media magazine.