Seven Questions for Tom Axtell, Vegas PBS General Manager

The boss of Vegas PBS on why his is a model station, playing the politics game and losing control of the remote

Photo by Bryan Hainer

Photo by Bryan Hainer

Forgive the soft-spoken gentleman with the gentle smile for blushing. You might also turn a bit rosy in the cheeks if such accolades came your way. Last year, said gentleman?Tom Axtell, general manager of Vegas PBS (KLVX Channel 10)?was awarded the network?s prestigious Scott C. Elliott Development Professional of the Year Award. Earlier this year, PBS President and CEO Paula Kerger brought her national board to Las Vegas because, as reported by the Las Vegas Review-Journal, she ?wanted the board to see what a TV station should look like.?

Why? Because Axtell?s affiliate is now the most-watched PBS station in America on a per-capita basis. That?s out of more than 350 of them. Now that?s blush-worthy. ?I have so much fun when I go to these national meetings and people do the Vegas put-down,? says Axtell, 63, who has helmed KLVX since 1994 and previously held positions at stations in Spokane, Washington, and Milwaukee. ?I?ll say, ?Let?s go see who was the best [ratings] for Nova.? It wasn?t Boston. We outperform Boston and New York on science [shows]?Vegas. We are better than anybody thinks.?

What makes Vegas PBS ?what a TV station should look like??

Public broadcasters have been inventive, though within public broadcasting, you still have people saying, ?I run a TV station.? I say, ?We run a multimedia technology corporation that focuses on public service.? From 1994 to 1999, my job was to run a good public television station. In 1999, the federal government said television is going from analog to digital. Our management team and board looked at what that meant. When we approved the capital campaign for this building (3050 E. Flamingo Rd.) in 2004, we had gone from saying we needed the building for a television station to saying we need a building that will allow us to have digital media for every device that exists.

How did you adjust to the new environment?

We created business partnerships that realize that rhetoric. We worked hard with the [Clark County] School District, taking high school classes that were on in the middle of the night that people recorded and made them online digital classes. ? We did the same thing with job training when the recession hit, with adult-education classes for GEDs, and also generated a substantial revenue stream.

We had a program last year where we were a PBS test site and tested with nine local schools for 40 telephone apps, all based on PBS children?s characters. For a low-income family whose smartphone is their only Internet, we can take our linear television, transfer some into a lesson on basic math or English language vocabulary, and make it a game your child will play with. It?s called PBS Kids Lab.

What about noneducational programming?

Three years ago, 91 percent of the viewing of public-television programming was at the time the station broadcast. Last year, 70 percent of our viewing was at the time we broadcast it; 30 percent was time-shifted. So when we produce a local program now we publish it?we call it publishing?on YouTube and on our website and the different products. And (last month) PBS signed an agreement with Roku (which manufactures digital receivers, allowing Internet programming to be streamed on television sets).

We?re also good in the TV business. In the last three years, we?ve had the highest gross ratings point of any PBS station in the United States.

What does this market like?

Independent programming?programs like POV and Independent Lens get much higher ratings here. I think that?s because we have a libertarian attitude; we don?t like people telling us what to do. Science also over-indexes. Arts and performance over-index. We have a huge infrastructure of people who work in the performing arts, not just performing, but doing lighting and running audio boards. I?ve had people come up to me at a grocery store who work at one of the properties and talk about one of the technical audios on one of our shows.

Has the polarization of American politics made it harder to get bipartisan support?

Historically we have had terrific bipartisan support, but fascinatingly it has tended to be urban Democrats and rural Republicans. Rural America and the politicians in those states have been terrific supporters, because we democratize education and make the arts accessible. As Republicans have shifted more to the Tea Party side, that bipartisan coalition has begun to break down, and that disturbs us. We were proud that we were bipartisan and frustrated by that Pat Buchanan legacy from the Nixon administration, when he got people to say Republicans were against us, but the data showed we had big supporters.

Do you foresee providing more national content?

We have four programs in national syndication now. Opening night at The Smith Center (From Dust to Dreams) and Signing Time! that?s on in more than 100 markets. We have Wonders of the West on national parks within 200 miles of Las Vegas, and we have another on fertility. We have done two experiments at The Smith Center to see how we can do production without a $2 million production truck. We are looking at doing production at [The Smith Center?s] Cabaret [Jazz] theater, and we will probably make capital purchases to begin what we hope will be a four- to six-part series called Live From The Smith Center, modeled after Live From Lincoln Center.

But we have chosen not to put the risk capital into pledge shows focused on the great performers on the Strip, because it costs so much. PBS will say, ?If you want to do a pledge show here, we will pay you no more than 10 percent of what we think it will make nationally.? Then you can try to make it on the back end selling DVDs and things. You?re talking about million-dollar bets. We just don?t have the capital to do that.

What shows does the local PBS chieftain watch when no one?s looking?

Castle is a cute little drama and a fun mystery. I watch mostly PBS. The other viewing in my house is driven by my wife. She will insist you see The Bachelorette and the closing episodes of American Idol. If I don?t want to watch that, I have to go to another room.

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