Crisis of U.S. Public Broadcasting
democracy requires some space in our vast system of communications
that is not controlled by the imperatives of power or profit.
This would be space where issues can be explored without censorship;
where programs are not designed around product placements and
commercial interruptions; where program ideas are not driven by
selling audiences to advertisers; where minorities can be served
without concern for ratings. This age of increasing concentration
of media ownership into fewer and larger corporate giants makes
the need for alternative perspectives and sources of information
even more crucial.
Commission, authorized by President Johnson, envisioned a
public broadcasting that would serve as "a forum for controversy
and debate" and "a voice for groups in the community
that may otherwise be unheard" so that we could "see
America whole, in all its diversity." Over the years, public
broadcasting has made many distinguished contributions to fulfilling
this mission. Unfortunately, political and economic constraints
have prevented a good service from becoming excellent.
in other industrial democracies typically enjoys an independent
source of revenue, much higher levels of funding, more money for
program production, a broader schedule of programs, and bigger
audiences. In contrast, public broadcasting in the U.S. must depend
on a broad mix of Congressional and legislative appropriations,
subscriber donations and corporate and foundation underwriting.
This fragmented funding structure brings with it pervasive pressures
to restrict grant support and air time to programs that will appeal
to those who control the purse strings.
As a consequence,
U.S. public broadcasters have felt forced by circumstances to
play it safe. There typically are nightly and weekly programs
featuring Wall Street and business news, but no regular programs
that examine the economy from the perspective of workers, consumers
or environmentalists. PBS' one nightly news program duplicates
the same reliance on official voices as commercial network news.
Local news and public affairs programs are much too rare. Public
broadcasting's unique mission demands that it present public affairs
programming that stimulates civic education and engagement.
years, the very non-commercial nature of the service has been
under assault. There are more co-production deals with commercial
partners looking for marketing spin-offs. There are e-commerce
services and partnerships with retail outlets. Before she quit
recently, PBS Program chief Kathy Quattrone complained, "Many
program decisions are being based not on the program value they
bring but what kind of a deal it can bring." Five-second
underwriting acknowledgements have expanded into 30-second commercials,
including enticements on children's programs for junk food and
theme parks. Former PBS President Bruce Christensen has warned
that, unless the funding problems can be solved, public broadcasting
"will become a commercial medium in the next century."
commercialism might serve the bottom line (if not mission) of
a few stations, it threatens the survival of small market and
state owned stations. A 1995 Lehman Brothers study for the Corporation
for Public Broadcasting concluded that more advertising would
cause subscriber contributions and federal appropriations to decline,
resulting in "a net loss" for public television. A 1999
study by Audience Research Associates found that 44 percent of
public radio's audience would cut back on their contributions
if business underwriting spots increased.
In 1999, former
PBS President Ervice Duggan reported that some station leaders
proposed that the social contract for PBS be changed from "noncommercial"
to "nonprofit." He feared this would lead to the broadcasting's
non-taxable status and copyright concessions. At the least, all
justification for public money would disappear.
In this context,
we also are concerned about the self-interested drive by many
big market stations to eliminate secondary ":overlapped"
stations. A 1989 PBS study of secondary stations found duplication
of programming to be "very low." As compared to primary
stations, secondary station schedules were "more diverse"
and secondary station managers "more responsive to local
audience needs." We can and must keep all our reserved frequencies
and improve local programming at the same time.
we understand well the nature, possibilities and costs of the
emerging telecommunications technologies. We also know that the
public interest will not be adequately represented in the pending
digital transition unless public broadcasters choose to assert
an answer to this crisis: A Public Broadcasting
the U.S. Public Broadcasting Service Currently Works
Over the years, public broadcasting has made many distinguished
contributions to fulfilling this mission. Unfortunately, political
and economic constraints have prevented a good service from fulfilling
its great promise.
Click here to read more about
how Public Broadcasting currently works.