Dec
01
1992

Activists Put the Public in Public TV

Faced with attacks from right-wingers like Sen. Jesse Helms who accuse public television of having a left-wing agenda, PBS and its affiliates have tended to either cave in to the conservatives or else argue that public TV is balanced and doesn't need changing. But some PBS viewers are refusing to accept that limited spectrum of debate.

These viewers reject the right's premise that a handful of progressive documentaries outweighs hundreds of hours of regular conservative or business-oriented programming. Concerned that the right-wing attacks have only encouraged the growing corporate influence on PBS, they have begun to organize themselves around their local affiliates, taking public TV into their own hands by demanding the kind of diverse programming public TV was set up to provide.

One of the most successful locales for PBS activism is San Francisco. The Bay Area's main public TV station, KQED, was once a leader in producing local programming, but now has become better known for creating cooking programs. A coalition of groups -- including FAIR/Bay Area, Paper Tiger Television, the Committee to Save KQED, several labor organizations and hundreds of concerned citizens -- has rallied behind hard-hitting documentaries, called for more local programming and even elected reform candidates to the KQED board.

During the Gulf War, KQED refused to run Deep Dish's Gulf Crisis TV Project to offset government-controlled information about the war. Activists used calls, letters, meetings with KQED personnel, a demonstration and audience-building community showings of the program to convince KQED to air the series on its sister station, KQEC. Similarly, local activists succeeded in getting KQED to air Deep Dish's Behind Censorship series, which included a program critical of corporate influence at PBS.

When P.O.V., PBS's independent filmmakers' series, canceled plans to show Stop the Church, a documentary critical of the Catholic Church's policies toward the gay community, ongoing activism prompted KQED to be one of the few stations to air the program. Labor activists succeeded in getting the station to air the labor series We Do the Work, as well as a full day of worker-oriented programming on Labor Day.

For nearly a year, KQED refused to air Deadly Deception, the Academy Award-winning expose of General Electric, produced by filmmaker Debra Chasnoff for Infact, the grassroots group leading the GE boycott. The station insisted that it couldn't show a program produced and funded by the same source -- the station manager equated Infact's production of Deadly Deception with an environmental documentary produced by Exxon (SF Weekly, 9/30/92).

Critics said KQED's rules favored those producers who are able to attract corporate sponsors, and punished public interest groups whose messages challenged business interests. (PBS executives don't object to Wall Street firms sponsoring Louis Rukeyser's Wall $treet Week.)

Activists worked to build public support for the program, organizing house parties where people were urged to write and phone KQED. When Paper Tiger and FAIR/Bay Area announced plans to project Deadly Deception onto a wall of KQED's offices, saying this was the only way the film would be "shown on KQED -- literally," KQED announced it would show the program. The Deadly Deception projection became a victory celebration and a rally to voice a desire for more local programming and films made by independent producers.

In addition to promoting particular programs and series, San Francisco activists have worked to change who makes policy decisions for public television. KQED is one of the few stations in the country that has an elected board of directors. In 1991, the Committee to Save KQED ran a slate of progressive candidates, one of whom won election. This year, the committee's New Priorities slate, including labor, environmental and media activists, won two additional seats on the board.

The platform called for more of the budget to go to programming, more local programming that reflects the diversity of Northern California, increased representation of labor and working people and more independently produced shows. They convinced KQED to air statements from board candidates on both radio and television to make the process less stacked in favor of board-nominated candidates.

At a time of growing corporate influence over PBS programming, when corporations can designate their money to specific programs and individuals cannot, public television needs to be reminded to fulfill its mandate to "provide a voice for groups in the community that may otherwise be unheard." San Francisco activists' efforts to hold KQED accountable to the community it serves demonstrate that victories in the battle for mainstream media access, though incremental and hard-fought, are possible.