Nov
01
2010

Public TV? It Would Be a Good Idea

But the system is stacked against fulfilling PBS’s mandate

Photo Credit: Corporation for Public Broadcasting

Photo Credit: Corporation for Public Broadcasting

When asked by a reporter what he thought of Western civilization, Gandhi is said to have replied, “I think it would be a good idea.” The same could be said about U.S. public television.

Public TV was born 40 years ago of an understanding of the limitations that advertiser funding and the profit motive put on commercial broadcasting. Only a system freed from these strictures, the pioneers of public broadcasting understood, would be able to air corporate-unfriendly viewpoints and include the full spectrum of society, not just advertisers’ preferred targets, in its audience—and in so doing, radically transform the entire structure of U.S. media.

Unfortunately, the transformative potential of an independent public broadcasting system was neutralized early on. The funding structure was arranged so that most shows needed to rely on corporate underwriting, allowing big business to play much the same gatekeeping role that they do in for-profit media (Extra!, 9-10/93). Rules against funders having a direct interest in the shows they bankrolled have not been enforced when the donors are powerful members of the establishment (FAIR Press Release, 4/3/02; Activism Update, 7/20/10). Conservative threats to choke off public funding left PBS management leery of any sign of progressive content (Extra!, 3-4/95). The Corporation for Public Broadcasting, which was supposed to be a “heat shield” protecting public broadcasting from political influence, instead became a tool to police programming for signs of ideological unorthodoxy (Extra!, 9-10/05).

These sorts of pressures have been effective in leaving little to distinguish most PBS public affairs programming from for-profit offerings, as FAIR has documented for years. As an early indication of how far short the network fell from providing a forum for the voiceless, a 1993 FAIR study of PBS public affairs shows found that three times as many corporate spokespeople appeared as guests as citizen activists (Extra!, 9-10/93).

Despite the stacking of the deck, there have always been people at PBS producing work that genuinely strives to fulfill public television’s mandate. In recent years, two of PBS’s most reliable outlets for hard-hitting journalism and underrepresented perspectives ended their runs, with the host of Bill Moyers Journal retiring and Now being canceled. To help fill the public affairs gap, PBS announced the launch of Need to Know—with co-host Jon Meacham, a for-profit media fixture whose selection raised serious doubts about how much the program intended to continue in its predecessors’ footsteps (FAIR Action Alert, 3/10/10).

FAIR decided that the Friday night change offered a good opportunity to take a look at how public affairs were faring on PBS—examining not just Need to Know, but also the system’s flagship news program, the NewsHour, as well as public TV warhorses Washington Week and Charlie Rose. Taken together, do these shows provide viewers with the alternative to commercial programming that public TV was born to broadcast? Or do they merely duplicate the same establishment guestlists that can be found on the commercial end of the dial?

The findings from four new source studies of public TV programming are laid out in the pages that follow. They reveal a system that is named “public” and gets funding from the public—but where the same elite voices dominate the conversation, and the same white male biases squeeze out diversity, as on corporate TV. No doubt there are still people working at PBS who want it to carry out its original mission, but at this point the dream of a network that truly serves the public seems further away than ever.

Sidebar:

‘A Bleak Future for Truly Public Television’?

A leaked resignation letter (5/21/10) from longtime WLIW/WNET writer/producer Sam Toperoff included this observation:

The most galling offense and the saddest part of the story is how bleak the future looks for truly “public” television in this city. On my commutes to work on the E and F lines and occasionally on the Number 7 train, I’d ask people if they watched PBS. Almost no one does. They said there was very little on the air that spoke to their lives. The New York public is not merely the “Upper” East and West sides. It is these “others” too, millions of them. And during those rare times we do program for this other New York, we do it embarrassingly, in stilted, patronizing “other” fashion.In spite of my left-wing bona fides and my high falutin’ doctoral degree, I see our general programming for the wider public as elitist and offensive in the extreme. (Not many of us, you realize, can afford those good seats at “The Home of Champions.”) But of course, when stations run on very rich people’s and corporate money, how could it be otherwise? And when the Corporation [for Public Broadcasting] is directed by those very clever and very ambitious fellows whose careers will float them to good places no matter what, what else could we reasonably expect?