“Look Mom, Star Trek.” “Hey, I thought you said you were going to watch public TV.” “This is public TV!” “Then how come I just saw Tony the Tiger on an ad?”
Mom’s wrong. First of all, that was no ad, it was “enhanced underwriting,” a plug for a corporate contributor. Second, Junior’s as likely these days to see Star Trek, Lassie and other syndicated shows on public TV as Mom is likely to catch National Geographic on a commercial channel.
Despite the recycled shows and sponsors’ plugs, working people still like public TV. You can tell by subscriber donations that—along with tax dollars—-pay the bulk of public TV’s bills each year. They like programs such as Sesame Street for their kids, the chance to see an opera from the Met, and of course they like no detergent commercials.
When it comes time to get more federal funds, public TV executives are proud to point to demographics. Forty-five percent of the heads of household in public TV's viewing audience are either blue or white-collar workers, slightly exceeding their proportion in the population at large.
So it’s ironic that in PBS programming, there’s a black hole where labor viewpoints ought to he. Ironic, but understandable. Public TV, created as in alternative to commercial programming, has increasingly become hostage to the same forces that drive network program choices: corporate sponsors and ratings.
On any given night, it still looks better than any of the alternatives. But that’s not saying much. Public TV was supposed to be everything commercial TV isn’t: a forum for public debate, a source of cultural enrichment, a fount of educational opportunity.
The system never worked as it should have. Public TV has three money masters, each about equally important in the budget: the government, individual donors, and corporate and foundation donors. The money then runs through a bureaucratic maze, and that’s a problem too. But the key thing to understand is that the corporate and foundation funding sets the agenda for what public TV puts on the screen.
Corporate donors like public TV because it’s a far more cost-effective place to reach upscale decision-makers than commercial TV. True, it attracts a small audience, around 4 percent of viewers. But that audience is weighted toward upper-income viewers much more than commercial TV’s audience.
No wonder the Public Broadcasting Service (PBS), a member organization of public TV stations that distributes programs for them, has sometimes been called the “Petroleum Broadcasting Service”—in honor of Mobil, Exxon and other large donors. As public TV’s budget problems worsen and its original mission gets dimmer, corporations exert more influence on programming.
Drug companies such as Johnson & Johnson and Pfizer paid for The Health Century, a series on the wonders of high-tech medicine--focusing on the miracles of technology and not, say, on the crisis of quality care. Financial firms like Prudential-Bache and Hanson Trust fund Wall $treet Week. And wasn’t it convenient for General Electric to sponsor a public TV series on China, Heart of the Dragon, just when it was making a deal with the Chinese government?
The hunt for individual donations also spurs a search for upbeat, lightweight programming that boosts ratings, such as Lassie and other supercheap syndicated shows. And public TV buys so much foreign fare because it’s cheaper to buy off the rack than to make it. The United States spends around 77 cents per capita on public broadcasting; in Japan it’s $14; in Canada (for national services alone), $23.60; and in Britain, $24.52.
That’s why you can see Eastenders, a series featuring working-class life in Britain, on US public TV, but there’s nothing similar from here that we could sell them.
American public TV is hardly unique. These days you can find ballet, kids programming and documentaries on cable. What might have made public TV unique is that it was public. It might have aired controversial public affairs shows or experimental video art. Or it might have provided an opportunity for working people to see—as part of a spectrum of perspectives—TV from their point of view, not from the seat John McLaughlin sits in.
But it’s getting harder to find the “public” in public TV. Last year, PBS indexed all subjects addressed in its current affairs programs. Under “Business” there are 169 references. “Labor” gets 29, almost all within business-oriented shows such as The Business File and Adam Smith’s Money World.
The link between big money and right-wing opinions is clear on public TV. The right-leaning talkshow, The McLaughlin Group, is fully underwritten by General Electric. McLaughlin’s interview show One on One is underwritten by Pepsi and Metropolitan Life. These shows are given outright to stations. Hundreds take them eagerly, glad for free programming.
But when stations are offered free programming from a labor perspective, their attitude often differs dramatically. At work is the pro-business bias that's normal in US media. The AFL-CIO's Labor Institute for Public Affairs (LIPA) has produced America Works, a public affairs series, for several years. When it began, the reaction of Los Angeles KCET vice president Steven Kulczycki was typical: "We have a policy of not accepting public affairs programs where the underwriters has a perceived or real vested interest in the subject matter."
What about Wall $treet Week? In that case, Kulczycki explained, public TV has a 12-year history with host Louis Rukeyser, proving he could insulate himself from funders. The KCET executive said he looks forward to building a history with LIPA. Four years later, KCET still refuses America Works and other LIPA programs.
Public TV’s appetite for labor-produced programming continues to be meager. Kartemquin Films recently completed Child Care Crisis: Union Solutions, in conjunction with LIPA. In Chicago, public station WTTW refused to air it, saying it wasn’t objective enough. Hank Scheff of AFSCME Council 31 sharply replied to WTTW's vice president for programming: “You run weekly programs produced or sponsored by business concerning business issues. Your political talkshows feature prominent spokesmen for the conservative viewpoint.... The role of public television should be to showcase a spectrum of viewpoints.” WTTW hasn’t changed its decision.
Conflict-of-interest rules make sense for a public system. But it seems a lot easier for public TV to understand those rules when labor’s involved than when EF Hutton (a funder of Adam Smith’s Money World) is. Several years ago, labor unions offered to provide seed money for a multimillion-dollar film series, Made in USA, about working peoples history--not about labor unions--to be made by an independent filmmaker who would bear the responsibility for the show's content. But PBS warned that such funding would be grounds for refusing to carry the series, because of conflict of interest.
And what about corporate funding of Free to Choose, a pro-free enterprise show? Said a PBS official: “Business is much broader than labor is. Corporations put their profits into a wide variety of things. Labor unions are only going to put money into something in which they have a vested interest.”
Gordon Quinn, an independent filmmaker whose work includes such labor-oriented films as The Last Pullman Car, and who has won funding from union as well as corporate sources, disagrees:
When you make your pitch to a corporation, they want something very concrete for their money. Often you can appeal to unions on the basis of a larger social concern--say, America’s industrial future, or Social Security--and you can get complete editorial control. Unfortunately, unions have very little money for media.
PBS finally agreed to allow union funding for Made in USA, once the series got a government grant for 10 times the amount the unions wanted to contribute.
Difficult as it can be to face entrenched prejudice, the struggle to broaden public TV’s horizons can pay off. Despite key holdouts, LIPA’s Labor Day programs have aired on two-thirds of the pubic TV stations. Such important documentaries as The Global Assembly Line, about the exporting of jobs, and The Women of Summer, about a working-class women’s education program, ran on public stations nationwide with promotional help from LIPA as well as local labor union bodies.
California Working will be offered to public TV stations nationwide by the Pacific Mountain Network. AFSCME’s Labor News Network shows are occasionally picked up by public as well as commercial stations. Community coalitions and advisory boards have also gotten labor’s point of view across. In Iowa, for example, labor pressure induced station programmers to include labor viewpoints in public affairs programs.
One notion that’s gaining ground is a demand for equal time with business. That’s a suggestion FAIR has made repeatedly to PBS. “Organized labor is ignored,” says FAIR executive director Jeff Cohen. "One of the great labor-bashers in the media is Louis Rukeyser, and he’s on every week. It’s obviously fair that there should be a show for labor and other public interest groups every week. It’s not good enough to have a documentary about labor every year or so. After all, there are too current affairs shows about business every week and one every day."
In the long run, if public TV continues to get funded the way it does now, it will continue to be an uphill battle to get programs to focus on labor issues. What would free public TV from it’s fatal attraction to corporate interests is more, and better insulated, federal funding.
Last year, independent filmmakers testified in Congress to the sad lack of diversity on the public airwaves. Their proposal for a separate, independent-production fund recently became law, thereby increasing the chances that labor and other non-corporate perspectives will reach the screen.
But restoring public TV to its original promise can’t depend on filmmakers and TV bureaucrats alone. The most important balance to corporate influence is the weight of numbers. The groups least likely to be heard when corporate funders step up to pay for programming--labor unions, environmental and educational organizations, minority groups and others--could band together. They could jointly propose to Congress new funding mechanisms and a new structure--one that would guarantee a platform for truly public debate.
Then we’d have a public TV that wasn’t always “classy," and that no one would agree with all of the time. And it would also be a TV with priorities set by the public interest, not by the pocketbooks cf the powerful.
Pat Aufderheide is assistant professor in the School of Communications at American University and a senior editor of In These Times. This article was adapted from Union, Service Employees International Union, 1313 L St. NW, Washington, DC, 20005.