Jul
01
1999

The Public Is Secondary on Public TV

Across the country, PBS stations are in denial. And if we think the programming they provide is worthy of the name "public television," then maybe we're in denial, too.

Targeting an upscale audience, elaborate commercials are now routine on PBS — but we're supposed to look at them as "enhanced underwriter credits."

Every weeknight, the crown jewel of PBS public affairs — "The NewsHour With Jim Lehrer" — reaches several million American homes. The hour-long show is probably the most influential news broadcast in the United States. Sustained by big bucks from conglomerates in such industries as agribusiness and insurance, the program rarely strays from conventional media wisdom. But we're supposed to view it as an excellent source of journalism.

Over the years, "public TV" has morphed into privatized television. These days, PBS depends on funding from private firms and the Corporation for Public Broadcasting. By now, only a veneer of public service remains, shiny and thin.

With hundreds of PBS stations walking like ducks, talking like ducks and quacking like ducks, we'd be ill-advised to believe that they're really fascinating aardvarks.

It didn't have to be this way. During the 1960s, a lot of noncommercial channels went on the air, under the moniker of "educational television." The offerings were apt to be poorly produced and rather boring, but the potential was apparent. After all, some public space was being carved out of the commercialized TV terrain already known as "a vast wasteland."

Gradually, money poured in and viewership climbed. More and more, programs on PBS were similar to shows on avowedly commercial cable networks. Today, each PBS affiliate is little more than another cable option — mocking the dream that public TV could exist in fact as well as in name.

Seven years ago, professor William Hoynes of Vassar College took an in-depth look at the content of public affairs shows on PBS stations. He found that those programs were heavily reliant on a narrow range of sources from government and the business sector.

Now, analyzing data from 75 separate programs during a two-week period in late 1998, Hoynes has assessed recent trends. It turns out that in the media world of PBS stations, things aren't as bad as they used to be. They're worse.

Adhering to an "insider orientation" is standard operating procedure on PBS. Instead of "wide-ranging discussions and debates," Hoynes says, "public television provides programs that are populated by the standard set of elite news sources."

The 1992 study and the latest one, both released by my associates at the media watch group FAIR, present a grim and grimmer picture of the Public Broadcasting Service. While corporate voices and business programs are all over PBS, the general public is scarcely visible on a day-to-day basis.

For instance, the new study discovered:

"More than one-third of all on-camera sources — 36.3 percent — during the two weeks studied were representatives of corporate America or Wall Street. This almost doubled the percentage found in the 1992 study."

In sharp contrast, Americans in the broadly defined category of "citizen activists" get scant representation on PBS, accounting for only 4.5 percent of total sources. "For example, there is no regular labor voice in discussions of the economy and no regular consumer perspective in debates about anti-trust policy." Overall, citizen activists "appear with such relative infrequency...that they cannot help but be marginal, if intriguing, participants in the public discourse."

The study found that only 5.7 percent of the total sources on PBS were members of the general public — down from 12 percent in 1992.

"This study reveals public TV's programming to be little different in substance than that on commercial TV," says Janine Jackson, program director at FAIR. Her assessment is right on target: "In survival mode for so long fending off conservative attacks, public television seems to have forgotten its original mission to `help us see America whole, in all its diversity' and to be `a forum for controversy and debate.'"

The entire new study — "The Cost of Survival: Political Discourse and the `New PBS'" — is on FAIR's web site (www.fair.org) along with supporting data.

Meanwhile, as we begin the second half of 1999, few things seem as predictable as PBS, the public TV service that quacks like a duck and claims to be a soaring eagle.