Aug 23 1993

New Study Reveals Public TV Bias

And debunks conservative myths

And debunks conservative myths

A new study of public television programming challenges many of the premises of the conservative-dominated debate over public television bias.

The independently conducted study, a version of which will appear in the September/October issue of FAIR’s magazine Extra!, is the first ever to examine public TV’s full evening schedule. It focuses, in particular, on the sources featured in public affairs programming.

“Our findings cast considerable doubt on conservative claims concerning the liberal or left-wing bias of public television programming,” the authors conclude. “Environmentalists, feminists and labor activists receive scant attention within public television programming, while corporate and government spokespersons dominate both regularly scheduled news and business programs.”

As the study noted, the mission of public television programming was articulated by the 1967 Carnegie Commission Report: To “help us see America whole, in all its diversity”; serve as “a forum for controversy and debate”; and “provide a voice for groups in the community that may otherwise be unheard.” The authors conclude that the challenge facing public television is to “refocus on the “public” that public television is intended to serve.”


To better generalize about what public television viewers are seeing, the study constructed a composite “national” public TV schedule by combining programming information from 15 stations in 10 cities. The sample period included one (randomly selected) week out of each of the first six months of 1992, and focused on evening programming from 6 p.m. to midnight (the time of highest viewership). Among the findings:

  • The programming that has generated so much of the debate — current public affairs documentaries — constitutes only a small portion (8 percent) of evening programming offered by PBS stations. The bulk of evening programming (59 percent) is not about public affairs, but is devoted to such fare as dramas and comedies, music and dance programs and non-public affairs documentaries such as travel programs.
  • The mix of programming varied between cities. For example, the percentage of airtime allotted to public affairs programming varied from a high of 42 percent in Houston to a low of 22 percent in New York. Boston (15 percent) devotes twice as much airtime to news as does New York (6 percent) or Los Angeles (7 percent).
  • For a system that is intended to reflect the local needs of communities, local programming takes up surprisingly little airtime — only 7 percent. This percentage varied widely from city to city, from a high of 12 percent of airtime in Washington, D.C., to a low of 3 percent in Kansas City, MO.


Since public affairs programs on public TV have been the subject of so much debate, the study closely examined 15 regularly scheduled and nationally distributed public affairs programs, representing four different program types: news, business, talk/interview and documentary.

Political “bias” is often in the eye of the beholder, making attempts to quantitatively measure it problematic. “A more reliable method of assessing diversity in media,” the authors assert, “is the examination of the types of people who appear as sources on a wide range of programs.”

The authors analyzed 1,644 sources appearing in 423 segments in 114 programs.

Among the findings:

  • In its public affairs programming, public television tends to draw upon a narrow range of sources, similar to those used by commercial television.
  • Government and corporate officials and professional “experts” are well-represented among public television sources. Professionals (mostly journalists and academics) account for about one-third of source appearances (30 percent) and take up almost half of the airtime. Government officials make up 23 percent of sources. Corporate representatives are 19 percent of public television sources.
  • On the other hand, citizen activists form only a small percentage (6 percent) of public television sources. Even this figure may be misleading, since no one activist constituency accounted for more than a handful of sources. Racial and ethnic representatives accounted for 1.6 percent of sources, labor representatives 0.9 percent, environmentalists 0.6 percent, and feminists 0.2 percent. There were no representatives of gay or lesbian organizations in the sample. The authors conclude that “public television does little to highlight the voices of organized citizens, relegating activists…to the margins of political discourse”.
  • Male sources outnumber female sources three to one. Female sources were less than half as likely to appear on stories about international affairs, domestic politics or economics as on stories about social and cultural issues.

Examining sources on different types of programs revealed other patterns. For example:

  • Talk and news shows use the same analysts and pundits as commercial media, often borrowing experts from mainstream newspapers and weeklies. In many cases, the glut of expert analysis seems to reduce opportunities for members of some communities to speak for themselves.
  • Business and financial programs present the narrowest range of sources, with corporate representatives constituting half of the sources on these programs. “The business program is, in fact, the most highly politicized type of program, representing the interests of one social sector overwhelmingly.”
  • While still underrepresenting slighted constituencies (women, people of color, gays and lesbians, etc.), documentaries do reflect the broadest range of sources. In this format, citizen activists and members of the general public have greater access to public television. This may explain why documentaries have been the main focus of conservative criticisms.

Some findings directly refute conservative arguments about public television’s alleged bias. For example:

  • Overall, use of Republican sources outweighed Democratic sources 53 to 43 percent. (The unaffiliated were mostly Perot supporters.) Even Frontline and Listening to America, two programs that were the focus of political pressure from Republicans, made use of Republicans more frequently than Democrats.
  • Far from dominating public television, gay and lesbian activists were totally absent from public affairs programming in the time period studied. This finding highlights how conservative critics? focus on a single program?in this case, the Marlon Riggs documentary Tongues Untied — “obscured the larger source patterns on public television.”
  • With the exception of Washington Week in Review, public television’s political talk/interview programs are the domain of well-known conservatives William F. Buckley (Firing Line) and John McLaughlin (The McLaughlin Group, One on One).

About the Study:

The study, funded by a grant from the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation, was conducted by David Croteau, of the Media Research & Action Project at Boston College; William Hoynes, an assistant professor of sociology at Vassar College; and Kevin M. Carragee, a Fulbright Scholar at the Institute of Political Science and Journalism at Poland’s Adam Mickiewicz University. Croteau and Hoynes previously produced studies of Nightline and the MacNeil/Lehrer NewsHour.

The study has been endorsed by several public interest groups and individuals who believe that this type of empirical study should inform any future debate about the biases and shortcomings of public television programming. Endorsers include: FAIR; NAACP; Ralph Nader?s Essential Information; GLAAD (Gay & Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation); Greenpeace; Fund for the Feminist Majority; the Center for the Study of Commercialism; Coalition Against PBS Censorship; Ben Bagdikian, Graduate School of Journalism, UC-Berkeley; and George Gerbner, Annenberg School of Communication, University of Pennsylvania.

The study is being released a day before the Corporation Public Broadcasting holds the first in a series of hearings on “balance and objectivity” in public broadcasting — a process instigated by conservative senators whose belief in a “liberal bias” in public TV is thoroughly rebutted by this study.