U.S. public television is a peculiar hybrid of broadcasting systems. Neither completely a public service system in the European tradition, nor fully supported by commercial interests as in the dominant pattern in the United States, it has elements of both. At its base this system consists of an ad hoc assemblage of stations united only by the fluctuating patronage of the institutions that fund them, and in the relentless grooming of various constituencies. The future of public broadcasting in America may in fact be assured by the range of those constituencies and by public television's malleable self-definition. It may come to be as much an electronic public library as a broadcaster.
Given its perpetually precarious arrangements, public television has had a significant cultural impact since it became a national service in 1967. Through its programming choices, it has not only introduced figures such as Big Bird and Julia Child into national culture, and created a home for sober celebrities such as Bill Moyers and William Buckley, but it has also pioneered new televisual technologies such as closed captioning and uses such as distance learning and on-line services.
U.S. public television programming has evolved to fill niches that commercial broadcasters have abandoned or not yet discovered. Children's educational programming, especially for preschoolers; "how-to" programs stressing the pragmatic (e.g. cooking, home repair, and painting and drawing); public affairs programming and documentaries; upscale drama; experimental art; community affairs programming all contribute to the tapestry of public television. In the course of a week, more than 100 million American television viewing homes turn to a public television program for at least 15 minutes, and overall, the demographics describing viewers of public TV more or less match those of the nation as a whole. However, based on an annual average, its prime-time rating hovers at a low 2.2% of the viewing audience, and demographics for any particular program are narrowly defined. Overall they are weakest for young adults. Lesser heralded, but increasingly important in public television's rationale, is its extensive instructional programming and information-networking, most of which is non--broadcast.
In the critical design period of American broadcasting (1927-34), which resulted in the Communications Act of 1934, public service broadcasting had been rejected out of hand by legislators and their corporate mentors. A small amount of spectrum space on the UHF (the more poorly received Ultra High Frequency) band was set aside for educational television in 1952. This decision was modelled after the 1938 set-side for educational (not public or public service) radio stations that had ensued upon rampant commercialization of radio. In TV, as in radio, much of that spectrum space went unused, and most programming was low-cost and local (e.g., a broadcast lecture).
After mid-century, the situation had changed to some degree. The Public Broadcasting Act of 1967 reflected in part the renewed emphasis placed on mass media by major foundations such as Carnegie and Ford, as well as the concern of liberal politicians and educators. The historic 1965 Carnegie Commission on Educational Television, willed into being by President Lyndon Johnson in search of a televisual component to the Great Society, claimed that a "Public Television" could "help us see America whole, in all its diversity," and "help us know what it is to be many in one, to have growing maturity in our sense of ourselves as a people." Many legislators and conservatives, however, openly feared the specter of a fourth network dominated by Eastern liberals. Commercial broadcasters did not want competition, although they supported the notion of a service that could relieve their public interest burden.
The service was thus deliberately created as the "lemon socialism" of mass media, providing what commercial broadcasters did not want to offer. The only definition of "public" was "noncommercial." Mere token start-up funds were provided. And the system was not merely decentralized but balkanized.
The current complex organization of public television reflects its origins. The station, the basic unit of U.S. public TV, operates through a nonprofit entity, most commonly a university. Of about 1500 stations in the United States, there are about 360 public television stations (about 150 of these are repeaters), and almost everyone in the U.S. can receive a public TV signal. About two-thirds of the public TV stations are UHF, still a significant limiting factor in reception.
Stations are fiercely independent, cultivating useful relationships with local elites, though they often form consortia for program production and delivery and to shape more genreal policy. A handful of wealthy, powerful producing stations contrasts with a great majority of small stations that produce no programming. (Three stations produce 60% of the original programming for all the stations.) In most large markets there are several stations, with much duplication of PBS programming, but stations may also establish some distinctive services catering to minorities and showcasing independent and experimental productions.
The 1967 law, however, also created a Corporation for Public Broadcasting (the CPB) as a private corporation to provide support to the stations. The governing board of the CPB is politically-appointed and balanced (along partisan lines), and is funded by tax dollars. The CPB was designed to assist stations with grants to upgrade equipment and services, with research, with policy direction, and eventually with a small programming fund. But the CPB was banned from distributing programs. This minimized the threat that the member stations would ever constitute a true fourth network. The Corporation has, over the years, acted as the lightning rod for Congressional discontent, since it is the funnel for federal tax dollars. Congress has usually removed the board's discretionary authority over funds rather than cut them. As a result most of CPB's funds are now set up to flow directly to local stations.
Despite governmental intent to keep public broadcasting local, centralized programming services of several kinds quickly sprung up. Public affairs services centered, just as political conservatives had feared, on the Eastern seaboard. Resulting programs enraged then-President Richard Nixon, who tried to abolish the service and did succeed in weakening it.
Out of this conflict grew, by 1973, today's Public Broadcasting Service, the first and still premier national programming service for public television. Shaped in part by station owners who, like Nixon, disliked Eastern liberals, it is a membership organization of television stations. Member stations pay dues to receive up to three hours of prime-time programming at night, several hours of children's programming during the day, and other recommended programs. Since 1990 stations have accepted a programming schedule designed by a PBS executive. This policy replaced a previous system in which programs were selected by a system driven by majority vote. Stations were persuaded to cede power because overall ratings for public television were declining. Although not obliged to honor the prime-time schedule, stations are urged to do so. This version of a common schedule assists in enlarging the audience and enables them to benefit from national advertising. Other programming services abound, both regionally and nationally, but none has the imprimatur of PBS.
While CPB and PBS both provide funds for the development and purchase of programming, they do not make programs. Television stations (especially the "big three" in New York, Boston and Los Angeles) produce the bulk of programming. Public television also depends heavily on a few production houses, both commercial and non-commercial--notably Children's Television Workshop for children's programming. Independent television and film producers chronically complain that the service, which should depend on them, slights them. Their complaints, coordinated over a decade, finally convinced Congress in 1988 to create the Independent Television Service, as a wing of the CPB, with the specific mission to fund innovative work for underserved audiences,.
Public TV's funds come from a variety of sources. These include, (for fiscal year 1993) federal (19%), state and local (30%), and private funders, subscribers (23%), and corporations (17%). Each of these three major sources of funding comes with its own set of constraints. The federal appropriation (accounting for an average 13% of the budget) brings controversy virtually on an annual basis. Even so, the Corporation's budget has, with few exceptions (notably the first Reagan presidency and 1995, with a new 1994 Republican Congressional majority), been regularly increased to keep its total amount roughly steady with 1976 levels measured in 1972 dollars. State and local governments have cut funds in the 1990s consistent with funding crises. Public affairs programming has consistently been the target of Republican and conservative legislators' ire, and has caused public TV to be hypercautious in such programs. This may explain why public TV never developed an institutional equivalent of National Public Radio's daily news reporting.
The majority of funds for public television come from the private sector. Viewers are the single largest source of funding; their contributions come, effectively, without strings and so are especially valuable. These funds are often raised during "pledge drives" in which special, highly popular programming is presented in conjunction with heartfelt pleas for funds from station staff, prominent local supporters, and other celebrities. These pledge drives are supplemented, in many markets, with other fund raising efforts such as auctions or special performances. The tenth of viewers who become donors tend to be culturally and politically cautious, and the need to cultivate them skews programming to what venerable broadcast historian Erik Barnouw calls the "safely splendid"--the bland, the middlebrow, the stamped- and-approved. Re-runs of Lawrence Welk programs have historically been some of the most successful shows for pledge week.
Business contributes not quite a fifth of the funding, but its contributions tend to shape programming decisions, because business dollars are usually given in association with a particular program. Public broadcasters openly market their audience to corporations as an upscale demographic, one that businesses are eager to capture in what is known as "ambush marketing"--catching the attention of a listener or viewer who usually resists advertising. The hallmark PBS series Masterpiece Theatre was designed from logo to host by a Mobil Oil Co. executive looking to create an image for Mobil as "the thinking man's gasoline." Conflict of interest issues ensue, as do questions of allowing corporations to set programming and production priorities. (If stations hadn't aired Doing Business in Asia, a series sponsored by Northwest Airlines, which has Asian routes, what else might they have been able to do with their time and money?)
These pressures in combination have made the service vulnerable to political attack both from the left and right as elitist. After Nixon accused the service of being dangerously liberal, many broadcasters scanted public affairs and presented "safe" cultural programming, only to be accused by the Reagan administration in 1981 of providing "entertainment for a select few." Reagan's attempt to cut funds also failed, although the administration succeeded in rescinding advance funding that had been designed as a political "heat shield" after Nixon's attack. In 1992, Sen. Bob Dole (R-Kansas) threatened to hold up funding for public broadcasting on charges that it was too liberal, and succeeded in making broadcasters nervous and forcing CPB to spend a million dollars on surveys and studies that changed nothing. In 1994, following on the Republican victory in Congress, House of Representatives leader Newt Gingrich (R-GA) and Dole both targeted CPB for rescission, on grounds that it was both elitist and liberal.
At the same time, the variety of funding sources has made it advantageous for public TV bureaucrats to resist bringing into focus public television's purpose as either primarily an entrepreneurial niche service or one that upholds public service. Changes in corporate media have precipitated anguished discussion over mission within public TV, and have brought new opportunities and challenges. Cable TV has not been the challenge it was once thought, both because some 40% of the population does not receive it, and because public TV continues to program unique, non-commercial material and to have the reputation for quality and decency. But commercial investors, hungry for content, have increasingly invested in public TV, eroding public/commercial lines. The largest cable operator, TeleCommunications Inc., became part-owner of the MacNeil-Lehrer news production company in 1994, and in 1995 the long-distance telephone service provider MCI invested $15 million in PBS's on-line and other new technologies services.
The digitalization and convergence of electronic media, developments which also bring the possibility of tailoring media to consumer desires, drive broadcasters to rethink their role. CPB and PBS planners see the manipulation of content provision as the key to future survival. They imagine future public television as a community public information resource. Because stations with satellite hookups exist in virtually every community, they could become a here-now version of an information superhighway or network for public uses (and in the process justify the ubiquity of stations and their high-tech, federally-funded satellite links). PBS has already developed pilot on-line services as well as distance learning. This visionary perspective on public television's role is ahead of most station managers, who continue to see public TV as a broadcast service competing for viewers by offering "better" programming.
An improbable, many-headed creature, public TV is unlikely to disappear even under steady political assault. It is also unlikely to suddenly become a service that a plurality of Americans would expect to turn to on any given evening. It is likely to become more commercial in its broadcast services and more entrenched---and defensible as taxpayer-funded--in its infrastructural and instructional services.
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