American Public Broadcasting: Will It Survive Adolescence?

By Loomis, Kenneth D. | Journal of Broadcasting & Electronic Media, Summer 2001 | Go to article overview

American Public Broadcasting: Will It Survive Adolescence?


Loomis, Kenneth D., Journal of Broadcasting & Electronic Media


Public broadcasting in the United States is in its adolescence. Just as a parent may feel frustration with teenage children who do not appear to be fulfilling expectations, contemporary media critics express frustration when evaluating public broadcasting. The optimism that followed the birth of the Public Broadcasting Act of 1967 has given way to ambivalence and frustration: frustration with the fact that the system's early potential has not been realized, and ambivalence about which path to take to avoid future mediocrity.

The following essay summarizes the themes discussed in three recent publications about public broadcasting in the United States. All three texts suggest public broadcasting's problems are caused by limitations in the way the system is funded and organized. There is also unanimity in the perception that these shortcomings arose from an historical inability of the system to clearly define its purpose. In exploring these areas the books perform a valuable service by helping us understand the industry's current state.

A History of Public Broadcasting is an update of a book originally written by John Witherspoon and Roselle Kovitz in 1987 (Witherspoon & Kovitz, 1987). The current edition (Witherspoon et al., 2000) contains the original chapters plus three new ones by Robert K. Avery and Alan G. Stavitsky.

The Daily Planet, written by Patricia Aufherheide (2000), deals with a number of media topics of which two chapters are about public broadcasting. Aufderheide interprets history with at least one foot in the revisionist camp, perceiving the events that formed public broadcasting as the logical result of the capitalist system which funded it and directly influenced its programming.

Public Television in America is a compilation of essays written by five individuals and edited into book form in 1998 by Eli M. Noam and Jens Waltermann. Although it deals only with television, Noam and Waltermann's (1998) work nonetheless succinctly identifies the contemporary issues surrounding public broadcasting.

Historical Issues: Defining a Purpose

The American public broadcasting sector has never been able to clearly enunciate its mandate. Many people are able to speak reactively about the need for such a service -- how it performs as a counterbalance to the excesses of the commercial system -- but few have been able to concisely describe a purpose that is not tied to the existence of commercialism. Two dichotomies in public broadcasting have proved resistant to closure and therefore lie at the center of the sector's inability to clearly define its purpose.

Mission Versus Market

Because public broadcasting was created as an alternative to commercial broadcasting, part of its mission is not to seek mass audiences but, instead, serve differentiated publics. However, because government support has been inadequate, the system has been forced to seek a significant amount of funding from the very marketplace to which it is supposed to serve as an alternative. It has proven very difficult to serve differentiated publics when money must be raised from underwriters which act as advertisers seeking exposure to large undifferentiated masses.

One of the prime examples of this conundrum is the issue of service to ethnic minorities. Witherspoon et al. (2000) explain how the Public Broadcasting Service's (PBS) 1982 "Programming Goals and Objectives" statement contained specific decrees for public broadcasting to target the needs of minorities, children, the elderly, and the handicapped. However, later in the book the authors show that most ethnic minorities prefer the same National Public Radio (NPR) programs as do whites. Therefore, public broadcast programming generally seeks to transcend, rather than target, differences influenced by ethnicity. Witherspoon et al. describe how this "safely splendid" strategy helps attract corporate underwriting, but at the expense of more controversial and narrowly targeted programming.

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