Let Them Eat PBS

By Heitner, Devorah | Framework, Spring 2004 | Go to article overview
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Let Them Eat PBS

Heitner, Devorah, Framework

Let Them Eat PBS Viewers Like You? How Public TV Failed the People, by Laurie Ouellette. New York: Columbia University Press, 2002. 288 pp. $60.00 cloth; $18.50 paper.

Viewers Like You? Hmu Public TVFailed the People (Ouellette 2002) provides an insightful cultural analysis of public television in the United States. Laurie Ouellette examines multiple discourses, including popular magazine, government documents, and PBS programs, to discern a cultural history of the concerns that brought public TV into existence. She analyzes how the assumptions and inequities that formed PBS at the end of the 1960s continue to determine PBS content and reception.

The book opens by examining the birth of PBS in the context of the contemporaneous critiques of commercial television. By documenting PBS's own role in "diagnosing the TV problem," Ouellette identifies and critiques the driving assumptions behind government and journalistic critiques of commercial television, especially the assumption that better television should be crafted from above. Ouellette is critical of this aesthetic hierarchy; she openly refutes the idea that because it is noncommercial, public television is inherently more democratic.

Ouellette frames public television in the context of U.S. government policy tracing national ideologies of class and mass culture from the early 1960s onward. For example, she cites a 1960 presidential report, "Goals for America," which situated mass culture in a state of emergency and focused on TV's failure to serve the growing demographic of college-educated viewers. Of course this failed to discuss how television served other minorities. The question of who should pay for this elite broadcasting loomed large; should the poor be taxed to pay for television for elites? Usefully, this work provides a history of ETV (Educational TeIevision-PBS's precursor), a decentralized network of stations that featured programs like Omnibus (ETV 1951-56) and other lectureformat shows that proved unattractive to most viewers. In the 1950s, one ETV station, KCTA, had the slogan "I Love Lucidity," clearly mocking network fare.

Chapter 2, "The Quest to Cultivate," contains the heart of Ouellette's argument. This section reveals public television's mixed goals. On the one hand, PBS tried to reaffirm and reinscribe elite, highly educated viewers; on the other hand, it attempted to provide "uplift" for jobless African Americans, who producers felt were culturally deprived. Oullette analyzes how public television, a product of the Great Society, fell victim to the liberalism of the Great Society's ideas of excellence (Oullette 2002, 73-74). The Great Society proponents had a tendency to blame people for not finding "excellence" on their own, and to think of maintaining "high standards" as "personal responsibility."

In this light, Ouellette contrasts the populism and accessibility of Sesame Street, PBS's most popular children's program, with programs for disadvantaged adults. These programs borrowed far less of their style from commercial TV and were significantly less popular with viewers. Ouellette demonstrates that children's and adult programming were highly divergent; kids' programming, by employing familiar pop cultural forms, actually assumed a more meritocratic approach to the potential abilities of their audience.

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