Prime Time Pablum; How Politics and Corporate Influence Keep Public TV Harmless

Article excerpt


The staff of the Corporation for Public Broadcasting (CPB) had a good idea about a year ago. Why not organize a swap of Soviet and American television programs so Americans could gain a better understanding of Soviet life and propaganda? It would be thought provoking and probably entertaining. And in a TV world dominated by "Dynasty,' "Dallas,' and docudramas such as "Mussolini: The Untold Story,' it seemed like a worthy project. The American-Soviet exchange would be just the sort of valuable alternative programming public television had been created to promote.

The exchange has yet to take place. A majority of the CPB's directors, appointees of President Reagan, killed the idea, declaring it would spread unhealthy political ideas. "I mean the Bolshoi is fine. You know, ballet is ballet,' said Richard Brookhiser, a member of the CPB board and former speechwriter for Vice President Bush. "Nature programs . . . little things grazing in the tundra. Fine . . . but if we are going to be opening the doors to wonderful Soviet ideas on their own history or something, this is just disastrous.'

Soviet censors would have appreciated the decision. And unfortunately, it is not the only example of narrow-minded ideology shaping public television programming. Ever since Congress created the CPB in 1967, public television has been the victim of manipulation by the White House and corporate sponsors. Unlike Soviet control of the media, this intervention generally has not resulted in U.S. government propaganda. Rather it has made public television soft, non-controversial --and, mostly, boring.

Public television was to have had the freedom to be excellent and provocative. America's love of commercial TV has never wanted, but by the 1960s many viewers and critics agreed that for all of its entertainment value, commercial programming would never cover public affairs adequately. Its reliance on the purely mathematical correlation between ratings, advertising, and profits force it to appeal to the greatest number of possible viewers. As a result, commercial TV executives neglect shows that have intrinsic, but little commercial, value.

The only way to combat this natural tendency, Congress and the leaders of several major foundations concluded, was to support a public television network that would give programmers the freedom to produce "quality' TV. In 1967 Congress passed legislation to link dozens of local educational stations in a national network which was later named the Public Broadcasting System (PBS). At the same time, Congress established the Corporation for Public Broadcasting to help provide financial support. Legislators promised a new frontier for high-quality television where journalists would be free to tackle the important issues of the day.

That was how the myth of public broadcasting was born. It was a myth, PBS executives soon learned, because quality is very much in the eye of the beholder--and those with power had very different ideas from those who produced the shows. Over the years, outside political interference has imposed as many constraints on public TV as commercial sponsors had on the networks. As a member of the CPB staff from 1976 to 1985, I was always aware that our efforts were being evaluated for their political "correctness'.

Nixon's knock-out

The politicizing of public television began only two years into its life. The Nixon administration viewed many public news shows and documentaries as "liberal' and anti-Nixon. Nixon's chief of the Office of Telecommunications Policy, Clay T. Whitehead, led the assault, identifying a pattern of "objectionable' public affairs programming. In particular, the Nixon men criticized the National Public Affairs Center for Television (NPACT), which produced documentaries on anti-war protests and domestic unrest. The NPACT gave a forum to Nixon opponents, such as George McGovern, who at that time were getting little network air time. …