Exploring the Expanding Domain of Public Telecommunications Research

Article excerpt

On the morning of June 16, 2001, nearly a hundred public broadcasting researchers, professionals, and enthusiasts convened in Neville Hall on the University of Maine campus for the opening plenary session of a conference entitled "Public Broadcasting and the Public Interest." Conceived and organized by Maine assistant professor Michael McCauley, the gathering was designed to capitalize on the ferment and ideological passion that pervaded those in attendance. The ultimate goal of the conference was to serve as a launching pad for a grass roots media reform movement aimed at putting the public back into public broadcasting.

This review essay speaks to the circumstances and conditions that motivated this call for action, along with the ever-growing scholarly literature that is either directly or indirectly related to it. In a real sense, this paper serves as an update a 1996 review essay (Avery, 1996) that attempted to identify and contextualize some of the most significant works on public telecommunications that had appeared during the first half of the 1990s. Taken together, these reviews illustrate both the growing interest in, and the increasing concern about, the future of public telecommunications in the United States.

Historically, noncommercial educational broadcasting, public broadcasting, and more recently, public telecommunications, has not been well-represented as a significant research venue within mainstream communication scholarship. While such marginalized status may well be consistent with the posture of the public media themselves, a deeper rationale is warranted. Writers trying to explain the paucity of scholarly writings in this important area have pointed to the minimalist position public broadcasting holds in American society, resulting from the small audiences that are equated with the degree of cultural, social and political significance. When corporate, profit-motive ideology dictates the very fabric of American society, it is impossible to determine the value of any offering in public or private life except from that perspective (Streeter, 1996).(1)

The highbrow orientation of its programming also has made public broadcasting less appealing as a subject for critical evaluation when the dominant commercial fare lends itself so readily to academic critique. Somewhat more mundane explanations have pointed to the less theoretically informed studies done about public broadcasting institutions that were of little interest to the editors of scholarly journals. But whatever the explanation, or combination of explanations, changes in the political and economic milieu of the 1990s combined to spark a healthy scholarly interest in public telecommunications.

The ideology of American capitalism always has been at the heart of U.S. communication policy, despite the cloak of public interest rhetoric. But the astounding speed by which the profit motives of the marketplace began to dismantle any semblance of traditional public service values caught many students of the media off-guard. The dramatic shift in the telecommunications landscape brought on by the arrival of the new technologies and the enormous profit potential they embodied encouraged policy makers to break down protective structures that they began to see as trade barriers, all in the name of the public good. Global privatization began to erode the very concept of the public citizen and to replace it with that of the targeted consumer. In the United States, the combination of the Congressional attempt to "zero out" public funds to the Corporation for Public Broadcasting (CPB) and the passage of the Telecommunications Act of 1996, which opened the flood gates to unprecedented media cross ownership and concentration, made the future of public broadcasting in America much more than cocktail conversation for the New Left. Suddenly, discussion of the impact of the new media on existing public institutions was hot, and, ironically, a new market for books addressing the subject was born. …