PUBLIC BROADCASTING in America is at a critical juncture in its 34-year-history. Financial insecurity, political intimidation, and corporate seduction have seriously undermined its original mission. With structural change, public broadcasting in the coming digital age finally could fulfill that mission to become a town hall of the air considering the public interest. Without structural change, public broadcasting will continue its descent into becoming another cyber mall, this one "branded" for more-educated and affluent consumers.
In 1967, the Carnegie Commission on Educational Broadcasting recognized that "all that is of human interest and importance" may not be "available or appropriate for support by advertising." Markets give people what they want only within the limits of what it is most profitable to produce. In television, this generally means cheap inoffensive shows aimed at demographics preferred by advertisers.
The rationale for public broadcasting was government intervention to compensate for the "incompleteness" of the market-dominated system. According to the establishing legislation, its purpose would be "not to sell products," but to "enhance citizenship and public service." Its mandate was to provide an alternative that expresses "diversity and excellence," involves "creative risks," and addresses "the needs of the unserved and underserved audiences," like children, seniors, minorities, the poor, and active citizens. Public broadcasting was to "serve as a forum for debate and controversy" where we could "hear the voices of groups not normally heard" and "see America whole, in all its diversity." As he signed the bill into law, Pres. Lyndon B. Johnson proclaimed, "Public television will help make our nation a replica of the old Greek marketplace, where public affairs took place in the view of all citizens."
Scanning the typical PBS schedule these days, one finds weasels eating snakes, British people talking, and Beltway pundits barking. There are nightly and weekly programs about big business and Wall Street, but no regularly scheduled programs addressing workplace, consumer, or environmental concerns. There is an endless procession of shows designed to instruct viewers how to cook, lose weight, build and decorate a house, invest money, and manage one's emotions, all with merchandising. However, there are no shows on how to dissect propaganda, evaluate policies, choose good leaders, and defend the public interest.
Independent productions are few and far between, and there are more coproduction deals with commercial partners looking for lucrative "back-ends," such as Disney's ABC, Fox, Reader's Digest, Warner Brothers, and the like. There are more commercials and they are longer, including pitches on children's programs for theme parks and fast food.
Ironically, cable already has rendered the familiar PBS genres redundant. Entire networks present better-produced and higher-rated programs around the clock on cooking, exercising, home and garden, investing, nature, history, etc. On the other hand, none of these corporate-owned cable networks can offer the type of programming for which PBS was created--universally accessible, noncommercial, public affairs shows in the public interest. As PBS struggles for ratings, such programs not only would provide the service with a unique identity or "brand" but would do enormous good for our democracy. This will not happen, though, without some profound structural changes.
The trouble with PBS starts with funding, the structure of which breeds the insecurity and compromises that undermine its mission. Public broadcasting in other democracies has reliable and often independent sources of funding, like a TV license fee. In Europe, citizens pay between $36 and $136 a year to support public service broadcasting. In Japan, they pay $20; Australia, $28; and Canada, $50. Ratings range from 13% in Canada up to 44% in Great Britain. …