Public Broadcasting Sells

By Ledbetter, James | The Nation, December 1, 1997 | Go to article overview

Public Broadcasting Sells

Ledbetter, James, The Nation

If you want to see the future of American public broadcasting, go visit a shopping mall. Drive up to the massive Stamford Town Center in Stamford, Connecticut, head for the 4G level and you will find a store that acts as a direct outpost for New York's Channel 13, WNET, one of the nation's largest public broadcasting stations. Between Rodier Paris and Casual Corner, two stores down from a Warner Brothers merchandise outlet, is a boutique called Learningsmith. It displays both the Public Broadcasting Service and WNET logos and describes itself as a "general store for the curious mind."

Inside is a smorgasbord of self-advertised brainy materials, from place mats depicting the periodic table to books by Stephen Hawking. There is a wealth of public broadcasting tie-in material, including books by Carl Sagan and Bill Moyers, a video called My Heart, Your Heart (hosted by Jim Lehrer) and almost any imaginable product bearing a Sesame Street character. Playing on three huge television screens in the store's rear is a PBS video, Peter, Paul and Mommy, featuring the aging trio singing the refrain, "Don't ever take away our freedom."

In return for selling these products, Learningsmith, a for-profit retail chain, gets on-air promotion--mostly during children's shows. The store, however, does not discriminate against non-PBS merchandise; here one may also purchase videos of Doug, Nickelodeon's kid hero, or of CNN: The Game. In keeping with good marketplace thinking, public broadcasting is just another product on the shelf.

Learningsmith is but one example of public broadcasting's scramble to merge with shopping and marketing. Sacramento's KVIE, for example, not only shows commercials on the air, it produces them in-house for local businesses. Boston's WGBH has taken its popular This Old House show and spun off a handyman's magazine, a joint venture with Time Warner. In mid-1996, Los Angeles's KCET teamed up with a direct-marketing firm to form a new, for-profit business with the primary marketing purpose of helping public television stations raise funds. Revenues for the first year were expected to be upward of $10 million.

This cozy commercialism would have startled the men and women who founded public television thirty years ago. Steeped in Great Society idealism, "Public Television: A Program for Action," the 1967 report of the Carnegie Commission on Educational Television, emphatically set its proposed public television apart from network fare: Its programming would embrace "all that is of human interest and importance." This meant eliminating the forces of commercialism, which the commission blamed for the pap on network television.

"In the end, commercial television remains true to its own purposes," wrote Carnegie's executive secretary. "It permits itself to be distracted as little as possible from its prime goal of maximizing audience." Public television, as the Carnegie team envisioned it, would strive for excellence and enlightenment, not sensationalism and audience share. PBS and its 348 television affiliates have long used this noncommercial, educational mission as a rationale for federal funding and nonprofit status.

In early 1995, as Congressional Republicans threatened to strip public broadcasting of its roughly $300 million annual federal subsidy, PBS president Ervin Duggan echoed the same dichotomy between public and private television. He warned that if public broadcasting was forced to rely on commercial sources of income, the system would plunge into "the alien world of ad agencies and ratings and cost-per-thousand and merchandising, rather than the world of teachers and historians and journalists and community volunteers."

Duggan's supplications ignore the modern reality embodied in Learningsmith: There is virtually nothing about commercialism that is alien to public broadcasting today. Forced to cope with unstable revenues and rising costs, every level of public broadcasting's byzantine structure has devised some kind of commercial scheme, raising disturbing questions about whether commercialism has overtaken public broadcasting's programs, robbing them of their intended uniqueness. …

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