Public Television: Politics & the Battle over Documentary Film

By Murray, Michael D. | Journalism History, Autumn 1998 | Go to article overview

Public Television: Politics & the Battle over Documentary Film


Murray, Michael D., Journalism History


Bullert, B.J. Public Television: Politics & the Battle Over Documentary Film. New Brunswick, N.J.: Rutgers University Press,1997. 242 pages. $20.

B.J. Bullert, who teaches at American University, has written an interesting and thought-provoking book on documentary television and public broadcasting.

She helps the reader understand why some films make it onto the public airwaves while others do not and, beyond that, looks at success stories and stories behind the scenes. She also critically evaluates controversial works and explains how they were treated by PBS decisionmakers. Because of her background and experience as an independent filmmaker, Bullert is able to offer unique insights into the challenges of finding a proper hearing for a project.

The first chapter provides an overview of the selection process, examining the decision-makers, their agendas and motives, and those most directly influencing decisions. At this stage, the reader begins to get a feel for the independent producers and how they must function in order to achieve the successful mix of federal funding to assist the promise of broadcast. She also provides background on the development of politics and distinguished practitioners of public broadcasting.

In Chapter Two, Bullert looks at Frontline, the long-format series addressing controversial issues, and P. O. V., a catch-all for independently produced programs not fitting into other series. Bullert examines the selection process and the relationship between the programs, the network, and member stations. The ideological and political dimensions emerging from programs questioning government policy and business practices offer insight into the network's view of itself and the individual station's roles as gatekeepers.

A review of a provocative documentary on the nuclear weapons industry offers an interesting case study of how concerns by the network and KQED/San Francisco led to the cancellation of that program, even if it did eventually air as part of the P. …

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