Albion Monitor /Commentary
[Editor's note: See also Buyout Threat Looms For Public Broadcasting elsewhere in this commentary section.]

Why There's No "Public" In Public Broadcasting

by Randolph T. Holhut

As it becomes more beholden to its big money clientele, it becomes harder and harder to defend public broadcasting as a needed public service that's an alternative to what's available commercially
(AR) -- Public broadcasting in the U.S. is a mess. Sadly, it was designed to be that way.

Back when the Public Television Act of 1967 was being drafted in Congress, there was a proposal to fund a national public tv system by placing a tax on the purchase of new television sets. This tax, similar to the annual tv license that funds the British Broadcasting Corporation, would have given public broadcasters steady and reliable funding to carry out its mission of providing exceptional programming in drama, music, the arts, education, news and public affairs.

That proposal never made it out of Congress. Without the tv tax, public broadcasting was doomed to a future in which begging for money from the federal government, corporate sponsors, foundations and viewers became a way of life. It probably was not the first beggar the U.S. government ever created, nor the last.

The federal government has cut its share of the funding for public broadcasting from about 30 percent in the early 1970s to less than 15 percent today. While the BBC is funded by about $45 per citizen annually, and public broadcasting in Japan and Canada is funded at a rate of $41 and $34, respectively, that rate is only about a dollar a year in the U.S.

This sad fact has made public TV and radio even more reliant on corporate underwriting and more aggressive in its fundraising efforts. The emphasis on scrounging for money comes at the expense of programming.

The incessant begging of the pledge drives occurs more frequently. The once-generic recitation of underwriting credits has now morphed into almost full-blown commercials for corporate sponsors. And programming decisions are not being made on the basis of serving the public interest, but on the basis of what makes money.

The Boston Globe did a four-part series last month on WGBH-TV, one of the flagship stations of PBS. It found that only four percent of its budget and its broadcast schedule was devoted to local programming. About 40 of WGBH's 1,186 employees work on local shows while four times as many people work on fundraising.

WGBH used to have a tiny but pretty effective local news staff. It's "Ten O'Clock News" was a thoughtful program that covered Massachusetts without the hype and gore of the network affiliate's newscasts. Unfortunately, WGBH pulled the plug on local news and most of its other local public affairs programming a few years ago. Local programming was unprofitable, the station's management said. Instead, they would concentrate on producing programs for national distribution on PBS.

Like commercial TV, public broadcasting has virtually abandoned critical, probing and controversial public affairs programming. When public TV stations like WGBH start making programming decisions based on profitability, the distinction between public and commercial broadcasting disappears.

Public stations are now so dependent on corporate underwriting that the only programming that fills the schedule either furthers the interests of the corporate underwriters or is safe, controversy-free fare such as nature documentaries, opera, ballet and recycled BBC dramas. Programming that's safe also appeals to public broadcasting's other main source of support -- the upscale viewing audience that sends in the pledge checks.

The strings that come with the money from the wealthy and the corporate interests are substantial. That's why PBS is filled with programs that are top-heavy with conservative pundits such as "The McLaughlin Group" and "Washington Week in Review," or pro-business programs such as the "Nightly Business Report," "Wall Street Week" and "Adam Smith's Money World," but has nothing on its national schedule that regularly covers labor, civil rights, consumer issues or the environment.

The public is hard to find in public broadcasting. As it becomes more beholden to its big money clientele, it becomes harder and harder to defend public broadcasting as a needed public service that's an alternative to what's available commercially.

While cable outlets such as A&E and The Discovery Channel are carrying PBS-style documentaries and Nickelodeon and The Learning Channel have plenty of children's programming, commercial television has never and will never completely satisfy the need for programming in the public interest. Public TV was created to be an alternative, and it now is unable to fill that role as it should.

If public broadcasting fades into oblivion -- doomed by lack of government support, the pressures of its corporate sponsors and the indifference of viewers -- will anybody care? In a government-sanctioned commercial media environment that has been unchallenged and unquestioned for over 60 years, is this the best we can do?

In his new book, "Corporate Media and the Threat to Democracy," University of Wisconsin communications professor Robert McChesney suggests that a real public broadcasting system could be funded by a one percent tax on advertising.

Corporations spend over $150 billion each year on advertising. A one percent tax could raise about $1.5 billion a year, nearly enough to take care of the total annual budget of PBS and National Public Radio. McChesney also suggests that broadcast spectrum space, currently given free to commercial broadcasters, should be leased with the proceeds used to support nonprofit and noncommerical media. Even a nominal rent could raise between $2 and $4 billion annually.

With either or both of these proposals, public broadcasting would be freed from the tyranny of corporate underwriting and constant fundraising. It would finally have the resources to produce programming that's a true alternative to what the commercial stations offer.

Without a reliable and conflict-free source of money, public broadcasting in America is doomed to a third-rate existence, and we'll all be the poorer for it.

Randolph T. Holhut is a freelance journalist and editor of "The George Seldes Reader" (Barricade Books)

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Albion Monitor July 29, 1997 (

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