A system of national public television was first proposed by the Carnegie Commission on Educational Television in January, 1967, after widespread concerns had surfaced about the relationship between television, the market, and the quality of public life in the United States. The Carnegie Commission suggested that a system of public television was necessary to serve the public interest and to provide an alternative to the commercial media. It was also necessary, the Commission stated, in order to reflect the diversity of the American public. Further, public television could "deepen a sense of community in local life." It could "bring into the home meetings ... where major public decisions are hammered out, and occasions where people of the community express their hopes, their protests, their enthusiasms, and their will." As one of the final pieces of his Great Society program, Lyndon Johnson signed the Public Broadcasting Act in November 1967.
In the twenty-five years that have passed since its inception, public television has undergone a number of profound changes. Today it is a system beset by "fundamental contradictions," according to William Hoynes. The most serious problem is the increasing privatization of public television. The funding process, although very different from that of commercial television, puts subtle but very real market pressures on programming. "Public television programs," Hoynes writes, "are fundamentally products that have to be sold in a highly competitive market." They must be sold to potential funders -- primarily private corporations -- as well as those members of the public who support public television through annual contributions.
In Hoynes's view, public television's relationship to the public is very similar to the relationship between commercial broadcasters and the public. Although ratings pressures are not as acute as they are in commercial television, the public is nevertheless perceived by producers as a market for public television programming. As such, "there is no room for an active public, only a passive audience." Public television, as it was originally conceived, was meant to stimulate and challenge the public, to foster increased participation in public issues, and to represent a wide range of views and opinions, not simply to provide diverting programming or to provide an alternative to commercial television, as the current system does.
Through extensive in-depth interviews with public television employees, Hoynes also finds that public television programming lacks a shared goal or mission. "To the degree that any shared mission exists, it is signaled by criticism of commercial television instead of by affirmation of public television." This results in a bottom-line approach to programming that ultimately compromises public television's commitment to quality programming.
Hoynes central argument throughout the book is that an active public sphere is essential to the maintenance of of a democracy. Public television, ostensibly insulated from state and market pressures, can play a central role in fostering the public sphere. The current system of public television falls far short of that ideal, however, by its increasing reliance on private sponsorship and its hands-off approach to challenging and truly "public" programming.
It's a strong argument, and one that we would do well to consider as public television comes under further attack by those committed to "zeroing out" public funding and leaving PBS to the invisible hand of the free market.
Copyright 1995 by Scott London. All rights reserved.