A New Medium, An Uncertain Mission
Public service broadcasters must peer not to the horizon to see if the enemy has arrived, but into their own souls.
Willard Rowland and Michael Tracey
The years immediately following the end of World War II were a time of renewed American confidence in the perfectibility of the human species. An enemy had been defeated, as much by the righteousness of the cause as by the superior industrial strength of the western democracies. On the ruins of the war, a new world order was being erected: new nations of Asia and Africa were being freed from the grip of empire, foundations were put in place for a European Community, and to secure the peace, a United Nations was being created.
Anything seemed possible. America was ready to reach for the moon. The technological and scientific advances that had emerged from the crucible of that war, and particularly the harnessing of the atom, had given the nation a sense of mastery over the world of material things, however tenuous and uncertain that notion proved to be.
Not the least of America's postwar technological triumphs was the emergence of television. The BBC in Britain had introduced television much earlier, but the war had postponed its long-promised arrival in this country. When television did finally arrive in America, in the months following the close of the war, it spread
like a prairie fire. Sales of television sets soared as entrepreneurs, sensing a bonanza in the marketing potential of the new medium, sought available channels. First across the starting line were the three national radio networks: CBS, NBC, and ABC. Having dominated radio for decades, they were determined to secure their position in the newer and more powerful medium by grabbing the best channels in the biggest markets. They were slowed only by the FCC-imposed limit of five channels to a customer.
No one doubted or challenged the use to which television would be put. America was still in the thrall of a faith that had fashioned its policy toward radio, a faith that assumed "such considerable identity between private and public interests in broadcasting that, as in the simple models of eighteenth-century libertarianism, the best public services would emerge in a largely unfettered private enterprise." That faith had come under challenge several times before the 1950s and prior to television, most dramatically in the 1946 FCC Report (Blue Book) detailing the failure of private broadcasting to live up to its public-service obligations. After a brief hut terminal increase in public-service programming, the Blue Book was largely forgotten. The nervousness it had provoked in broadcasters subsided when the Blue Book became history and not policy. What remained in the memory bank was a time much earlier when radio, with hours of unsold time to fill, had performed in accordance with the libertarian theory. Whatever the weaknesses in the theory, they could be overcome with the advent of television "through the workings of enlightened, public-spirited, private broadcasting leadership, moderate FCC oversight, and the introduction of yet another, newer technology."
Confidence that enlightened private industry would serve the social needs of the nation, coupled with a not-invented-here parochialism, led the United States to reject out of hand any consideration of the firm of public-service broadcasting that was commonplace in western Europe, Canada, Japan, and Australia. Public-service institutions like the BBC were widely misunderstood and generally dismissed as "state" television. Despite convincing evidence to the contrary, America moved into the age of television
firm in its faith that the model developed for radio would suffice for the newer medium. It would be business as usual.
In the bonanza that followed, the FCC imposed a loosely defined and even more loosely enforced "public-interest" requirement upon those who sought entry to the new game. The rush for channels proved that the public-interest requirement was no deterrent to the entrepreneurial spirit of America's broadcasters. By 1948, only two years after the first television stations went on the air, the heavy demand for television frequencies compelled the FCC to declare a moratorium on the further issuance of licenses. The "time out" period from 1948 to 1952, commonly known as the "FCC freeze," was to be used to research a feasible way to find additional channels to meet the extraordinary demand for commercial outlets. But a group of educational activists, fearful that the powerful visual medium with its unexplored potential for teaching would be given over entirely to commerce, seized on the "freeze" to push its own agenda. The educators wanted some part of the new medium dedicated to a purpose loftier than light entertainment and more enlightening than ads for painkillers and detergent.
The precise nature of that loftier purpose was never spelled out. Television was still in its infancy, its impact unmeasured, its possibilities unknown. It seemed sufficient at the time simply to recognize the medium's potential for education and to push ahead. Curiously, there remained a residual hope that the broader public-interest needs would still be met by private television. As a consequence, there was no real sense of the need for a comprehensive national public television and radio enterprise, not even by most of those who fought to reserve the channels for education. The vision was more narrowly focused: unless some portion of the television spectrum was withheld from commercial exploitation, education might never discover the visual medium's potential for serving its special needs.
Thus the move to reserve television channels was initiated by a small handful of determined advocates, most of whom managed educational radio stations affiliated with land-grant colleges in Iowa, Wisconsin, Illinois, and other midwestern states. Some years
earlier, these radio stations had organized themselves into the National Association of Educational Broadcasters and under this banner had waged a successful campaign to persuade the FCC to reserve a group of FM radio frequencies for education. The fight for television reservations promised to be tougher. Far more was at stake, and powerful commercial interests wanted the valuable channels kept for their own purposes. The NAEB could not hope to counter this force without substantial help.
Help came through one of those curious coincidences of history that create unexpected alliances. At the moment when the NAEB was searching for a partner with power and deep pockets, the Ford Foundation was casting about for an appropriate cause to fulfill its philanthropic aims. Six years earlier, the Ford Foundation had been little more than a modest Detroit family foundation that served as a conduit for channeling Henry Ford's benefactions into his favorite charities. But after the death of Ford's son, Edsel, in 1943, and upon his own death four years later, the tiny organization was suddenly and dramatically transformed into the world's wealthiest foundation, with shares worth billions of dollars. Its assets exceeded the combined assets of all the country's other private foundations.
Henry Ford, who had been notoriously tightfisted, left the family very little philanthropic tradition to fall back upon. To plot a new direction, Edsel's widow, Eleanor Clay Ford, invited a small group of distinguished citizens to come up with a plan that would "put [the Foundation's] resources to work for human welfare." The group's recommendations, including one urging "cooperation with the non-commercial organizations concerned with mass communications," were quickly adopted by the trustees. To carry them out, the board recruited Paul G. Hoffman and installed him as president of the newly reconstituted foundation. Hoffman had risen over the years from a Studebaker salesman to chairman of the Studebaker-Packard Corporation. In 1948, he was tapped to head the Marshall Plan for the rebuilding of a war-torn Europe, where he won a worldwide reputation for leadership.
One of Hoffman's first acts as president of the giant Ford Foun-
dation was to subdivide it into three subsidiary funds, each with its own board and objective. One, the Fund for the Advancement of Education, was to address the "problems and opportunities in formal education from elementary grades through college level." Another, the Fund for Adult Education, was to be concerned with "that part of the educational process which begins when formal schooling is ended" or what came to be termed "liberal adult education." The Fund for the Advancement of Education took several years to discover in television a potential for formal instruction. Not so with the Fund for Adult Education. It saw immediate advantage in the new medium for extended adult education. Before it could seize the advantage, however, there was the battle to secure for education some of the valuable television channels that were rapidly being claimed by commerce.
If the battle to reserve educational channels can be likened to a military engagement, its strategic planner, if not its commanding general, was C. Scott Fletcher, the man Paul Hoffman chose in 1951 to head the newly formed Fund for Adult Education. We shall have reason to meet him many times in the course of this narrative, for, as one historian has noted, "if such things could be measured, [Scotty Fletcher] has probably done more than any other person to bring public broadcasting into being and set its course." Like Hoffman, with whom he was associated both at the Studebaker Corporation and in the administration of the Marshall Plan, Fletcher began his career as an automobile salesman. He left his native Australia to become Studebaker's international sales manager in the United States and then, during World War II, left the automobile business to direct the Committee for Economic Development. His appointment after the war to the presidency of Encyclopaedia Britannica Films began a lifelong interest in the media's potential for liberal adult education. A peppery, voluble man with energy to spare, Fletcher could sell ideas with the same persuasive force that he once used to sell Studebakers. His move to the Fund for Adult Education was a fitting career climax for a man descended from three generations of teachers.
Fletcher and the Ford Foundation first explored the educa-
tional potential of television shortly after Hoffman set up the Foundation's first headquarters in his hometown of Pasadena, California, which wags were quick to dub "Itching Palms." The Fund's first television venture was Omnibus , a weekly cultural magazine hosted by Alistair Cooke and produced by the Foundation's Radio-Television Workshop. The Ford Foundation intended to demonstrate with Omnibus that "high quality programming could be made sufficiently attractive to compete for audience attention against other commercial television programming." But even with occasional sponsorship, the distinguished show failed to make the Foundation's case. After gracing the network schedules for five years, first at CBS and later at ABC, Omnibus was driven from the air and into the broadcast archives by commercial competition. Ford concluded that television's power to "contribute to the development of mature, wise and responsible citizens" was not to be found among the commercial broadcasters.
Fletcher, never an Omnibus booster, had long since decided that the answer to quality programming lay not with the commercial networks but with educational television. Even before he assumed office, his interest had been drawn to the incipient movement by the cadre of educational radio broadcasters organized under the banner of the NAEB. Up to that point, this small group had led the fight largely unaided. They had enlisted the superior strength of the major educational organizations under a temporary Joint Committee (later Council) on Educational Television. They had also retained Telford Taylor, former General Counsel of the FCC and a prosecutor at the War Crimes Trial, as JCET's legal counsel. Taylor, in the course of helping the Joint Committee on Educational Television to prepare for the FCC's channel allocation hearings, which took place in 1950–51, suggested a "monitoring study," a record of a week's viewing of New York's seven television channels. By showing the sheer vacuity of television's content and its depiction of violence, the monitoring study moved the FCC to reconsider its previous rejection of the educators' request for channel reservations. But the JCET, challenged now to renew its efforts to make the educators' case for channels, had, by 1951, exhausted its funds. The NAEB turned to Fletcher for help.
Fletcher responded with a grant, the Fund's first, establishing the JCET as a permanent organization.
Even with the resources of the Fund behind it, the JCET's case might have foundered had it not been for the resolute will of a woman whose determination to see channels reserved for education earned her the honorary title "the mother protector of educational television." Frieda Barkin Hennock was born in Poland and came to this country as a child. After earning a law degree from Brooklyn Law School, she became a successful criminal lawyer in New York City. When President Truman appointed her to the FCC in 1948, she became the first woman ever to serve on what was then a seven-member body. During the critical four years of the FCC "freeze" from 1948 to 1952, when educators were pounding on the FCC doors for admission to the television medium, Hennock was the only commissioner willing to lend a receptive ear to their arguments. She not only listened, she acted, ultimately arming the educators with the legal and moral platform on which to base their successful fight for the channel reservations. Friends described her as an effective champion of almost fanatical zeal, with an aggressive single-mindedness that could terrify even those whose cause she championed. I have no reason to question the description. In our only face-to-face meeting—it was 1953 and I was struggling to overcome what seemed insurmountable barriers to the activation of the channel reserved for our area—Hennock would hear nothing of discouragement. Wagging her finger in front of my nose, she virtually ordered me to get the station on the air. I had no immediate solutions to our problems, but I knew that it would be unthinkable to let her down.
When, in the summer of 1949, the FCC proposed a new table of channel allocations and made no provision for educational television, Hennock was the Commission's lone dissenter. Unwilling to give in to her six male colleagues, she boldly proposed that the FCC reserve no less than 25 percent of its allocations. But it would be another year before the tide would begin to turn. In March 1951, the Commission issued its Third Notice of Proposed Rule Making, in which there was a provision for tentatively reserving 209
channels for education, approximately 11 percent of the total allocations. Hennock had won over—or worn down—her fellow commissioners.
The climax of the battle for educational reservations came in April 1952. With the issuance of the FCC's Sixth Report and Order, the educational reservations became official, and 242 channels were set aside for noncommercial educational use. Eighty of the reserved channels were in the standard VHF band. The remaining 162 were in the new and largely unusable UHF band. The FCC's historical bias toward private ownership of the airwaves was clearly evident in the Commission's criteria for deciding which communities got educational channels. Those cities with three or more commercial channels, which thus assured an outlet for each of the three major networks, were allocated an additional channel for education. But those cities with fewer than three commercial channels received a reserved channel only if they were deemed to be "educational centers." Worse, many of the country's major cities, including New York, Los Angeles, Philadelphia, Washington, and Detroit, where the new medium needed a presence if it was to send down roots and survive, were assigned the less valuable UHF channels. The more valuable VHF channels allocated to those cities had already been placed in the hands of private operators. Public television was forced to enter the race with a three-legged horse.
The inferior channel assignments were not the new medium's only impairment. Equally handicapping was the absence of a clearly defined mission, a particular niche into which public television could be fitted among the complex of existing privately owned, profit-driven television stations. The Sixth Report and Order gave no hint of a vision that might endow the public medium with legitimacy and relevance. Nowhere was mention made of a national public-television system such as that which existed in every other country with public-service broadcasting. Nor was any attempt made to fit the new medium into the broader context of the nation's mass-communication systems. "The proposed stations," stated the order, "will be used primarily to serve the educational needs of the community; for the advancement of edu-
cational programs; and to furnish a nonprofit and noncommercial television broadcast service." The Sixth Report and Order might have articulated the vision of a service conceived to fill the obvious voids of the dominant market-driven media; instead it was hardly more than a grudging concession to the pressures of the educational lobby.
It does no discredit to those who fought for and won the channel reservations to note that in their view access to the new medium for "educational" purposes seemed sufficient at the time. Television was clearly an audiovisual tool, untested but with potential. At the same time, it is good to note that the educational establishment was not of one mind on the new medium, nor did it speak with one voice. Within its ranks, heated arguments were waged over the place and importance of the upstart medium in the process of teaching and learning. For every advocate of classroom television, there was an opponent. The enthusiasts, in the thrall of the new technology, envisioned an opportunity to propagate the best in teaching by using television to share the best teachers. Those opposed to television saw the tube as an unwanted intrusion into the sanctity of the classroom and a threat to cherished conventions. Moreover, they feared that teaching-by-television would lead to the need for fewer teachers. Opponents of educational television were shaken into moderating their opposition five years later, however, when the Soviets lofted a 184-pound ball named Sputnik into space. With the sudden realization that our curricula were dangerously deficient in science and math and that years would be required to train teachers, the new technology of television seemed a fortuitous blessing. The Sputnik panic spurred countless experiments in the uses of television for teaching. And yet today, after forty years of experience, the public-television fraternity remains ambivalent about the "educational" role assigned to it by the Sixth Report . Some of its leaders, anticipating a loss of the medium's informational and cultural role as cable increasingly moves into the territory, are lobbying for a return to public television's "educational roots."
Viewed as an act of creation, the FCC order that established a noncommercial system was lacking in any conviction that viewers
needed or deserved more choice than the three dominant networks then offered. The charge gains credence from the government's failure to provide for, or even make a case for, a federal funding mechanism of the sort enjoyed by public-service broadcasting systems in every other industrial democracy. By leaving the system to fend for itself, the government first created and then abandoned what it had created; fifteen more years would pass before public television received its first dollar of support from the Congress. By limiting itself to the granting of channels for educational use, the government was spared from having to consider any proposal for the formation of a public-television system along the lines of BBC, which, of course, could challenge the dominance of privately held television.
The Commission made no effort to limit the uses of the reserved channels other than to deny them advertising revenue as a source of income—and even that was modified years later by the Reagan Administration. "The public interest," reads the Sixth Report , "will clearly be served if these stations are used to contribute significantly to the educational process of the nation." But then, paradoxically, it granted public broadcasters carte blanche to "transmit educational, cultural and entertainment programs," a broad, permissive, and remarkably inclusive set of rules that were not at all helpful in defining a clear and particular purpose for the public medium. The primary limitation on the channels reserved for education was the FCC's definition of those eligible to use them: "nonprofit educational organizations," some of which the report described in more specific detail.
Ironically, Commissioner Hennock, the person most responsible for translating the educators' concerns into concrete action, saw the mission of the noncommercial channels in far broader terms than they did. She understood and accepted the educators' need for access to the new medium. But she viewed the channels as more than a tool for teaching. Noncommercial television, she argued, was also a tool for improving and upgrading the quality of all television, "a beneficial complement to commercial broadcasting." With its lack of dependence on mass audiences, it could and should "provide a greater diversity in television program-
ming." Brushing aside the arguments of those who wanted the reserved channels to be noncompetitive as well as nonprofit, she held the educational reservations to be "a means toward the goal of increasing competition and public responsibility in broadcasting." In this respect, she held views that were more advanced than those of the educators.
Competition, of course, was the last thing commercial broadcasting wanted from nonprofit television. Nor did they expect to have it. Most private broadcasters opposed the educational reservations, hoping to acquire the more valuable channels for their own use. Their argument to the Commission that education would be better served if the task were left to professional broadcasters had a familiar ring. It had been used in the 1930s by private radio owners to prevent the allocation of special frequencies for education. The resulting compromise had a predictable outcome: The promises made to educators were quickly forgotten just as soon as the time slots reserved for education on the privately owned radio stations became commercially desirable. Hennock's vision of a noncommercial system that would "supply a beneficial complement to commercial telecasting" had a competitive ring that the commercial broadcasters were not eager to accept. "Educational" television posed no such threat. Nor were those of us who envisioned a broader mission surprised when Broadcasting , the mouthpiece of private broadcasting, launched an editorial campaign against permitting the reserved channels to air "popular" shows; since educators didn't have to compete in the open market for their channels, the argument ran, they shouldn't be allowed to compete with those who did. Some commercial operators continued to hold to this view long after public broadcasting became a reality, jealously guarding their programming precincts in the hope of keeping their noncommercial cohorts confined to purely educational efforts. In Georgia, the state's association of private broadcasters filed a complaint with the FCC after the University of Georgia's public station aired The Ox Bow Incident . Feature films, the association argued, are not "educational"—apparently, not even when made from minor American literary classics.
Fortunately, the FCC did not agree. It was not, however, an isolated incident.
Responsibility for failing to articulate a clearer sense of mission for the new medium can easily be laid at the feet of the federal bureaucracy. Government alone has the power and the obligation to fit together the constituent pieces of the communications system, assigning to each element its proper place in an overall design that best serves the needs of the nation. Pragmatists would be quick to point out, however, that political policy is the product of compromise, an accommodation that tends to grind down the sharp edges of definition. In this case, the process produced an ambiguity that was never intended by the fervent advocates of public television.
Anne W. Branscomb, however, believes ambiguity was precisely what the government intended. In a provocative essay on public television's identity crisis, the New York attorney and communications consultant speculates that the FCC may have made a conscious effort to avoid being explicit "for fear of opening the Pandora's box of programming control." Any hint of program control, she suggests, is "fraught with First Amendment connotations." Her argument points to the curiously cramped interpretation of the Constitutional guarantees of free speech that the FCC was presumably willing to accept. Unless the government had clearly intended to exercise program control by dictating what could and could not be said, the creation of one more outlet for the robust expression of ideas should have been seen as an enhancement rather than as a threat to free speech. By defining the medium's purpose and giving it a proper and useful role in the complex of existing media, the government would not have curbed its freedom to express whatever truths and heresies it might he moved to utter.
Curiously missing at the moment of public television's creation, particularly in light of the FCC'S failure to provide it, is a clear and precise articulation of its aims and purposes by the system's own leadership. Nor has it come in the years since. By contrast, the first director-general of the BBC articulated the mission of Britain's public radio, and by historical extension its television, which
public-service TV has honored to good effect for more than half a century. The absence in this country of a similar understanding of public television's purpose offers a clue to the workings of the American system. That it grew from a radically different concept than that which produced the BBC is best illustrated, perhaps, by the absence in the American system of anything approaching the authoritarian role of the BBC'S director-general.
Much of the difference between the two systems can be attributed to Scotty Fletcher's role in organizing the American system. Even before he rallied educators to storm the ramparts of the FCC and win the educational reservations, the president of the Fund for Adult Education had a vision that imprinted itself on the public system in the years following the Sixth Report and Order . Casting aside the kinds of centralized public systems already established throughout Western Europe, Fletcher saw "a system of independent, interrelated stations . . . [in which each station would be locally controlled and a source of programming—both to serve the needs of each community and draw upon its resources, and to guard against the abuses and limitations of centralization."
It may not be unreasonable to speculate that the new medium's fear of centralized control had its roots in the legacy of the nations founders. When they fled the tyranny of centralized authority in seventeenth-century Europe and set up a new nation on these shores, the founders took particular care to place control of the most sensitive institutions of government—schools, police, and justice courts—in local hands. Undoubtedly, it was that legacy that led the federal government to license broadcast stations to local communities. Public television's rejection of a centralized system, on the other hand, might simply have been an acknowledgment of Congress's known opposition to a publicly subsidized national network controlled from a single base of operations. Or perhaps it was a desire on the part of its founders to avoid what they perceived as the abuses of centralized control by the three commercial networks.
How the design of a highly decentralized system of independent, autonomous stations influenced the system's search for a mission can now be clearly divined. In the absence of a centralized
authority and a national spokesperson acting as the counterpart to the BBC'S director-general, every local station was free to decide its own aims and purpose—within, of course, the FCC'S loose framework of "educational" television. Not surprisingly, the missions of individual stations were strongly marked by such local factors as the nature and needs of the licensee institution, the primary source of the station's financial support, or, in the case of the free-standing community stations, by the need to attract viewers and viewer support.
There was an even more important corollary to the concept of a decentralized system of independent, autonomous local stations. Responsibility for activating the reservations—of converting an idea into an operating television station—was handed over lock, stock, and transmitter to the communities fortunate enough to have a reserved channel. The Sixth Report and Order gave no help; it reserved the channels and defined eligible licensees but provided no funds for the construction or operation of the stations. Nor were funds provided by the Congress. Whatever their resources, communities were pushed to find an institution willing to be the responsible licensee and to provide the needed dollars to construct, equip, and operate a television station. It was the democratic way: inefficient but involving, it called upon the nation's best traditions of volunteerism and community organization.
Victory was claimed in the battle for the reserved channels with the issuance of the FCC's Sixth Report and Order in April 1952. But the real war for educational television still lay ahead. The forces that had fought successfully for the reservations now faced the difficult task of turning an idea into reality, of converting reserved channels into operating television stations. It would take all the nursing, coaxing, and pushing that public-television advocates could bring to bear on local communities. And given the complexities of mobilizing the nation community by community, it would also take time. But time, as it turned out, was of the essence. The fight was on. Fletcher had a name for it: "the urgency-haunted struggle."