It was to be a different kind of presidential election campaign. Not the 1988 Bush-Dukakis affair with its scruffy baggage of eight-second sound bites sloganizing complex issues, photo-ops conveying their own brand of distorted imagery, candidate debates that weren't debates at all, and those cleverly crafted commercials that hid far more than they revealed.
Not this time. The presidential campaign of 1992 would be different. And the difference would be PBS, public television's national programming arm. By its offer of a $5 million grant, the John and Mary Markle Foundation proposed to put PBS in a position to use the politician's most influential medium in the service of an informed electorate. The Voters' Channel—that's what Markle called their plan—included free airtime for national candidates, special shows to air voters' concerns and opinions, expert analysis and criticism to "decode" the campaign's political messages, and informative programs to look at the national problems that the candidates chose to ignore and at the probable options to solve them. Walter Cronkite, the reigning dean of news anchors, hailed The Voters' Channel as "an absolutely vital service to educate the public in the issues and personalities involved in the presidential election process."
But then something happened on the way to the polls. PBS suddenly and inexplicably dropped consideration of The Voters' Channel, plumping instead for a more modest but relatively risk-free version of its own. Seeing no show of will or commitment on the part of the PBS brass, Markle withdrew its $5 million offer, PBS
was left to cover the election year on a severely limited scale with its own funds, and Markle's proffered $5 million, or a substantial part of it, went to the more amenable CNN to permit the commercial cable network to beef up its own planned coverage of the campaign. The voters of this country were the losers; they deserved better.
Why and how PBS turned aside The Voters' Channel and the opportunity to render a unique service—and thus to further define the singular role of public television in a confusing jumble of competing images—is the story of a medium whose place in American television broadcasting has been purposely marginalized by public policy and whose potential has been limited by its own cramped vision. For more than four decades, the public broadcasting system of this country has remained on the periphery of the playing field, its mission clouded in a vaguely defined concept of "education," its structure balkanized into more than a hundred competing flefdoms, its financial needs grossly undermet, and its Ioosely joined elements neither having nor wanting strong national leadership. Unlike its counterparts in other industrial democracies, America's public system has failed in forty years to become an important part of the lives of most viewers. Its rejection of Markle's plan for The Voters' Channel underscores both the strengths and weaknesses of a system whose bright promise has thus far exceeded its less-than-bright performance.
To understand why PBS turned down The Voters' Channel, it is necessary to know that the idea for the project was born outside the blankets, so to speak—not in the precincts of the public system itself but in the offices of the Markle Foundation and its president, Lloyd D. Morrisett. The foundation's study of the 1988 presidential election had found "widespread disquiet" over the campaign. According to the study, contestants evaded issues and media handlers manipulated a compliant press, resulting in the public being "cheated." Those findings prompted Markle to work on plans to harness television's acknowledged potential for voter education for the 1992 campaign. Its logical partner was PBS. The public network had a pioneering spirit, was not bound by commercial
considerations of audience size, and had the airtime to do what the others would not.
Morrisett first approached PBS in late 1989. The time was not propitious; the public network had just undergone one of its periodic reorganizations, discarding a clumsy and ineffective process of selecting programs for the national schedule by systemwide balloting. In its place, a newly installed program executive, Jennifer Lawson, was given the authority to make those selections herself. Lawson and her PBS colleagues expressed enthusiasm for the Markle proposal. With characteristic caution, however, PBS stopped short of committing itself to the project and declined to take part in funding the planning phase. Moving ahead on its own but keeping PBS fully informed, Markle put the planning phase in the hands of an independent producer, the Alvin H. Perlmutter Company. Perlmutter's thirty-year record of productions for public television has included The Great American Dream Machine, Adam Smith's Money World , and, with Bill Moyers, The Public Mind and Joseph Campbell and the Power of Myth .
Perlmutter completed his feasibility study in time for the annual meeting of the PBS stations in June 1990. The 132-page document was remarkable not only for the thoroughness of its research—Perlmutter had consulted more than 120 political leaders, journalists, academicians, and public broadcasters—but also for his success in harmonizing their sometimes disparate recommendations. The estimated price tag was a whopping $12 to $15 million (later pared to $12.7 million): $5 million from Markle, $3 million from PBS, and the balance to be raised from corporations and foundations. Months were wasted as PBS and its stations debated the fine points of the study. Would the offer of free airtime for national candidates put stations under pressure to extend free time to local candidates? (Most opposed the idea.) Was the Markle study really the foundation's bid to impose its will on the public network? Would Perlmutter's involvement mean the loss of editorial independence? The station concerns were summed up by the head of their lobbying group. "We're not," he said, "the kind of system where anybody can just buy their way in because they have money." (He was unaware of the irony in his outburst.
Twenty-five years earlier, another "outside" group, the Children's Television Workshop, had approached a very young PBS with money and an idea called Sesame Street . What's more, the man who had raised the "outside" money for the children's series was the selfsame Lloyd Morrisett who was now knocking on the PBS door a second time.)
By late June of 1991, time was running out and PBS was still unwilling to make the commitment Morrisett needed before he could approach prospective donors for the additional $3 million needed to fund the project. Lawson, doubtful that the additional $3 million could be raised, proposed a scaled-down version of The Voters' Channel to fit the $8 million already in hand. But by then Morrisett's patience was exhausted; the foot-dragging, the delaying tactics, and PBS's unwillingness to commit itself to the project were too much for even his strong will. He withdrew Markle's offer of the $5 million. "It's very unclear," he noted ruefully, "how they make decisions at PBS." If his frustration and anger were contained, others were less restrained. "Disgraceful," said Ward Chamberlin, president of WETA/Washington and a former vice president of PBS. "If public television doesn't do that, then what the hell good is it?"
Behind the failure of PBS to accept a once-in-a-decade opportunity to define a distinct role for public television lies the tale of an institution of enormous promise mired in a self-created bureaucracy. Its human and economic resources are thinly spread over a highly fragmented system, its national leadership is divided and largely impotent, its creative energies are sapped by the inevitable competition and infighting, and its sense of purpose is clouded by parochialism and suspicion. If there is an upside to this bleak portrait, and there is, it is the marvel of those rare moments when the public system breaks free of its own bureaucracy and triumphs. We are treated in those moments to a glimpse of what it might be.
Nothing so frustrates public television's further development—not even its trumpeted paucity of funds—than its failure to formulate a clear and precise mission, a purpose that, among other things, sets it apart from the educational and cultural aims of the
rising flood of "niche" cable channels. One hears an echo of this failing in Chamberlin's cry of "then what the hell good is it?" Unless it plays upon its unique strengths, public television may be compelled to relinquish its claim upon the federal treasury. The system's current practice pays tribute to the sacred concept of "localism." Each outlet fashions its mission to the needs and interests of its own community—within, of course, the broad guidelines of its FCC license. But the system does this at a cost. The concept of public-service television, and thus the justification for it, is blurred in a babel of diverse aims. Worse, when national programming, and particularly programs involving risk, must run the gauntlet of more than three hundred local outlets, each with its own self-defined purpose, only the bland will succeed. The Voters' Channel was one of the most recent victims of the system's fragmented structure.
Strong leadership can articulate a clear, precise purpose; a committee produces rhetorical mush. No better example of the former can be found than in the quality, strength, and vision of leadership given the BBC in its early days by its first director-general. An autocratic moralist with a clear notion of public broadcasting's role, Lord Reith defined a mission for that widely respected institution that remains in force more than a half-century later. The U.S. system, by contrast, has been hobbled from the outset by a federal policy, born at the dawn of radio, that entrusted the public interest to the conscience of commercial broadcasters and relegated public broadcasting to the role of a secondary and largely unessential "alternative" to the dominant medium. Strong national leadership might have articulated a mission for the medium when, in 1967, it was redefined as "public" television. But Congress effectively neutered that prospect by placing "leadership" in a hydra-headed structure of competing authorities: the Corporation for Public Broadcasting to hold the money, the Public Broadcasting Service to gather and deliver the programming, and the American Public Television Stations to lobby Congress and protect the interests of the stations. If Congress reflected a benign mistrust and mild indifference toward public television by preventing the emergence of strong national leadership, it found al-
lies among the "powerful baronies in the balkanized kingdom of 341 public broadcasting stations." The system's local stations, though for different reasons, also oppose the emergence of strong national leadership. Their motives are akin to the feudal barons of earlier times who made certain that a weak and compliant king sat on the throne of England.
The seeds of the balkanized approach, sown in public television's infancy, emerged from a widespread zeal to avoid the perceived pitfalls of the three commercial networks. These monoliths were felt to be dominated by New York and Hollywood. But the noncommercial medium, like the reformed smoker turned self-righteous bore, may have moved too far in the opposite direction. To avoid a monolith, it created a bureaucratic monster—inefficient, uneconomic, and unwieldy—and pronounced it good because, above all else, it was demonstrably "democratic." But however useful democracy is for accommodating individual differences into the interests of the polity as a whole, it is decidedly inappropriate to a creative or journalistic enterprise—as any autocratic editor will be pleased to confirm. Public television's purpose is not to resolve differences but to air them, helping us to recognize, understand, and accept them. Their resolution is better left to democracy's political processes.
If public television is in crisis, and it is, the state is not an unfamiliar one. The medium has lived in crisis, uncertain of its future, ever since its awkward birth in 1952 as educational television. Then, as now, it was an aberration, an add-on to mainstream, or "real," television destined to dwell in the margins of public consciousness, and like culture generally, a matter of peripheral concern to the nation and its leaders. America's public television suffered the added handicap of arriving late on the scene and screen. In Europe and Canada, public television preceded the introduction of private commercial television, in most cases by many years, and—in what might be called the "who comes first defines the media" hypothesis—it conditioned viewer expectations by saying, in effect, "this is what television is." But in our own country, public television followed on the heels of an established system of private, profit-driven television that, for its own purposes, defined
television as entertainment. Its fast-paced formats demanded less than full engagement of the viewer's mind or emotions, asking only that the eyeballs be present for the advertisers' importunities. Noncommercial educational television arrived on the scene faced not only with viewer expectations conditioned by the needs of commerce but also with an official predisposition toward a private, commercial, libertarian model of broadcasting and telecommunications that had stood for seventy years. That the public model has managed against such odds to insinuate itself into more than 40 million television homes in all fifty states, albeit irregularly, is a tribute to its perseverance if not to its quality. But as the commercial models breed and multiply, public television's efforts to serve the social and political needs of the nation are increasingly in danger of being swamped by a giant wave whose glitzy, down-scale diversions are serving the needs of the advertiser first and the needs of society only incidentally if at all.
The crisis in public broadcasting is not unique to the United States, where its future has always been in doubt. The phenomenon is worldwide. A tide of laissez-faire, free-market ideology, accompanied by a fervent faith in the efficacy of the marketplace, has brought American-style private television to countries that heretofore thought broadcasting too important to be left in private hands. The seductive promise of "more channels to choose from" has governments reaching out to grasp entrepreneurial hands, not always for the stated purpose of widening viewers' choices but for the beguiling ring of money; both liberals and conservatives have touted private television as a stimulus to their countries' economies. Some countries, reluctant at first to admit private broadcasters for fear of contaminating the culture, have yielded to the inevitable as satellites overhead and out of their control have brought the unwanted images into the homes of their citizens. If private television is inevitable, they have reasoned, it is better that it be ours.
France's once-proud public system of three national networks has been undermined by the sale of the most popular of the three to private interests, leaving the remaining two in a much weaker position. And in Britain, the former Tory prime minister Margaret
Thatcher, in thrall to privatization, took aim at the BBC with a threat to open it to advertising, but managed instead to seriously wound its competitor, the country's uniquely public-service-minded system of private television. Hoping to add sterling to the national treasury, the government auctioned off the regional franchises to the highest bidder, effectively wiping out one public-service-minded broadcaster, Thames Television, and leaving most of the others so burdened with debt that their only hope of recovery lies in downscaling programming quality to boost audience size. Lost in the shuffle is any prospect that private television will be in a financial position to repeat such earlier distinguished but expensive programming triumphs as Granada TV's Brideshead Revisited and Jewel in the Crown . The BBC, meanwhile, is undergoing a radical reorganization at the hands of a new director-general who was recruited from commercial television and whose charge to make the broadcaster more businesslike has raised fears that its public-service tradition may be sacrificed to efficiency. There are perils ahead. With its Parliamentary charter up for renewal every ten years or so, one day the BBC may be hard pressed to justify continued support from a universal license fee levied upon viewers who, in increasing numbers, are switching to the private, advertiser-supported channels.
The changing situation impales the BBC and the rest of Europe's public broadcasters on the horns of a dilemma. Although some public systems are permitted limited income from advertising, all are dependent on a license fee. But as their share of audience declines, their claim to a universal license fee weakens. They know they can increase their share by copying the popular programming of their commercial competition. But they also know that it would cost them their only justification for a license fee: the uniqueness of their programming service.
In the feeding frenzy for profit that followed the breakup of national public-service monopolies and the release of channels to private entrepreneurs, the concept of public interest, once the governing ethic of broadcasting, has been largely abandoned. Particularly in countries where state-owned monopolies offered little else but a stultifying diet of good-for-you television, the breakup
offers short-term benefits of broadened choice. But those of us who have who have had private, profit-driven television for a half-century know well the long-term consequences even as we try to deny them: the trivialization and commodification of life, increased incidence of violence, falling SAT scores, sensationalization of the news, and a steady erosion of political discourse.
At no time since the FCC's 1952 act setting aside television channels for "educational" use has the need been greater for a healthy and viable system of public television, a system not market driven, not drawing its sustenance from the same pockets as private television, not constrained to maximize audience size yet not satisfied to serve tiny audiences of ethnic or elitist minorities. Public television properly belongs in the media mainstream, filling a void of programming that has all but faded from the screens of the commercial medium—quality comedy, variety, light drama, even quiz shows—all without sacrifice to its established menu of "serious" investigative documentaries, innovative drama, music and dance, and shows of self-improvement. Audiences need to know that there is more to television than recycled waste and weightless trivia. They need to experience television that is no less entertaining for having substance and meaning, not just the commendable likes of American Playhouse, Nova , and Great Performances , but comedy and light entertainment of the sort that gives insight into why we behave as we do, that helps to explain the human condition. Among the industrialized democracies, ours is the only public system that is hobbled by a pinched definition of its programming role. The Reithian formula for the BBC—"inform, educate, and entertain"—calls for high-quality programming in a wide variety of forms, popular entertainment as well as the kind of high-minded fare that fills the PBS prime-time schedule. Public television should be the crucible in which American creativity is generated and nurtured, in which the full range of new and innovative forms of television is explored in relative isolation from the artistic constraints of the commercial medium. The public medium can, in the process, set higher standards for all of television to the ultimate benefit of the viewer. Substance and quality—even in popular television—offer a path to a heightened appreciation for
the delights of learning and the rewards of knowing. And that, say some, is what art is all about.
Knowing, however, is not enough. The commercial media, with their cacophony of twenty-four-hour headline news, help us to know. But the flood of unassimilated and indigestible information is a prescription for thought paralysis, for confusion and indifference. What we cannot assimilate we shut out in self-protection, with consequences that could be disastrous for a self-governing society. Public television must help us to understand. It must, as E. B. White has said, "clarify the social dilemma and the political pickle"—find meaning in events of which we are aware but do not comprehend, help us toward the understanding that gives impetus and meaning to our political actions.
More than forty years ago, when television itself was still in its infancy, I undertook to bring one of the earliest educational television stations into being and onto the air. We had no model to guide us; the FCC had set aside the educational reservations the previous year, but none had yet been activated. And because Congress had made no provision for their support, we lacked money, equipment, staff, and studios. I came to the medium with no experience in television, not knowing a jump cut from a slow fade. I didn't even own a television set. But I came armed with convictions, some born of several years in public-service radio. Most, however, were a reflection of my experiences in growing up during the Great Depression.
Though I had an adolescent's natural curiosity for learning, my interest in reading was not nurtured within my own family; I have no memory of either parent's buying, borrowing, or reading a book other than the Bible. As for serious music, their interest began and ended with Jeannette McDonald and Nelson Eddy and a heavy-handed rendition of Friml's "Indian Love Call." Recalling those formative years, I am struck by the realization that the sparks igniting a love of books and music came not from my parents, caring as they were, but from elsewhere: teachers, family friends, and the local public library. But the most unusual of these influences was radio, "old-fashioned" radio. By the mid-thirties, com-
mercial radio and the networks, not yet having abandoned the public trust for larger profits, still retained some of the feel of public-service broadcasting. (The condition would unfortunately lull Congress, the regulatory agencies, and even educators into a false belief that private broadcasters could, with minimal regulation and a sense of public trust, serve the public-interest agenda.) As an adolescent, eager to connect with a confusing and complex world, I discovered in my little bedside Philco the means of reaching beyond my limited environment. My early fondness for books was nurtured by our local NBC-owned outlet, which devoted a Sunday evening hour—during prime time, no less—to an informal book ramble with the distinguished critic of the San Francisco Chronicle . Joseph Henry Jackson's enthusiasms were infectious; I could hardly contain my eagerness to explore the library the following day. And so it was with music. In the days before long-playing records and CDs—a time, in fact, when radio scorned recorded music—Bach, Mozart, and Puccini came into my life through the broadcast of live concerts such as the Bell Telephone Hour , the Voice of Firestone , and the Standard Symphony Hour . And I haven't forgotten that America's leading commercial network once had its own symphony orchestra, one of the country's best, with the great Toscanini and regular weekly concerts. Radio, without pictures, but with words and music that stirred the imagination and respected the intellect, opened a door onto a wider and richer world for me as it must have for millions of others.
The point to be remembered is this: I did not search out these shows, radio schedule in hand, with any thought of broadening my interests or "improving" my mind. I happened upon them accidentally, the way one comes upon an exciting new book while browsing the shelves of a public library. What is most important is the fact that they were there—programs waiting to be discovered at the touch of a dial, easily available for making a difference in the lives of others as they had made in mine. Which raises the obvious question: should not public television be a presence in every home in America, universally available to serve similar ends for another generation seeking the same answers? Justification for the reserved channels should not depend solely on meeting the
needs of those whose educated tastes are unmet by other television. The public channel should simply be there, for everyone, a presence waiting to be stumbled on by those who will one day discover in its programs a richer world beyond the cramped walls of their own narrow experience. The radio shows that affected my life happened in those years when the phrase "public interest" was more practiced than understood, years when the economic forces of the marketplace still left breathing room for the play of social forces. Today, the notion of the public interest has disappeared from broadcasting, driven out by the false prophets of deregulation and the competitive forces of the marketplace. We have nothing to replace it, only a weak and inadequately supported system of public broadcasting. It is difficult to understand how our nation can afford to have any less concern for television's role in the education of our young than we have for our schools and libraries. Or why the public media, including public radio, should be any less available to every home in America. Whoever tells our tales, warns media scholar George Gerbner, shapes our future. If today's mythmakers and troubadours are no more than Saturday-morning cartoons, music videos, and prime-time sitcoms, the brightness of that future is very much at risk.
This book grows from a concern for that future. More specifically, it argues for a place in that future for a system of publicly owned television, both effective and enlightened, whose mission is service, not sales, and whose purpose is central, not marginal, to the rest of the electronic medium. The argument must begin with an effort to understand the system that now exists. The task is not as simple as it might at first appear. I am not alone in meeting the puzzled looks of students and foreign visitors attempting to make sense of the system's convoluted structure—unique is the charitable word for it. The experience has taught me to approach the task historically, to begin at the beginning. Only by going back to its hobbled start at the hands of a grudging government and by tracing the forces that have pulled and hauled at it since can we understand what it is, why it is, and what it has the power to become.
I have ventured to tell that story, albeit in abbreviated form,
and with the omission of an important subchapter: public television's important role in supplying classrooms and organized viewing groups with programs of systematic instruction. For the purposes of my argument, it is essential to separate the mission of "instructional" television, for which effective alternatives may well be found in the newer, interactive technologies, from the broader mission of "public" television, for which no alternatives exist or are likely to emerge from an environment dominated by the pursuit of maximum profitability.
"The only good histories," Montaigne once observed, "are those written by the very men who were in command in the affairs, or who were participants in the conduct of them." I was a participant in some, though not all, of the affairs described herein, but I was rarely in command of them. Those who were may feel the story might better be told by someone with less emotional investment in the outcome. Others with whom I shared this adventure may be disappointed when they search the index for their names; if their part in this history has not been properly acknowledged, it is not because their role was minor but because their part was played out beyond the sight of this particular chronicler. Montaigne's observation notwithstanding, a participant in the fighting is not likely to see the war whole, but rather only the battles waged. Moreover, a participant may not be the best judge of their import, or the most accurate and objective eye to report them. In telling the story of public television from the perspective of my own experience, I am sensitive to the biases my personal involvement brings to the account: the partiality of my own convictions, the disappointment of my own defeats, and the vision of what might have been. I urge those of my former colleagues who saw it differently, or whose contribution to the building of the medium may have been underplayed or unwittingly ignored, to add their own account to the sparse written record of this important enterprise.
In the meantime, here is mine.