Let the Revolution Begin
Rightly or wrongly, public broadcasting in this country emits the tones of a culture in exile.
By the close of the 1980s, public television was once more mired in crisis. Without the visionary leadership to plot a future course and to articulate a unified rationale for the public medium, the system presented an image of disunity and uncertainty. It was like a feudal society whose energies were directed toward internal battles rather than outward in a concerted effort to resolve its role in a changing media environment. If the system's disparate elements shared anything, it was a feeling that fundamental change was needed. But there was little or no agreement on the direction the changes might take.
In the meantime, there were signs in Congress of a growing impatience with the system's inability or unwillingness to solve its own problems. Late in 1987, when the House scheduled hearings on a bill to reauthorize public television's future funding, it was immediately apparent that Congress was strongly disposed to take matters in its own hands and do for public television what it had so far failed to do for itself. Congress's concerns were evident in the tenor of the opening remarks of House subcommittee chairman Rep. Edward Markey, who likened public broadcasting to the bright child with outstanding potential "but who consistently brings home Bs and Cs." It has not, he added ruefully, "fully
realized the hopes and expectations of 20 years ago." For the first time in memory, the once-favored though not always pampered offspring of the legislative process found itself on the defensive. As witness after witness presented public television's case to the subcommittee, Chairman Markey seemed to take a perverse pleasure in asking each witness to comment on an offhand remark by Larry Grossman. The former PBS president had said that "when the history of American television is written, public TV will be largely a footnote, a sidebar, an afterthought." True? asked Markey. The witnesses, knowing that Congress was unlikely to squander tax dollars on historical footnotes, were unanimous in denying the validity of Grossman's prophesy.
In their own counsels the witnesses were more candid. An increasing number of PBS stations had begun to complain about the system's inability to act quickly and effectively in a fast-moving field. And given a cluttered media environment, they were increasingly unhappy about the absence in the PBS schedule of those qualities that would set the public medium apart from the programming on the other channels. For more than a decade, the principal source of PBS prime-time programming had been the Station Program Cooperative. But the SPC had fallen into a "static state," returning the same tired shows to the PBS schedule year after year and in the process closing out new and innovative ideas.
According to PBS president Bruce Christensen, 1988 was "probably the most uncertain time we've had in public broadcasting in the past 10 years." The chorus of self-reproach by the system's insiders was swelled by the voices of concerned outsiders—among them, Stephen White, principal author of the 1967 Carnegie Commission report on which that year's landmark Public Broadcasting Act had been fashioned. "For all its growth—and occasional brilliance—the system," White observed, "appears to be going nowhere in particular." Because, he added, "it appears heavily committed to the pattern established when it was first created as educational television," the system "lacks initiative and a creative spirit."
The concerns expressed by its critics raised the prickly question of whether the clumsy structure of public television could tolerate,
much less initiate, change. The need was clear. "There's a general sense," observed Bruce Christensen in the spring of 1988, "of 'Where are we going and why, and how do we get control of our destiny?'" But the difficulties of getting there were also clear, at least to Sharon Rockefeller. The former chair of the Corporation board wondered whether public television's leadership could "fix things that need to be fixed without worrying about turfs, and zones of power, and without undue hostility." It was a perennial question inside the divided system. Congress's next move, and the system's response to it, provided a partial answer.
Out of its 1988 hearings, the Senate's key subcommittee had drafted a plan that would drastically reduce the power of the Corporation by increasing the power of the individual stations. The plan would remove the bulk of the Corporation's programming funds, monies the Corporation had been using to partially fund major national series such as Sesame Street, MacNeil/Lehrer NewsHour , and American Playhouse , and leave it with a much smaller fund to finance innovative and minority programming. The larger part of the original fund would be divided among the stations but earmarked specifically for national programming. How PBS would aggregate these funds to support production of national programming was to be left to PBS and the stations.
As frequently happens when Congress attempts to solve public television's problems, the cure was worse than the disease and served only to launch new intramural brawls within the system's divided ranks. Not surprisingly, the Corporation, for whom the plan meant the loss of power and prestige, was adamantly opposed. So, too, were hundreds of independent producers, some of whom had benefited from the Corporation's policy of openly competitive grants. On the other hand, PBS and most of its stations, always ready to kick dirt on the Corporation's coffin, welcomed the Senate's plan. In the political wars of public television, any plan that took from the Corporation and gave to the stations seemed a good thing in itself. If anyone had concerns about the more relevant and immediate problem of the plan's probable effects upon national programming, few voiced them. Richard Moore, chief of the Minneapolis-St. Paul station and a veteran
program producer, was virtually alone in pointing to the self-destructive nature of a proposal that would remove the Corporation's program funds without an alternate plan in place for producing, or even sustaining, the system's first-rate national programming. It was another instance of mixing politics and programming and coming up with answers that served neither.
The Senate plan was dropped, but not before the system was brought to the realization that if control of its destiny was not to be relinquished to Congress, public broadcasters had better find their own solutions—and soon. PBS acted first. In the summer of 1988, the network sought the approval of its membership for a radical reordering of the way national programming decisions were made and funded. With public television's audience share eroding, PBS feared for the system's "potential obsolescence" unless steps were taken to strengthen and improve its program offerings. Remarkably, the plan that the network had asked its members to accept was a reversal of public television's long-term trend toward greater decentralization of authority over national programming. The trend had begun twenty years earlier, at the time PBS was created, and had become somewhat of an obsession in the years since. To break down the monolithic authority that NET had exercised over national programming, the stations had placed in their own hands the power to decide which national programs would be produced, leaving PBS with the far more limited role of deciding which of the programs produced would be scheduled for national distribution. The process had proven less than satisfactory, prompting the PBS board to come up with the new plan under which more decisions about national programming would be made by PBS, fewer by the stations.
New York and Boston, the two public stations that had for years dominated the production of national programs, were both opposed to granting PBS the additional powers. WNET/New York's president, William Baker, felt strongly that stations should retain their voice in shaping the schedule, rather than turning the decisions over to a single individual as commercial television does. (Before coming to WNET, Baker had been a commercial-television executive.) "The whole world, even the Soviet Union, is going
from a command economy to a democratic one," he argued, "and we're going the opposite way." In fact, considerations of the economy may have been much on Baker's mind. As the system's major producer of prime-time programming, WNET had then, as it does today, the power to initiate the production of shows of its own choosing and therefore had the most to lose if those decisions were made for it by someone else. The objections of WGBH/Boston's president, Henry Becton, were more oblique. He wanted the decisions of the PBS program executive ratified by a two-thirds vote of the stations as a kind of insurance against decisions made by an unpopular or incompetent program executive. Notwithstanding the objections of the two giants, the stations bought the PBS board's plan. In a debate conspicuously free of the usual rhetoric of local chauvinism, the stations agreed for the first time since PBS was founded to cede some of their power over national programming to a central authority. Their decision was a measure of shared concern over the future of the public medium as it moved into the uncertain nineties. But their collective action carried with it a sense of new beginnings, summed up by one exultant program executive in a shout of "Let the revolution begin!"
Revolutions, however, are not fought and won on words alone. Without the funds to carry out its proposed new programming mission, PBS was a paper tiger, unable to affect in any significant wax the character and content of its national program service. Congress had long since put control of the federal funds in the Corporation's hands and even then had mandated that the bulk of these dollars he divided up among the stations for the station's own discretionary use. PBS had access to very little money of its own, only what its stations were willing to provide in dues and assessments. Ironically, the plan to centralize program planning had been prompted by the Senate's threat to pass even more of the federal funds directly to the stations. Having dropped that plan after stirring the system into frantic action, the Senate and the House reached a compromise on the future funding of national programming. The legislators directed the Corporation to return by the end of January 1990 with a new plan for the management of its national program funds. If the Corporation failed
to reach agreement with the system's other elements, Congress would step in and impose its own solution.
"Summitry" has rarely been used in public television for the resolution of internal differences. But this time, under Congress's watchful and impatient eye, the chief executives of public television's three major national organizations—the Corporation, PBS, and the Association of America's Public Television Stations—huddled and emerged with a plan the Corporation could take to Congress in time for the January deadline. There were few if any surprises. To give PBS a modest start on its programming fund, the Corporation agreed to share half of its program dollars, about $23 million, with the network. But as it happened, these were the dollars the Corporation had been using to support, in part or in whole, several of the system's major prime-time series. Before PBS could invest the funds in new programs, it would first have to cut back on the budgets or cancel the production of such PBS mainstays as Frontline, Great Performances, American Playhouse , and MacNeil/Lehrer . But even if PBS chose to take this unlikely course, the amount of Corporation dollars freed for the production of new programming would be insufficient to permit PBS to make the desired changes in its schedule. Knowing that, the Corporation wisely made its contribution contingent upon the willingness of the local stations to turn over to PBS the funds they annually invested in the now defunct Station Program Cooperative. The transfer gave PBS almost four-fifths of the $100 million it needed to put its plan into effect.
The Corporation's plan was still being negotiated when PBS, anticipating its acceptance by Congress, announced in October 1989 that it had appointed Jennifer Lawson to the newly created post of Executive Vice President of National Programming and Promotion. Ironically, PBS had reached into the ranks of its crosstown rival to recruit the new executive. Lawson had only four months earlier been made director of the Corporation for Public Broadcasting's Program Fund. Although she brought limited programming experience to her new task, Lawson was a popular choice with the stations. They saw her as an intelligent, articulate, and politically astute leader, a programmer who would move with
due caution so as not to rock the boat. In the 1960s, at the height of the civil rights movement, Lawson had dropped out of the Tuskegee Institute to join the Student's Nonviolent Coordinating Committee. She later earned a graduate degree in film from Columbia University and taught film at Brooklyn College. Before administering program grants at the Corporation, Lawson had performed a similar function as director of the Film Fund, a small agency that helped to fund the work of independent producers.
The stations were quick to dub her the "program czarina," an unintended irony since her ability to act more decisively and swiftly than her predecessors had been carefully moderated by the cautions of a medium that has little tolerance for strong, independent action. Her programming decisions were subject to oversight by a special seventeen-member Program Policy Board that included representatives from the Corporation, the community of independent and minority producers, and the PBS stations. None of these participants could be called disinterested; most represented interests with a financial—and a sometimes conflicting—stake in the outcome. Fears that the "program czarina" might go too far too fast were met with PBS president Christensen's calm assurances that Lawson's decisions "will have to be ratified in some way by the stations." If Lawson's mock-royal title served no other purpose, however, it suggested the degree of authority the stations felt they were relinquishing into the "program czarina's" hands.
Lawson saw her appointment as a mandate to shake up public television's national schedule and to make its programming more accessible, more relevant, and more immediate. "I will have failed," she told the press, "if, three years from now . . . what you see is virtually the same." In a memorandum to her station constituency, she summed up her seven-point prescription for the newly named National Program Service. Primary emphasis was to be placed upon "the creation of a distinctive, culturally diverse variety service demonstrating leadership in children's programming and increasing the visibility of public television's public service and educational role." The prescription's key word was multiculturalism , the fashionable term of the 1990s, which Lawson
defined as "our commitment to cultural diversity "—the wish to make certain that all PBS programs "accurately reflect and serve our society in all its diversity." If the goal had ring of old coinage—cultural diversity has been a strong element in public television's programming for more than forty years—the emphasis was new: Lawson would have every show proposed for the National Program Service vetted for multicultural content.
Of Lawson's programming goals, the pledge to make PBS a leader in children's programming was the most accessible. Mister Rogers and Sesame Street had long been staples in the viewing menu of preschoolers, and with the demise of CBS-TV's Captain Kangaroo , commercial television's last daily show for children, PBS moved into a leadership position. Young viewers had few alternatives other than the commercial networks' Saturday morning cartoons. But the picture changed radically when cable and home video entered the media mix. The newer technologies offered many more tantalizing options to the young viewer. Although not always of the sort that parents cheer, the explosion of available choices—coupled, some would argue, with a change in the way audience size is measured—resulted in a steady decline in audiences for PBS's children's shows. Lawson reversed the trend by bunching the shows for preschoolers into an easily recognizable block and adding several newcomers to their number. One of the additions, Shining Time Station , is a BBC production from the early 1980s that PBS has modified for American audiences. The moderately paced show is a mix of fantasy and storytelling featuring an animated railroad train that talks and an eighteen-inch-high conductor played by stand-up comic George Carlin (in the original British version, Ringo Starr). Lawson's other additions to the children s schedule drew upon home videos that had already made their mark in the marketplace. These series came to television with carefully laid plans to profit from the merchandising of their licensed products. Shari Lewis's Lamb Chop's Play-Along first appeared on NBC television in the early 1960s; the parents of today's preschool viewers might have themselves been among its young viewers. Its 1991 reincarnation on PBS, however, has been somewhat overshadowed by another visitor from home video, a round, bouncy
purple dinosaur named Barney. The star of Barney & Friends was first introduced to the PBS audience in 1992 and, defying conventional wisdom, became an immediate hit with its target audience of preschoolers. PBS, unaware of the show's smashing success with two- and three-year-olds, cancelled Barney 's second season when the first was barely under way. Word of the cancellation triggered a storm of protest from station programmers. Barney was rescued and restored to the schedule. The show, described by Dr. Keith Mielke, a specialist in children's television, as "a slowed-down Mister Rogers for a stressed-out generation," has, if nothing else, proved to be a powerful ally for the local stations' fundraising departments.
Early in her tenure at the top PBS programming spot, Lawson startled the system's more conservative programmers by promising comedy, drama with continuing characters, and a game show. To the system's retrograde purists, Lawson's vision sounded frighteningly like a sell-out to the numbers game. While comedy and drama have remained largely beyond the system's reach, Lawson did introduce the game-show format with the debut in 1991 of Where in the World Is Carmen Sandiego ? The show, targeted for audiences in the six- to eleven-year-old range, brings geography to life by challenging its young participants to correctly answer questions of place and culture in a global game of pursuit.
None of Lawson's seven goals for the nineties was more likely to fall on the sword of its own ambiguity than the pledge to provide PBS with a "unique" and "distinctive" service, programming that will set public television "apart from other broadcasters or cable serVices." Public television's path to a "distinctive" service was fairly clear in the pre-cable years when "other broadcasters" meant the three commercial networks. But with today's easy access to a mind-numbing range of cable networks, many tailored for specific niche audiences, claims to uniqueness are cast in a different light. Lawson's efforts to carve out a distinctive role for the public medium have thus far been largely unavailing. Consensus programming, not risk taking, continues to dominate the network's choices.
The start was hopeful. Soon after Lawson took over, PBS intro-
duced an irreverent and idiosyncratic monthly magazine of the popular arts called Edge . The show was eclectic in content and Wildly unconventional in method, melding, said one satisfied critic, "the softness of CBS's Sunday Morning and the hip attitude of the Village Voice ." Lawson cancelled Edge after only six shows. "It had limited appeal to a general audience," she explained, not realizing the same judgment might easily be made of most PBS series. Her criticism that it failed to "realize its potential" (a virtual impossibility with only six quixotically scheduled monthly airings) told less about the real reasons behind its demise than the assertion that Edge had been "too inside," a code word for a New York brand of know-it-all sophistication that is reviled in much of the country and feared by most station programmers.
On the other hand, the 1994 miniseries Tales of the City , unlike Edge , not only appealed to a general audience, it set a new ratings record for a PBS drama. The dramatization of Armistead Maupin's stories of life in San Francisco in the 1970s, a coproduction of American Playhouse and Britain's Channel 4, met the Lawson criterion for uniqueness—the sort of program you would not expect to find on commercial television. But when PBS was asked to participate in the production of a sequel, More Tales of the City , the network declined in what John Carman of the San Francisco Chronicle called "either a case of rank stupidity or cringing cowardice." PBS's explanation—"We don't follow the commercial television model, where a ratings success immediately spawns sequels and spin-offs" —was greeted skeptically by critics who noted the presence of Prime Suspect 3 on the upcoming PBS schedule, the second sequel to a popular British crime series.
Politics, not a disdain for sequels, killed More Tales of the City . The on conventionality of the original, particularly its uncritical treatment of homosexuality and drugs, stirred legislators in Georgia and Oklahoma to threaten cutbacks in the funding for the state public systems. And members of Congress received a twelve-minute videotape from the Rev. Donald Wildmon's American Family Association highlighting the series' fleeting nudity, profanity, and pot smoking. PBS's experience with Tales of the City demonstrates the problems that lie in the path of the system's hopes
for a unique image for the public medium. Individuality and consensus are antithetical terms.
Lawson acquired a new boss in 1944 when Ervin S. Duggan succeeded Christensen as PBS president. A year later, after Duggan downgraded her position by interposing a level of programming authority above her, she resigned, but not before taking the heat for rejecting a series on human rights, hosted by Charlayne Hunter-Gault of the MacNeil/Lehrer NewsHour . In the case of Rights and Wrongs , the reasoning given for turning down the series became more important than the decision itself. In a letter to the producers, Lawson explained that "human rights is not a sufficient organizing principle for a television series." Thirty-two members of Congress's Black Caucus disagreed. "We are at a loss to understand your rejection of a balanced and responsible program," they wrote the PBS president. In his response, Duggan described PBS's rejection as a routine program decision based on the "fierce" competition for airtime. While PBS has rejected Rights and Wrongs for the network, forty PBS stations individually agreed to air it, some in prime time.
Lawson had a corollary objective, the goal of "eliminating programs that might blur the [public medium's] identity." But unblurring public television's individuality is an unlikely prospect with PBS stations filling their schedules with reruns of such commercial warhorses as The Lawrence Welk Show and Leave It to Beaver in order to build their audiences. Nor does the airing of tired features from the 1940s and 1950s under the celluloid-thin guise of "movie classics" help to set the public medium apart from the movie-laden channels around it. These breaches of image building are committed by the stations and are beyond the control of PBS. But others are not. The 1993 salvaging of commercial television's failed series I'll Fly Away was commendable, opening the public medium as it did to a genre that could leaven the schedule's unrelieved absorption with cosmic concerns. But it did nothing to establish the uniqueness of the public medium. On the contrary, it, like PBS's earlier rescue effort with The Paperchase , places the public medium in the role of a safety net for commercial television's castoffs, albeit their castoffs of quality.
One of the most conspicuous instances of image blurring occurred during the joint NBC-PBS coverage of the 1992 national political conventions, when the nightly sight of NBC'S signature anchor Tom Brokaw on the public channel one moment and on his own network the next effectively narrowed the perceptual distance between the public and private networks. The consequences of the joint coverage were all the more unfortunate for having been avoidable. In the course of the 1992 election year, PBS let slip a rare opportunity to present to the public an image of a public service unique to the public medium. Two years of talks and planning ended with PBS's rejection of a $5 million offer from the Markle Foundation to partially fund a comprehensive 1992 Election Project called "The Voters' Channel." The Foundation, whose initiative resulted from its twenty-year study of television's role in political campaigns, proposed an approach to the 1992 political year unparalleled in its concern for addressing more directly and thoroughly the needs of voters. When after protracted discussions Markle was unable to get a commitment from Lawson and PBS, the Foundation withdrew its offer, citing the public system's "lack of cohesive response to national problems and opportunities." Markle turned in frustration to commercial cable, granting $3.5 million to CNN to perform in part the services hoped for from the public medium. The disappointing outcome served only to further blur the distinction between the public medium anti cable.
If Lawson has fallen short of her pledge to make the public medium distinctive, she did demonstrate the efficacy of centralized control over the network schedule. During the war in the Persian Gulf she led the way to a tighter, tougher schedule not only by encouraging (with the help of the MacNeil/Lehrer NewsHour team) a fast response to breaking stories, but also by clearing time in the PBS schedule for continuing news specials and background reports. For the first time in memory, viewers tuned to the public network were plugged into the world beyond the tube, comfortable in the knowledge that Armageddon would not slip by unremarked by PBS while they were absorbed in Masterpiece Theater . The public system's ability to perform more like a real-
time network and less like a preprogrammed movie channel must be accounted one of the major gains from centralizing programming under a single executive.
Lawson's programming strategies were intended to meet the challenges of "a complex and changing media environment . . . where most viewers have a wide range of viewing and other leisure options." Added options translate to fewer viewers for public television. And while public television's decline in average audience size has been small, the downward trend is worrisome. Public broadcasters fear that shrinking audiences will give legislators predisposed to dumping the publicly supported medium, and who often have little or no understanding of its national purpose, the excuse they need. Those fears have been around since the early 1970s, when much of Washington was in the thrall of "emerging technologies" and the press, trumpeting the coming age of "media abundance," called into question the very need for the public medium. "Taxpayer-supported television is an idea whose time has come and gone," conservative columnist William Safire told his readers. He assured them that promising new technologies could, for a price, satisfy the demand for "psychic nourishment demanded by the culturally hungry." If the requiem was premature, the threat was real.
Advancing technology has been both a bane and a benefit to public television. The advent of cable virtually wiped out public television's UHF handicap; the "unhappy frequencies" were given parity with the conventional VHF channels. PBS, in significant ways, has pioneered the use of the newer technologies. It was the first national network to distribute its programs by satellite, the first to televise in stereo sound, and the first to develop and use Closed Captioning for the hearing handicapped and Descriptive Video Service for the blind. But keeping up with advancing technology on thin capital budgets has strained the medium's resources. Satellites, essential to the PBS distribution system, do not last forever. When their time is up, PBS and the Corporation must scramble to fund their replacement. Moreover, each new technological development is followed by newer developments, making last year's investments obsolete and demanding more capital for next year's
purchases. High-definition television (HDTV) is only the most recent claim upon future funds. Chicago's WTTW has put its toe in the stream with the system's first experiments, but only after borrowing the equipment from a manufacturer. Readying the entire system for high-definition television—and that means replacing much of the present capital equipment—will be an enormous and expensive undertaking, and it is unclear how it will be funded.
These advancing technologies have awakened public broadcasters to a realization that public television's place in the media scene can no longer be taken for granted. Hartford Gunn was one of the first to recognize public television's need for a course correction. In the late seventies, while he was vice chairman of PBS, Gunn undertook a long-range planning project in which he concluded that the public system had three options with respect to the new technologies: "Fight 'em, forget 'em, or join 'em." Gunn favored the latter, urging public television to seek out advantageous relationships with the exploiters of cable, satellites, teletext, video recordings, and the rest. Two years after the Gunn study, three holdover members from the second Carnegie Commission staff stayed on to conduct an ancillary study on public television's interface with the new technologies. Their report, Keeping PACE with the New Television , urged public broadcasters to undertake "a new national nonprofit pay cable network for the Performing Arts, Culture and Entertainment" (hence the acronym PACE) by entering into a pact with major cultural institutions. The recommended strategy was to pin down for the public medium the considerable cultural resources of these institutions before cable captured them, as it was then threatening to do. Larry Grossman, the PBS president at the time, embraced the idea and, with an advertising man's feel for the quotable copy line, called it "The Grand Alliance" (reduced later to PBS's alphabetic proportions as PSN, the Public Subscriber Network). Grossman set out to sell the stations and the nation's cultural institutions on the idea only to find that neither the arts institutions nor the PBS stations displayed a willingness to provide the risk capital needed to get the pay cable network launched. The "Grand Alliance" dropped of its own weight.
In the years since, the influence of cable has continued to spread. By 1991, six of every ten homes were connected to a cable system. Technology has devised new techniques for multiplying the number of available channels so that the promise of a future with five hundred channels is no longer a science-fiction fantasy. Cable networks, popping up like crabgrass, have filled the channels with programming, much of it recycled from old inventories and most of it targeted for "niche" audiences. Cable networks now serve programming areas that once had been virtually the exclusive province of public television—science, nature, travel, documentaries, culture, and children's programs—with obvious implications for the future of the public medium. Nor are the other broadcast media spared the implications of cable's growth. And yet this same onward surge of technological change may well make cable obsolete, too. Whatever the shape of the newer technologies, the trend is clearly toward a multiplicity of home-delivered communication services that promise to smother the unwary viewer in a tidal wave of images and information. Public television, lacking a well-defined sense of mission, may find itself floundering to demonstrate how it can do what it does any better than the legions of competing technologies and why what it does cannot be effectively performed in the free marketplace.
Public broadcasters are not alone in having a stake in the outcome. The nation as a whole has a collective concern for the possible effects of a media environment that promises to replace the shared experience of network television with hundreds of channels addressing as many narrow interests and further fragmenting the polity into cells of specialized concerns. At risk is some part of the social glue that binds us into a cohesive society. Of equal concern is the danger that the exotic technology of the future will further widen the gap between the information deprived—those who can ill-afford the escalating costs of the newer delivery systems (including cable)—and the information privileged, those who can. In a world of media abundance that offers a wealth of choices for those who can afford them, public television becomes the analog of the public library, a universally available resource open to
all regardless of means or place of residence. In this context, the "public in public television takes on a deeper meaning.
Held in thrall to awesome new technologies, we tend to close our minds to the more important issue: the quality and diversity of messages these technologies make available. Television, cable, satellites, fiber optics, and so forth are nothing more than modes of transmission, the technology by which messages are delivered. They are not the messages, and transmissions without messages are meaningless. To argue that social benefit will derive from multiplying the number of television stations, or adding new networks, or upping the capacity of cable to five hundred or more channels, is mere sophistry unless consideration is given to the nature of the messages they transmit. It follows that the prospect of hundreds of new television channels cannot guarantee hundreds of new choices. Even today, with far fewer channels available, the common complaint is "there's nothing on worth watching." The reason lies partly in cable's penchant for feeding upon the past, consuming the cast-off contents of yesterday's television and raiding the larder of Hollywood's glory years. Profitability in a competitive market is too easily achieved by minimizing original production. In the much more highly competitive environment of the multichannel future, the prospects for a rich supply of original production are, if anything, even less promising. Viewers, grazing through hundreds of channels, may be hard pressed to find one to nourish the mind and spirit—unless, of course, the medium least affected by the competitive pressures of the marketplace, the public medium, is there to fill the void.
The explosion in technology, and the exotic new delivery systems that result, need not be a threat to public television. It can and should be an opportunity, even a responsibility. Lawson's plan fur PBS's future was pointed in that direction—toward the creation and production of original material as a way of defining the public system. So long as the public medium stays in the shorter queue of those who create and not in the longer queue of those who rely upon the past, its future role in the overcrowded world of telecommunications will grow more certain.