Intimations of Excellence
Noncommercial television should address itself to the ideal of excellence, not the idea of acceptability—which is what keeps commercial television from climbing the staircase. I think television should be the visual counterpart of the literary essay, should arouse our dreams, satisfy our hunger for beauty, take us on journeys, enable us to participate in events, present great drama and music, explore the sea and the sky and the wood and the hills.
E. B. White
Much can be learned about public television from those who do not watch. For more than a dozen years, I taught an undergraduate course in public television at Brooklyn College. At our very first meeting, I asked how many in the class of thirty had watched WNET/ Channel 13. Only one hand was raised. I urged the others to explain why they had never watched. Their replies were simple and direct: public television was for rich people. (I was curious to know why, under the circumstances, they had enrolled in this particular course, only to discover to my dismay that it was because they couldn't get into the courses they really wanted!)
Clearly, without ever having tried it, the students "knew" public television's programming was elitist. They wouldn't have used that word, but that was what they meant by "rich people." They also assumed that it was intended only for the "educated" with whom, even as college students, they did not identify. Whatever else might be said of the public medium, they were certain of one thing: it was not fun, and in their young minds, that is what television is all about. I assigned them to watch any one of the local public channels during the semester and to report their reactions regularly. Several of the more skeptical students happened on a few programs that they, to their almost embarrassed surprise, en-
joyed. But not even these minor epiphanies rid them of their preconceptions about public television. Because they enjoyed the shows, the shows "really belonged on commercial TV." The division between public and private was the difference between hard work and simple pleasures.
Many of my students were the children of immigrant parents, so it would be easy to conclude that they were not typical of their age group. Yet they were not alone in drawing a picture of public television in colors of dull gray; public television's own studies have revealed a similar reaction by the viewing public at large. The American perception of public television as "dry, static, too educational and requiring too much mental effort" also explains why no more than a tiny portion of the total available television audience—on average, barely more than 2 percent of television homes nationally—turns to PBS for its prime-time shows on any given night. Nor should we be surprised. "You Americans," Huw Wheldon once teased me, "have a very strange way of treating television. You have seven channels in New York [in pre-cable days that was the range of available television], six are fun and the seventh is good for you." He didn't have to explain which was which. Wheldon, then the managing director of BBC Television, pointed out that public television was regarded quite differently in his own country, where the BBC was among other things the principal producer of comedy programs.
The failure of the American public system to serve a larger proportion of the television audience makes the United States unique among the industrial democracies. The public-broadcasting systems in many European countries and Japan, even those facing competition from private channels, manage to attract as many as half the homes with television during the prime-time hours. It is true, of course, that some European public broadcasters face fewer competing channels, most are far better financed per capita and spend a greater proportion of their funds on programming (and less on institutional overhead), and all were well established prior to the time their governments permitted the entry of private television. But these differences do not fully account for the comparative weakness of American public television.
From the day the Federal Communications Commission reserved 12 percent of the available television channels for education, America's public television system has been thought of—by the Commission, the Congress, and by those inside the system—as a minor appendage to the dominant commercial system. Unlike European public-television systems, which placed themselves firmly in the mainstream of their countries' broadcast media, ours was narrowly pegged as an "alternate" to mainstream television and limited to serving those "unserved needs" and "unserved audiences" that the country's market-driven television found unprofitable. The rationale was based on the simplistic notion that the "alternate" medium should do what commercial television could not or would not do. The line defining what each should do was drawn according to program genre: since the commercial medium reached majority audiences with news, sports, and entertainment, the public medium confined itself to serving minority audiences with the genres that remained. For the most part, this translated to adult education, serious drama, children's programs, high culture, and science. (So eagerly did PBS leap into natural science that a wag dubbed it public television's "F Factor"—furs, feathers, and fins.) By serving only minority audiences with specialized tastes—whether cultural elites or illiterate immigrants—public television has placed itself on the outer margins of the mainstream media. Its position as an add-on brings into question not only the legitimacy of its claim upon the public treasury, but also its claim to call itself "public."
In search of more certain ground, many in public broadcasting are leading a retreat to the secure redoubt of education—the narrow purpose upon which it made its original claim for the channel reservations, It makes little difference whether the call for a return to this earlier purpose reflects the studied convictions of the local station chiefs, many of whom came from or are linked to the academic community, or whether it is a cynical maneuver to present to Congress the only face that most legislators readily understand and are willing to support. In either case it is regressive and the wrong way to go. Technology's rapid development of alternative delivery systems, coupled with the limitations and inflexibility of
the broadcast medium—not to say the snail-like pace of the schools in adapting to the television medium—cast a limited future for public television in a field already crowded with well-heeled players.
In their perceptive survey of "The Condition of Public Television in the United States and Elsewhere," the two authors, Willard D. Rowland, Jr., and Michael Tracey, fear that the "plausibility and rhetorical force" have gone out of public television's "claim to fame" as an alternate service that offers programming the commercial system does not offer. They warn that by "seeking pastures elsewhere where the enemy does not roam, or for which the enemy has no desire" the public medium is pursuing a course that "has been the strategy of every social species which has disappeared from the face of the earth." If public broadcasting is to have a future, those who shape its purpose must abandon the sacred canon that "popularity" and "quality" are mutually exclusive. They must cease to define diversity by enumerating the program genres acquired by default from cable and commercial television. True diversity can only result from a program service that is comprehensive and of a standard and quality that sets it apart from the product of market-driven television. From this perspective, Rowland and Tracey conclude, "the nature of public broadcasting would be that any program offered, whatever the genre, should be the best of its kind, the best it can"
Largely unnoticed in the arguments about public television's role in serving unmet needs is the enormous unfilled gap in programs of quality—by which is meant not technical quality (we are the masters at that art), but quality of content. The commercial media, under economic pressure to maximize audiences for all shows in whatever category, stamp their programming out of a common matrix—noncontroversial, consensual, largely conventional in both form and substance, and tailored to meet the conditioned expectations in 90 million television homes. Excluded are the risk-taking ventures that create new art. Judging a program's worth by its rank on the ratings chart produces viewer options that are severely proscribed by the need for instant success. Long before the networks dumped their regular prime-time cul-
tural and documentary programs and turned to an almost solid diet of sitcoms and action-adventure shows, broadcasting's preeminent historian Erik Barnouw warned that the commercial media could be neither reoriented nor regulated into fulfilling a broader public interest. Because the industry's economic drives have always won out, "the need for a supplementary system based on other motives is paramount and crucial." Les Brown, taking account of the country's media experience since the Barnouw prophesy, wisely observes that a supplementary system is "not just ordinary television without advertisements," but rather "a separate species of the medium, different in spirit from the commercial and pay forms of television, different in aspiration, different in its regard for the viewer, and different in motivation." Commercial television, he notes, "exists to make money one way or another, but noncommercial television exists to make television."
If it seems somewhat heretical to argue that public television's programming should cover the widest range of program choices, it is only because Americans, accustomed to finding their leisure viewing elsewhere on the television dial, have relegated the public medium to a minor role. Unfortunately, those inside public broadcasting have willingly acquiesced, comfortable in their sinecures and lacking a broader vision of their medium's potential. Yet these same public broadcasters are fond of quoting E. B. White's now-famous letter to the Carnegie Commission. When he wrote that "noncommercial television should address itself to the ideal of excellence," he clearly intended that the ideal transcend the cramped vision of those for whom pop culture lies beyond the pale. Public television, he reminds us, should be "our Lyceum, our Chautauqua, our Minsky's, and our Camelot," allusions that are rich in metaphorical meanings and underscore the catholicity of White's conception of excellence. Not just the upscale culture of the Lyceum and Chautauqua, but the baggy-pants humor of Minsky's burlesque—the inspiration for a generation of comic talents whose outrageous pie-in-the-face humor poked fun at fatuity and regularly booted pretense in the seat of the pants. Clearly, for White, excellence is a standard rather than a genre. Live from Lincoln Center and Grate Performances are models of excellence. But so,
too, are M*A*S*H , the films of Buster Keaton, and the Super Bowl. "Standards should refer to the quality of programmes across a whole range of broadcasting," noted a British study. "A 'highbrow' program may be of poor quality, whatever its own professions . . . so may a current affairs programme . . . while a comedy or a sports programme may be each in their own ways of very high quality."
Those who argue that excellence is too subjective and insubstantial a standard on which to structure a mission for public television must deal with Huw Wheldon. In his years as a BBC program executive, Wheldon had frequent need to make judgment calls on program quality, and he airily dismisses those who say one man's excellence is another man's trash. ("On the whole, I think most good programmes are recognized as such by people who are disposed toward that subject.") If, for example, you don't like opera or football, your views on whether either was well done "may be interesting but irrelevant." On the other hand, people who take these things seriously "will generally be in accord when they're talking about the very good and the very bad." Historian Barbara Tuchman, who took these matters seriously, wrote that excellence is more than reaching for the highest standard—it is an "honesty of purpose as against catering to cheap and sensational sentiment." She noted that the latter is an increasing presence in "our mass-mediated lives," and blamed it for contributing to the decline in the level of quality in recent years. This "foolery," she wrote, is destined to leave its mark on future generations. How, she asked, will the young "become acquainted with quality if they are not exposed to it?" The young, for whom the ubiquitous television tube is the leisure activity of choice, must be given the opportunity of knowing television of a different sort, of experiencing the intelligence, wit, and invention of which it is capable when it is not driven downscale by competitive forces in the marketplace.
No area of television programming cries out more insistently for quality than the treatment of news and current affairs. Once-proud standards have sunk to new lows in recent years as com-
mercial television's news programs, faced with increased competition for audience numbers, have fought each other with the tools of tabloidism for their share of the American audience. Warning signs, however, were raised years before the present decline. One such admonition came from John Birt, then head of current affairs for London Weekend Television. Birt, who in recent years has acceded to the post of director-general of the BBC, advanced a provocative idea in the columns of the Times of London—that news is biased, not against any party or point of view, but against understanding . "The typically atomized presentation of events and issues," he asserted, "systematically misrepresents the world and its difficulties, thereby making it more difficult than it otherwise would be for society to solve its problems." To know is not enough; to act intelligently as political creatures we must also understand what we know and be able to place factual information in a meaningful context where ideas can gestate and convictions form.
Birt's provocation illuminates a critical weakness in the quality of television news. At its best, it keeps us informed. But watching even the best TV news on commercial television, says media critic William A. Henry III, "is more likely to add to a viewer's store of unassimilated facts than to enhance . . . perception and understanding." Worse, when the facts themselves go unassimilated, graver questions are raised about the ability of the electorate to participate in democratic self-government. A 1993 survey of Ivy League undergraduates revealed that half could not name their home-state senators, a third could not identify British Prime Minister John Major, 23 percent did not know that the Supreme Court has nine justices, and 18 percent could not name a single one of them. Fewer than half watched television news. In a similar survey in the late eighties, at a time when events in Central America led off every day's newscast, half of those surveyed did not know if U.S. policy supported the government of Nicaragua or El Salvador.
The inadequacy of television as an information source is not new, or newly discovered. More than thirty years ago, Edward R. Murrow predicted that historians a century hence, looking at the record left by the three networks, would discover "evidence of
decadence, escapism, and insulation from the realities of the world in which we live." America's foremost broadcast journalist feared for the future of the republic. "Unless we get up off our fat surpluses and recognize that television in the main is being used to distract, delude, amuse, and insulate us, then television and those who finance it, those who look at it and those who work at it, may see a totally different picture too late." A more recent polemic on the inanities and inadequacies of television news, Neil Postman's Amusing Ourselves to Death concludes "that Americans are quite likely the least well-informed people in the Western world."
If Postman is right—and he is not alone in postulating the paradox of a poorly informed America in the midst of a media-saturated environment—the ideal of a self-governing society is at risk unless attention is given to how to meet the need for a reasonably informed electorate. The commercial media are a poor bet to meet that need. Many years ago, long before the Reagan Administration's orgy of deregulation, broadcasters were held to a public-service standard. Although it was indifferently enforced by a lax FCC, it asserted a principle: those who profit from the use of the publicly owned broadcast frequencies are obligated to return a benefit to the public in the form of service. In television's infancy, one such public service was the airing of news shows that, in those early years, were unprofitable. Broadcasters made up the loss with profits from the more marketable shows. But then the unexpected financial success of 60 Minutes changed news shows forever. News itself became a marketable commodity. Television news departments found themselves under competitive pressures to be Number One so they could charge advertisers the highest rates for their commercials. News shows began to mix generous dollops of entertainment and sensationalism with otherwise serious news. The three national networks, once the lustrous citadel of serious broadcast journalism, lost much of that luster in a frenzy of cost-cutting and competitive zeal that has produced a spate of "reality-based" or "actuality" shows in prime-time. These shows mix news, sensationalism, and entertainment in a heady brew that bears a dismaying resemblance to the quality of journalism en-
countered at supermarket checkout counters. In the words of Sydney Alexander, "The need to excite gets in the way of the need to inform."
Nor has cable done much better. The Cable News Network, still unavailable to a third of the nation, follows the network pattern of news snippets interrupted by nonrelevant commercial messages. Largely missing is the contextual background, the critical analysis, the extended and continual coverage needed to give meaning and significance to the events on the screen. A pair of British researchers offer another, more subtle reason why cable cannot answer democracy's need for an informed public. In the course of studying the possible effects of privatizing British television, they concluded that whenever access to information for citizenship depends on purchasing power, "substantial inequalities are generated that undermine the nominal universality of citizenship." Moreover, by addressing people predominantly as consumers, as with all market-driven media, cable "marginalizes or displaces other identities, in particular the identity of citizen." The viewer, they concluded, is denied the essentials of citizenship: access to the broadest possible range of information, interpretation, and debate on areas that involve political choices.
Studies of the situation in our own country give cause for concern. A 1990 survey by the Times Mirror Center for the People and the Press found that the younger generation (18–29 years of age) "knows less, cares less, votes less and is less critical of its leaders and institutions than young people in the past." The study concluded that the generational indifference to politics, to government, even to news of the outside world, has had a baleful effect on American politics and society, and lay part of the blame upon "the rise of television." In a similar vein, People for the American Way, concluding that "America's youth are alarmingly ill-prepared to keep democracy alive in the 1990's and beyond," called the situation a "citizenship crisis."
MIT's Sydney Alexander parsed the problem with the studied efficiency of a professor of economics and management and offered his own analysis. "If it is the function of the American news media to make headlines, some other agency is required to make
for understanding." His suggested solution: public television. "The achievement of deeper understanding on the part of the viewer" will, he feels, provide the public medium with its greatest challenge. PBS has responded in part to the challenge with the MacNeil/Lehrer NewsHour , network television's first (and thus far only) hour-long prime-time news show. (Before crediting the PBS system with the collective wisdom and courage to meet the challenge, however, it must be remembered that Robert MacNeil and Jim Lehrer met a cool reception from the local stations opposed to the hour-long version.) The MacNeil/Lehrer NewsHour has given credible evidence of what can result when issues are given time and space to develop. However, the program's tendency to cautiously balance every purported fact with a contradictory and cancelling fact or to play rhetorical ping-pong ("You heard what he said, now how do you respond?") risks leaving those who lack the expertise to sort fact from nonfact more confused than enlightened.
Needed in today's complex world of mass-mediated information is an ongoing analysis of the issues by those who are most informed and least involved: the experienced journalists who cover the day-by-day developments. On the occasions when its knowledgeable reporters feel free to speak their minds, Washington Week in Review serves this end. We begin to understand what we may already know. For a still better example, we must turn to National Public Radio's daily and weekend news shows Morning Edition and All Things Considered . Both programs, including their weekend editions, have won the ungrudging praise of news professionals both in and out of the commercial media, many of whom rate them as broadcast journalism's "finest." The high quality and extensiveness of the shows' factual reporting—much of it, incidentally, by first-rate women reporters—provides a model that public television could profitably emulate. But the shows have an even greater value in their use of incisive analysis and commentary to lend context and dimension to their factual reporting. When it works, the listener comes away with the feeling that the dots have been joined to form a template for understanding and a basis for those convictions that give rise to citizen action.
Programs like All Things Considered and Morning Edition hold out the greatest promise for fulfilling E. B. White's charge to the public media "to clarify the social dilemma and the political pickle." At the same time, it must be noted that only in America would shows of this quality be unknown or unavailable to large segments of the national audience, distributed as they are in a jerrybuilt system of public radio that, like its television counterpart, consists of a loose confederation of autonomous, under-funded, locally controlled stations, some weak, some strong. It is an absurd failure of public policy that public radio, if only for its informational programming, was not made universally available, as it is in most democratic countries, on a network of powerful transmitters that blanket the nation. As it is, its availability is subject to the whims and uneven resources of local initiative.
Television's traditional vehicle for clarifying the social dilemma has for many years been the long-form documentary, which attempts—commonly, in an hour or more—to explore and enlarge upon a single issue. This neglected and much-maligned form has all but disappeared from prime-time television in recent years, having been given the boot by network number crunchers who believe the public interest is defined by whatever interests the public. In the new age of eight-minute attention spans, the long-form documentary is a dinosaur. Its disappearance from prime-time network television left an information void not filled by news magazines modeled on the success of 60 Minutes , or worse, by the episodic "special reports" shoehorned into the daily newscast. The compression of what needs to be known into eight-minute features or ten-second sound bites may be the friend of the news producer, but it is the enemy of understanding.
Almost by default, public television remains the last refuge for the long-form documentary. The nonfiction form has been a staple in the schedule of the noncommercial medium from its founding. It dominates today's PBS schedules, treating science, medicine, history, art, travel, and even the star-filled world of entertainment—although the last named tends to appear only during intensive fund-raising drives. But save for an occasional award and the gratitude of their fans, most documentaries pass unre-
marked. Not, however, the documentary that seeks to clarify sensitive sociopolitical issues on which honest persons honestly disagree. This sometimes incendiary form finds a home in the PBS schedule in such series as Frontline and P.O.V. The former, when it isn't reaching for the numbers with frivolous topics or jousting with padded lances, gives a good account of how the form can be put to effective use, as it has with such outstanding episodes as "The Betrayal of Democracy," "To the Brink of War," and "The Battle for Eastern Airlines."
Bill Moyers, public television's ubiquitous presence, has practiced a variant on the conventional documentary form. His personal essays, growing from the original PBS series Bill Moyers' Journal , have treated a wide range of political and social issues with great effect. Moyers does more than observe with a critical eye and analyze with a keen intelligence. He applies a moral and ethical yardstick to the issue or event, taking its measure in terms of human values. Television critic William Henry III called Moyers "the quintessential reporter-as-performer . . . thoughtful, compassionate, independent but not iconoclastic . . . an unabashed moralist." These qualities hold up well in a medium that prizes personality and abjures abstraction. They are singular in public television, a medium that steadfastly strives to keep an objective distance between the issue and the person who reports on it. But like Edward R. Murrow, with whom he is often compared, Moyers has the wit and skill to transform an abstraction into a personal statement: we care because he cares. Eric Alterman believes that Moyers's "almost superhuman feat of delving into intricate social and intellectual questions while managing to avoid virtually all of the theatricality and reductiveness that characterizes the rest of television's public discourse" demonstrates "that the medium does have the capacity to stimulate debate without giving heed to the twin shibboleths of objectivity and infotainment."
At their best, documentaries on social and political issues challenge conventional thinking, forcing us to reflect upon and reexamine the premises upon which we act. This is profoundly disturbing to those who believe a publicly funded medium should steer around the mine-strewn fields of controversy, reinforcing
rather than attacking society's prevalent values. In his study of "Public Television and the 'Ought' of Public Policy," Sydney Alexander argues that while popular art has its place on the tube—"to confirm and validate values"—high art should be there "to disturb, challenge and transform values." It is a process, he argues, "that upsets the viewer to his advantage." Public television has a place for programs that confirm and validate prevalent values; most of its airtime is devoted to that end. But there is also a place for documentaries that challenge those values. Jeremy Isaacs sees it as a "need to see and hear on radio and television how life looks to all sorts and conditions of men and women, of all sorts of opinion; contented, discontented; favoring the status quo, gradual change, or even revolution; men and women who wish to preserve society as it is now, and also those who want to change it, reform it, alter it altogether." Isaacs applied his prescription to the shaping of Britain's unique Channel 4 with results that could serve well as a model for public television in the United States. In America's intellectually cramped environment, however, to apply the Isaacs formula to PBS would trip alarm bells in Congress, notwithstanding that the prescription speaks to the precious freedoms protected by the First Amendment or that it is the embodiment of the marketplace of ideas on which those freedoms rest. "Every idea," wrote Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes, "is an incitement. It offers itself for belief and if believed is acted on unless some other belief outweighs it or some failure of energy stifles the movement at its birth."
The question of whether controversy is compatible with the purposes of the public medium must be answered with another question: if not public television, then who? Robust debate and free and uninhibited discourse, essential in a self-governing democracy, cannot be addressed adequately by media almost wholly in the service of commerce. Public broadcasting's freedom from the economic restraints that keep the commercial medium bland and submissive makes it imperative that it do what needs to be done. Pouring out a Niagara-like flood of information, though, however valid and varied, is not enough. Daniel J. Boorstin has warned that information, ephemeral and transient, is constantly driven out by
new information. Knowledge endures. And knowledge is what public television must seek to impart, through analysis, critical interpretation, debate, and a willingness to endure the risks and scars of controversy—even when that requires departing from the mythical ideal of a world in which every idea is carefully balanced with an opposing idea of equal importance and validity.
Conventional wisdom holds that controversy, giving offense as it may to those who feel their own position was slighted, is bad for business. More than twenty years ago, the highly respected media analyst and critic Jack Gould made a prophesy that public television "will fail dismally if it walks the chalkline of apprehensive innocuity." He foresaw a tough-minded role for the public station: "to disturb the complacency of the set owner, to make him wonder whether his inherited precepts are still valid in a changing world, to make him excited and even angry." In brief, to make him think. Public television would do well to bury its own fears, open its doors wide to the provocative and controversial, and recognize the obvious: the public medium's ability to walk where commerce will not tread is in itself a rationale for creating a dual private-public broadcasting system. Moyers believes that dealing with ideas and issues is public television's principal justification and that to survive it must "change its image" and "become the public affairs network for the country—a place where ideas are debated, a forum for the political and democratic conversation of America."
Moyers' notion of dedicating the whole of public television to the single purpose of public affairs does indeed address a manifest need. But unfortunately it also raises the specter of an audience in flight, seeking relief from an unremitting litany of earnest and significant programs. The numbers tell the story; audiences for most PBS public-affairs programs are minuscule by television standards. If these well-produced offerings are to have their desired impact, new audiences must be added to the small numbers of news junkies and policy wonks that scan the PBS schedule for serious fare. This can only be achieved by radically altering the average viewer's perception of the public medium. The smell of
chalkdust still clings to its skirts, a legacy from its earlier incarnation as educational television. Too many of its prime-time series—those gaseous explorations of cosmic abstractions in pursuit of corporate underwriters or tedious illustrated lectures rationalized as adult education—sound more like graduate seminars than the fare that might attract us to television at the end of a trying day. If it is to be more than a peripheral phenomenon wasting away on the edge of the mainstream, public television must reach out for a more comprehensive approach to programming, discard its earnest "good for you" image, and lighten up without yielding an inch of ground to its primary mission of high-quality programming. "A service that offered Shakespeare, wildlife documentaries and penetrating interviews . . . would not be a 'good' service," say the British, "even if each program were of prize-winning quality." Excellence as a discrete purpose for public television must embrace the notion of variety as well. "Quality programming does not pre-judge audiences by presumed height of brow." Public television needs the lighthearted and entertaining as well as the earnestly significant and the resolutely educational.
The primary reason for offering varied television fare on public stations, as I've mentioned, is the need to seek broader viewership. The prospective viewers' expectations of unrelieved seriousness must be confounded by programs that deliver some of the pleasures of the commercial media without its insubstantiality. By interleaving lighter shows among the documentaries, dramas, and concerts, public television would attract substantial numbers, many for the first time, with the probability that some would remain for the serious program to follow. Britain's public channels have pursued this comprehensive programming policy from the start; Huw Wheldon called it "education by stealth." That it has had its desired effect can be demonstrated by the fact that the BBC's two channels attract a far larger proportion of the available audience than does PBS. For more than fifty years, BBC television has fulfilled, often with distinction, its Parliamentary order to give the United Kingdom a high-quality educational and informational service. But it has also, without loss to its serious purpose, created the best of British television comedy, setting standards of quality
with shows like That Was the Week That Was, Monty Python's Flying Circus , and Fawlty Towers . Our own public system, by contrast, has not created a single comedy show in its forty years of existence.
Broadening the spectrum of program types is not a deviation from public television's informational and educational purpose but an additional means toward the same end. "Art," Alexander reminds us, "transforms us as it entertains . . . enhances our experience . . . helps to make us what we are." Network entertainment at it best—and at its best it is art—has offered glimpses of television's power to enhance the human experience. Some found it in the comedy/drama of M*A*S*H , The Mary Tyler Moore Show , or The Days and Nights of Molly Dodd . Others found it in the more serious serial dramas: Thirtysomething or today's Northern Exposure . What these programs share, other than intelligent writing and skillfully crafted production, is a connectedness, an insight into our own idiosyncratic behavior and sometimes troubled feelings. That entertainment—when it is art—can also provide insights into our revered institutions was cleverly demonstrated by the BBC's comedy/satire Yes, Minister . Imported into America by public television, it provoked laughter primarily for its wit and humor. But for British viewers it was a pointed satire that offered an engaging insight into the foibles of parliamentary government. PBS should do as much for Congress.
There is another, perhaps stronger rationale for broadening public television's range of program choices: to set a standard of quality against which all other television might be measured. Those who would keep the public medium marginalized will be quick to cite the countless hours of light entertainment already available from commercial television and cable. Public television's mission is not to add to the volume but to the quality , not by importing from abroad, and not by appropriating "quality" commercial shows that lose out in the competitive drive for audience, but by creating new art, new ideas, new and different programs. Writers, actors, singers, dancers, satirists, and comics—those who are "driven by their own compulsions to the production of great art"—must be given "the opportunity to do what they feel compelled to do." Professor Alexander points out that "even in en-
tertainment programs, especially in entertainment programs, there are potentialities which are unrealized in commercial television, that must remain unrealized so long as it is commercial." The commercial media could do better but doesn't because "the producers are not letting the best artists follow their own standards of what makes good art." In this genre, as in all others, public television's overarching aim must be excellence, a standard of quality against which to gauge all other television. In the absence of such a measure and lacking a higher standard, audiences come to accept what they know, satisfied that it is the best there is. Giving the lie to that inference could be a service to the viewers and to the profession of broadcasting.
The alternative is to surrender ourselves to mediocrity, trivialization, and blandness in a medium that more than any other dominates our lives and fills our leisure hours. We are at risk. "The contest between education and TV—between argument and conviction by spectacle," says social critic Robert Hughes, "has been won by television, a medium now more debased in America than ever before." Neil Postman warns us that we are "amusing ourselves to death," losing touch with a world that is trivialized and decontextualized by the ubiquitous tube. Our cultural landscape should have room for something more: a medium with respect for the intelligence of its viewers, willing to address its audience not just as consumers but as sentient human beings; a medium dedicated to offering the best because it is the best and not simply because it reaches the largest numbers inside the advertiser's demographic target.
In 1992, concerned that countries hell-bent on privatizing television might ignore these distinctions, Japan's Hoso Bunka Foundation commissioned a survey of the world's public-television systems. Willard D. Rowland, Jr., and Michael Tracey, engaged to conduct the survey and report the results, were themselves surprised at the conclusions they were compelled to arrive at on the basis of the evidence they gathered.
Whatever the objective difficulties which face public broadcasting, its canon must be constantly asserted: that it sets its face against the medi-
ocre and the debased; that it asserts the necessity to nurture quality in the life of the public mind by insuring that the population of the polity can be properly informed, properly educated and provided with a sense of coherence and belonging; that it sees itself, the national public broadcaster, as one of, if not the most powerful centripetal forces in societies with dangerous centrifugal tendencies. The social forces which so challenge the public broadcaster also provide the most powerful argument for his or her existence; that the modern, democratic nation state needs a national broadcasting service, because it needs a quality of life, it needs coherence, it needs to let fly what Lincoln referred to as "the better angels of our nature" and quarantine the impulse to division, degradation and domination.
Public television has a life, a purpose, and a place in the profligate mix of American media. What is needed is the vision to see it and the will to make it happen.