Epilogue: Past Imperfect, Future Imperative
When we decide that an investment in "a civilized voice in a civilized community" is worth more than an investment in cold war, we shall find that the financial problem is largely one of shifting our priorities.
For more than forty years, public television has occupied the center of my professional life, sitting like a huge and generally friendly beast in my living space, impossible to ignore and fascinating to observe. The opportunity was given me over the course of this time to observe the beast from several vantage points: as a witness to its birth and an active player in the first two decades of its development, as a sometime performer, as a teacher blessedly removed from its blinkered politics, and, with the task at hand, as a chronicler of its traumas and occasional triumphs. None of these perspectives has altered my early conviction about its potential or lessened my desire to see its promise realized. And yet, in more dispassionate moments, it strikes me that four decades is an uncommonly long time to be wedded to a single cause, particularly a cause that has somehow failed to capture the imagination and ignite the concern of most Americans. It is reasonable, therefore, to ask why I—or anyone, for that matter—would engage in an uphill struggle to see it persevere and grow.
Perhaps the perversity of spirit that sustains my interest has its
roots in a vision born during television's infancy, a time when the medium was still moderately malleable and everything seemed possible. We who fell, stumbled, or were pushed into the medium, idealists all, envisioned a television that was something more than a home-delivered electronic billboard hawking products we could comfortably do without or a legal narcotic blocking out the pain and pressures of the real world. The television we imagined would make reality palatable, even pleasurable. It would provide a helpful context for living by opening the mind to yet unexamined textures, deepening faith in the human potential, and provoking a laughter of recognition at the absurdities of our own narrow vision. Unfortunately, our hopes for another kind of television, separate but equal, fell victim to broadcast policies that have long given primacy to the world of commercial profit. Accordingly, television, publicly held for the benefit of the polity, was marginalized as a weak alternative and shunted to the sidelines, there to serve the indeterminate needs of education. Many of us who tended that early vision and who labored to make it real feel let down because we know that for all of its minor triumphs today's system is a pale shadow of what ought to be.
Perhaps shadow is an apt metaphor in another sense: it describes public television's apparent insubstantiality. The public system is increasingly at risk of disappearing from our screens. Lost as it is in the jungle of new technologies and fearful of being devoured by the newer media, its sole preoccupation is survival. And not without reason: the newer media, looking for new income streams to tap, have targeted "niche" audiences, the once exclusive terrain of public television and the principal rationale for its marginalized existence. Undecided about its own place in the scheme of things, the public system wavers between battling the newer media on their own ground and by their own rules or surrendering the field and retreating to the safe haven of educational fare that is even more narrowly defined.
Those who ponder why I and others cling to a notion of television whose time, according to realists, has come and passed need only pick up their remote and surf the channels. There they will find the early harvest of the Age of Abundant Communication:
endless hours of vacuous fare, decontextualized and lacking a moral compass, artlessly trivializing life and the human condition. Not for the first time has the reality fallen short of the promise; we heard in the twenties about radio, in the fifties about television, and are hearing it again with only the vocabulary changed. This time the seducers are interactivity and the information superhighway. Television for quality, not profit, which could and should counter the featherweight fare of common-denominator television, has by official governmental policy been marginalized and denied a fur chance by those for whom the airwaves are, first and foremost, the province of commerce. Sadly, the policy has the acquiescence of a compliant and leaderless public-television establishment.
The situation calls to mind the immediate postwar years when, with the promise of a bright new age of transportation, trolleys and trains were overrun by the speed and flexibility of air travel and buses. Tracks were ripped up, Penn Station was torn down, and rights-of-way were converted to bicycle paths. Today, the dream of a future without such "anachronistic" modes of travel is becoming a nightmare of urban gridlock, jammed highways, and crowded skies. Talk of returning trolleys to the streets and trains to the heavily travelled urban corridors no longer provokes derisive laughter. In our haste to get ahead of advancing technologies, we abandoned a past we now seek to revive.
It is not difficult to see that today's video technology is driving us toward a time when the proliferation of channels will intensify competition and only the profitable will survive. The most likely survivors are pay-per-view cable, "infotainment," and programming whose primary aim will be consumerism in one form or another. The inevitable loss of program quality, integrity, and standards of taste will renew our appetite for substance. If in our lack of vision we allow the public medium to wither, we shall find ourselves—ten, twelve, or fifteen years hence—attempting to breathe life back into what was once regarded as a marginal additive to the laugh tracks of the commercial medium.
So what is to he done?
Certainly not another study. These exercises in self-reform, con-
ducted with the regularity of a tribal rite, have done little to advance the cause of a strong and viable public system. Only the first of the three major studies—the Carnegie Commission on Educational Television—had an appreciable effect on the system by restructuring it in dubious ways and by dumping the stultifying educational television label. The study's most important contribution, the recommendation of a dedicated tax to provide public television with a funding source well removed from the influence of politics, was turned aside by Congress. Ten years later, Carnegie II was launched to rectify the errors of the first study, but with no Johnson White House to move the recommendations into legislation, the report was filed and forgotten. The most recent study, conducted under the auspices of the Twentieth Century Fund, released its report, Quality Time? , in the summer of 1993. (The title, said one critic, could be understood "as either plaintive or sardonic.") Its recommendation for "major structural changes . . . public television is to provide a high-quality alternative to commercial broadcasting" was ignored in equal measure by the press, the Congress, and the public-television establishment. All of which lends credence to Tom Shales's observation that if the time and energy devoted to studies were channeled instead into programming, "we would be riveted to our public TV stations, where triumph would follow masterpieces night after night."
All three public-television studies suffer from a common flaw: each treats the public medium as a genus apart—distinct from other video forms—and not simply as another species of the same thing. It is all television. No matter how the images enter the home—by broadcast, cable, or satellite—they show up on the same screen, sharing the same pixels, separated one from the other by no more than a click of a remote control. The absurdity of studying the public medium as an isolated phenomenon can be likened to analyzing male-female relationships by researching one sex and not the other. We do not need another study of public television. What is needed is both a comprehensive study of the entire spectrum of interrelated electronic mass media and a public-policy debate on its future. Other countries show their concern for the social and political impact of television, radio, and cable by periodically reviewing the effectiveness of their broadcast policies.
Most important, they treat private and public communications together, acknowledging their interrelatedness, and define the roles each has to play in meeting the needs of their societies. We are alone among the Western democracies in our failure to chart such a course—we rely instead on a sixty-year-old regulatory statute enacted during the New Deal, when television, cable, and satellites were the stuff of science fiction.
Given the medium's sometimes baleful influence upon our lives, our children, and our political institutions, our unwillingness to debate and adopt a comprehensive public policy is incomprehensible. To some, it is irresponsible. Our curious posture stems from an eighteenth-century libertarianism that believed an enlightened private industry would best serve the public interest. Couple that with Constitutional prohibitions against governmental restraints on the exercise of free speech and a systemic fear of letting the government muck about in the media, and you have the rationale for our unwillingness to regulate. For the most part, private interests have been permitted both to define and to care for the public interest, a policy that peaked in the Reagan years when broadcasting's "public interest" requirement was abandoned and restraints on multiple media ownership were loosened. The cry of the Republican majority in the 104th Congress for the "privatization" of public television only carries that ideology to an absurd finale.
America's let-the-market-prevail approach contrasts sharply with the approaches of those industrial democracies whose broadcasting organizations are treated as cultural institutions—a part of that sector of society "responsible for generating and disseminating its linguistic, literary, spiritual, aesthetic, and ethnic wealth." (Curiously, America once came close to treating broadcasting as a cultural institution, but it was in Japan, during the Allied Occupation, when General Douglas MacArthur used Japanese radio [NHK] to advance the social and political aims of his command. According to Rowland and Tracey, it was a "testament to the belief in broadcasting as a primarily social , not economic process" and represented "some of the clearest thinking about the nature of broadcasting and its relationship to society.") Here
at home, an interesting anomaly exists between our treatment of the medium and our treatment of schools and libraries. So essential are the latter to a self-governing and productive society that we provide for them at public expense, unwilling to leave them entirely to the vagaries of the market forces. And yet, as every parent knows, the authority of the classroom and library are increasingly eclipsed by the influence of the ubiquitous tube, leaving many to wonder how we can have any less concern for television's role in the education of the young.
The first step toward a more concerned policy is a return to the concept of broadcasting as a public trust. Those who control the images on our screens create a social environment no less important to our health and welfare than clean air and water. We hold industry responsible for not polluting the one; broadcasters should be held responsible for not polluting the other. Good corporate citizenship implies—if, indeed, it does not demand—as much concern for the public interest as it does for what interests the public. But, important as this is, we must at the same time recognize the limitations on what might be demanded of a medium whose success is measured in profit margins. And thus the need for a second corrective measure: a fully integrated and adequately funded system of public television.
Unfortunately, our national need cannot be met by fine tuning the system now in place, a system whose fragmented and multi-purposed structure makes it hopelessly resistant to reform. Public television must be reinvented. The idea is not new; press critics have lamented for years that "the whole rickety, grotesque structure of public television [is] in need of drastic reform" (Neil Hickey, TV Guide ) and "should be taken apart from top to bottom and put back together someplace else" (Tom Shales, Washington Post ). Its "top-heavy, expensive and stifling bureaucracy," said one of its own leaders, virtually guarantees "that it will remain mired in second-class status."
Predictably, calls for reform bounce off the institutional walls of the public system, a structure made up of more than one hundred autonomous entities with a stake in keeping the system as it
is. What is more, the true believers enjoy the support of a Congress that, for reasons of its own, favors a fragmented and marginalized system. The situation prompted Eli N. Evans, the president of the Revlon Foundation and the only person to take part in all three major studies of public television, to advocate a radical break with the past. In an impassioned postscript to the Twentieth Century Fund Task Force report, Evans argued that if we are to "build a new system of telecommunications, with a new definition of the public interest," we must "sweep away this history and create a new national entity that will lead the system into a new world."
Architectural blueprints for the "new national entity" are not in short supply; all who have thought seriously about it have ideas if not a plan. You will not, however, find the ultimate blueprint in these pages. I am secure in the knowledge that a nation with the planning skills to harness nuclear energy or to loft a person onto the lunar surface is well able to meet the challenge of reordering public television without help from this quarter. I will, however, indulge the reader's patience long enough to propose those several elements that, in my judgment, must be taken into account in the ultimate plan if the system is be truly effective.
The first is the creation of the "new national entity" in which to centralize the functions of public television. A single national institution is needed to replace the current bureaucratic nightmare of competing entities and overlapping functions, which are grossly wasteful of human, financial, and technical resources, sap creative energy, blur the lines of responsibility, and divert the medium's attention from its principal mission of providing quality programming. Lynne Cheney, former director of the Humanities Endowment, summed it up with the observation that "to talk about a 'public system,' is to verge on oxymoron." Opponents inside public television fear a single national institution would dominate the system. But domination in their sense also means giving much-needed leadership to a system that is currently handicapped by too many arms and no head. Size and solidity count, too. Only big institutions, as the BBC has demonstrated for more than fifty years, can stand up to big government. And only institutions with the political muscle to stay the intrusive hand of government have a
chance at sustaining an independent voice. A governing board, preferably small, but determinedly nonpolitical as well as nongovernmental, will be needed to secure the independence of the national entity. Because the board will shape the destiny of one of the nation's most influential educational and cultural institutions, its members must have national reputations in the arts, humanities, sciences, professions, and public affairs, and they must be willing to serve the national interest as individuals and not as representatives of a constituency, whether local, professional, or political.
An early goal of the national trust must be universal coverage . Public television loses meaning unless it is easily available to every home, and on an equal basis with commercial television. Other countries take the obligation to provide universal coverage for granted, but the FCC has left the reach and coverage of the American system entirely to chance and local initiative. The result is a patchwork of stations, some strong, some weak, with coverage that is at best spotty. While certain areas are underserved with poor reception or no reception at all, others are overserved with two or more competing public stations airing the same or similar programs and vying with each other for the loyalty and support of virtually the same audience. The barriers to universal coverage are largely political; technology is at hand for rationalizing the system and for bringing the signal of public television into every home.
One logical step is to utilize the overlapping stations as the foundation for a second network . Public television needs more than one network. A single network—as PBS has amply demonstrated—cannot provide the full range of program services; the effort to do so only results in a composite that is neither entirely public nor fully educational. Most European nations and Japan have at least two, some have three. A second American network would permit a schedule of programs with more limited appeal, programs targeted at specialized audiences (for example, instructional television for school use), and experimental, high-risk offerings that push forward the frontiers of the medium. Consideration should be given to administering the two networks as separate entities, one with a large centralized production staff, the other with no
production staff but with a group of highly skilled editors to commission work from independent sources. A useful model for this approach, dubbed "electronic publishing," exists in Britain's Channel 4. With two national networks, it is essential that each network have separate station outlets in each community, giving the viewer the choice of which to view. PBS once planned for three national program services, but all three services fed into the single PBS outlet in each community. The station, not the audience, would have chosen which of the three would be seen at any given time.
Public television has but a single function: to fill the nation's television screens with a program service that is comprehensive, diverse, and of the highest quality. Everything else is peripheral and should either support or extend the benefits of the program service. Of the three criteria, none is more important than a programming service that is comprehensive . It must include all genres of television programming and be capable of competing with commercial television for its audience—but on grounds of superior quality. Because PBS was created as an "alternative" to mainstream television, it has been exiled into the ghetto of high-minded "educational" fare with a prime-time schedule that appears to have risen straight off the pages of a college course catalogue. Despite the excellence of many of its programs, the network's appeal is necessarily limited to a fraction of the public it is mandated to serve. By contrast, Britain's public television is mainstream, competing head-to-head with the commercial channels by offering programming "from the mildly diverting to the intensely demanding." Film director David Puttnam points out that because neither public nor private television in Britain has "operated on the basis of filling the gaps left by the other," the "out-and-out winner" is the British audience.
Public television's other goal, a service defined by high quality, is best met by programming produced for a national audience. Even now, it is PBS'S national programming—Nova and Nature, Barney and Sesame Street, MacNeil/Lehrer NewsHour and Wall Street Week —that defines public television for the average viewer. Logic would argue for dedicating the bulk of public television's funding
to this purpose. PBS'S fragmented system, however, defies logic: a whopping 75 percent of the medium's federal funding is divided among the 345 autonomous stations, primarily to buoy up the system's byzantine structure rather than to support its key national program service. The erratic means of funding national programming drew close scrutiny from the Twentieth Century Fund Task Force. Its report recommended channelling the medium's federal funds entirely into national production, leaving stations to support themselves out of local resources. The recommendation—the Task Force's most significant contribution to public television's future planning—was given little serious consideration by the powerful bloc of station executives. More recently, the man who in 1993 succeeded Bruce Christensen as president of PBS—former FCC Commissioner Ervin S. Duggan—put the problem squarely in front of those station executives by reminding his members that, against the total funding of public television, the PBS stations collectively spend only seven percent on national programming. "We must find a way," he urged, "to liberate more funds for high-quality, original, compelling national programming."
Even so, channelling more funds into national programming is not in itself the answer. More money will not produce a comprehensive, diverse, and high-quality program service without major changes in the way the system's programs are made. Programming and production decisions must be the responsibility of a single national agency—as they are in every other major broadcasting organization, public or private. Since the creation of PBS, this responsibility has been the exclusive province of the stations. Decentralization of production was aimed at satisfying Congress's call for "programs of high quality, obtained from diverse sources, but the programs that resulted too often failed to provide either diversity or high quality. Fewer than eleven stations are responsible for the hulk of the national schedule, and only two—New York's WNET and Boston's WGBH—account for most of it. Production stations, eager to get their program ideas funded, produced, and into the PBS schedule, inevitably pass through the same corporate and foundation doors in search of production money. Pre-
cious dollars are wasted duplicating effort. Worse, the competition to market a program idea that fits the interests of the funding agency—generally, science series, business-related shows, and high-visibility cultural programs—cramps the range of prime-time programming and sacrifices the very qualities that help to define the public medium: variety, boldness, innovation, controversy, high-quality entertainment, and, to a lesser extent, programming for children. It is not by chance that PBS'S most attractive popular entertainment programs—which turn up in the schedule only during the periodic drives for viewer donations—are produced or acquired with the system's own program funds.
For reasons not easily divined, centralizing programming decisions, by focusing the creative energies of its producers, results in a benefit that is more than the sum of its parts. The phenomenon can be seen in organizations like Britain's BBC or Brazil's TV Globo, where large numbers of creative people, gathered together under one roof, develop a synergy with unusual creative force—as witnessed by the fact that both organizations turn out much of the world's most imaginative and boldly innovative television. Richard Moore, who spent four decades in American public television, both as a creative producer and a station CEO, believes that exceptional talent seems to thrive best in an environment in which tough decisions are made by a single governing intelligence. Only highly centralized organizations, he concludes, "seem capable of establishing an environment in which individual judgment and creativity can flourish." Public television must create such an environment. If it is to move into the mainstream, it will need the exceptional talent of those eager to be free of Hollywood's formulaic straightjacket—who can only be attracted to a system where lines of responsibility are clear and precise and where decisions can be taken without a referendum or a vote.
The centralization of programming responsibility should not preclude but should actually increase independent production. The trend in that direction is already well established. Bill Moyers' Journal, Adam Smith's Money World, Live from Lincoln Center , the MacNeil/Lehrer NewsHour , and Sesame Street , as well as other PBS primetime series, are produced independently of the stations. The trend
should be pushed still further: stations should be removed from responsibility for national programming and should focus their attention and resources upon much-needed and largely neglected locally specific programming. Any number of production organizations are able to create national programming, oftentimes at lower costs, but only local stations are able to provide locally produced programming for purely local audiences.
As part of the marginalization of the public medium, Congress has promoted the notion that every local audience has quite different programming needs and tastes. Stations have been permitted, even encouraged, to treat PBS as a library by picking those programs that in the judgment of the management best suit local tastes and then airing them on a quixotic schedule of the station's choosing. The baleful result is program anarchy, a hodgepodge schedule that robs public television of a national identity and denies its producers and underwriters the advantages of national promotion. Local differences make sense with locally produced programs, tied as they are to specific events, people, and circumstances in a given community. But the notion runs off the rails when the effort is made to apply it to national programming; viewers everywhere enjoy the same popular programs on the commercial networks, and there is nothing to suggest they would treat public television any differently. Scheduling, the art of juxtaposing an evening's programming to create what the trade calls "audience flow," is practiced by the commercial networks with live-or-die intensity and with proven benefit to both the viewer and the programmer. Without challenging the statutory right of any station to refuse for any reason to air a given program, public television must devise a rational approach to the scheduling of national programming before it can become part of mainstream television.
Implicit in the plot to reinvent and demarginalize public television is the assumption, at once wistful and desperate, that the dollars will be at hand to make the hope a reality. Countless recommendations to solve the system's chronic financial struggle have done little to ease the problem; the system continues to be grossly underfunded. How grossly can be gauged by a comparison of per
capita annual support of public broadcasting in the United States ($6.34) with per capita support in Japan ($19.76), the United Kingdom ($37.31), and Canada ($48.86). When the annual revenues of the world's top one hundred public and private broadcasting organizations are ranked by size, four public systems—Japan's NHK, Germany's ARD, Italy's RAI, and Britain's BBC—are among the top ten. PBS doesn't make the list at all. Putting aside for the moment the argument that America's money problem is due in some measure to the poor allocation of the resources it does have—too much for support of an inefficient structure and not enough for programming—more generous support is unquestionably essential if public television is to be responsive to the nation's needs.
Congress's failure to act on repeated recommendations for a stable and assured source of support, free of political influence, has driven the system to find its own solutions. Each solution has brought the trappings of new problems: Congressional appropriations have too often exerted political pressure on controversial programming; viewer support requires the periodic mind-numbing drumbeat of pledge weeks; and corporate underwriting increasingly narrows the crucial difference between the public and commercial media. In the search for alternatives, public broadcasters have turned their sights on the profits of private broadcasting, hoping to find a defensible claim upon a small piece of the industry's multibillion-dollar revenue. Two forms of a levy have been suggested. One, first advanced by former NBC president Joseph McConnell, would charge all private broadcasters a franchise tax (or "spectrum fee") for use of the "public airwaves." McConnell argued that "those who are licensed to use the airwaves in the 'public interest' . . . should at least share in the cost of Public Television . . . [and] should pay a franchise tax for that purpose." Somewhat later, Joseph D. Hughes, an investment banker and charter member of the board of the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, echoed McConnell's call for a franchise tax. Hughes pointed out in a provocative 1977 "blueprint" for restructuring public broadcasting "that almost everything of a similar nature is now subject to charge . . . mining claims, timber-
cutting rights in national forests, domestic and offshore oil leases, and even permits to graze cattle on public lands."
In a variation on the spectrum fee, some have proposed a license-transfer fee that would impose a levy on profits from the sale of a radio or television station. A brisk market emerged from the deregulation of the industry. But both the spectrum and license-transfer fees are opposed by commercial broadcasters, who feel increasingly at risk as cable and satellite technology cut heavily into their audience numbers and trim their profits. With a radically changed communications environment, the old formulas for funding the public medium no longer suffice. As an example, many if not most viewers of public television view their public station on a local cable system, particularly if their station is one of the two out of three public channels in the UHF band. The cable company charges a monthly fee for its services and shares that fee with the satellite-delivered cable networks—CNN, USA, MTV, and the others. Public broadcasting gets nothing (nor do any of the other over-the-air broadcast stations). All but the cable operators will find it ironic that viewers must pay cable companies $260 or more to a year to watch their public station beg for a $50 annual contribution. Cable's commendable assumption of the full support for non-profit C-SPAN may suggest a useful pattern for further exploration.
Those both inside and outside public broadcasting who would loosen the restraints on the amount and form of public television's corporate underwriting—who would, in effect, open the public medium to the acceptance of conventional commercials—must weigh the predictable consequences. Competition for advertisers leads inevitably to programming that serves the advertisers' and not the viewers' needs, raising questions about the need for a dual public-private system. Italians, who have seen their public system, once a monopoly, grow more and more to resemble its private competition, would understand. The British have astutely avoided this problem. By giving public and private television exclusive entitlement to distinctly different sources of income, they have, says the former chief of Britain's Independent Broadcasting Authority, "given both sides the incentive to match and out-match each
other's programmes without being forced to pick each other's pockets."
Public television's unrelenting search for an appropriate and practical mode of funding is less important than would be indicated by the time and studies devoted to it. The United States is well able to afford a public-television system, and the nation certainly has the wit and imagination to devise an appropriate means of funding it. It is neither money nor imagination that we lack, but a clear grasp of the concept and an all-out commitment to see it realized. Were that commitment to be made, public television's money problems would become, as media historian Erik Barnouw pointed out thirty years ago, "largely one of shifting our priorities.
Like it or not, within the next decade you and I are destined to move, or be pushed, into a new age of communication. The convergence of technologies—video, computer, fiber optics, digitalization, telephones, and the rest—promises to arm us with an astonishing array of communication tools, including a "superhighway" on which a seeming infinity of information will travel. The mind is boggled by the numbers. Which makes it all the more imperative that in our confused state we do not lose sight of what the numbers refer to: the potential volume of traffic, not the quality of its messages. We have no assurance that an exponential increase in the volume of messages will solve any of our basic problems, or for that matter, make life any more meaningful. In fact, says Neil Postman, information has become "a form of garbage that is not only incapable of answering the most fundamental human questions but barely useful in providing coherent direction to the solution of even mundane problems." In Technopoly , Postman chronicles what he believes is the surrender of our culture to the tyranny of technology—a technology that has transformed information into a "thing" in itself, a commodity to be bought and sold like soap. The result, he fears, is "a culture consumed with information," increasingly at risk not from a lack of information but from a glut of decontextualized data untied to human needs.
Our home screens will bear the fruits of the coming revolution with more choice, more convenience, more everything—including interactivity and the chance to talk back (which is far more likely to be used simply for greater convenience in ordering the products and entertainments proffered on the screen). America's obsession with the myth that more is better has made a virtue of abundance itself. But having witnessed in my lifetime the concomitant growth in numbers and decline in quality of both radio and television, I fear the predicted explosion of channels will produce little more than debris—some of it diverting, most of it hardly worth the investment of time. The reason is the intensification of competition. With toothpaste and soap, competition for market share produces a better product. In broadcasting, competition drives the product downmarket. Those who pay the freight, the advertisers, measure success by the number of eyeballs focused on the screen. As the frenzy to win the numbers intensifies, producers are pressured to "dumb down" their product to broaden its appeal. The more competitors, the greater the competition, and the greater the pressures to find the lowest common denominator among a highly diversified universe of viewers.
Competition has created another phenomenon known as "narrowcasting"—the effort to reach smaller, more specialized "niche" audiences (groups of viewers who share a common interest and have an appealing demographic to advertisers). Much of cable and most of radio have moved in this direction. Whatever its appeal to individual viewers, the shift to narrowcasting poses a particular risk to our democracy, primarily because of its potential to weaken the social glue that binds our fragmented and pluralistic society. Social critic Benjamin Barber points out that network television, which once "offered perhaps the only truly common vision we have," helped to breach those differences. But with the trend toward narrowcasting, says Barber, factionalism—feared as "the scourge of democracy" by critics from James Madison to Walter Lippmann—"is given the support of technology." Nor is Barber alone in seeing a threat to democracy in television's growing presence in our social and political fabric. James Reston, one of the nation's most respected journalists, confessed in a PBS retro-
spective of his career with the New York Times that "the influence of television on politics has really shaken my faith in democracy."
The fears of both Barber and Reston were anticipated, in a sense, by another distinguished journalist. Writing almost three decades earlier, in 1959, Walter Lippmann voiced a concern that television was misusing a superb technical achievement by "monopolizing the air at the expense of effective news reporting, good art, and civilized entertainment." Lippmann, who did not believe the "evil" could be remedied by regulation, proposed that there be an alternative to private television, an option "practiced in one form or another in almost every other civilized country." The alternative was competition, "not for profit but for public service." In the duality of our private-public system, we have the essentials for the Lippmann alternative. But the prescribed competition for public service cannot take place so long as each competitor plays a different game, under different rules, and with grossly unequal resources. Competition for public service becomes meaningful only when a reinvented public system, funded from a different source and armed with adequate resources, has the capacity to push into television's mainstream. When it does, we will see it set new and higher standards for all of television.
In the communications shakeout that is coming, there will be winners and losers. Some will survive and others will slip into limbo, victims of the inexorable economic forces that shape the fate of our mass media. Economic forces, however, are not the only arbiter of social needs. This nation, dependent as it is upon an informed electorate, must not permit its organs of enlightenment to be shaped by the same forces that determine its leading brands of beer, headache remedy, and dog food. Public television must be permitted to do what it has the power to do, not in its own interest but in ours.
It represents, as one observer has noted, "a claim of a present minority in behalf of a future majority."