PBS' Future Post-Moyers

It's fitting that as Bill Moyers formally ends his 30-year journey working at PBS, the noncommercial network itself is about to embark on a new effort to determine its own future. This Friday, Moyers signs-off as the host of his "NOW" program, and also leaves PBS. At the same time, public broadcasting's new "Enhanced Funding Initiative" advisory committee is about to hold their first public meeting. Its goal is to "develop ... sustainable ... funding for public service media in the digital era." At issue is whether public broadcasting will finally succeed in securing what has been an endless Holy Grail-like quest since its founding in the 1960s: to secure ongoing and independent funding for noncommercial radio and TV.

For decades, public TV and radio have been buffeted by political forces of Congress, which controls the key federal contributions to its annual budget. It's always been kept on a very short funding leash, which has helped keep both PBS and NPR from engaging in the kind of programming that would significantly challenge the status quo (both of media and of politics). But PBS President Pat Mitchell believes that there is now a serious opportunity to create a permanent trust fund worth billions of dollars. The new funding initiative will recommend how PBS (and presumably NPR and public TV and radio stations) can gain the revenues made possible from the sale of publicly owned airwaves.

Mitchell is correct that the country's congressionally mandated transition to an all-digital broadcast system provides a unique opportunity to explore permanent funding. There are 20 to 30 billions of dollars worth of public spectrum (airwaves) that will return to the government from commercial and public TV stations. Even a small portion of the proceeds could easily generate sustainable annual revenues for noncommercial TV and radio.

But it is unlikely that either PBS or its elite panel of advisors (the panel is chaired by former Netscape CEO James Barksdale and former FCC Chair Reed Hundt) will ask whether PBS actually deserves such a major gift from the American public. Nor will the process likely examine – in a very open and public way – how noncommercial communications should be restructured in the digital era.

For example, before any discussion of raising new revenues, we should be assured that the spirit of the original mission of public broadcasting is fully honored. Where is the commitment to producing serious news and public affairs (both at the station and national level)? How will significant programming slots be controlled by persons of color (at a time when Tavis Smiley, for example, is quitting NPR for its failure to "meaningfully reach out" to a multi-cultural audience)? How much of the schedule will be controlled by independent producers? Will ad-like underwriting vanish from PBS, especially its news and children's programs? How will the governance of public broadcasting change so it becomes more democratic? What new innovative programming ventures will be created that can harness the more than 2,000 digital channels soon to be available to public TV?

Unless there is public pressure on PBS and the Congress to ask such questions, they won't be on the agenda. We should be engaged in the kind of serious review about the future of public service broadcasting (PSB) now underway in the U.K., where a very public and focused process about how to "redefine PSB for the digital age" has already produced significant recommendations. Given the expanded capabilities of digital TV, broadband, and other new media, there is no reason to rely on any one central institution, such as PBS, to provide the public with quality noncommercial programming. One U.K. proposal to create a "Public Service Publisher" that would use independent producers to create and "distribute content on broadband, mobile networks as well as cable [and] satellite" should be embraced here as well. So should its call for a noncommercial system that is "genuinely open, transparent ... and involves the public adequately in decision making."

The new media landscape of TV and online will likely become even more commercialized, as Big Media and Madison Avenue target consumers with pinpoint digital accuracy. It is vital that we create as far-reaching a noncommercial media landscape as we can. To truly do so would be honoring Bill Moyers. In his roles as journalist and storyteller, he has demonstrated how TV can serve democracy as well as the spirit. We can only hope that the country's noncommercial future reflects the rich legacy that Moyers has given us.


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