Happy Birthday, Public Broadcasting!

At only 34 years old, American public broadcasting is spiritually dead. It desperately needs to be reborn as an independently funded public trust.
The Public Broadcasting Service celebrated its thirty-fourth birthday in early November. One month before, the Republican majority on the Federal Communications Commission gave PBS a gift -- permission for public broadcasters to commercialize some of their new digital channels.

Public broadcasters had been soliciting money from viewers and politicians for their transition to digital with the promise of a better picture and/or more programming streams. But behind the scenes, they petitioned the FCC to use the digital channels for "revenue generating" purposes, such as "subscription video" and fee-based services, all with advertising. Public broadcasters got their birthday wish, and thus slid further down the slope into total commercialization.

PBS was created in 1967 "not to sell products," but to "enhance citizenship and public service." This vision was articulated by the Carnegie Commission on Educational Television, which proposed a system free of commercial constraints that would serve as "a forum for debate and controversy," providing a "voice for groups in the community that may otherwise go unheard" so that we could "see America whole, in all its diversity."

But scanning the typical PBS schedule these days one finds weasels eating snakes, British people talking, Beltway pundits barking, and a surfeit of "how to" shows: how to cook, lose weight, decorate your house, invest money, and manage your emotions. The network's flagship news program -- "The NewsHour with Jim Lehrer" -- is too infatuated with establishment wise men to bother much with other perspectives. Besides its long-running "Frontline" documentary series, PBS comes up short on offerings that might teach Americans how to dissect propaganda, evaluate policies, share their opinions with each other, and defend the public interest.

As for the noncommercial mission of PBS, there are now lots of commercials on the network ("underwriting announcements" in PBS parlance) and they are longer and more explicit than ever before, including pitches on children's shows for theme parks and fast food.

Despite its humble beginning, PBS showed great vigor and imagination at the start. KQED-TV San Francisco, one of the first stations on the air, had its first studio in the back seat of a station wagon, its second in a dressing room atop the Mark Hopkins Hotel, and its third in a trade school where restroom signs warned "Don't flush during broadcasts." But what shows! PBS offered cutting edge public affairs series such as "Public Broadcasting Laboratory" and "The Great American Dream Machine" and live drama by America's greatest playwrights and starring America's greatest performers. KQED itself produced scores of documentaries and offered a "Newspaper of the Air" that featured local reporters commenting on the news items of the day.

Launched with great expectation, PBS is now an aimless "has been" living on past glory. It still has to rattle the cup, begging well-heeled viewers to dig deep just to keep it going. It still depends on handouts from Uncle Sam, paying the price of not daring to offend any of its overseers in Congress. Far from its mandate to be "alternative," PBS shuns independent producers while co-producing with and recycling fare from Disney's ABC, Fox, Reader's Digest and the like. It privately panders after corporate funding while boasting about its chasteness in banning public interest group funding. Local governing and community advisory boards are handpicked by management and little more than rubber stamps.

To realize the great promise of noncommercial public broadcasting, all this would have to change. It all starts with funding for the service, the current structure of which breeds insecurity and dependence that compromise its mission. Public broadcasting in other democracies has reliable and independent sources of funding, like a TV license fee. In European countries, Canada, Australia and Japan, citizens pay between $36 and $136 a year to support public service broadcasting. Ratings range from 13 percent in Canada up to 44 percent in the United Kingdom. In the United States, we pay a little more than $1. With so little for production and promotion, PBS draws only 2 percent of the TV audience.

From the outset, Carnegie Commission chair James R. Killian, Jr., argued that "a free, innovative, creative public television service" would not be possible if it were to be "ultimately dependent" on Congress for its funding. The Commission proposed a federal trust fund based on a manufacturer's excise tax on the sale of television sets. Lobbied heavily by the National Association of Broadcasters, Congress removed the trust fund proposal from the legislation that established the service. As a consequence, PBS has forever been in a survival mode, always vulnerable to those who control the purse strings.

Between 1951 and 1976, the Ford Foundation alone contributed $290 million to aid the early stations and the PBS forerunner, National Educational Television. However, foundation representatives these days lament that PBS never was able to establish itself as a source of news and public affairs that could impact the public discourse and, thus, justify their investment. When PBS tried to do so in the early 1970s, it was hammered by the Nixon Administration, an object lesson never forgotten. Ironically, in recent years, conservative foundations have been much more active in underwriting programming for the service.

For the last 30 years, there has been a succession of proposals to address this problem. In 1978, 1987 and 1988, Congress proposed various fees on commercial broadcasters to subsidize public broadcasting. Every time, the commercial broadcasters' mercenary Beltway lobbyists at the National Association of Broadcasters killed the bills. After a while, even the public broadcasters stopped trying. In 1994, the public and Congress soundly thrashed Newt Gingrich's initiative to cut all federal funding for PBS. Nevertheless, when challenged the following year to come up with proposals for economic "self-sufficiency," the best public broadcasters could do was a feeble suggestion to raise money by auctioning off their own digital channels because, in the words of station trade group leader David Brugger, it was "the only funding mechanism ... that does not have the opposition of the commercial media."

At only 34 years old, American public broadcasting is spiritually dead. It desperately needs to be reborn as an independently funded public trust. This would take it off the annual federal dole, remove corporate program sponsorship, and free the service to pursue its mission without the constant censorship pressures that come with private funding. This would give the public at least one place to turn for alternative views and independent analysis; one place dedicated to educating citizens rather than selling eyeballs to advertisers.

Commercial broadcasters should foot the bill. They make billions from their free use of the public's airwaves. As former PBS and NBC News President Lawrence Grossman has observed, "Broadcasting is the only industry in America where you can make money off a public resource and not pay a thing for it." Oil drillers, cattle grazers, cable operators, and cellular phone companies all pay a fee for using public resources. Why not commercial broadcasters?

Citizens for Independent Public Broadcasting, the organization I direct, calculates that public broadcasting needs $1 billion a year for all TV and radio, local and national programming. This would be three times what is currently spent, but still less than in other democracies. This funding level could be accomplished in several ways: a 5 percent tax on the sale or transfer of TV and radio licenses, a 2 percent tax on broadcast advertising, a 2 percent annual spectrum fee, or a tax on spectrum auctions.

In 1998, the Gore Commission explored the social responsibilities of digital broadcasters and recommended that Congress create a trust fund for public broadcasting, and, if it does, that PBS should reduce or eliminate "enhanced underwriting," which "closely resembles full commercial advertising." A national poll at the time found 79 percent of Americans favored a proposal to require commercial broadcasters to pay as much as 5 percent of their revenues into a fund to support noncommercial public broadcast programming. Of course, the general public doesn't give the campaign contributions that commercial broadcasters do, nor does the public employ a phalanx of Beltway lobbyists.

PBS is 34 years old. It's time to give it its trust fund. All we need is the political will. Our democracy deserves no less.

Jerold M. Starr is executive director of Citizens for Independent Public Broadcasting, a grassroots campaign to improve public broadcasting. He is also professor of sociology at West Virginia University.
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