Communication Currents

Why Public Broadcasting?

October 1, 2007
Mass Communication

Public Broadcasting turns 40.  November 7, 2007 marks the fortieth anniversary of the Public Broadcasting Act of 1967, arguably the most significant piece of U.S. communication policy legislation of the second half of the 20th century. The Act created the Corporation for Public Broadcasting (CPB), and subsequently the establishment of the Public Broadcasting Service (PBS) and National Public Radio (NPR) as the national distribution networks for public television and radio. The relative success or failure of this landmark law has been a subject of numerous books and articles over the past four decades, and the importance of what the legislation did and did not do continues to receive scholarly attention in the October 2007 issue of Critical Studies in Media Communication.

Congressional leaders in the United States forged a broadcasting system that became the product of commercial free enterprise, as compared to the British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC) that was to become the model for public service broadcasting worldwide. The Radio Act of 1927 and then the Communication Act of 1934 created the blueprint for a market-driven broadcasting service that delivered audiences to advertisers. Although this early legislation acknowledged that the airwaves were a public resource and that broadcasters had a responsibility to perform in the public interest, the Federal Communications Commission (FCC)--the federal agency that was to be the standard bearer and watchdog for the American public-did little to insure that broadcast stations would operate as a public trust. To the contrary, the FCC routinely renewed licenses without any expectation that radio and television programming would do anything more than entertain listeners and viewers. So, while broadcasting became part of the cultural and educational fabric of British society, in the U.S. it became escapist dribble that was wrapped around commercial messages for soap and toothpaste.

To the FCC's credit, frequencies were set aside for noncommercial educational radio in 1945 and television in 1952. But creating spectrum space for stations dedicated to providing meaningful informational and educational programming to the American public without the associated funding to make it happen was a sure formula for failure. The struggles of noncommercial radio and television broadcasters to keep their stations on the air are legendary in the annals of American broadcast history, and had it not been for the Ford Foundation and a handful of other philanthropic organizations these broadcasting pioneers would have never survived. The programs were generally low budget productions that could hardly compete with the slick shows of commercial broadcasting. What was needed was a way to catch the attention of federal lawmakers and to help them recognize that commercial television and radio would never sacrifice large audiences in the name of quality programs that were designed to educate and inform rather than simply entertain. There needed to be a national structure and support system to enable educational stations that were forbidden to broadcast commercial messages to prosper along side their commercial counterparts.

That the Public Broadcasting Act was signed into law in 1967 was the result of a combination of idealism, timing, behind the scenes political maneuvering, and more than a little bit of good luck. As a successful owner of broadcasting properties in Texas, Senator Lyndon B. Johnson had been a supporter of an effort to fund educational television facilities through the National Defense Education Act in 1958. After the assassination of John F. Kennedy, Johnson moved from his Vice President position to the White House. America's love affair with JFK was strong, and Johnson was determined to make his own unique mark with what became known as his Great Society programs.

In December of 1964, educational television leaders approached the prestigious Carnegie Foundation to create a blue ribbon Carnegie Commission on Educational Television. This Commission studied educational television for more than a year and issued a monumental report, titled Public Television: A Program for Action. Johnson was impressed with the report's recommendations and called on Congress to create legislation that would bring the recommendations to life.

The political maneuvering began in earnest, and with the addition of educational radio to the proposed legislation, identical bills (S. 1160) moved with remarkable speed through both houses of Congress. At the November 7, 1967 signing ceremony, President Johnson spoke eloquently about the significance of this new law (Public Law 90-129). He placed it in the context of Congressional support for the construction of the first telegraph line in 1844 and the 1862 Morrill Act that set aside lands in every state to create a national system of land-grant colleges. He invoked recollections of the old Greek marketplace where public affairs took place in full view of the entire citizenry, and he promised that this new system of public broadcasting would belong to all the people.

For all the lofty rhetoric that accompanied the historic signing ceremony, the legislation had several significant shortcomings that have nearly destroyed U.S. public television and radio during the past four decades. The Carnegie Commission had envisioned that the Corporation for Public Broadcasting created by the Act would be governed by a nonpartisan Board of Directors that would serve as a political heat shield, guarding the new enterprise from Congressional or White House meddling. Instead the Act mandated a fifteen-member Board of presidential appointees that essentially guaranteed that partisan politics would become inevitable, with the winds of influence changing directions with each shift of administration.

A second major flaw that has been recognized repeatedly by critics worldwide is that the funding mechanism envisioned by the Commission to provide insulated long-range financial support never made it into the Act. Unwilling to hand public broadcasters a blank check in the form of a guaranteed trust fund generated by an excise tax on television sets, Congress instead forced public broadcasting to conform to the annual budgeting and appropriation process. The result has been a continuing struggle to secure adequate funding year after year.

Without that guaranteed financial support, public broadcasting has been forced to engage in funding practices that have been the source of sharp criticism. Since programming follows the money, public television and radio has been forced to attract corporations and foundations and upscale viewers and listeners with programs that are mainstream in content and ideology. The vision of public broadcasting serving highly diverse and underprivileged audiences has not been fully realized, to the obvious disappointment of some.

Despite these shortcomings, the Public Broadcasting Act of 1967 succeeded in bringing high quality radio and television programs to U.S. audiences that would not have been possible otherwise. The creation of the Corporation for Public Broadcasting and the national distribution networks for public radio and television allowed the alternative system to become a distinctive voice in American culture. Today, the public television characters of Sesame Street, the image of Mister Rogers, and the antics of Barney & Friends are as central to the memories of childhood as anything shown on the commercial networks. Hard hitting documentaries such as FrontlineThe War, and Bill Moyers on America are creating national public awareness and helping to set social policy agendas. Explorations into our universe via Nova, to the depths of the oceans on Nature, and to the frontiers of the human spirit through The American Experience have greatly enhanced the public appreciation and understanding of the world in which we live. National Public Radio's Morning EditionAll Things ConsideredFresh Air, and The World have become a staple for millions of commuters who depend on public radio for important information that enables them to stay abreast of current issues and events. And with the advent of High Definition Television and HD Radio made possible by the transition to digital transmission, a wide array of new channels will soon provide U.S. citizens with the diverse menu of programs that moves public television and radio stations ever closer to fulfilling that original ideal.

With the benefit of forty years of hindsight, the weaknesses of that 1967 Act have become abundantly clear. The problem of securing funds continues, as does the threat of political interference. Yet, it is impossible to imagine our ever-growing mediated environment without the presence of a strong public broadcasting system.

Yes, public broadcasters should always be subjected to critical scrutiny and evaluation and undoubtedly some critics will always find their best efforts wanting. But by the same token, the television commercial should not be accepted as the communion wafer of American society. Without an alternative public broadcasting system that is outside the grip of market forces and the straightjacket of commercialization, our nation could well be heading for a 1984 that even George Orwell did not imagine. Indeed, future historians could very well conclude that the 1967 Act was one of the most important factors of the 20th century in the preservation of U.S. democracy. Whether public broadcasting will be permitted to turn 80 will depend on the continued involvement of concerned citizens who believe in a free and open exchange of ideas via radio and television, and the insulated financial support to make that ideal possible.

About the author (s)

Robert K. Avery

University of Utah