Political conservatives have been targeting PBS for more than 20 years with a stream of public relations campaigns designed to rein in public broadcasting's independence and cut into its public and congressional support. Now they are back with more charges of liberal bias.
Kenneth Tomlinson, the Bush-appointed chairman of the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, which manages public TV's congressional funding, hired a consultant to track the guest list of Bill Moyers' program "Now," brought aboard a White House communications officer as a special adviser, and is ensuring the addition of more programs with a conservative bent - all in the name of achieving "balance."
Mostly what he's doing is creating a distraction. Those who think that Tomlinson is providing any fresh evidence that public television leans left are not only mistaken, they are missing a much bigger story: the maturation of a market-savvy PBS that is barely distinguishable from its commercial counterparts.
On PBS today, children are sold breakfast cereal and fruit juice, among other products, before and after each of the daytime kids' programs. And these programs serve as daily advertisements for their own repertoire of licensed products, from toothbrushes to computer games. The business programs all are directed at investors, covering the economy through a narrow corporate lens. And news programs feature the same elite talking heads who appear regularly on commercial television news.
What happened to the old PBS, whose slogan so well described its vital role in our culture: "If PBS doesn't do it, who will?"
Historically, PBS became known for its long-standing commitment to quality children's programming and to public affairs documentaries and cultural programs. But by the 1990s, cable networks began running programs that looked a lot like public television. The History and Biography channels offered documentaries, and A&E and Bravo offered cultural programming. Nickelodeon, and later Noggin, offered quality children's programs. And 24-hour cable news meant that the PBS "NewsHour" was no longer the primary alternative to the 30-minute network evening newscasts.
As the growth of cable TV ushered in the 500-channel universe, public television had one key asset that could have made it distinctive: It was noncommercial, meaning that programming did not have to depend on audience ratings or please advertisers. Higher social values could drive the content.
But, instead, PBS has chosen to become increasingly market-driven. While it still is a home for quality educational programs, it is becoming more difficult to define how it is "noncommercial." Programming decisions are deeply intertwined with concerns about funding sources, audience size and demographics, and with a general desire to avoid offending vocal constituencies.
PBS has extended its targeting of upscale viewers by emphasizing young children and their parents as a core audience segment. As the market for children's media has exploded in recent years, PBS has cashed in on its loyal audience and reputation for quality educational programming. The growth of the PBS Kids franchise - and the interest among major national advertisers in sponsoring various PBS Kids ventures - is testament to the increasing focus at PBS on children as potentially valuable consumers.
In its defense, public television long has walked a tightrope, trying to avoid charges that it is biased or obsolete. When programming veered outside the mainstream - with programs, for example, that were critical of U.S. foreign policy or explored gay and lesbian issues - critics called PBS biased and argued that it did not deserve public funding. But when programming looked familiar - for example, science and nature shows and programs on cooking or home renovations - critics called PBS obsolete, pointing to similar content on commercial networks.
In this no-win situation, PBS has turned to a market solution, converting public service into something to be packaged and sold to brand-loyal consumers. In working to leverage their brand, PBS employs the same strategies and uses the same brand-management advisers as the major commercial media. Public service often becomes little more than a slogan to rally the troops at pledge time.
But is this really necessary? The idea of public television is far more popular than the ratings of its specific programs suggest. Public opinion surveys show that a vast majority of Americans support public television and are willing to pay for it with their tax dollars - even though PBS' audience has always been small and has declined in prime time by more than 30 percent since the late 1980s. People like to think that public television is valuable, even if they rarely watch it.
This gives PBS an opening to become far more valuable in our politics and in our culture. But to do this, it needs to return to its roots. This is the public television people think of as valuable whether they watch it or not. And there are plenty of long-standing questions - dating back to its formation in 1967 - that public television still has to address.
For example, public broadcasters have waffled about what it means to be "public" as opposed to commercial. Now more than ever, cable forces them to come up with an answer. How can they fulfill their founding mission, as articulated by the Carnegie Commission on Educational Television, to "provide a voice for groups in the community that may otherwise be unheard," serve as "a forum for controversy and debate," and broadcast programs that "help us see America whole, in all its diversity"?
As the airwaves become more and more cluttered with commercial networks fragmenting the public into bite-sized, demographically specific audience segments, what better time for a network committed to serving America "whole"?
For starters, PBS needs to re-establish itself as noncommercial, which will, by itself, make the PBS viewing experience decidedly different. Quality programming is always expensive and difficult to produce consistently. But PBS can gain public support and build its audience by articulating an overarching programming philosophy that will clearly distinguish its offerings from the rest of television.
An approach that emphasizes programs that challenge us, not simply satisfy us, is something that Americans across the political spectrum could support. This kind of public television would be committed to presenting views from beyond insider circles. It would seek to stimulate dialogue, left, right and center, with programs that reach across boundaries of culture and class. It would be committed to engaging and challenging youth with programs by and about young people, and to enriching civic life across America with challenging programs on local issues.
Studies of public television over the last decade show that Tomlinson's charges of liberal bias are off the mark. In contrast to conservative claims that public television routinely features the voices of anti-establishment critics, scholarly research shows that alternative perspectives are rare on public television, and are effectively drowned out by the stream of government, expert, and corporate views that represent the vast majority of sources on public television programs. These bias charges only reinforce the idea that public television is better off playing it safe.
Instead of a debate about bias, we need a national conversation about how to repair the public service foundations of public television. First on the agenda needs to be a discussion of how to adequately fund public broadcasting, so it can be free to put on challenging programming without pressure from critics like Tomlinson who have the power to hold the network hostage to its government funding. A public broadcasting trust fund, managed by an independent nonpartisan board, would achieve this.
Noncommercial public broadcasting can play an important role in this hyper-commercialized age, but only if its leadership takes seriously its founding mission to broadcast programs that include fresh perspectives, expand dialogue and welcome controversy. This is the public television that the public deserves.
William Hoynes is a professor of sociology and director of media studies at Vassar College.
© 2005 Newsday