Public Television (PBS)

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Public Television (PBS)

With its dedication to the high ideals of presenting the finest in drama, music, children's programs, and political debate, the U.S. public television system has proved a significant cultural force in a nation where broadcasting is largely driven by commercial considerations, often to the detriment of quality. Public television was at least partially born in reaction to Federal Communications Commission (FCC) chairman Newton Minnow's now famous comment that by 1961 American commercial television had become "a vast waste-land." (In 1978 Minnow would become chairman of PBS). From its 1950s roots in educational television, public (or non-commercial) television has grown, not without problems, internal conflicts, political opposition, and funding setbacks, to enjoy some considerable popular successes as a formidable, if vulnerable, alternative to the increasingly trivial and commercial-sodden programming of late twentieth-century network television.

Public and educational television dates back to the first public radio broadcasts from universities and scientific laboratories. The first radio broadcast of any kind originated from an educational venue, the University of Wisconsin, in 1919, and in the ensuing decade other universities followed suit, forming electronic extension services, though mostly for scattered audiences with crystal sets.

While the first television programs were broadcast in the late 1930s, World War II curtailed the industry's development. By 1945, however, the FCC had set aside 13 channels for commercial television, and by 1949 one million television receivers were in use across the United States. It was during the FCC's four-year freeze on station licenses (1948-1952) that a movement began among educators for channels that would be non-commercial and dedicated to education. In 1952, after its historic Sixth Report and Order, the FCC reserved 242 channels for non-commercial TV, and the Educational Television and Radio Center (ETRC) was established in Ann Arbor, Michigan, on a grant from the Ford Foundation's Fund for Adult Education. The center secured and distributed programs for the emerging system, as well as renting them out to schools and other public institutions.

In 1958 the Center moved to New York where it became National Educational Television (NET), again chiefly supported by the Ford Foundation. NET soon revised the limited classroom approach to educational TV, and shifted to providing a broader range of cultural, public affairs, documentary, and children's programming. It laid the groundwork both for expansion into network status, and for Educational TV's eventual re-designation as Public TV. NET lives on in the spirit and call letters of WNET, New York City's Channel 13 public television station, which is still active in producing original programming for public television.

Public television thus evolved directly out of educational television, a difficult rite of passage due to the fact that ETV originally began as a collection of autonomous stations, each serving in various and sundry ways the cause of education, but with no overriding administrative/creative policy. PBS's non-commercial status was another stumbling block, totally financed as it is by federal and state funding and, increasingly, by voluntary contributions from local viewers and grants from foundations and corporations. The fact that public TV was born after commercial network television had been firmly entrenched in the American mind was another obstacle to its initial development.

When the ETV system was redefined as public television by the Public Broadcasting Act of 1967, some internal confusion remained due to the diversity of the original educational TV system. (This in spite of the ideals for non-commerical TV that had been clarified in the Carnegie Commission Report of that same year). Some stations clung to their original ETV agendas, while others were reluctant to surrender their autonomy to the national system. Regional and political differences further complicated PBS's developmen, and contributed to the factionalism of its first decades. Thus the history of public television is also a history of conflict from within over the definition of the medium's true mission.

Despite internal and organizational conflicts, however, the avowed overall purpose of public television from the start was to make a dedicated attempt to free the television medium from the tyranny of the marketplace and to address the ideal of quality rather mass appeal and commercial profit. In theory, it also marked an attempt to realize the humanistic, social, and intellectual potential of the mass television medium, and to provide a varied menu of cultural, informational, educational, and innovative programming. These ideals were first voiced in the Carnegie Commission Report of 1967, Public Television: A Program for Action, the result of a two-year study of educational TV by a prestigious 15-member commission composed of educators, businessmen, producers, and artists. Funded by the Carnegie Corporation, a second Carnegie Commission was formed in 1977 to examine the history of the first decade of public television.

Public television has also been called "a name without a concept," but the system has nonetheless consistently managed to build both an audience and a profile, and to compete positively with, and sometimes even influence, the commercial system. By the 1970s PBS ratings were on the rise due to a flowering of excellent, well-produced original shows displaying variety as well as quality, and ranging from sitcoms and children's programs to documentary series about the arts and classical music. These included The Adams Chronicles, Great Performances, Nova, Live from Lincoln Center, and Sesame Street, while British imports included the sitcom Upstairs, Downstairs, Sir Kenneth Clark's series on the history of art, Civilization, Jacob Bronowski's The Ascent of Man, and Monty Python's Flying Circus. These shows became popular PBS staples, leading to more of the same in later decades. In 1973 the network's detailed coverage of the Senate Watergate hearings was one of its most effective programs ever for fund-raising, and by that year PBS had over a million subscribers, all voluntarily contributing an average annual amount of $15.00 to keep their regional PBS stations on the air. In 1990 The Civil War, aired on five consecutive nights, set an all-time ratings record for a series of limited length, and by 1991 the audience had grown to five million, making average yearly contributions up to $56.00. During the 1990s the most popular shows were the National Geographic Specials, the MacNeil/Lehrer News Hour, This Old House, The Frugal Gourmet, and the British import, Mystery.

Two extended mini-series attracted particular attention to public television during the late 1970s and early 1980s. Both were British productions and both pushed the envelope of content and permissiveness for television in general, proving compulsively watchable on a scale that no PBS programming had achieved thus far. I, Claudius, a 13-hour BBC drama series, that first aired in 1978, challenged the boundaries of what was acceptable not only on PBS, but for television as a whole. Adapted from two novels by Robert Graves, I, Claudius, and Claudius the God, the series chronicled in fairly explicit detail the political and sexual intrigues of the reigns of the four decadent Roman emperors who followed Julius Caesar. Told from the viewpoint of Claudius, a presumed idiot who ultimately becomes emperor, the violence and sexuality of the series made many PBS stations uneasy, though none of them failed to air it. I, Claudius was one of the most popular entries in PBS's excellent Masterpiece Theater series.

In 1982 an elaborate 11-episode adaptation of Evelyn Waugh's novel Brideshead Revisited emulated both the critical success and audience ratings of I, Claudius. Produced by England's Granada Television International, the twelve-and-a-half-hour production was one of the most expensive British television series to date. The extended story followed an Oxford student who becomes emotionally involved in the life of the semi-decadent upper classes of an England between world wars, and was opulently filmed on location in England, Venice, and Malta. Again, the series created some controversy in its discreet, but unselfconscious depiction of the homosexuality of one of the leading characters, Sebastian Flyte, and his intense involvement with the story's narrator, Charles Ryder.

Content aside, both I, Claudius and Brideshead Revisited also pioneered a new genre of high-toned television and literary adaptation. Longer by far than the longest movies ever made, both productions (but Brideshead especially) still maintained the production values and prestige of quality filmmaking. While ABC's popular success Roots had appeared as a 12-hour, week-long miniseries on ABC in 1977, the PBS broadcasts were the first time that works of classic literature were given their due in a format that finally did justice to both the detail and tempi of the literary originals. Nothing like either Claudius or Brideshead had ever really been seen anywhere before, and their acceptance and, indeed, overwhelming popularity on American public television laid the groundwork for the global acceptance of a new and somewhat rarefied genre of quality visual entertainment. The genre thrived on PBS, but the style also influenced actual movie making, such as the popular films of James Ivory, who adapted much of E. M. Forster in a similar fashion, and ensuing adaptations of the novels of Jane Austen and others.

Another innovative PBS series also inspired a number of spinoffs, and indeed launched an entire industry: the popular and enduring children's show, Sesame Street, with its cast of now globally beloved characters, including Jim Henson's Muppets. The series, which premiered in November of 1969 with an initial budget of only eight million dollars, has been described as "a revolutionary children's program that sought to teach numbers and letters (and, later, social concepts) to preschool children through TV entertainment chiefly by harnessing the techniques used in commercials." Sesame Street's original target audience was language-impaired preschool inner-city children, and thus the colorful and ethnically diverse characters (both live and Muppet) were often seen in drab urban settings uncharacteristic of children's shows.

Visual zap animation was the innovative instructional method pioneered on the show, and evaluative tests soon verified that Sesame's new formula of teaching letters and numbers though animation, paced at the attention-friendly duration of television commercials and augmented by the use of frequent repetition, was indeed an effective teaching method. The show later expanded from the teaching of educational basics to dealing with more complex issues such as the environment and racial understanding. With the 1984 death of actor Will Lee, who played one of the show's leading characters, Mr. Hooper, the subject of death and dying was raised for what was probably the first time on a children's television program. Sesame Street remains the most innovative end-product of the venerable educational TV system, and as such changed the face and techniques of children's programming everywhere.

In 1990 the death of Jim Henson, who not only created the show's popular Muppet characters, but lent his distinctive voice characterizations to several of them, left another void in the show. Henson's Muppet characters had made their debut on Sesame Street, and quickly became one of its most popular elements. The character of the huge but affable canary-yellow Big Bird became one of the most recognized and exploited characters of the late twentieth century, and PBS's first genuine superstar. Henson's own Muppet Show became one of the top-rated prime time CBS shows of the late 1970s, and in 1979 The Muppet Movie launched a film series which continues into the 1990s. Sesame Street's chief advisor was Dr. Gerald Lesser, a Harvard University psychologist, and the show also launched the songwriting career of Joe Raposo, whose popular Sesame Street songs were covered by many adult-geared recording artists of the era.

In spite of its popular successes, PBS has seldom been without its opponents since Lyndon Johnson signed the Public Broadcasting Act that created the Corporation for Public Broadcasting in 1967. That same year Johnson suggested that he would also work out a long-range funding plan for public TV in the coming year, but his withdrawal from the 1968 presidential campaign crushed this hope of extended support. The ensuing Nixon administration is remembered for, among other things, its attacks upon PBS as a "fourth network" and the White House's repeated attempts to decentralize public television. Documents later released under the Freedom of Information Act verify that the Nixon White House's aim was to shift control to individual stations, believing that they would act more conservatively in political terms. In 1972 Nixon vetoed CPB's authorization bill, but after several key members, including the chairman, president, and director of television of CPB resigned, the president signed a bill authorizing public broadcast funding for 1973.

The affair made public television aware of several key issues: that it was vulnerable to presidential political pressure, that it needed to develop a new, decentralized method for distributing production funds, and, especially, that it needed to look for new sources of funding, particularly from the private sector. So it was during this phase that PBS first turned more aggressively toward corporate underwriting, initially from the major oil companies, as a new source of program funding (ergo Exxon's sponsorship of the Great Performances series which aired Brideshead Revisited).

Congressional Democrats have been traditional supporters of public television, and the Carter administration was relatively hospitable to PBS, which prospered during Carter's term. However, Ronald Reagan's election to the presidency in 1981, just as public TV was becoming a viable alternative to commercial television, occasioned renewed political opposition. During the Reagan years public television's budget was reduced to the extent that some stations came to believe they could only survive by airing commercials. Reagan's drastic budget cuts resulted in FCC approval for experimentation with a form of commercial advertising on public television, though this was termed "enhanced underwriting," and meant that "logos or slogans that identify—but do not promote or compare—trade names, and product and service listings" were now permissible on public television, and have remained so.

In the late 1980s and 1990s PBS continued to produce well-received documentaries such as The Civil War and Vietnam: A Television History, the latter of which, for conservative viewers, perhaps verified suspicions of PBS's long-standing liberal and even leftist tendencies. In 1992, public television, along with such organizations as the National Endowment for the Arts, came under attack from a coalition of conservative groups led by the Heritage Foundation. The attack was timed to a period when Congress was to consider the reauthorization of public broadcast funding, and the Heritage Foundation simultaneously distributed "Making Public Television Public," a widely quoted report, which, contrary to its title, actually called for the privatization of public television. (One concept espoused was the selling of the Corporation for Public Broadcasting to the private sector, which, the report argued, would "clean up the public television mess.") The outcome, at least as William Hoynes puts it in his book, Public Television for Sale, "in the short run," was that a Democratic-controlled Congress passed the reauthorization bill, but with some qualifications. To many the 1992 debate was merely a reprise of ground covered in the Nixon and Reagan years, albeit, as Hoynes also points out, in a "post-cold war climate that celebrated the market in a quasi-religious manner."

On a more mundane level, the frequent periods of air time devoted to lengthy, although necessary, fund-raising campaigns that occur regularly on all public television and radio stations throughout the year sometimes chafe at even the most dedicated supporters of regional PBS. Some of these campaigns, however, also offer audience members the opportunity to appear "on the air" as the vital phone-answering staff for the call-ins from donors, or to see their friends and neighbors become temporary TV personalities on their favorite PBS channel in a kind of throw-back to the older and more audience-friendly days of early local and regional television.

E. B. White once commented on the television medium: "I think television should be the counterpart of the literary essay, should arouse our dreams, satisfy our hunger for beauty, take us on journeys, enable us to participate in events, present great drama and music, explore the sea and the sky and the woods and the hills. It should be our Lyceum, our Chautauqua, our Minsky's, and our Camelot. It should state and clarify the social dilemma and the political pickle." While still far from perfect, and while still both evolving and often in harm's way, public television has come the closest of anything yet in the pervasive and much maligned medium in attempting to fulfill White's ideals.

—Ross Care

Further Reading:

Brown, Les. Les Brown's Encyclopedia of Television. 3rd Edition. Detroit, Visible Ink, 1992.

Hoynes, William. Public Television for Sale: Media, the Market, and the Public Sphere. Boulder, Colorado, Westview Press, 1994.

Macy, John W., Jr. To Irrigate a Wasteland: The Struggle to Shape a Public Television System in the United States. Berkeley, University of California Press, 1974.

Miller, Carolyn Handler. Illustrated T.V. Dictionary. New York, Harvery House, 1980.

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Public Television (PBS)

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