Made Possible By... The Death of Public Broadcasting in the United States
By James Ledbetter
272 pages; $25
To blame an author for a poor book title may be as wrongheaded as faulting newspaper reporters for lousy headlines. But this book stands twice indicted. Its title, "Made Possible By...," is contrived, and its subtitle, "The Death of Public Broadcasting..," is
Even so, it's a timely book that sends an important warning.
"Made Possible By" is the story not of the death of public broadcasting but of its deadening. James Ledbetter doesn't argue that public TV and radio are moribund. Instead, he maintains persuasively (if not surprisingly) that they are benumbed by creeping commercialization, privatization and homogenization, drifting ever further from their assigned roles as alternative media.
ýedbetter, a media reporter for the Village Voice, presents "Made Possible By" as a history, written generally chronologically and with admirable balance. His tone, at least once we're past the subtitle, is measured, never shrill, but he is pointed and direct when need be.
The historical perspective yields two early insights that are essential to appreciating the plight of today's public broadcasting.
First, from its very beginning public broadcasting has never had a stable and independent source of money. And second, it has never enjoyed a guardian angel political constituency; the right has always resented it, and the left has stayed aloof.
These conditions leave it dependent and vulnerable to bullying from both inside and outside the government.
Although educational broadcasting dates back to the 1930s, Ledbetter's major interest begins with passage of the Public Broadcasting Act of 1967, which envisioned a needed alternative to commercial television. But public broadcasting quickly collided with the political agenda of the Nixon administration, whose "multi-year harassment" included politicizing its governing board, intimidating it into halving the commitment to news and public affairs, and driving it into the hands of commercial contributors.
The latter indignity opened a very large door. Corporate underwriting now represents 27 percent of PBS national programming costs, according to Ledbetter, serving as "an inevitable censor" and earning the sarcastic nickname, "Petroleum Broadcast Service."
Ledbetter supplies a depressing list of programs where corporate funding has raised conflict of interest implications: a show on the history of computers, financed in part by computer maker Unisys; a program called Eat Smart, sponsored by the Kellogg Foundation and Nestle; the Nightly Business Report, underwritten by investment houses. He also faults "The MacNeil/Lehrer NewsHour" (now "The NewsHour with Jim Lehrer") for overfriendly coverage of the Exxon Valdez oil spill (Exxon, he reports, had been a "NewsHour" underwriter) and a scandal involving Archer Daniels Midland, the giant agricultural conglomerate (at one point the "chief corporate underwriter" of the news program).
"We'd love to do a program on the history and role of business in America," a PBS vice president is quoted as saying. "But who will underwrite that?"
The constant need for money has also, of course, led public broadcasting into vast commercial activities of its own, from Learningsmith stores in shopping malls to endless "Sesame Street" product tie-ins to licensing contracts with such giants as Fisher Price and Toys 'R' Us.
"The more PBS and NPR rely on commercial tie-ins and merchandising," Ledbetter concludes, "the more their programming will be determined by what is merchandisable."
All these forces have converged, Ledbetter contends, to reduce risk-taking in public broadcasting and to make it more like another commercial or cable network than a genuine, public service-
"Like a dog that has learned to flinch at the mere pantomime of the master's lashing, public broadcasters know to avoid topics and methods of criticism that might bring down the hand of rebuke," he writes.
So, touchy issues from civil rights to gay rights suffer from a self-censorship that saps even more vitality from the medium. "Nothing shall appear on this program," he quotes one official as saying about a 1960s experimental show, "that does not belong in a gentleman's living room."
Today, Ledbetter believes, public broadcasting faces an even more direct threat: "a fairly naked power grab by the nation's communications companies" who, sensing deregulation in the air, are on a "massive shopping spree" for the assets of public broadcasting.
While these problems do not signal the death of public broadcasting, they do make a powerful case that it has been coopted and sanitized. Once considered a potential "tool of enlightenment" to help build communities and foster citizenship, it has become one more cable channel, "a mildly offbeat niche of the commercial American media market."
Can the direction be reversed? Ledbetter offers some sensible suggestions, starting with the vital need for a trust fund to provide steady financing and insulation from politics. Money could come from an excise tax on television sets, a small tax on all radio and TV advertising buys, or a checkoff item on income tax forms. But all of these plans seem longshots in an age of cutbacks and anti-tax fervor.
Ledbetter also implores public broadcasting to resist corporate domination, get out from under the foot of presidential appointees and improve service to minorities.
No doubt his strangest suggestion is to "cut back spending on children's programming," which, he argues, is no longer cutting edge and has siphoned off resources that could have been better used.
Of course, the picture is not entirely negative, and Ledbetter credits public broadcasting for "countless moments of excellence" and "unique brilliance." This seems all the more reason to regret the opportunities that have been lost.