The Truth About Public Television

Charles Lichenstein
Distinguished Fellow, Heritage Foundation

Charles M. Lichenstein is a Distinguished Fellow specializing in U.N. studies, foreign policy, intelligence, and counterterrorism at the Heritage Foundation in Washington, D.C. He has previously served as the alternate and the deputy U.S. representative to the U.N. Security Council from 1981-1984 and as the senior vice president for promotion, advertising and public affairs with the Public Broadcasting Service (PBS). Under the Nixon and Ford administrations, he held a variety of appointments, including special assistant to the President, and executive assistant to the chairman of the Federal Communications Commission. After graduating with a masters degree from Yale University, Mr. Lichenstein taught political science at Yale and Notre Dame and spent five years as an analyst on the Middle East and Africa for the Central Intelligence Agency.

How has public television become a multi-billion dollar industry? Former senior vice president of PBS Charles Lichenstein carefully documents the way in which government and corporations got into the act and how this affects what we see. This address was part of a Center for Constructive Alternatives seminar held in March, 1989, on the Hillsdale College campus.

I am astonished to note that this is the first time I’ve ever been here at Hillsdale. If Paris is the second home of every cultivated person in the world, surely Hillsdale—guided by George Roche—must be the second home of every conservative in the world. And as one of the oldest remaining original mainstream conservatives, I must say it’s very good to be home, finally. My role is that of the oddball in this series on popular culture, because I intend to discuss one vehicle of both culture and entertainment that rather prides itself on being unpopular. It may be making a virtue of necessity, or it may be with a certain degree of conscious deliberation, but public broadcasting always has fancied itself the “alternative” medium, the medium for “serious people,” the medium that will focus on what is thoughtful and enduring, and will eschew the faddish and the merely popular. It is consciously designed for elites, or for that aspect of all of us that yearns to be elitist. To begin, let me tell you a thing or two about public broadcasting from the perspective of my own personal experience. The favorite word in public broadcasting generally, and particularly in public television, is poverty: We don’t have enough money. We are on the threshold of bankruptcy. We must have public support, and more of it every year. Yet, at the same time, public television is one of the most extravagant, over-capitalized institutions in our society. It is a huge national conglomerate of almost three hundred local outlets. And, unlike any of the three principal commercial networks, almost every one of the major local stations in public television has an elaborate, state-of-the-art, and very expensive production facility. Most of these production facilities are scarcely used, mind you, but there they are: costing money and gathering dust. This is partly a consequence of the way public television has developed over the years from small, independent educational television stations—often supported by state and local school systems—exploring various ways of conveying classroom information through the medium of television, or even of turning the TV set into a classroom. In these early years, it may well have been necessary, even desirable, to have elaborate production facilities widely dispersed around the country. But over time these lavish physical plants have become local status symbols—white elephants for the most part. An interesting symbol, come to think of it, for an allegedly impoverished institution. The anomaly of spendthrift poverty is also a function of the fact that government, in one fashion or another and at some level or other, has always been centrally involved in public television. The appearance of affluence, of having it all in the technical sense, is thus in part a consequence of an old-fashioned American custom called the “pork barrel.” The federal government got into the business of assisting public broadcasting, initially, by paying for physical facilities. Because there is a public television station in virtually every congressman’s district, it became just about inevitable that every congressman would go after a piece of the facilities grants each year, with scant regard for need or utility. This has been one of the peculiarities of public television, one of its “dirty little secrets” as far as most Americans are concerned.

Two White Knights

On the one hand, the constant refrain of public television is poverty; and, on the other hand, the reality is self-indulgence. In such circumstances, how has public television become a multi-billion dollar industry? Since those early days when it was largely the extension of the classroom into the television studio, or vice versa, there have been two principal white knights on whose backs public television has galloped smartly into the future. The first was (and is) a delightful, talented woman who had an extraordinary idea. Her name is Joan Ganz Cooney and she created the Children’s Television Workshop. Back in the early ’60s it was her radical notion that quality television programs—educational and fun—could be made for children. And the rest is history. The first CTW program was Sesame Street, which I suspect most of you have, at one time or another, been forced to watch as the alternative to eating prunes for breakfast. (Who knows: it may even be better for you!) After Sesame Street came the Electric Company, whose principal purpose in life was to help kids learn to read. And in the years since there have been programs like Contact: Three, Two, One, Contact, which tries to teach kids arithmetic and mathematical concepts. The Children’s Television Workshop was one of those new-wave institutions that dotted the U.S. landscape in the 1960s. Everyone, it seemed, felt compelled to go off in some original, exciting, provocative direction. Moreover, they felt they must make use of new vehicles and new technologies that were rapidly coming on line in every arena of our lives, and nowhere, of course, more spectacularly than in the world of television. Only now are we beginning to assimilate this diverse national experience, and to calculate profits and losses. But the ’60s were not a time for prudent evaluations: it was a time for radical and even revolutionary innovation. Joan Cooney had the genius to bring together an idea and a very talented bunch of people, mostly quite young, and they set out to create a television program for kids that would be at once, as I’ve said, educational and fun. (The measure of their success still is in dispute among the sciences, both hard and soft, concerned with personality development and the learning process.) But Joan made her way, and the Children’s Television Workshop evolved into an enormous bureaucracy, which today is housed in elegant headquarters on the west side of New York City. Largely with the assistance of the Carnegie and Ford foundations, CTW’s products became set pieces on every educator’s agenda, and began to receive major funding from the U.S. Office (now Department) of Education and a variety of state and local educational bodies and institutions. In the course of the program’s development, Joan Cooney took the idea of Sesame Street to the commercial networks. In decisions that rank right up there with the Ethel and the “new” Coke, they all turned it down. I suspect that if any one of them had taken it on, that network today would be enshrined as the great benefactor of kids. (It’s worth noting, however, that in the world of television, fame is fleeting and not necessarily profitable. CBS practically invented serious television news, and look at it now: mired in third place.) But they all turned it down. Ironically, the Children’s Television Workshop today makes millions of dollars on all manner of commercial spinoffs. But public television did take it on, and started building itself, in my judgment, very largely on the reputation Sesame Street enjoyed as having marked a historic breakthrough in TV for kids. Deserved or not, that has been the program’s reputation—and, as I said before, the rest is history, for Sesame Street, for CTW, and for public television. Second Act: the Ford Foundation. The second of public television’s white knights was one of CTW’s funders, the Ford Foundation. In the early 1950s, nobody knew what the Ford Foundation was supposed to be or to become. All anyone knew was that it was immensely rich. In the last years of his life especially, and not to put too fine a point on it, Henry Ford was something of a kooky guy. He tended to indulge his kookiness in whatever ways he wanted, and one of those ways was to establish a foundation in his name. It had at first no principal idea or central focus. It was virtually synonomous with the Ford Motor Company: all of the foundation’s assets were non-public, non-traded stock of the company. With the death of Henry Senior, and then that of his son, Edsel, the company fell into chaos—and the fortunes of the foundation along with it. Compressing years of high corporate drama into just a few words, suffice to say that Edsel’s widow and her son, Henry II, came to the rescue of both company and foundation and ushered in almost two decades of sustained growth. The reinvigorated Ford Foundation set its course, not without controversy, and in due time targeted “educational support” as one of its key concerns. Education for the foundation came to include educational television as well. In the 1950s, of course, the commercial networks were not what they are today, except in one sense: they did dominate television, but they were not huge and immensely powerful, and they were not yet perceived as the principal advertising vehicles for goods and services in our society. The future of the medium was still somewhat up for grabs. With the Ford Foundation’s multi-billion dollar funding portfolio also still up for grabs, some of its trustees and program officers apparently decided in the mid-’50s to find out if an alternative television service could be created that would not be contaminated by commercial imperatives, would not have to respond to the discipline of the “bottom line”—would not only not have to show profits but would be almost certain to show plenty of losses. The appropriate vehicle was at hand: educational television stations, still struggling to break out of their local school board shells, not yet “public” in the broader sense (either as to support or appeal), and not yet anything close to a national network. Don’t misunderstand me: I am not suggesting that a Ford Foundation taskforce gathered one day at the drawing board and consciously decided to grab hold of educational television and transform that essentially mom-and-pop operation into a national network of publicly-supported non-commercial television stations offering a diversified schedule of “quality” or “elite” programming—but, incrementally, by fits and starts, over the course of a couple of decades (and expenditures in excess of $100 million), that is exactly what happened. And I am suggesting that, somewhere along the way, what began as a bunch of experiments did become a developmental plan for a national public television system as we now know it—including major program production centers, a distribution network (ultimately via domestic satellites), and most important, a long-range funding strategy combining government outlays, individual contributions, and big corporate bucks. The Ford Foundation put up the seed money—and produced a bumper crop. Early on, it funded a Public Television Workshop (later, Laboratory) which created a program almost as notable in its field as Sesame Street was for kids: Alastair Cooke’s Omnibus. This was the precursor to Sixty Minutes, albeit more “cultural” and less of a news magazine. Out of the Workshop also came The Great American Dream Machine—deliberately iconoclastic, a sort of a Saturday Night Live without the pizazz. (I’ve watched some old tapes of Dream Machine, and they look like a humor program made by a foundation!) Ford also gave open-ended grants to educational television stations around the country, helped build statewide ETV networks, and established national program production centers, the major one being the National Educational Television Center, which in the 1960s became WNET, Channel 13, New York, the flagship station of today’s Public Broadcasting Service, or PBS. Then the folks at Ford had another idea: with the cooperation of their colleagues down the street at the Carnegie Corporation (and the explicit endorsement of the White House), the so-called Carnegie Commission on Public Broadcasting was established. Its 1967 report, handsomely crafted by E.B. White, was really the beginning of what we now know as public—as distinct from just “educational” television. The Carnegie Commission came out candidly for elitism and argued, somewhat paradoxically, that it should by all means be imposed on everyone. And not only imposed but paid for in major part by everyone: by an annual endowment from the U.S. Treasury, or a TV-set license fee, or a tax on commercial television profits, or whatever. Thus the idea of federal financing for public broadcasting generally, and especially for television was created. President Lyndon Johnson eagerly agreed, and the report was soon translated into the Public Broadcasting Act of 1968. The act set up a Corporation for Public Broadcasting (which later spun off PBS as a networking facility) which would receive the federal funds, disburse them to the local stations and to program producers, and generally ride hard on the enterprise—“in the public interest,” it goes without saying.

Commercial Sponsorship

The Ford Foundation went one better: beyond persuading the federal government to open its capacious pockets for the benefit of public broadcasting, it urged that this financing be used to leverage additional dollars, from states and local school boards, from other foundations, and especially, from the U.S. corporate community. This never has been called by its real name, commercial sponsorship of public television—that would be too crass. So it always has been given the sanitized label of “corporate underwriting.” Some of the largest U.S. corporations were thus drawn into the support of public television. Exxon, for example, sponsors Great Performances, which presents outstanding music, drama, dance, and opera; Gulf, and now Chevron, put up the money for the National Geographic Specials; Mobil Oil for Masterpiece Theatre (almost all of it reruns from the BBC and other British program producers); and so on, and so on. IBM and Xerox tend to specialize in one-time only dramatic shows and quasi-documentaries. AT&T contributes nearly $10 million a year in support of the MacNeil-Lehrer News Hour. The umbrella for all of these programs and series—the nationwide network of local public stations—was created, in effect, by Ford plus governments, and under that umbrella the U.S. corporate community has been drawn heavily into financing the major shows that dominate prime-time public television (roughly, 8-to-11 p.m.), create its “quality” image, and attract sizeable if not mass audiences. All of this has been done with a great deal of sophisticated understanding of how the broadcasting business really works. We on the outside tend to think that the prime-time blockbusters keep the networks going. The fact is, however, that the major “cost centers” so-called—the net of advertising revenues minus program costs—are in fact segments of the overall schedule such as day-time television, Saturday mornings for kids, and, of course, sports television. In public television, it tends to work the other way ’round. The Ford Foundation, plus the federal and other governments, created and now maintain the national network of public stations and the program distribution system—which, as I’ve noted, is via domestic satellites, the first such system in all of broadcasting. The Children’s Television Workshop provided the core programs for kids. The corporate community continues to fill prime-time with major programs and series. But there are a lot of additional hours in the broadcasting schedule, and these hours require an assortment of lower cost shows, produced locally or by station consortia or by state networks, or just bought off-the-shelf from independent program producers: how-to-do-it shows, talk shows, news and analysis shows, so-called “point of view” shows, and documentaries—especially documentaries, many of which fill holes in the prime-time schedule. Neither the Ford Foundation nor the federal government nor the U.S. corporate community in the strict sense finances any of this programming. (In fact, both CPB and PBS control discretionary program funds almost all of it derived from the federal appropriation—and some of this money is used for documentaries produced by independent programmers.) But they did create and now maintain the nationwide network that provides a home for this programming, and in this larger sense they share in the responsibility for it. For what purpose? That, as I see it, is the question that scarcely anyone in our society wants to address. Isn’t everybody in favor of quality programs for kids? Who’s to question the presentation of first-class drama, or the New York Philharmonic, or the Metropolitan Opera? But this is to derail the debate into bland “motherhood” type questions, and similarly bland answers. But the basic question remains: What public purposes are served by these essentially public expenditures—either direct, by virtue of public appropriations, or indirect, by virtue of revenues foregone—and by the public television network thus put in place and thus sustained? Not unexpectedly, both the national network and the local stations long since have been taken over by people of the same persuasion as those who dominate the entertainment, cultural, and journalistic enterprises in our society generally. These people belong to what often is called “the liberal culture.” I’m not sure that “liberal” is the right word. But I do think I know one thing about this culture, partly from my own experience inside public television, and that is that it’s a highly iconoclastic culture. It is a culture that likes to trash the “establishment” and takes particular pleasure in tendentiously negative criticism of our society’s prevailing institutions. The purpose that is missing from public broadcasting is thus supplied by those who see the industry as a cow to be milked. Very much like the folks who staff the New York Times and the Washington PostTime and Newsweek, ABC, CBS, and NBC, these people do have a purpose: and that is to influence how the rest of us perceive reality—how we perceive our society and our values and, indeed, ourselves. And they are the ones, not the people who sign the checks, who make the critical day-to-day decisions about what programs are made, with what content, and what programs are scheduled and promoted. These are the decisions that drive the network, and weigh heavily in determining its influence. A few years ago, Richard Brookhiser, an editor of National Review and a boardmember of the Corporation for Public Broadcasting—appointed by President Reagan, needless to add—did address the question of the purposes of public radio and television, by way of the content of public affairs programs. He proposed that the CPB board undertake a careful, scientific investigation—insofar as program content can be assessed and evaluated scientifically—of program bias. Was there any? Was it “liberal” or “conservative” or neither, or some of both? Was this programming markedly anything that could be identified? His proposal was greeted with hysterical shouts of neo-McCarthyism, and he was accused of trying to limit the options of the creative community. I suspect that all Mr. Brookhiser was up to was trying to answer the questions, “What are we doing?” and “How are we doing?” and “How if at all is the public served by what and how we’re doing?”—and I think these are very appropriate questions indeed for those who oversee the expenditure of public funds. Well, a study was undertaken; it was not regarded as especially definitive; its findings were ambiguous, and the matter was dropped. Now, please understand me: I do not presume to suggest that public broadcasting is about to bring the walls of our Republic crashing down. I doubt that any institution has that capability (fortunately) in our society. But I do think that public broadcasting has an important influence, that it does affect public attitudes, and that it does bear also on our values. I think that we need more and more scientific, critical analyses of all television programming but especially of public television programming. In the first place, public television professes to provide a special, first-class, highest-quality program service. It sets itself up as the bellwether for all of television, and so ought it be judged. Then, too, public television is supported in major part by public funds: another unique level of public responsibility. Finally, it draws heavily on corporate support, and so the appropriate role of American business in American society is in question. I especially want to stress this last point. Surely the management of Exxon, for example, does not think of Great Performances as having any purpose other than elevating the tone of American society by exposure to such marvels as the Met and the Philharmonic—and so it probably does (along with giving consumers a nice, warm feeling for Exxon gas and oil). But a lot of other programming rides on the back of these prestigious cultural offerings: the documentaries and think-pieces, for example, designed by the “cultural” iconoclasts who tend to dominate our entertainment and news elites (and who probably rather dislike Exxon among other corporate fat cats). So just how far does Exxon’s responsibility reach? I do not presume to know the answer to that question, or to any of the others I’ve raised here. But I do think they are important questions for all of us, and for our society. And I think it’s about time we began, systematically, to look for some answers.