For Viewers Like You

For Viewers Like You

For Viewers Like You

Reading between the lines.
Dec. 17 1997 3:30 AM

For Viewers Like You

The incredible two-headed network.

Made Possible By ...: The Death of Public Broadcasting in the United States
By James Ledbetter
Verso; 280 pages; $25

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In the early '70s, even a novice channel surfer could tell when he had landed on PBS. There'd be a cheerful chef butchering a Cornish hen, Muppets singing songs about friendship, two professors and a moderator seated in a bare-bones studio discussing race relations, a helmeted fat lady singing, a Third Worlder criticizing the First World in a documentary, and the lions of the Serengeti stalking an impala herd.

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But after the many-tendriled beast of cable TV conquered the American home, the mélange of chefs, Muppets, TV talk, and prowling lions came to define not PBS but the act of channel surfing itself. Of course, video vaudeville wasn't the goal of PBS's early architects, the culture shapers at the Carnegie Commission and Ford Foundation who dreamed that an infusion of federal funding would make the "vast wasteland" of television bloom. How their dream cracked up, resulting in the pablum of today's PBS, and how PBS became Washington's most politically skittish organization, is the subject of James Ledbetter's brief history, Made Possible By ...:The Death of Public Broadcasting in the United States.

Public TV was the runt of the post-World War II telecommunications litter. But it was planned that way. Commercial broadcasters backed the Federal Communications Commission set-aside of 80 coveted VHF licenses and 162 UHF licenses nationwide for public-TV broadcasters, but they did so out of self-interest. Each frequency assigned to a noncommercial owner meant one less competitor selling advertising. For the same reasons, CBS pledged a $1-million grant for PBS's debut season, but the industry blocked at every turn the British model of a full-fledged public network financed with a hefty tax on televisions.

Ledbetter argues that public broadcasting's independence was tainted from the get-go by the "military-communications complex." Military-industrial types, he reports, had been loitering in the vicinity of educational broadcasting years before the Johnson administration decided to fund a government-supported system: Officials from GE, IBM, and the U.S. Atomic Energy Commission sat on the board of National Education Television, the Ford Foundation-sponsored PBS precursor. Defense contractors were recruited to explore the then-novel idea of networking the new system with satellites. And the executives who midwifed PBS included Vietnam War escalator McGeorge Bundy and former Army Secretary and General Dynamics CEO Frank Pace Jr.

While I'd love to be able to tell you that PBS was born in a Seven Days in May-type coup, and that Julia Child, Mister Rogers, and Jim Lehrer have been slipping us subliminal military propaganda since the beginning, Ledbetter doesn't develop his idea that the Cold Warriors co-opted PBS. When the government starts any new enterprise, it always taps the made guys--not the students of Herbert Marcuse. In fact, had the establishment not been present at PBS's creation in 1967, President Johnson--a commercial broadcaster himself (Lady Bird owned broadcast stations in Texas)--would never have green-lighted it.

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PBS took the public broadcasting handoff from the Ford Foundation, which, along with the Carnegie Commission, had long exhorted the United States to start a public system. The Ford Foundation seeded the public-TV idea with $300 million worth of grants between 1951 and 1976 in the hope that the feds would completely underwrite it thereafter (just as cities routinely assume responsibility for museums and libraries once philanthropists found them). In the expansionist days of the Great Society, the idea of a government-financed TV network devoted to education, culture, and politics wasn't that wild. Looking back, one imagines that PBS could have evolved into an American BBC and secured the sort of government funding that didn't require the scrutiny of annual congressional appropriations. All this would have required was that its founding bureaucrats 1) make the product seem as innocuous as a museum exhibit and 2) block the election of Richard Nixon as president in 1968. They failed on both counts.

Instead, in the early years of the public-TV experiment, PBS (which launched in 1969) and NET (which received no federal funds) aired the provocative programming they thought was their mission. These unflinching documentaries of the Vietnam War, shows devoted to militant black politics, and Naderesque consumer programs (Nader even hosted a show) sealed public TV's reputation as "left-dominated, elitist, minority-radical," as Ledbetter puts it. Nothing PBS has aired since comes close to the daring stuff of the first years.

Nixon hated PBS no more than he did the commercial networks, but his veto over PBS's funding and his power to appoint board members to the Corporation for Public Broadcasting (PBS's overseers) gave him a direct outlet for his hate. He defunded, jawboned, and intimidated the fledgling broadcaster, and had he not been distracted by Watergate, he surely would have dismembered it.

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R educed by Washington politicians to a well-trained dog that sometimes chews on the furniture, PBS steered a moderate programming course into the '70s. But to remind its masters that it can still bite--and reinforce conservative prejudices that it's pink--PBS periodically aired blasphemous dramas (Steambath, 1973), Mao-symp travelogues (Shirley MacLaine's The Other Half of the Sky: A China Memoir, 1975), politically provocative docudramas (Death of a Princess, 1980), lefty attacks on agribiz (Hungry for Profit, 1985), homoerotica (Tongues Untied, 1991), and brazen assaults on logical thinking (The Panama Deception, 1992).

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Public broadcasting's big transformation came in the mid-'70s, Ledbetter finds, when U.S. corporations stepped in to fill the financial gap for the underfunded network. (Yes, underfunded: $1.5 billion doesn't go very far on 350 public-TV stations.) Dumping their tax-deductible loot by the millions, the corporations (Archer Daniels Midland, GE, Mobil, Exxon, Chevron, Dupont, Metropolitan Life) encouraged the sort of shows only a member of the Business Roundtable could love: centrist news programs, conservative talk shows, Wall Street advice shows, lions-of-the-Serengeti documentaries, and historical dramas that set all human conflict in late-19th-century England.

No wonder, then, that right-wingers think of PBS as liberal and lefties regard it as a corporate/conservative tool. It's neither and both. Conflicted over what its true mission is, PBS simultaneously whores for corporate money and aggressively gathers data on how poor, uneducated, and blue-collar its audience is. It accepts its role as an elite medium and then panders for larger audiences with Yanni specials. (Yanni specials?) It runs advertisements for its supporters at the top of shows and strikes business deals with MCI, TCI, and Disney, but still insists it's not commercial. It shares hit shows like Bill Nye the Science Guy with commercial stations. And when it stumbles onto a good subject for a series, like Ken Burns' history of baseball, it turns the show into a seminar on racism and labor relations, not the hit-and-run and the spitball.

At book's end, Ledbetter issues his clarion call for reform, demanding that the PBS clock be turned back to the '50s, when the philanthropoids first imagined American public broadcasting. His policy prescription includes reducing corporate influence, liberating the system from presidential control, democratizing local stations, serving minorities, decentralizing the Washington-centric service, and increasing accountability.

What Ledbetter misses is that PBS's time--if it ever had one--has come and gone. The Internet facilitates the sort of communications and activism that the Fords and Carnegies prayed PBS would spark. Commercial channels pour programs down from the heavens that match or surpass the products of the public broadcasters, who are too cowed to produce anything as homo-proud as the new Ellen, as racy as Brooklyn South, or as culturally subversive as The Larry Sanders Show. I ask you, what PBS newsman out-wings the liberal Peter Jennings?

Oddly, the Newt Gingrich-led sallies against public broadcasting, which consume many pages of Made Possible By, have only enhanced its chances of survival. PBS is now viewed as a federal public-works project, a dispenser of political and cultural pork to liberal Democrats and conservative Republicans. The Army Corps of Engineers, the Rural Electrification Administration, and Amtrak have lasted a lot longer with a lot less going for them.