The Consortium

PBS: The Decline & Fall of 'Public' Broadcasting

By Tara Gadomski & Esben Kjaer

NEW YORK -- A decade ago, there was a show on the Public Broadcasting System called The Kwitny Report. Hosted by former Wall Street Journal reporter Jonathan Kwitny, it presented serious, well-researched investigative reporting with a critical edge.

WNYC, a PBS affiliate in New York, produced and financed the program which was a great success, not only journalistically -- it racked up a prestigious Polk Award -- but also in terms of viewers. It was broadcast on more than 100 stations nationwide, mostly in prime-time slots.

But then, the management of WNYC decided to spend the station's limited programming funds on something else. PBS also was not willing to make available any of its national budget. Kwitny could still do the show. He just had to raise a minimum of $2.6 million for another season. So Kwitny went hat in hand to foundations and corporations, but with no success.

"Corporations were not really interested in being associated with a program like this," Kwitny said in an interview. "Companies that underwrite PBS programs gear their programming pretty generally to things that will promote their interests. Military contractors sponsor public affairs programs that promote the need for a stronger military. Housing companies fund the do-it-yourself home improvement shows. Cookware companies sponsor cooking shows, and the American ballroom dancing championships were sponsored by Doctor Scholl's foot pads."

Not all potential underwriters rejected Kwitny out-of-hand. Some foundations expressed interest in funding his program if a certain point of view was taken. "Nobody wants anybody who is independent," Kwitny said. "They want control. We could have gotten funding to do documentaries with a certain point of view committed in advance. I just think that's poison." The Kwitny Report went off the air.

A decade later, the challenge facing independent producers has only gotten worse. Federal money has dropped from nearly 30 percent of the PBS budget in the early 1970s to less than 15 percent today. Meanwhile, corporate sponsorship has risen from about five percent to 20 percent. The deep cuts in federal funding have forced public TV into ever greater dependence on corporate underwriters.

And, like Kwitny, other independent producers find that corporations want their names linked to high-brow cultural and grand historical shows, not critical programs that might draw heat from elements of the public or political interests. Few companies want the grief from an association with a probing and controversial television show.

But the absence of innovative controversial programs on PBS means that its programming schedules have come to resemble that of cable television more and more. That, in turn, has raised the question: with PBS's watered-down content, should anyone care if PBS lives or dies?

"You know, I've found public television so uninteresting for such a long time that I've stopped paying attention to it," comments Todd Gitlin, a media researcher at New York University. "It's stale, its unadventuresome. It's preoccupied with fundraising and therefore it produces the kind of stuff that goes down nicely on the Upper Eastside."

Aside from the few programs sponsored entirely by PBS -- such as Frontline, or the occasional historical series, such as Ken Burns's Civil War or Baseball, or its educational children's programming -- most PBS stations are dominated by old sit-com reruns, opera performances from the Met and pundit chat shows, not that much different from commercial fare.

Typical of the current PBS dilemma is the case of independent producer Danny Schecter and Rights & Wrongs, a series that focuses on human rights. Each segment presents a graphic, real-life video diary of someone suffering from human rights abuses. For his series, Schecter snagged a prominent anchor, Charlayne Hunter-Gault. But he could not get a commercial network to air the series. So he sought help from PBS.

"We went to PBS and said, 'we have this great idea, a series on human rights'," recalled Schecter. "It's consistent with the PBS mandate, it's covering stuff that other programming is not covering." But PBS declined to pick up the tab. "We don't think that human rights is a sufficient organizing principle for a TV series," said then-PBS vice president for programming, Jennifer Lawson.

Schecter searched for alternative funding and discovered that the Body Shop corporation would commit $300,000 to air the show for one year. Picked up by 85 public television stations in the United States and by Europe's Super Channel, piping it to 29 countries, Rights & Wrongs was an immediate hit with viewers. The show also collected a mantle full of Emmys.

But each year, Rights & Wrongs scrambled to survive. Schecter said 145 companies have rejected requests for sponsorship. Some companies apparently fear the show could offend a country with a large market.

"Human rights poses a problem for us," Schecter quoted some companies as saying. "Despite all the great reviews and viewer response, unless angels come flying and dollars come dropping, the only place to see Rights & Wrongs will be in the Museum of Broadcasting," he added.

Wining and Dining

The other side of the PBS funding coin is apparent in the network's unseemly scramble to please corporate underwriters, sometimes at a high journalistic cost.

In February 1996, for instance, the San Francisco-based PBS affiliate, KQED, had a meeting of the minds with the Mondavi winery in Napa Valley. They agreed on a documentary about the life of wine-maker Robert Mondavi, an 83-year-old businessman credited with shaping California's wine-making industry. But the Mondavi family feuds would have to be part of a complete story about Mondavi's life. And the Mondavi executives were not willing to swallow such unflattering segments.

The opinions of winery executives, however, were not supposed to matter. For obvious conflict-of-interest reasons, PBS guidelines don't permit the Mondavi winery or any other interested party to fund a documentary. So, as an alternative, KQED turned to the American Center for Wine Food and the Arts for the seed money -- $50,000 -- for research and development.

According to internal station documents, later leaked to the press by a KQED board member, the station insisted on creative control but agreed to show a film outline to the center. Based on the outline, the center could grant or withhold another $150,000 to complete the project. But as it turned out, the non-profit organization had a cozy relationship with Mondavi. The Mondavi winery had contributed $6 million to the center and Robert Mondavi sat on the board of directors.

Then, the San Francisco Chronicle reported that the center expressed the same concern as the Mondavi executives: If there was a focus on the Mondavi family feuds, there would be no more money. The ensuing controversy caused KQED to cancel the film entirely and return the $50,000. But it was not hard to imagine how KQED might have misjudged this over-the-top conflict-of-interest, as just one more compromise with commercialism, a fact of life that had become vital to the survival of PBS.

Double Standards

Paul Rosenberg from the Committee to Save Public Media has noted that in other cases, PBS tolerated documentaries, such as "James Reston: The Man Millions Read," a program funded by The New York Times about the prominent New York Times columnist, and regular shows, such as Wall $treet Week and Nightly Business Report, underwritten by brokerage firms.

By contrast, PBS has aggressively enforced conflict-of-interest rules when less well-heeled groups are proposing a program. In 1993, Margaret Lazarus produced a documentary called "Defending Our Lives" about eight women serving time in a Massachusetts prison for killing men who had abused them. The film won an Academy Award. But in 1995, PBS refused to air it because "programming must be free from the control of parties with a direct self-interest in that content." An organization called Battered Women Fighting Back had funded the film.

PBS officials, however, deny a pattern of pro-corporate bias. "We always make judgments on particular programs and rules," explained Kathy Quattrone, PBS vice president for programming. "We are an industry where there is very little black and white."

PBS began its trek through those grays of corporate sponsorship in earnest in 1984 when the Federal Communications Commission allowed "enhanced underwriting." That meant that companies could put their brand-name logos and slogans before, during and after PBS programs.

William Hoynes, author of Public Television for Sale, observes that now "corporations don't define PBS as being different from the way they define other potential sites for their media buying. PBS might be attractive because of its upscale audience and high demographics. But nonetheless, corporations are highly unlikely to support programs that are controversial or critical of the underlying socio-economic relations."

Kwitny takes this view further. "Pubic television is even more commercial than commercial TV," he argues, noting that the power of an underwriter to kill a PBS show is greater than the power of a sponsor on the commercial networks where advertising is more broad-based and a show usually can survive the withdrawal of one advertiser.

Liberal Media?

Still, the prevailing view of PBS remains one fostered by the conservative complaint about a "liberal media." There is also a complementary conservative position that the "free market," particularly as represented by cable, should be allowed to fill the niche that PBS does. In effect, these two arguments have acted as a rhetorical pincer movement against PBS.

On one front, there is Laurence Jarvik of the conservative Heritage Foundation. He argues that PBS has outlived its usefulness and should be sold to the private sector. "Privatization provides the means to clean up the public television mess by creating incentives for excellence, efficiency and accountability," Jarvik declares.

On the second front is David Horowitz of the Committee for Media Integrity. He claims that there is a systematic left-wing bias in public television and wants Congress to enforce greater balance. Over the past two years, these two anti-PBS arguments have emboldened the Republican-controlled Congress to slash deeply into the PBS budget.

Though bashing PBS has been traditionally a conservative pastime, left-wingers now are getting into the game, too. Many of these liberal critics contend that PBS is not diverse enough, not controversial enough. But increasingly, liberal critics have come to argue that PBS programming is slanted -- to the right.

"PBS stations on a weekly basis tilt heavily toward conservative and corporate views," maintains Jeff Cohen, co-author of a new book, The Wizards of Media Oz. "Three regular programs cover the business agenda: Nightly Business Report, Adam Smith's Money World and Wall $treet Week. None covers the agendas of groups that often conflict with big business, whether labor, consumer or environmental."

Once in a while, PBS still manages to produce interesting shows dealing with touchy topics -- and its overall quality remains a cut above most commercial television. "Africans in America," a documentary on American slavery, is currently being produced after raising sufficient outside funds. But the deep cuts in federal funding have made every project a challenge. "Raising money for public television programs is difficult, period," former deputy project director Karen Watson told us.

By and large, American public television appears to have lost sight of any clear goal. "If diversity was what was being sought, PBS is no longer and hasn't been, for a number of years, providing much," comments Kwitny. "I guess they did a few more nature documentaries and some opera and ballet that was not on commercial television."

Hoynes predicts that if public television maintains its present course, it will sail into oblivion. "The bottom line is that our public television system is only nominally public in the sense that it is fulfilling a kind of public service role," he asserts. "It's probably providing less and less, in part in response to the tight financial restraints, and part in response to political pressure from the right. ...

"If they continue on the route they're on now, little by little their support, both among the public and among policy-makers and in Congress will evaporate. It may not go away overnight. ... But I think it will evaporate and they will ultimately die a slow and maybe painless death. Maybe no one will notice five years down the line that they're not around anymore." ~

(c) Copyright 1997

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