Stewards for the media future

What public broadcasting can do to plan for its own future and for federal policies that serve the public interest

In the first part of this commentary in Current Oct. 4 [2010], Wick Rowland, an early PBS planner and now a station leader in Colorado, said that public broadcasting’s failure to put time and money into formal research and planning has left it “adrift, mute and helpless” on the periphery of federal policymaking about media and spectrum. Pubcasting was slow to respond to the journalism crisis, aloof from the Obama administration’s big commitment to give the public universal access to broadband Internet service.In Part 2 he suggests how the system could equip itself to develop a more coherent, visionary agenda for its own future and the nation’s media policies. The commentary is available as two PDFs: Part 1 and Part 2. At this extraordinary moment, when so many outside observers and critics are simultaneously trying to define a national agenda for public media — when we should be confidently helping to guide those debates — we seem unprepared for the task.

Adrift, mute and helpless

Why everyone but public broadcasters is making federal policy for public media

The FCC’s recent National Broadband Plan and its Future of the Media initiative have highlighted a chronic problem in U.S public broadcasting: The system has no long-term policy planning capacity, and therefore it always has had great difficulty dealing with the periodic efforts by outsiders to critique and “reform” it. Public broadcasting ignores most media policy research, whether it originates in academia, think tanks or federal agencies, and it often seems out of touch with major national policy deliberations until too late. That disengagement is highly dangerous because it allows others to set the national legal and regulatory agenda for communications without assuring adequate policy attention to public-service, noncommercial and educational goals. Such policy initiatives also can negatively affect the funding and operating conditions of every public licensee. This article, the first of two, examines the history and recent serious consequences of that disengagement.

Radio gets in on the Act

The plan was for a Public Television Act with no mention of dusty old radio. Not everyone signed on to the plan. Readers’ sympathies will be divided by this narrative adapted from Jack Mitchell’s new book, Listener Supported: The Culture and History of Public Radio, issued in March 2005 by Praeger Publishers.You may root for the TV side or the radio side out of professional allegiance. Or you may instinctively align with the underdog, despite its rascally tactics — or perhaps because of them. The underdog in 1967 was radio, then a has-been technology that TV expected to leave behind.

Radio gets in on the Act

The issue had been decided, Fletcher said. Congress would pass the Public Television Act and create the Corporation for Public Television. To bring radio in at that point, he concluded, would “change the scenario.”

Saudek’s Omnibus: ambitious forerunner of public TV

When producer Robert Saudek died in 1998, his New York Times obituary called him “the alchemist-in-­chief of what is often called the golden age of television.” From 1952 to 1961, the product of Saudek’s alchemy was Omnibus, a weekly that did what public TV now aspires to do, but on commercial network TV. It turned out to be one of the last but finest gasps of the Cooperation Doctrine — the notion that commercial broadcasting could ignore the bottom line and the largest available audience. [More on the Cooperation Doctrine.]

For the December 1999 pledge drives, PBS distributed the first-ever TV retrospective on the famous series, “Omnibus: Television’s Golden Age,” from New River Media. The writers are William M. Jones, professor of political science at Virginia Wesleyan College and author of Omnibus: American Television’s Season in the Sun, from Wesleyan University Press, and Andrew Walworth, executive producer and president of New River Media.

An Age of Kings: an import becomes public TV’s first hit

It was public TV’s first unqualified national success, a smash hit. Before Masterpiece Theatre, American Playhouse or Hollywood Television Theatre, there was An Age of Kings, Shakespeare’s history plays in 15 parts, a chronicle of Britain’s monarchs from Richard II (1399) to Richard III (1484).

FCC Notice on DBS Public Interest Obligations, November 1998

Before the FCC 98-307

Washington, D.C. 20554

In the Matter of Implementation of Section 25 of the Cable Television Consumer Protection and Competition Act of 1992 Direct Broadcast Satellite Public Interest Obligations

MM Docket 93-25


Adopted: November 19, 1998
Released: November 25, 1998

By the Commission: Chairman Kennard issuing a statement; Commissioners Furchtgott-Roth; Powell and Tristani dissenting in part and issuing seperate statements. TABLE OF CONTENTS



IV. DISCUSSION paragraph

A. Definition of Providers of DBS Service


Fred Friendly: ‘a tough man but, my God, full of ideas’

Fred W. Friendly, the legendary CBS News producer who tried to bring innovation to public TV in the 1960s and later developed a celebrated series of televised seminars on major public policy issues, died March 3 at his home in New York City. He was 82. “He was a great broadcaster, a great innovator, a great friend of public television,” observed PBS President Ervin Duggan in a release. At CBS, Friendly worked for years with Edward R. Murrow, producing many of his appearances, including the milestone 1954 report that questioned Sen. Joseph McCarthy’s anti-communist campaign and the famous CBS Reports: “Harvest of Shame” on the lives of migrant workers, aired in 1960. He was named president of the news division in 1964 and quit two years later when the network carried an I Love Lucy rerun instead of a Senate hearing on the Vietnam war.