When President Clinton had just taken office in 1993, Current asked an assortment of outside-the-Beltway people connected with public broadcasting to write open letters to him about the field’s public-service potential. One was Bob Larson, then president of Detroit’s public TV station, WTVS, and originator of the local City for Youth outreach project and the national Nitty Gritty City Group. Mr. President:
Your messages to the American people have reflected a fundamental commitment to reconciliation — bridge-building that both creates understanding and celebrates diversity. Please consider the potential of public broadcasting as a means of renewing community in our land. Already, at the beginning of your administration, the treasures of public television were evident in the Washington ceremonies: in the inaugural parade, characters from programs that have so passionately nurtured the minds and spirits of our children; and the magnificent presence of Maya Angelou, who recently graced the national PBS schedule (in “Maya Angelou: Rainbow in the Clouds”) to tell a story of healing in the city.
The producer of Eyes on the Prize and other major PBS documentary series keynoted the PBS annual conference in San Francisco in June 1992. [He died in 1998.]
I have warm memories of the last time I addressed this body. It was in St. Louis, my home town, and I came to receive an award for Eyes I. The meeting was in the old Union Station building in downtown St. Louis — now a fancy hotel.
In the spring of 1991, a management consulting firm advised public TV to shift its spending from local to national programs. Current asked Jack Willis, president and c.e.o. of KTCA, Minneapolis/St. Paul, to revisit that suggestion. The Boston Consulting Group (BCG) study was meant to be provocative, and there is much in it that I find worthwhile — the challenge to the status quo, the need for a qualitative rating service, a reexamination of resource allocation and the call for joint ventures. But I believe the report’s most fundamental and controversial premise was wrong — the notion that local production, with few exceptions, is not valued by our viewers and should therefore be sacrificed for the national schedule. This premise is not supported by BCG’s own data, which measure value by ratings and pledge donations.
Documentary-maker Ken Burns told why he’s continuing to work with public broadcasting at the Television Critics Association press tour in Los Angeles in January . During a question-and-answer session, a writer asked him: “Ken, for this project, as well as your others, you’ve found a very appreciative home at PBS. But now, with all your success, have the commercial networks tried to lure you away? Have they made offers to you?”
There have been a lot of very, very generous offers and ideas. But the fundamental reason why I don’t intend to move is that this is not only my home — and being a historian, one kind of honors the past and where you’ve been — but this is the only place on the dial where you can be free of commercials, where you can have a measure of creative control over your project, a lack of interference; where you can have a strong relationship with an underwriter that develops over time, in the case of [General Motors], where you can really forge these kinds of relationships; where we can go and we can say we’re thinking about doing this, and you can actually accomplish it.
Probably the most famous congressional testimony delivered on behalf of CPB appropriations came from Fred Rogers on May 2, 1969. The young writer/producer/host of Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood made common cause with Sen. John Pastore (D-R.I.), who chaired the Senate Commerce Committee’s communications subcommittee. Public broadcasting was seeking an appropriation of $20 million, and the Nixon White House was proposing half as much. Margaret Mary Kimmel and Mark Collins narrate the scene in their book, The Wonder of It All: Fred Rogers and the Story of an Icon (PDF, scroll to page 20). “It’s a strange moment in the hallowed halls of the Senate,” Kimmel and Collins write — “a grown man reciting a child’s song to other grown men, but by now they feel as if they, too, are complicit in Rogers’ mission.”