Photo of Ervin Duggan

If Congress lets public TV carry ads

Duggan sees 'profound' losses for commercial television

Originally published in Current, April 17, 1995

Ervin Duggan last week told commercial broadcasters that their businesses stand to lose if Congress takes away public TV's federal funding and lets it sell advertising.

That would "almost certainly lead to the forced commercialization of public television," the PBS president said, and it would also threaten "profound and destabilizing consequences" for commercial broadcasters.

In an address to the International Radio and Television Society in New York City, Duggan warned that commercializing public TV would have "unintended side effects":

In some cases, these new commercial competitors would enter the market in a position of strength, having swapped weaker UHF frequencies for VHF channels formerly held by public TV.

A streetwalker's mission

Duggan predicted politicians will turn to advertising as a means of supporting public TV when they lose hope for a proposal by Rep. Jack Fields (R-Tex.)--public TV selling off the channels it would otherwise use for the transition to digital or high-definition broadcasting.

"When federal funding is cut off, and when the illusion of a quick technological fix is seen for what it is," Duggan said, "Congress and the FCC will quickly find it expedient to grant a new privilege to the newly 'privatized' stations: the right to sell commercials."

He compared public TV to the title character in Thomas Hardy's poem, "The Ruined Maid"--a formerly pure country girl who ended up walking the city streets "in her new commercial finery."

Public TV would follow the path of the country girl, Duggan predicted: "She inventoried her assets. She adopted what we may delicately call a new, profit-seeking mission. Finally, she made connections with well-capitalized partners who could finance her new lifestyle."

The ruined public TV, Duggan observed, would have assets comparable to those of a successful recent entrant into the TV network business, Fox Broadcasting: a big brand name, production resources and a major distribution network. And PBS could easily find well-capitalized partners in the cable or telephone business or Hollywood, Duggan hinted.

The PBS president's analogy was reported in the conservative Washington Times under the headline, "PBS chief portrays Republicans as cruel pimps of privatization." The Times quoted House Appropriations Chairman Robert Livingston (R-La.) as saying that he was "appalled by the stupidity of Mr. Duggan's comments."

Duggan asserted that millions of Americans, and the stations themselves, don't want public TV to join the commercial marketplace, he asserted.

"They do not want us to abandon our nonprofit cultural mission and to live by our wits, selling our favors on the electronic superhighway."

He said he'd stop before carrying the prostitution metaphor too far. "Specifically, I want to exempt commercial broadcasting from any implication that it is somehow 'ruined.' I see much that is compelling and admirable on commercial television these days, including the riveting E.R. on NBC. My point is simply that we have lots of commercial television, but only one PBS. . . . Nothing would be gained by forcing PBS to go commercial, and much would be lost."

The are only two ways that public TV could be privatized: setting up a noncommercial trust fund to subsidize it, or commercializing it.

Duggan endorsed the former approach, citing the new "One Percent for Culture Act" introduced by Sen. Pat Williams (D-Mont.), which would have Congress endow a trust fund for CPB and the arts and humanities endowments with a one-time appropriation of several billion dollars.

But he noted that such an appropriation, or various alternatives such as spectrum fees, wouldn't be acceptable to members of Congress who have warned pubcasters not to propose anything that resembles a tax.

"And so, public broadcasting licensees, bemused and horrified, . . . find themselves directed to draw a map with only one destination--some form of commercialism."


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