"The arguments of [tax-dollar] scarcity
and [TV] abundance are threatening to reach critical mass
among some policymakers in Washington.
Those twin, pincer-like arguments
cannot be overcome by wishing or demanding.
You must build strength anew--and persuade anew."

'We must again make the case for public bandwidth'
Duggan recognizes an 'open invitation' from Clinton

Excerpted from Sept. 27, 1993, remarks by Federal Communications Commission member Ervin Duggan [later that fall appointed PBS president] at the Southern Educational Communications Association conference in Atlanta. Printed in Current Nov. 1, 1993.

By Ervin S. Duggan

In his brief presidency, John F. Kennedy often stirred the nation by talking about fundamental things. One of his most powerful speeches came near the end of his life, at Washington's American University in June 1963.

Months earlier, the United States and the Soviet Union had stood on the brink of war during the Cuban Missile Crisis. But on the day President Kennedy spoke, the two superpowers were concluding a historic treaty to end above-ground nuclear testing for all time. Could it be that peaceful negotiation, not armed confrontation, might become the means to resolve the vast difference between the great antagonists? As he spoke to the graduates that day, Kennedy was reflective and optimistic.

"If we cannot end now our differences," Kennedy said, "at least we can make the world safe for diversity. For, in the final analysis, our most basic common link is that we all inhabit this small planet. We all breathe the same air. We all cherish our children's future. And we are all mortal."

What made John F. Kennedy's brief presidency so inspiring, in my judgment, was his ability to lift our eyes above the technicalities of government to see enduring values. And at our best, our leaders have always done that, from the moment that Jefferson penned the Declaration of Independence and the framers of our Constitution began by stating their commitment to "our Posterity."

Today I want to defend an idea--one that, in my view, is in danger: the idea that it is right, necessary and proper for government to care about and nature "our Posterity." I want to defend the idea of public support for public culture--publicly supported institutions that educate and enlighten and call every generation to high-minded ideals. Public libraries, schools, museums and universities are such vital institutions of public culture. So is public television.

In recent years it has become fashionable to attack public institutions generally as inferior to the private and commercial--a fashion that could become a self-fulfilling prophecy. In particular, public television has been attacked as an idea whose time has come and gone. The federal funding battles of 1992 sharpened a debate that began 25 years ago: is public-service television necessary? Is it relevant? Is it worth hundreds of millions of tax dollars annually? It will be imperative for public television to have an effective strategy for answering these questions.

That debate becomes even more important--and your role in the debate becomes even more urgent--as the technologies for video distribution rapidly change. We are entering, as they say, an age of enormous bandwidth: an age of the information superhighway. Public television needs to ensure a place for itself on the superhighway and to preserve what might be called "public bandwidth" for its services.

The FCC, in my judgment, missed the first important opportunity to begin creating such public bandwidth last year when it failed to create a special place for public television on "video dialtone" systems offered by local telephone companies. My colleague Jim Quello and I supported the concept of public bandwidth--but at the time a majority of the commission did not.

Why raise the issue again today? For one enormously important reason: the Clinton-Gore Administration is now drafting its blueprint for a national information superhighway. For the first time in recent memory, the federal government has created a set of overarching goals for telecommunications, and has committed itself to support a nationwide infrastructure designed to deliver information and services to all Americans.

Some of you, like me, may hear echoes of another great statement of federal policy as we contemplate the information superhighway: "It is necessary and appropriate for the Federal Government to complement, assist and support a national policy that will most effectively make public telecommunications services available to all citizens of the United States." Those words appear in federal law as part of the preamble of the Public Broadcasting Act of 1967. To me they suggest common threads in the Clinton Administration's vision for the information superhighway of tomorrow--common threads with the original mission statement of public broadcasting.

Today I want to talk about those common threads and to suggest that reserving public bandwidth--what I will call "lanes for public culture on the information superhighway"--is a goal worth including in our emerging national infrastructure plan.

I was flattered to be in the audience with my colleagues from the FCC [Sept. 15] when Vice President Gore and Commerce Secretary Ron Brown unveiled a 25-page paper called "The National Information Infrastructure: Agenda for Action."

The vision statement that the Clinton Administration released that day is expansive. It includes telephones, cable, satellites, optical fiber, microwave links, switches, television, computers, compact discs, fax machines and more. Its goal is to link this hardware in a manner that is technology-neutral--so that no one industry or service will be favored over another.

But the paper acknowledges another goal as equally important: building social and human foundations for the technical marvels of the Information Age. As the paper notes, the value of the national infrastructure will largely depend upon three elements that are not so much technical as cultural: the quality of the information moving through the superhighway; the people who create it; and the software and programs that allow people to tap into it easily enough and conveniently enough to make the superhighway worthwhile and accessible for all.

The Administration identifies nine principles that will guide its initiatives:

How will these goals be achieved? The vision statement, recalling perhaps the great coalition to land an American on the moon, says, "We will help to build a partnership of business, labor, academia, the public and government."

Let me stress an important point here: I believe this statement is an open invitation to public broadcasting to be an active, pioneering participant in the new Administration's infrastructure dream. After all, who knows more about public-private partnerships among our nation's great telecommunications media than public broadcasting? For two and a half decades, the charter of public broadcasting has demanded that you leverage a relatively small fraction of money from the federal government with investments and grants from the private sector--and that you transform these dollars, through public television's special alchemy, into a diverse array of cultural and educational services serving millions of Americans.

In short, you already know a great deal about how to take the principles underlying the Administration's infrastructure plan and put them into action. You have a role to play--and the future of your enterprise may depend upon how well you play it.

Yet, today, when I attend public television conferences like this around the country, I often encounter decidedly mixed visions of the future of public television and no small amount of fear and worry. Why? Let me suggest that it is because this great institution of public culture is being whipsawed between two arguments that have not been effectively rebutted.

The first is an argument of scarcity. You know it well. The critics assert that government has only enough resources to provide essential services. Institutions like public television, the argument goes, are elitist, ancillary, nonessential: a kind of white-collar entitlement program for the upper middle class. Precious federal dollars, therefore, should not be subsidizing them.

I reject this view. Indeed, its premise seems to me quite dangerous: that in times of budget austerity, the government has no alternative but to retreat from its support for public culture. I would argue that if a family is in economic straits, finding a way to gain education and skill is as important as finding food and shelter. Those who fail to understand this consign themselves to long-term poverty. And surely the same truth holds for a society.

Critics of public television who argue against its continued existence as a public institution are espousing a pinched, minimalist view of government. A government that only dispensed Social Security checks and delivered the mail would be a government in danger of ignoring those enduring, fundamental purposes that great leadership always advances. Such a view of government, in my opinion, fails to serve the public because it ignores the importance of "our Posterity." We can expect that these arguments of scarcity will only be pressed harder as we confront critical needs like health care reform and deficit reduction. And so we need to hold aloft more strongly the banner of public culture, including public television.

The second argument endangering public television is the argument of abundance. The abundance theory insists that an explosion of new video services makes publicly funded television irrelevant. New cable channels, the argument goes, do all that public television was created to achieve. Schools and universities, moreover, linked by the first few miles of the new information superhighway, are beginning to deliver instructional video services that once were almost exclusively the province of educational television.

Again, I would respond: the arguments of abundance are seductive but false. They amount to saying that education and culture are a zero-sum game. Imagine asserting that the existence of dozens of private commercial art galleries in Washington makes the National Gallery obsolete, an anachronism, a waste of federal dollars that ought to be closed. The argument simply doesn't hold water.

My point is this: just as we continue to find public parks, schools, galleries and museums worthy of federal and state investment, so should we preserve space for public television and publicly funded educational services on the airwaves, on cable--and on tomorrow's information superhighway.

We need to create and nurture the concept of "public bandwidth"--for surely creating such a space supports the goals that the Clinton-Gore Administration has put forward: extending the concept of universal access to information resources, for example; spurring innovation in hardware, programming and software; and promoting interactivity, which public television already has begun to pioneer.

How can you help ensure that a lane for public culture is provided on the information superhighway? Some may think that simply demanding it, or wishing for it, will do the trick. But I suspect that you already know, from the funding debates of the recent past, that the arguments of scarcity and abundance are threatening to reach critical mass among some policymakers in Washington. Those twin, pincer-like arguments cannot be overcome by wishing or demanding. You must build strength anew--and persuade anew.

In my judgment, the supporters and leaders of public television should pursue a three-part strategy for securing the public bandwidth.

First, I would urge you to continue to capitalize on new technologies--for innovation in communications technology is at the heart of the information superhighway's design. In my view, public television deserves a place on the network of networks that will be the information superhighway because of its track record as an innovator.

Second, I would urge you to make the strongest possible factual case that you can to demonstrate the educational value of your services. You must not only document your commitment to educational and instructional television, but also measure the results and provide that concrete evidence to policymakers. Mere sentiment in favor of public television is not enough to withstand the resource debate that henceforth will constantly swirl around you.

Recently I was a panel member at a conference alongside a representative of Chris Whittle's Channel One. Mr. Whittle's colleague reported that the general awareness of current events among students who listened to Channel One's news increased by 3 percent. But general awareness among students whose teachers reinforced news broadcasts with effective, related classroom instruction increased by 12 percent. These are the kinds of statistics that you also should muster.

Ensuring your slice of public bandwidth doesn't require that you resort to utopian claims about the teaching value of television. You need not try to prove, for example, that television can replace teachers. It will be enough if you simply impart reliable information about the benefits of public television as a learning tool.

Finally, I would urge you to build alliances with others who are dedicated to encouraging, strengthening and broadly disseminating your kind of product--what I call "public culture." Many kinds of public institutions in this country have to fight to justify their existence--museums, institutions devoted to the arts and humanities, public colleges and universities. Too often, those who seek to make the zero-sum argument that I earlier mentioned have succeeded in isolating these institutions and even turning them into adversaries. How much better and more effective would your strategy be if you joined hands under one banner: the idea that it is the proper role of government to create an educated and enlightened citizenry.

You are, after all, a welcome ally. Public broadcasting has a powerful and valuable brand name. You have nurtured some of the most creative talent, producers and innovators in television. You have broken new ground in programming for children, minority audiences and the hearing- and visually impaired. You have attracted program underwriters who care about quality, not merely about commercial gain. Once these communities fully understand the overwhelming capacity of the information superhighway and the need, as the Administration's vision statement put it, for quality information to move down that pipeline, your inherent strengths will become more valuable. I urge you to begin thinking and acting now to find those strategic partners and create a broad new coalition in support of public culture.

President Kennedy, whom I quoted at the outset, was himself a strong advocate of public support for cultural institutions. He recognized the value of public culture, of art, education, poetry and enlightenment.

I strongly believe that President Clinton, who was inspired to enter public service by a handshake with John F. Kennedy, shares the same view. But he will need our help--your help and mine--in the debate and deliberation that will arise as we seek to build a new information infrastructure. He needs your help in persuading the skeptics that one goal of the information infrastructure should be to advance the progress that public television has made over the past 25 years.

At its core, the new information superhighway will buzz with commercial traffic--and this is fine, as far as it goes. My challenge to you is this: fight to ensure that poetry, art, science, cultural knowledge and the essential tools of education are allowed to travel that superhighway as well. This, I believe, is the next great challenge facing those who in the next few years will be called upon to reinvent public television. It is also a task for those of us in government who care deeply about those principles. Working together, I hope and believe we can master that challenge.



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