Why public broadcasting?
Commentaries on its purposes and reality from Current newspaper


Strategy for digital TV: making channels a community asset

Public TV doesn't need to venture alone into the digital jungle, says Richard Somerset-Ward, the former BBC producer and now a senior fellow at the Benton Foundation. He delivered these remarks at the Council on Foundations annual conference in New Orleans, April 20, 1999. Published in Current, June 7, 1999

By Richard Somerset-Ward

I am not sure by what right an Englishman (even one who has lived here for 20 years) refers an assembly of Americans to their own history. But I dare to try it.

In 1862-in the midst of the Civil War-a Republican Congress enacted the greatest giveaway in American history, up to that time. To every state, for every congressman it sent to Washington, senator or representative, it gave (for free) 30,000 acres of publicly owned federal land.

Now spool forward to 1996-the Telecommunications Act-again, a Republican Congress. To every broadcast licensee, public or private, it gave (for free) 6 MHz of publicly owned digital spectrum-a giveaway that is popularly believed to be worth in the region of $70 billion.

Two gigantic giveaways of public property, 134 years apart. But look at the differences.

The 1862 legislation, sponsored by Justin Morrill of Vermont, had a clearly defined purpose for the public interest. The states were required to use the revenues from the sale of the lands they had been given, very specifically, for the promotion of higher education in "agriculture and the mechanic arts." It was the Land Grant Colleges Act, and it was one of the most important triggers of public education in this country's history. It made college education available to all Americans, regardless of income.

The 1996 legislation had no such purpose. It was a license to print money. Yes, licensees are required to broadcast in "the public interest, convenience, and necessity" (as the Act says). But that's all it says, and Congress has no apparent wish to define it further.

That, I suggest to you, is the principal reason why we are going to rely so heavily on public television in the digital age. And it's the reason for talking to you, the foundations of this country, with so much urgency. Because the digital age is almost upon us.

Over the last 30 years, many of you have given grants to public television-sometimes for programming, sometimes for outreach, but almost always for content. That's not what I'm talking about today. There is something much more fundamental, much more urgent-and it has to do, not just with public television, but with the communities public television is there to serve.

Bear with me if I try my hand at another bit of history.

Between 1951 and 1977, in one of the most imaginitive and successful programs ever devised by a philanthropic institution, the Ford Foundation helped to launch (and then to shape and develop) public broadcasting in this country. In that time, it spent in excess of $300 million, much of it under the supervision of Fred Friendly, and it used that money, not just to initiate programming, but also to help public television create the infrastructure for programming, distribution and funding, on which it is based to this day. Other foundations weighed in as well-the Carnegie Corporation played a formative role-and it was their collective investment that shaped this entire enterprise.

Times have changed, technologies have changed. Public television needs to change. It is confronted by an altogether different challenge-a digital world in which it will have far more capacity, and far more potential, than it can ever use (or fund) on its own.

But, except in isolated instances, public television has never been a real force in local or community programming. Now, it has to be-or it will be nothing, lost in a Minow-esque wasteland in some forgotten portion of the dial.

Increasingly, this prospect-this challenge-is recognized within public television. Increasingly, a new vision is taking hold-and it's a vision that includes not just public television stations, but the communities they are there to serve.

It's not a brand new idea. It's something a number of people (most notably, Larry Grossman, the former president of PBS) have been talking and writing about for three or four years. Already, in states like Connecticut and Oregon, and in cities like Philadelphia, whole communities (including public broadcasters) are sitting down together to turn the vision into a practical plan.

It goes something like this. Like all other broadcasters, public television has been given these powerful new digital frequencies. It also possesses a great deal of expertise in the uses of other new technologies-digital, online, interactive technologies that may collectively be called "enhanced television," which public television (incidentally) has done much to pioneer.

On its own, public television cannot even begin to make use of all this new multichannel capacity-this is a system that finds it hard enough to fund one first-rate channel.

But what if it shared its new capacity? What if every public television station in this country (350 of them) shared its frequencies and its digital potential with its own community? And I'm not talking about access-I'm talking about sharing. What if, in every community in this country, a grand alliance of providers and users of digital communications was formed-specifically to serve the interests of the community?

What do I mean by an alliance? What are the institutions and organizations within a community that could be a part of it?

  • There's the educational community-K-12 school systems, colleges, universities, research institutes, pre-school providers, distance learning organizations, lifetime learning resources of all kinds. The entire educational community, public and private.
  • There's government-state governments and local governments. Some of them are already aware of the possibilities-Governor Rowland, for instance, has provided $10 million to begin this sort of development in Connecticut.
  • There are civic organizations of all kinds-from the mayor's office to the volunteer organizations that actually make democracy tick.
  • There are public health networks, child care providers, workfare agencies, many different faiths and religions.
  • There are cultural institutions, many of which are repositories of enormous intellectual property resources-museums, libraries (public and private), art schools, fashion and design institutes, theaters, galleries, performing arts centers, orchestras, glee clubs.
  • And there is business-all those local businesses that have a stake in their community. They may include major providers of telecommunications (a Bell company or a utility) ... or (if you're lucky) a branch of IBM or some other great computer company. But they will also include a multitude of small businesses, from the local newspaper to the local supermarkets. ... They are all employers, property owners, taxpayers. They all have a stake in the civic peace and prosperity of their community.
  • And, yes, there is public broadcasting-radio and television. I see them as vital members of the community alliance, perhaps the hubs of the alliance-provided they are willing to share their resources, and their new-found capacity, with their communities.

But every community is different. That is why these alliances must be grassroots organizations-each community modeling an alliance for itself, learning from the successes and failures of others, but each one unique.

So-a community alliance for the use and exploitation of a precious resource-a publicly owned resource-the digital spectrum. A way of joining together within a community to create a system of communication and dialogue that can only be for the good of the community-to knit it together, to reinforce its identity, to inform and educate it, to make it democratic, to make it aware of itself in ways that have never previously been possible.

Well ... good try (I see you thinking), but why do we need such a thing-a public telecommunications alliance in every community? Why do we need public television's new digital frequencies? Haven't we already got the Internet and all the methods of personal and public communication that access to cyberspace makes possible? And even if we did agree to talk about this alliance concept, how on earth could it be funded?

I can give you a number of reasons why I think this is a vision worth pursuing:

To begin with, it's about community. This country is the sum of its communities. Build them and develop them, and everyone gains-the social services, local government, education, the cultural identity of the community, and above all, the individual citizen. It's the ultimate aim of democracy-the public use of a public resource in the public interest.

But why bother with public broadcasting? Isn't the Internet good enough? Maybe it is for some-for those that have access, for those that are young enough to make it a part of their lives. But that's not everyone-not yet, and not for a long time. Moreover, one of the promises of digital television is that it will make possible the convergence of television with other digital technologies, including, most importantly, the computer and all forms of computer communication. So a television program can be enhanced by computer programming. It can make use of all forms of interactivity, whether through the television itself, or through a computer harnessed to it-soon, they may even be the same machine.

And the use of broadcast frequencies, I believe, will become more important rather than less. They are free. They go into every home, every school and institution. They are fast (where the Internet is often slow and unreliable). They are discrete. They are scheduled and programmed (where the Internet is necessarily anarchic). They are safe (where the Internet is not always safe for children, or even for adults). Moreover, they are public property-they belong to us all.

Well, fine-but how do you fund it all? I don't think that will be as hard as it sounds-partly because we're not just talking about funding public broadcasting. This is not the begging bowl scenario we're all so familiar with. This is something to which whole communities will be able to contribute-because they will be active participants in it, and because they will get something back from it.

There are millions of dollars (billions) that are already available-in education budgets, in state and local government budgets, in contributions from business, even in the budgets of cultural institutions. They've never contributed before because there's been nothing like this at the community level to contribute to. So we're not necessarily talking about newly minted money. Any community that is serious about making use of these new technologies on its own behalf, for its own development and prosperity, will find some resources. I don't doubt it.

PBS will continue to supply a national service, of course-hopefully, more than one. The prime time service will always be there-refreshed and augmented, we hope. Ready to Learn and the many other services PBS and the national suppliers make available will also still be there-with many additions, we hope. But every public television station will have the capacity to multicast six, seven (maybe more) separate and simultaneous channels. Is it too much to expect that some of that capacity will be reserved for community use?

So why do I say that the foundations are so important at this particular moment? Because all this needs to be seeded and planned. And it has to be done now, within the next three or four years. Alliances have to be built, partnerships have to be created at every level. They have to be planned and instituted by whole communities-but most of all, by the institutions within those communities.

I know that many foundations-most foundations-are not specifically interested in public television. But there are very few of you who are not involved with community activities of some kind-with education, with democracy, with the social services, with universal access. I'm not suggesting that foundations should pour their resources into public television per se. But I am suggesting that every area you are interested in-whether it be health or government, or libraries or museums, or underserved communities or ethnic minorities, or big city development or rural agriculture ... or education-all of them can play a major role in the sort of community alliances I am talking about, and all of them can benefit enormously.

By all means help public television in this endeavour, both locally and nationally. It needs help. And not only in dollars. If public television is to share this huge new resource it has been given, and to share it in the interest of its communities, then it is the expertise, and the willingness, of all these other community institutions that it needs to be working with. And that, I think, is where most of you come in.

Time is of the essence. The digital age is creeping up on us-all television stations are required to be transmitting in digital by 2003. If we don't plan for it now, then we never will, and a tremendous opportunity will have been missed-forever.

Probably more than anyone else, the foundations of this country are capable of making it happen-of seeding it, and helping to plan it, so that it can become self-funding as quickly as possible.

It's different from the Ford initiative of the 1950s and '60s-but it's not that much different, and its purposes are just as noble, and just as urgent.

And if it is successful, then perhaps future generations of Americans will remember the Telecommunications Act of 1996 with as much gratitude as we remember the Land Grants Colleges Act of 1862.



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Why public broadcasting?: Commentaries on its purpose and reality.

Later article: Foundations see hope in public TV's interest in community alliances; Ford Foundation aids APTS planning effort, June 1999.


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