|In three years, they said, Grossman and Minow have raised $3 million from federal sources for development of the DOIT proposal. (Photo: Lloyd DeGrane for the University of Chicago.)|
Advice from Chicago: 'Act like you don't have much
time, because you don't'
Trust fund possible only with new unity and broad support
‘You can’t sell this to Congress if you’re talking only about public broadcasters. . . . You have to broaden this coalition,” Newton Minow urged public TV supporters and media reform advocates who gathered in Chicago Dec. 2-3  to discuss the future of public television.
What they’d all like to sell to Congress is a fund that would give public TV some of the fiscal permanence it has long sought. But they soon expressed substantial differences about what is politically feasible.
There’s a fleeting chance in coming months that Congress could heed pleas for a trust fund—endowing it with proceeds from FCC auctions of the TV spectrum to be declared surplus when TV broadcasting goes all-digital.
“Act like you don’t have much time, because you don’t,” said John Callaway, a former public TV journalist who moderated much of the conference. “The world of new media waits for no one.”
Trust funds were the talk of the conference, “The Future of Public Television,” convened by the University of Chicago’s Cultural Policy Center [conference site]. It was largely a gathering of believers, conspicuously lacking the field’s devoted opponents from Washington.
But there was adequate criticism for public TV from supporters who see it sliding downhill. Several speakers and panelists said public TV had compromised its integrity by bowing to political pressures to add more right-wing viewpoints and program hosts to its lineup.
To establish that elusive trust fund — first envisioned by the Carnegie Commission on educational television in 1967 — public broadcasters must unite behind a plan and marshal a broad coalition to campaign for it, according to speakers at the conference.
They described a range of trust-fund proposals, similar in objective and overlapping in strategy.
The Digital Opportunities Investment Trust from Grossman and Minow: To secure the needed funding, “public broadcasting has got to come to consensus on one proposal and speak with one voice, said Grossman, the former PBS president who, with Minow, has advocated legislation to establish DOIT since 2001 [DOIT website].
“We’ve got to think of ourselves as part of a broader not-for-profit sector of universities, libraries and museums with which we are partners,” said Minow, a former chairman of both PBS and the FCC. “I think on that basis we can get this trust fund through Congress.”
The Minow-Grossman project has at least a small beachhead in Washington. Congress and federal agencies have laid out more than $3 million to develop the DOIT proposal in the past three years.
DOIT would direct spectrum-auction proceeds to a public trust that would back digital education and workforce-training projects of universities, cultural institutions, libraries and public broadcasters. The trust, endowed with $18 billion and paying out $1 billion a year, would be modeled on the National Science Foundation. DOIT has bipartisan support in Congress, and Grossman anticipates Senate hearings on legislation next year. The omnibus appropriations bill approved by Congress this fall included $500,000 to support efforts to define the trust’s governance structure.
PBS Enhanced Funding Initiative: Mitchell announced the panelists to study spectrum-financed trust funds and other options for funding public broadcasting. “The option of creating a trust fund from the proceeds of the analog spectrum has been a subject of discussion for some time,” Mitchell said, “and the window of opportunity on this option is closing, making it imperative that public broadcasting, as a whole community, consider this carefully, thoughtfully, strategically.
APTS early give-back plan: Lawson said stations would voluntarily return the channels they’ve used for analog TV market by market well before the FCC demands it. The commission originally set the digital switch-over deadline for December 2006, but, because consumers have been slow to buy digital sets, that date could slide well into the future. APTS proposes that, in exchange for the stations’ early give-back of spectrum, Congress would give them cable and satellite must-carry rights for their multicast channels and aid from a trust fund endowed with at least $500 million for production of educational content. The fund would supplement public TV’s existing financing system.
Citizens for Independent Public Broadcasting plan: CIPB, a membership organization that wants public broadcasting to serve as a noncommercial forum for alternative viewpoints, proposes an independent trust modeled on Red Cross or the U.S. Olympic Committee and funded by taxes on commercial broadcasters or TV sets.
The trust would replace CPB, administer public TV and radio’s interconnection systems, and produce programs to be distributed free to public stations. Local stations would receive half of the funds.
“At issue is whether public broadcasting still aspires to its founding mission or is willing to settle indefinitely for increasing marginalization,” Starr said. Public interest groups that support media reform won’t campaign for a pubcasting trust fund without “substantial assurances that this fiscal security would indeed be used to promote greater journalistic and editorial integrity.”
Behind the trust fund proposals are vastly different assessments of political reality.
Lawson said visions of a fund that would free pubcasters from political oversight are “illusory.” Any proposal that would tax commercial broadcasters or TV sales would be dead on arrival, he predicted. He nodded toward Minow and Grossman’s emphasis on coalition-building: “This can’t just be a public TV trust fund.”
Lawson expressed concern that, with PBS’s initiative now in the mix, “we might end up with a third proposal out there.” If everyone can’t agree on a single bill to strengthen the field’s financing, then at least they can go to Capitol Hill “with one story,” he said.
Advocates were at least beginning to talk to each other in Chicago.
“We’ve been invited to get involved with the PBS committee, and we are talking with APTS,” Grossman said in an interview. “We don’t want multiple proposals out there,” he said.
DOIT proponents would claim one-third of spectrum auction revenues from 2009
and beyond, Grossman said. But they would not claim any proceeds from public
TV’s analog spectrum if the APTS giveback plan moves forward.
“A camel designed by committee”
With the rise of big media, said New Yorker media critic Ken Auletta, public TV has an opportunity “to make the case that it represents a true alternative. You don’t have to be a right-wing conservative to worry that your kid’s mind is being polluted.”
But public TV undermines that case with its preoccupation with ratings, schlocky pledge shows, enhanced underwriting spots, and plans to launch a commercial cable service for children, he said. He worried that PBS’s Enhanced Funding Initiative will have no more effect than the PBS task force that sketched plans for a Public Square channel for news and information, which, to his disappointment, has not moved forward. [In the Public Square proposal, prepared with aid from the Knight Foundation, PBS sought funding a specialized new cable channel.]
The structural problems inhibiting public TV’s progress are profound, in Auletta’s view. “The system is a camel designed by a committee and each entity is a supplicant,” he said.
Auletta, who reported this spring on Republican efforts to balance PBS’s lineup [earlier Current article], criticized Republicans on the CPB Board for meddling in program decisions and Bill Moyers for mixing news and commentary on Now.
Starr also questioned public TV’s editorial integrity, notably PBS and CPB backing for new shows from the right—Tucker Carlson: Unfiltered and the Wall Street Journal’s Journal Editorial Report. “These programs are dominated by the same conservative white male flacks and hacks that control the government and the corporations,” Starr said. “Worse, some are already available to the public on commercial channels. They do not offer the alternative that the public so desperately needs.”
Mitchell said the new shows contribute to PBS’s objective of creating a public square —“a place where all ideas are welcome, all points of view expressed thoughtfully, civilly and all issues are open for candid debate.” Scaling back Bill Moyers’ Now to a half-hour when David Brancaccio succeeds Moyers as host is a response to financial, not political pressures, she said.
Cass Sunstein, a professor of law and political science at the University of Chicago, suggested that PBS’s concept for news and information representing the broadest spectrum of political thought can ameliorate one negative effect of channel proliferation. Niche channels allow like-minded people to talk only to one another, he said. “They separate themselves into echo chambers and their views become more extreme.”
“Public broadcasting can correct this by ensuring that people are exposed to opinions and ideas that they might not otherwise encounter,” Sunstein said.
Media activists from the left challenged pubcasters to broaden their coverage of political discourse beyond the increasingly partisan labels of conservatives and liberals, resist commercialism and open their decision-making to more public input.
“Public broadcasting was meant to be a forum for alternative views not found elsewhere,” said Scott Sanders of Chicago Media Action. “I would like to see people in this room open up the tools at their disposal for broader discussion on TV.”
CPB President Kathleen Cox defended Chairman Ken Tomlinson and board member Cheryl Halpern from criticism by Auletta that the two let ideology influence program decision-making.
The eight Republicans and Democrats on the CPB Board “share a common interest to work together to the benefit and expansion of public broadcasting,” she said. The corporation has a mandate to assure diversity of opinions in programming, she said, which was why CPB backed the Tucker Carlson and Wall Street Journal programs, she said.
“We’re used to criticism of public TV from the right, and here we are hearing about it from the left,” Lawson said, during the conference’s concluding session. “It reinforces the importance of public TV and that it’s worth fighting for.”
Web page corrected Dec. 16, 2004
Copyright 2004 by Current Publishing Committee