More than three years after promising digital channels to broadcasters, the FCC held a hearing Oct. 16, 2000, about what the broadcasters should do in exchange for the spectrum. Most of the testimony was about possible FCC rules requiring political and children’s programming, but former FCC general counsel Henry Geller suggested, as he and others have said before, that the public interest would be served more effectively by assessing spectrum fees and paying pubcasters to do the public-interest programming. This article was adapted from Geller’s statement. The broadcast regulatory scheme, adopted in 1927 and continued to the present time in the 1996 amendments to the Communications Act, is one of short-term licensing, with the licensee committed to serving the public interest — of being a public trustee or fiduciary for its service area.
Public broadcasters are ramping up efforts to secure support of their position in the Senate after the House of Representatives overwhelmingly approved legislation that could force the FCC to permit religious broadcasters to use reserved noncommercial educational channels without determining whether they carry educational programs or not. The Noncommercial Broadcasting Freedom of Expression Act, H.R. 4201, passed the House 264-159 on June 20, with six Republicans and 153 Democrats opposed. The legislation, sponsored by Rep. Charles W. “Chip” Pickering (R-Miss.) but largely rewritten by House telecom subcommittee Chair Billy Tauzin (R-La.), gives nonprofit organizations the right to hold noncommercial educational (NCE) radio or television licenses if the station broadcasts material the organization itself deems to serve an “educational, instructional, cultural or religious purpose.” The bill notes that religious programming “contributes to serving the educational and cultural needs of the public,” and dictates that the FCC treat it the same way it treats educational programming. Before the legislation’s passage, the House rejected an alternative offered by Rep. Edward Markey (D-Mass.) that would have mandated the reserved channels be primarily educational.
With the search for Ervin Duggan’s successor now underway, public broadcasting has an opportunity to reflect on how the next PBS president should deal with the many controversial issues facing the system — 30-second spots, leasing of the digital spectrum, and delivery of PBS programs on DBS, to name a few.Amidst these raging debates, we should not lose sight of our commitment to diversity and multiculturalism. How will we provide a narrative space for different ethnic and racial groups to express their hopes and fears, their struggles and triumphs, their successes and failures? How will we allow various ethnic minorities to speak in what one commentator calls the “voice of color.” (1) In short, how will we allow the diversity of perspectives to be aired, the marginalized voices to be heard, and the American stories to be told?Attempts to bring perspectives that are considered “outside the mainstream” have sometimes engendered a lot of controversy, both within and outside the system. In some cases, public broadcasting has been subject to threats to reduce or even eliminate its governmental funding. In the face of these political and funding pressures, should we shy away from programs that contain unconventional or unpopular views, such as the personal struggles of a black homosexual man?
One witness the congressmen didn’t lecture about donor-list improprieties at a House telecom subcommittee hearing July 20 , was documentarian Ken Burns, who carried the historical weight of Sullivan Ballou, Thomas Jefferson and Satchel Paige with him. His remarks for the rapidly organized hearing echoed parts of his keynote at the PBS Annual Meeting in June 1999. Let me say from the outset — as a father of two daughters and a film producer, increasingly concerned about violence on television — that I am a passionate lifelong supporter of public television and its unique role in helping to stitch our exquisite, diverse and often fragile culture together. Few institutions provide such a direct, grassroots way for our citizens to participate in the shared glories of their common past, in the power of the priceless ideals that have animated our remarkable republic and our national life for more than 200 years, and in the inspirational life of the mind and the heart that an engagement with the arts always provides. It is my wholehearted belief that anything which threatens this institution weakens our country.
Two years after the CPB funding crisis began to subside, public TV’s assigned public-policy representative, the president of America’s Public Television Stations (APTS), was giving variations on this stump speech at meetings of pubcasters. This is an edited version of David Brugger’s remarks to the FirstView instructional TV screening conference in August 1998. One of the important revelations to station professionals and lay volunteers during our last Capitol Hill Day was that their members of Congress often fed back the message they had heard from the more than 85 percent of their constituents in your home towns who said they wanted continued or increased federal funding — this, in many cases, from members of Congress who had been ardent opponents of federal funding just 18 months before. Last summer’s Roper survey showed that Americans see public radio and public television as their second- and third-best values in return for tax dollars spent. This is even higher than during the 1995 funding crisis when we were No.
In his keynote address at the PBS Annual Meeting, June 22, 1997, David McCullough celebrated the value of history, the joy of collaboration in making films and both the achievements and promise of public TV. McCullough, a celebrated historian whose biography of President Truman won a Pulitzer Prize, has narrated many documentaries, including Ken Burns’ The Civil War and hosted the PBS series American Experience for 10 years. Did you know that if you were a flea, you could jump as high as Rockefeller Center? And, furthermore, you could do it 30,000 times without stopping? I learned that from Miriam Rothschild, who is the world’s leading expert on fleas.
What do viewers and listeners have to say about public broadcasting’s purposes? You can work backward from their letters and calls to stations and producers about the field’s achievements. Relief from yappy dogsDear NPR,
Ever since I arrived in Ukraine in June, I have suffered acute NPR news withdrawals. Sure, I miss my family, my friends, and all those “things” that have come to represent my previous life in America — hot showers, clean tap water, brown sugar for my oatmeal and lighted stairwells. But I suspect that it is the lack of those familiar voices that woke me up each morning in Salem, Ore., that has made my transition in this country most difficult. Please send those tapes soon.
Bill Moyers’ keynote at the PBS Annual Meeting, June 23, 1996, grabbed many of the pubcasters where they live, and invited others to come home. Producer Stephen Ives, a second-generation professional in public TV, said later that Moyers’ Sunday-morning talk reminded him “why I was so proud of what my father did for a living.” I must tell you that being here feels very good. Two years ago you invited me to be with you in Florida to celebrate my 60th birthday but I wound up having heart surgery instead and couldn’t come to blow out the candles. But it was a moment I’ll never forget when all of you sang “Happy Birthday” to me over an open telephone line.
This commentary traces public broadcasting back to its earliest days and its root principles of populism and public education. Media historian Robert W. McChesney, founder of the citizen group Free Press, draws on his 1993 book Telecommunications, Mass Media, and Democracy: The Battle for the Control of U.S. Broadcasting, 1928-1935 (Oxford University Press). This is an edited version of McChesney’s March 1995 talk at the University of California, San Diego. Though the federal contribution to public broadcasting is being extended, if at a reduced rate, for two or three more years, the handwriting is on the wall: there may be no more government subsidized broadcasting in the United States by the end of the decade. I believe that it is very much in the public interest for the nonprofit, noncommercial media to be expanding instead.