Seize the diversity market: a pragmatic view

An opportunity for PBS as it
seeks a new president

Originally published in Current, Nov. 1, 1999
Commentary by Gary P. Poon

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? Or, do we have the courage to be different?

For the purist, the answer is obvious: public television must take risks to reflect America’s diversity, even if it means offending the mainstream. But for the pragmatist, the answer is less clear-cut: because public broadcasting’s governmental funding is politically based, programming decisions necessarily require a judgment about what the community standard is and, yes, whether someone in that community might be offended. A critical challenge for the next PBS president is how he—or she is able to balance these two approaches. Simply stated, how will the next president guide the system in developing a national/local strategy that furthers diversity and multiculturalism while maintaining, or even increasing, public broadcasting’s political and financial support? In thinking about this dilemma, let us consider the following:

The founders’ vision

The utilization of a great technology for great purposes, the appeal to excellence in the service of diversity—these became the concepts that gave shape to the work of the [Carnegie] Commission. In the deepest sense, these are the objectives of our recommendations.(2)

The first Carnegie Commission articulated in 1967 a grand vision for public television built upon the principles of diversity and multiculturalism. “America is geographically diverse, ethnically diverse, widely diverse in its interests,” they observed. “American society has been proud to be open and pluralistic, repeatedly enriched by the tides of immigration and the flow of social thought. Our varying regions, our varying religious and national and racial groups, our varying needs and social and intellectual interests are the fabric of the American tradition.”

Public television, the Commission wrote, should “help us see America whole, in all its diversity.” It “should be a mirror of the American style” and “should remind us of our heritage and enliven our traditions.” It is a place “where people of the community express their hopes, their protests, their enthusiasms, and their will.” It should provide “a voice for groups in the community that may otherwise be unheard.” Its programs “should help us know what it is to be many in one, to have growing maturity in our sense of ourselves as a people.” It should, in short, be the “clearest expression of American diversity, and of excellence within diversity.”

Yet, many of its critics—and even its champions—have charged that public television has fallen far short of these ideals. While there may be some exceptions, public television programming, they say, tends to be dull, unimaginative, predictable and safe. “The fear of alienating corporate underwriters, station subscribers and government officials reinforces what William Hoynes calls a ‘logic of safety’ and a culture of timidity inside public television,” wrote one independent producer turned academician. (3) “Such timidity has not always been the norm,” another observer added, “it is learned behavior, based on survival instincts.” (4)

While there may be some truth to these criticisms, it would be naive to expect public broadcasting to ignore the now-predictable threats to cut off its funding whenever a controversial or provocative program is aired. But, if public broadcasting’s self-censorship is a learned behavior, can it not also be unlearned?

Changing demographics

America’s demographics are changing at an unprecedented rate. As we approach the next century, the U.S. population is becoming increasingly more diverse. According to the Census Bureau’s projections, the combined population of ethnic minority (5) groups will continue to grow more rapidly than that of non-Hispanic whites. (6)

In fact, while the overall U.S. population is expected to grow almost 50 percent from 263 million in 1995 to 394 million in 2050, the minority population will account for nearly 90 percent of this increase of 131 million people. (7) Consider the following projections: (8)

If we are serious about public television’s mandate—or its survival—the programming that it provides to the local communities must reflect this growing diversity. Otherwise, public television will grow out of touch with its constituencies and become irrelevant.

The changing face of politics

Because public broadcasting receives a substantial portion of its funding from the federal, state, and local governments, it is only natural to worry about the political consequences of what we broadcast. Programs—such as Tongues Untied (aired on P.O.V. in 1991) and more recently “It’s Elementary”—have offended some “conservative” factions, resulting in threats to reduce or even eliminate public broadcasting’s funding at the federal and state levels.

Undoubtedly, there is a sensitive interdependence between public television’s programming and its governmental funding. To state the obvious, this relationship will vary along with the day’s reigning ideology. But while the political pendulum will continue to swing between conservatives and liberals, the faces of politics are becoming more diverse.

For example, the percentages of minority groups serving in Congress have risen substantially in recent years. (9) Since 1967, the year of the Public Broadcasting Act, the number of Hispanic-Americans and African-Americans serving in Congress has risen from 11 to 62, a 464 percent increase. This is comparable to the increase in the number of women in Congress, which rose from 12 to 67 during this period, a 458 percent increase.

A similar story seems to be unfolding in the Executive Branch. While the total number of federal employees has fallen from 1990 to 1997, the number of minorities holding senior or executive level jobs has actually risen during this period. (10) In fact, the percentage of minorities in policymaking positions has been rising at an appreciably faster rate than that of majority whites—109 percent and 166 percent for African Americans and Hispanics, respectively, compared to 44 percent for non-Hispanic whites.

Certainly, it may take some time before the makeup of our government truly reflects the demographics of the overall population. But as politics become more inclusive, might not the unconventional become more conventional, the marginalized less marginal, and the risqué less risky?

Growing economic muscle

Public television receives approximately 37 percent of its funding from individuals and corporations combined. In considering whether or not to give a voice to traditionally under-served communities, public broadcasting cannot afford to ignore the growing economic power and marketplace of ethnic minorities.

According to a recent report prepared by the Small Business Administration, minority-owned businesses are a rapidly growing segment of the U.S. economy. (11) From 1987 to 1997, the number of minority-owned businesses increased 167 percent, while revenues and employment grew 343 percent and 362 percent, respectively.

Consistent with the changing population growth, Hispanic-owned businesses increased more rapidly from 1987 to 1997 than any other types of minority-owned businesses. By 1997, Hispanic-owned businesses were the most numerous, totaling 1.4 million, followed by Asian-American-owned businesses at 1.1 million, and African-American-owned at 880,000. The Minority Business Development Agency (MBDA) in the U.S. Department of Commerce has estimated that the current purchasing power of minority groups is approximately $1 trillion. More significantly, it has projected that the minority buying power “will increase substantially over the next 50 years as the U.S. economy grows, minority population increases, and disparities diminish in income between minorities and nonminorities.” (12)

The rise of Generation X

But wait, there’s more. The amount of wealth that will be transferred to the younger generations over the next 50 years is staggering. Such intergenerational transfer of wealth has been estimated to total anywhere from $10 trillion over the next 20 years (13) to as high as $41 trillion to $136 trillion over the next 50 years. (14) While the accuracy of these estimates are subject to debate, the Social Welfare Research Institute has heralded that a “golden age of philanthropy is dawning, especially among wealth holders and the upper affluent.”

As the Baby Boomer generation ages over the next 50 years, a significant portion of this wealth transfer will go to those born after 1964, or the Generation-Xers. In addition to its changing racial mix, the chief distinguishing attitudinal trait of this Generation X, according to generational marketers, is its tolerance of, and desire for, diversity. J. Walker Smith, a speaker at this year’s PBS Development Conference, wrote, “Diversity in all its forms—cultural, political, sexual, racial, social—is a hallmark of this generation, a diversity, accessible to everyone, that transcends even national borders.” (15)

KQED’s experience

Anecdotally, KQED’s recent experience with the program, "Chinatown," is a good example of how an appeal to diversity can attract a whole new set of funders. Produced as part of the series, Neighborhood: The Hidden Cities of San Francisco, this segment on Chinatown told the neighborhood’s story from the point of view of those who have lived there. The program used Chinese music, poetry, and oral histories to make Chinatown’s history and everyday experience come alive for the viewer.

According to Mary Bitterman, KQED’s president, one-third of the funding for "Chinatown" came from members of the Chinese community in San Francisco, 90 percent of whom had not previously contributed to the station. The remaining amount was funded by corporations and private foundations whose strategic mission, principles and objectives include furthering the interests of diversity.

Indeed, KQED has had a long history of celebrating multiculturalism and recently reaffirmed its commitment to diversity as one of its principal strategic priorities. “Every time we do something to enhance diversity, it is met with such enthusiasm and support from the community,” Mary said. “If we invite different ethnic groups to participate in our decisions, rather than doing everything behind closed doors, they will help us find the funding we need.” (16)

Are you ready?

So, what does this all mean for PBS and its next president? As public broadcasting is making the transition to digital television, PBS will need to work with CPB, APTS, member stations, the Minority Consortia, ITVS, and other public television stakeholders to develop a systemwide digital strategy that both furthers diversity and expands public broadcasting’s political and financial base of support. Such a strategy could start with the following concrete goals—which are achievable today using existing technology.

In the end, only history can judge how well public broadcasting fulfills its mandate of furthering diversity and multiculturalism. Will some people get offended in the process? Perhaps. Will the tides change? Yes. Is it worth the challenge? Absolutely, for serving diversity is what public broadcasting is all about.

PBS has an opportunity to help the system seize the market for minority programming right now before cable or anyone else does. Like everything else, this window of opportunity is a limited one, for if PBS doesn’t do it, someone else will.

It is therefore incumbent upon the next PBS president and others entrusted with this national treasure to utilize their intelligence, foresight, and courage to fulfill public broadcasting’s bold vision. In the words of the late Robert Saudek, an independent producer and a member of the first Carnegie Commission, public television “must be satisfied with nothing short of first-rate thoughts, boundless energy, professional competence and the thrill of the chase.” (18)

Gary Poon is the founding principal of DTVision, a consulting firm that specializes in digital strategies and public service media. He was formerly executive director of the Digital Strategic Planning Office at PBS and an attorney for the network. Poon is also a writer and a frequent guest lecturer at the University of Maryland Business School. The views expressed in this article are his own and do not necessarily reflect the opinions of his clients.

Copyright 1999 by Current Publishing Committee,
Takoma Park, Md.



1. Alex M. Johnson, Jr., The New Voice of Color, 100 Yale L.J. 2007, 2061-61 (1991).

2. Carnegie Commission on Educational Television, Public Television: A Program for Action (New York: Bantam Books 1967) 14.

3. B.J. Bullert, Public Television: Politics and the Battle Over Documentary Film (New Brunswick: Rutgers University Press 1997) 4.

4. James Ledbetter, Made Possible By...The Death of Public Broadcasting in the United States (London: Verso 1997) 11.

5. The U.S. Census Bureau defines “minority” as “the combined population of people who are Black, American Indian, Eskimo, Aleut, Asian, Pacific Islander, or of Hispanic origin (who may be of any race).”

6. U.S. Census Bureau, Population Projections of the United States by Age, Sex, Race, and Hispanic Origin: 1995 to 2050, Current Population Reports, P25-1130, U.S. Government Printing Office, Washington, D.C. 1996 (“Population Projections 1995 to 2050”).

7. Ibid. Table I.

8. Ibid. 1.

9. Based on statistics kept by the Legislative Resource Center in the U.S. House of Representatives, faxed to author on Oct. 19, 1999.

10. Statistical Abstract of the United States (September 30, 1998).

11. U.S. Small Business Administration, Minorities in Business (1999).

12. U.S. Department of Commerce, The Emerging Minority Marketplace: Minority Population Growth: 1995-2050.

13. David Cay Johnson, “A Larger Legacy May Await Generations X, Y and Z,” The New York Times (Oct. 20, 1999) C2.

14. John J. Havens and Paul G. Schervish, “Millionaires and the Millenium: New Estimates of the Forthcoming Wealth Transfer and the Prospects for a Golden Age of Philanthropy,” published Oct. 19, 1999;

15. J. Walker Smith & Ann Clurman, Rocking the Ages: The Yankelovich Report on Generational Marketing (Harper Business 1997) 89.

16. Telephone conversation with Mary Bitterman on Oct. 19, quotes used with permission.

17. Lee W. McKnight and Joseph P. Bailey, “An Introduction to Internet Economics,” published in Lee W. McKnight and Joseph P. Bailey, editors, Internet Economics (The MIT Press 1997).

18. Robert Saudek, “The Role of ETV and Its Relation to Programs,” Memorandum on Some Thoughts Expressed at Breakfast on June 15, 1966 with Messrs. Land, Weeks and White (copy given to and on file with author).

Web page revised May 15, 2007
Copyright 1999 by Current Publishing Committee


Gary Poon


...views of public broadcasting's mission


NPR Board member Jon Schwartz suggests that public radio give high priority to serving the other 90 percent of the U.S. population.


Minority employment in the top ranks of public broadcasting doubled in 20 years, 1978-98.

"What we now think of as 'diversity' will soon become the 'mainstream.' ... As politics become more inclusive, might not the unconventional become more conventional, the marginalized less marginal, and the risque less risky?"

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