The Future of Public Television

A Conference

Sarah Solotaroff

On December 2 and 3, 2004 the University of Chicago's Cultural Policy Center held a conference on “The Future of Public Television” at the Museum of Contemporary Art in downtown Chicago. The Center convened a star-studded series of presenters and key speakers to illuminate the current condition of public television and to make some predictions about its future. The speakers and panelists included Kathleen Cox, president and CEO, Corporation for Public Broadcasting (CPB); Pat Mitchell, president and CEO, Public Broadcasting System (PBS); Kenneth P. Stern, executive vice-president and CEO, National Public Radio (NPR); Newton Minow, former FCC chair; Lawrence Grossman, former president of PBS and NBC News; Ken Auletta, media critic for The New Yorker magazine; and John Lawson, president and CEO of the Association of Public Television Stations (APTS). The conference was moderated by veteran journalist John Callaway and was attended by more than 200 people—primarily broadcast professionals, students, and academics.

The impetus for this conference came from the imminent transition from the original analog transmission system, which most television sets now receive, to a digital system—a project originally scheduled to be completed within two years. This major shift is underway and has dramatic implications for broadcasters and viewers alike. The Center, headed by Executive Director D. Carroll Joynes, saw this as a turning point for public broadcasting, in particular, and planned this conference as a way to assess the current state of public television and to discuss its future. The central question for the conference, however, was how PBS—created in 1969 as a commercial-free, educational, and cultural resource intended primarily to give voice to those in the community who are rarely heard—can continue to fulfill its public mandate while competing with the formidable growth of the cable television industry and the expanding presence of online offerings. The CPB was instituted in 1967 pursuant to the Public Broadcasting Act to facilitate access to funding for high quality, non-commercial programming. CPB is intended to shield PBS from political pressures; the CPB board is composed of political appointees. As a private, nonprofit media enterprise, PBS is owned and operated by the nation's 349 public television stations. This decentralized system is factionalized and confusing to the public.

There seemed to be general agreement from the attendees that quality programming is still a primary concern: the “vast wasteland” Newton Minow so accurately described thirty years ago, has only expanded. The conference attendees struggled with several key questions: Is public television capable of fulfilling its original mandate in a world of cable and internet media choices? How can public television continue to sustain itself? And, are there better ways of constructing that sustenance so that public television has a solid future? How can PBS maintain its current role as the most trusted news and information source if it is influenced by political and commercial pressures? How does PBS continue its progressive mission in an increasingly conservative climate?

Following hostility from right-wing conservatives and threatened funding cuts, PBS appears to be responding in its programming. Within the past month, long-time broadcast journalist Bill Moyers ended his PBS flagship program, and new shows featuring right-wing advocates such as the panelists on Crossfire and Paul Gigot, editor of the Wall Street Journal's editorial page, have been added to the PBS roster. While there was agreement that new methods need to be developed to sustain the voice of public television as a non-commercial voice in an overwhelmingly commercial terrain, there was no agreement on how to do this.

Much of the conference revolved around discussion of the potential creation of a trust fund or endowment that would enable public television broadcasters to program independent of government and provide long-term security for the continuation of the service. But there was no agreement on what form the effort to build such a fund would take. Panelists described the possibility of legislation to establish the Digital Opportunities Investment Trust that Minow and Grossman have been discussing since 2001. CPB hopes to establish a fund to endow the operation of public television stations—an idea promoted by CPB, PBS, and APTS. Dan Schmidt, the president and CEO of Chicago's public television station WTTW, sees the future of public television in content, particularly in locally-produced programming. He spoke of the need to partner with neighbor public television stations and with the intellectual life of the community. This vision has given rise to Network Chicago, the unifying principle of WTTW, which links its programming to cultural institutions, public radio, and civic events. In fact, only about a dozen PBS stations are production centers, and these exist because of large surrounding populations.

For me, the most revealing sessions were those that compared the current situation of National Public Radio to its counterparts in television broadcasting. In “The Stations Speak” and “Should Public Television Listen to the Radio?” the panelists contrasted the advantages of public radio and the corresponding weaknesses of public television. For example, NPR's audience has grown 60 percent over the last five years. It has 750 organization stations around the country and approximately 350 reporters working around the U.S. Mrs. Kroc's gift of $231 million for NPR's endowment gives it a stability that stands in sharp contrast to the conflicting discussions about how to secure the future of public television. NPR will continue to report the news. It is nimble enough to move around the world. It intends to expand to forty-five more sites around the world particularly in the Middle East and in Latin America. Its intention is to be the best journalistic company in the world.

By contrast, public television has no comparable advantages. The expense involved in maintaining the necessarily high production values of television dwarf those of radio. This means that public television is forced to forego creative ideas because of the chronic absence of funding. It may be possible to find some funds in the operating budget of a public radio station for a new and good idea, but public television must spend time finding production dollars that are not easily carved out of an operating budget. A generation ago, look-alike cable stations took over programming opportunities from public television, and the competition for viewers became fierce. However, commercial radio walked away from in-depth news reporting twenty years ago because there was no money in it, leaving public radio the only player in the field. Consequently, radio listeners have station loyalty and television viewers have program loyalty, because of the range of cable offerings. The interminable television pledge drives seem intrusive because of the heavy pitching of premiums and the constant calls to action.

Perhaps the most clarifying speaker of the conference was Cass Sunstein, the Karl N. Llewellyn Distinguished Service Professor of Jurisprudence in the Law School of the University of Chicago, who described the origins of free speech in the media. He said that the two bases for free speech are: 1) a citizenship ideal put forth by Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes (who served as a supreme court justice from 1902-1932), and 2) a belief in the marketplace, a concept put forth by Justice Louis Brandeis (justice from 1916-1939.) Justice Holmes believed that “the greatest menace to freedom is an inert people,” and that the inertia comes from an uninformed public. The marketplace theory states that it is up to the people to choose from a range of ideas put into the public arena. Although the free market view is on the ascendancy, Mr. Sunstein stated that we are, in the end, citizens as well as customers and that public broadcasting needs to re-examine these two sources and weigh the strength of the democratic ideal of citizenship against faith in a free market model that constantly seeks efficiency and focuses on commercialism.

We seem indeed to be at a crossroads in public television, because of the imminent dominance of digital reception and because of the dwindling audience in a competitive arena and a consequent lack of funding. So those who care about public television need to understand the dual origins of public television and how such a structure affects its future. Those who care also need to ponder the two philosophic conceptions of free speech and determine which to emphasize in the future, because the very existence of public television—a non-commercial alternative to the hundreds of channels of commercial television—is in question.

I came away from this conference with a greater understanding of the crisis facing public television but also with two questions. Since the congress is now in Republican control, there must be conservative voices on the CPB board, but none were heard at this conference. And where are the young voices? Public television would appear to have given up on the twenty- to forty-year-old demographic. What can public television offer the generation of people who increasingly use the internet as their source of information? If public television could capture the interest of the younger generation it might have a brighter future and a better case for securing public funds for its own operations.

Sarah Solotaroff is senior fellow, Chicago Community Trust.