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A Short History of Public Broadcasting




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In 1992, the act that established the Public Broadcasting Service reached its twenty-fifth anniversary. During those two plus decades, public broadcasting's achievements were considerable but its evolution was hampered by political infighting, a lack of a clear purpose, and most of all, an insufficient amount of money. Let's quickly review some of the history of noncommercial television in the United States.

Until 1967, noncommercial TV was known as educational television. Most of the programs were instructional and were criticized for being dull. In 1967, following the recommendations of the Carnegie Commission, Congress passed the Public Broadcasting Act, which authorized money for the construction of new facilities and established the Corporation for Public Broadcasting (CPB), an organization that was to oversee noncommercial TV and distribute funds for programs. The government also created the Public Broadcasting Service (PBS), an organization whose duties resemble those performed by commercial networks, that is, promotion and distribution of programming among member stations. Although this arrangement seemed to work well at first, internal disputes soon surfaced concerning which of these two organizations had final control over programming. Another squabble developed in 1974 between public television and the Nixon administration when the White House felt that PBS programs were anti-administration. President Nixon eventually vetoed a CPB funding bill. Organizational problems continued to plague public broadcasting into the 1990s.



In addition, several cable channels began to offer programs that competed for public TV's audience. CBS Cable, with all the formidable resources of its parent company at its disposal, led the way in this area of cultural programming, with a schedule that included drama, ballet, opera, and concerts. Many experts felt that much of the traditional programming on public TV would eventually move to cable or to videocassette. On top of this came further reductions in federal funds for public broadcasting. In fact, the National Telecommunications and Information Administration, which recommends broadcasting policy to the White House, announced in 1983 that it was considering a suggestion that would end all federal funding of public TV. The future did not look promising.

Then things started to change. CBS Cable went out of business after losing $30million. Other "arts" cable networks were smuggling along in the red. There was little competition from videocassettes. Somewhat surprisingly, cable turned out to be more of a friend than foe to public TV. Those same must-carry rules that aided independent TV stations also helped public stations. Since two-thirds of all public stations are in the UHF band, carriage by local cable systems increased their coverage area and helped public TV double its audience from 1980 to 1984. The end result was that public TV wound up as the primary cultural channel in the nation with 90 million viewers every week.



In the mid-1980s, however, the must-carry rules were declared unconstitutional and the future of cable-carried public stations became uncertain. Although most cable systems continued to carry local-market public stations, there is now no guarantee that they must continue to do so.

Things were not bright on the monetary front either. The Reagan administration cut funds for public broadcasting and proposed to freeze future funding at current levels. Congress restored some of the cuts, but in 1987 the system was struggling to get along on about the same amount of money it had in 1982. Faced with this uncertainty, public TV looked to other sources for funding: corporate underwriting, auctions, viewer donations, and sales of program guides. Some noncommercial stations even briefly experimented with commercials.

Moreover, the goal of public broadcasting was becoming less clear. Cable channels, such as the Arts & Entertainment Network and the Discovery Channel, carry programs once identified with public broadcasting. Public TV stations themselves further blurred their identity by rerunning shows that were once popular on the commercial networks, such as The Avengers, Leave It To Beaver, and The Lawrence Welk Show. The problems became so severe that a major restructuring of the programming function of public TV was accomplished in 1990. Faced with dwindling funding from government and private sources, PBS centralized much of its programming decision making in the hope that the new system would save money and be more efficient. The first season under this new system proved to be a success but the future of PBS was still somewhat uncertain.



 


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