The October 2014 issue of Harper’s Magazine includes an article by Eugenia Williamson, “PBS Self-Destructs” that, for those of us who have a history with public broadcasting and value its role, is troublesome.
The article focuses largely on how public television funds major programs, how the sources of funding have changed over the years, and the challenges that producers and the system itself face as funding has migrated from direct federal support to foundations and private donors to corporations. Williamson argues that funding sources have always been a cause for tension and, in some cases, compromise in production and scheduling decisions. She notes that “For one brief, shining moment—which occurred before its actual creation—PBS was an uncompromised thing. It began as a Great Society initiative under the Johnson Administration and, like other public works programs of the era, was conceived as a way to level the effects of poverty and close the education gap.” (p. 47). However, over the years, PBS and, by extension, the producers who create programs for national distribution over the system, have had to seek other sources of funds. Williamson notes, “ . . . the present state of PBS was almost an inevitability, the result of structural deficiencies and ideological conflicts built in from the very start” (ibid).
Clearly, the issue of who funds national public television productions and what impact the funding has on editorial decisions (both the short-term editorial impact on an individual project and the long-term impact on strategic thinking and program decisions), is an ongoing concern. In fact, it has been an ongoing concern for decades. However, it is critically important that we not take a narrow view of public broadcasting. PBS is not like commercial networks. The pressures on funding documentaries that Williamson describes is one part of the public media environment in the United States, but not the total story by any means.
At this point, I should note that I have a long history in this arena. I worked for a public television station for almost two decades and, in subsequent positions, worked closely with individual stations and with the PBS Adult Learning Service for another seven years. I have a perspective that colors how I see issues.
Williamson notes that the media age of the PBS prime time audience is sixty-two. That may be true—and certainly, the fund-raising programs targeted at that audience do tend to reinforce the idea. However, this kind of generalization is a gross misunderstanding of the system’s purpose and structure. While the PBS primetime audience is bigger than many national commercial channels, PBS doesn’t go after a single audience (as commercial stations target the prime “consumer” market segment—people aged 18-35). Instead, they target programs to a wide spectrum of specialized audiences to meet the needs of specific groups of citizens. Here, from the PBSwebsite are some examples:
- Over the course of a year, nearly 90% of all U.S. television households - and 217 million people - watch PBS. The demographic breakdown of PBS' full-day audience reflects the overall U.S. population with respect to race/ethnicity, education and income. (Nielsen NPower, 9/24/2012-9/22/2013)
- In a typical month, 104 million people watch their local PBS stations. (Nielsen NPower, 9/30/2013-10/27/2013)
- 80% of all kids age two to eight watched PBS during the 2012-'13 season. (Nielsen NPower, 9/24/2012-9/22/2013)
- PBS had seven of the top 10 programs among mothers of young children in July 2014. (Nielsen NPower, 7/2014)
Local Stations: The Heart of Public Broadcasting
Another way that public broadcasting differs from commercial broadcasting is that its strength lies greatly in the local station and the connections between individual stations and the communities that they serve. The nation’s 161 public broadcasting licensees (who together operate 351 local stations) fall into three major categories: 84 are community organizations, 52 are colleges/universities, 20 are state authorities and five are local educational or municipal authorities. These stations are the true heart of public broadcasting.
Originally, many of them were founded in order to extend educational and cultural resources into their communities. Until the 1990s, many stations devoted their daytime schedules to instructional television programs targeted to the K-12 curriculum. Every year, station personnel would meet with local school representatives to preview new programs and identify those that met local educational needs. The station would then acquire broadcast rights and schedule those programs for broadcast during the academic year. When PBS moved to satellite distribution in the late 1970s, they added an Adult Learning Service and distributed college-level courses that local colleges and universities could license and offer for credit around local broadcasts.
Today, PBS maintains PBS LearningMedia.org, a free online collection of educational video modules in science, math, social sciences and English language arts that teachers may download and use in the classroom. The collection is complemented by PBS Teacherline which provides access to related teacher professional development opportunities.
This is one example of how public broadcasting’s strategies for serving the community have changed over the years as technologies and needs have changed. When I first started in public broadcasting at Penn State in the 1960s, we had one channel that served 29 central Pennsylvania counties. Today, WPSU delivers programs over three channels (one broadcast, two cable). In addition, it offers three public radio channels with a mix of classical music, news and discussion, and jazz. And, our community also has access to a cable-based children’s channel—Sprout—from the Children’s Television Workshop, which developed Sesame Street and other children’s programs that are identified with public broadcasting and that includes many of the same children’s programs broadcast on the main public TV channel. And, even more, there is a PBS application for iPAD that allows viewers to watch full episodes of many nationally delivered programs.
Time, changing technology and changing need, as our communities adapt to a new economic and social context, have created both new challenges and new opportunities for how we use media to inform, educate, and enlighten citizens of the communities served by this unique system. Public broadcasting is better described today as public media, because it uses multiple media delivery systems—continues to be an important way to bring high-quality information and artistic expression to communities and individual citizens.
Ultimately, the key to success lies in the links between local communities and their local station, between that station and the national PBS service. For instance, local stations could work with their local school districts to encourage the use of PBS Learning Media services, testing them against local teacher needs, identifying unmet needs, and encouraging sharing of ideas across school boundaries.
Increasingly, there is also a need to create links among stations that have similar missions to collaborate in the development and use of programs). One example is University Place, a partnership among three university-licensed Public Television stations at Ohio State University, the University of Wisconsin, and Penn State University to develop content in collaboration with stations' affiliated universities, and delivery of content to teachers and other audiences via the web, podcast, video-on-demand, and television broadcast. University Place was funded in part by the Corporation for Public Broadcasting. The project included development of a University Place Content Sharing Portal—a web-based service designed to help stations share, search and retrieve each others' programs.
In today’s multi-platform environment, public media organizations can be, more than ever, agencies that make the match between community need and media resources, whether for instruction, community development, or cultural expression. Innovations like University Place and PBS LearningMedia suggest some starting points for the next generation of public broadcasting.