What's So Great About Public Television?

Some say dump the stodgy format and start over

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Despite the unholy motives behind Newt Gingrich's pseudo-populist campaign to eliminate federal funding for public television, the ruckus seems to have served one good purpose: It has stimulated fresh thinking about the subject on the Left.

For years, progressive media critics have kept their eyes peeled to the corporate slant of public affairs shows, the censorship of anti-establishment documentaries, and the commercialization of public television -- a phenomenon Village Voice critic Thomas Goetz (July 4, 1995) says will only accelerate with the imminent funding cuts. Fewer critics, though, have questioned the very being of public television as a whole.

Writing in The Nation (March 6, 1995), Alexander Cockburn went against the grain of most progressive intellectuals by chastising the upper-brow flair of public broadcasting -- a position which finds him in an unlikely nod of agreement with Newt Gingrich. Shortly afterwards in Z Magazine (April, 1995), radio commentator David Barsamian agreed in principle, but took Cockburn to task for sidestepping the fundamental question of how the Right-wing campaign would impact the tenuous future of alternative and noncommercial media spaces as America heads toward the 21st century.

Independent producer Danny Schechter, co-creator of the public television show Rights & Wrongs, has a solution on both counts. Writing in Current, the trade newspaper of public broadcasting (May 29, 1995), he argues that public television has narrowcast at the margins for far too long. We need to 're-invent' the wheel and re-imagine public television as a vibrant 'citizen's channel' that is more popular, more public, and more in touch with the civic needs of diverse communities, says Schechter. Like any innovative cook, he has a 'recipe' that can transcend the 'mindless stew' that public television has become: Look to models like Channel 4 in Britain and City TV in Canada, see what CNN, C-SPAN, CNBC, DISCOVERY, and MTV are doing right at a far lower cost. Then borrow a few ideas if they work, add new technology, and mix with democratic values and substantive content. Schechter also suggests 'unleashing' the Independent Television Service (ITVS), creators of public television's most original programming, and adding more documentaries and media criticism to the mix.

A PBS driven by 'soul, spirit, and attitude,' unlike the bland and boring mix we see today, would strengthen the future of public television by drawing more viewers and attracting broader sources of funding. 'Build the new PBS,' says Schechter, 'and they will come.

Original to Utne Reader Online, July 1995.

Danny Schechter, 'Recreate PBS As The Citizen's Channel,' CURRENT (May 29, 1995) pp. 30-36. Subscriptions: $70/yr. (23 issues) available from 1612 K St. NW Suite 704, Washington DC 20006.

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