What’s So Great About Public Television?

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.

William Hoynes, Public Television For Sale: Media, the Market,
and the Public Sphere (Westview Press, 1994).

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