Although few of us recognized it in 1965, an era of American dominance was coming to an end just as public broadcasting was coming to birth. Perhaps as acutely as any other American institution, the system of public broadcasting was caught in the transition from an American outlook that we could do anything we chose, to today’s anxiety that we may have chosen to do too much. Public broadcasting was conceived as a major new national institution, an ambitious concept that would transcend the limited fare, centered principally on public education, offered by several hundred noncommercial television and radio stations then in existence.
In less than a dozen years, among the most turbulent and pivotal in our history, public broadcasting has managed to establish itself as a national treasure. From the backwaters of an industry long dominated by commercial advertising, the public system has come into its own. Millions now watch and hear, applaud, and criticize a unique public institution which daily enters their homes with programs that inform, engage, enlighten, and delight. In that sense, the ideal has been realized: public broadcasting has made a difference.
Public broadcasting is now firmly embedded in the national consciousness, financed by the people who use it, as well as by an array of organized elements within society, including businesses, state, and local governments, universities and school boards, foundations, and, of course, the federal government. It was the Congress and President who, in 1967, set up the organizational framework and turned on the flow of much-needed federal dollars supporting the operations and programs of public radio and television as we know them today.
There is a necessarily ambivalent relationship between public broadcasting — a highly visible creative and journalistic enterprise — and the government. The dynamics of a free press and a democratic government are unpredictable enough without adding the addition al complication of federal financial support.
Herein lies the fundamental dilemma that has revealed itself over and over again in public broadcasting’s brief history and led to the empanelment of this Commission: how can public broadcasting be organized so that sensitive judgments can be freely made and creative activity freely carried out without destructive quarreling over whether the system is subservient to a variety of powerful forces including the government?
Commercial broadcasting’s entire output is defined by an imperative need to reach mass audiences in order to sell products. Despite the evident need for an alternative addressed more realistically to the problems and the triumphs of American life, public broadcasting has yet to resolve the dilemma posed by its own structure.
Upon the framework of the 1967 legislation a complex institution has been constructed, one that has not always been able to cultivate the creative in preference to the bureaucratic. Financial worries upstage creative urges, even among the best of institutions. And this one has experienced considerable financial worries. By 1970, the skeleton of a national structure was in place. The Corporation for Public Broadcasting (CPB) — a nonprofit leadership institution created by Congress and governed by private citizens appointed by the President — would receive federal and other funds, disburse them to stations and producers, and support a wide range of activities to strengthen and expand the system.
Two national, nonstatutory organizations created by CPB — the Public Broadcasting Service (PBS) for television and National Public Radio (NPR) for radio — would interconnect the stations, distribute programs, and provide other services to enhance the national and local programming mission. And there were the stations themselves, upon which the national system was built. Independent and diverse institutions scattered throughout the land, the public radio and television stations are the focal point for audiences because only they can determine the mix of programs that best serves the unique characteristics of their own communities.
There are high and low points in the telling of public broadcasting’s first full decade — the 1972 veto of federal funding for the system, the reorganizations of PBS and NPR, multiyear funding in 1975, the development of the satellite and the Public Telecommunications Financing Act of 1978, not to mention innumerable programming successes and much-improved service.
Nonetheless, we find public broadcasting’s financial, organizational and creative structure fundamentally flawed. In retrospect, what public broadcasting tried to invent was a truly radical idea: an instrument of mass communication that simultaneously respects the artistry of the individuals who create programs, the needs of the public that form the audience, and the forces of political power that supply the resources.
Sadly, we conclude that the invention did not work, or at least not very well. Institutional pressures became unbalanced in a dramatically short time. They remain today — despite the best efforts of the thousands within the industry and the millions who support it — out of kilter and badly in need of repair.
Our proposal is an attempt to balance the manifold pressures within and upon an institution that in many ways mirrors the complex divisions of today’s America, providing the means with which the system can reach its fullest potential for creative excellence and program diversity. We necessarily concentrate upon the design of national organizations, their relation to the station system, and the funding mechanisms by which ‘ill components of the system can enjoy a stable source of funding without threat of interference with programming independence.
The practical outcome of this proposal will be the establishment of institutions and the implementation of fiscal and management policies. However, our objective transcends this level of detail. Throughout our investigation and our report we return to a central theme: this institution, singularly positioned within the public de bate, the creative and journalistic communities, and a technological horizon of uncertain consequences, is an absolutely indispensable tool for our people and our democracy.
The power of the communications media must be marshaled in the interest of human development, not merely for advertising revenue. The outcome of the institution of public broadcasting can best be understood as a social dividend of technology, a benefit fulfilling needs that cannot be met by commercial means. As television and radio are joined by a host of new technological advances, the need becomes even more urgent for a nonprofit institution that can assist the nation in reducing the lag between the introduction of new telecommunications devices and their widespread social benefit.
The future for such matters is almost impossible to comprehend, much less to predict. America has entered a new era in telecommunications. Increasingly our work, our leisure, and our capacity to relate to the world are served and shaped by many electronic tools such as satellites, computers, microcircuitry, and wire and glass-fiber television distribution. Public broad casting as an institution will be challenged and transformed: some say its future is here and that the institution is in fact already evolving rapidly into a public telecommunications complex of extraordinary importance to the future of our society.
As of now, a properly constructed and effective public broadcasting system can unleash the tremendous potential of America’s creative artists so that the programming that comes into our homes can better educate and inform, entertain and delight.
While the system sometimes seems unwieldy and frustrating to those working within public broadcasting, the rewards are substantial: a sense of dedication and service, the opportunity to communicate and motivate, the rare coincidence of purpose with craft.
We have attempted, in designing improvements of the present system, to sort out the forces that encourage such creative efforts from those that frustrate it. The act of creation is not so much a mystical event as it is the intersection of inspiration and opportunity. The system must locate, at the center of its enterprise, the incentive to create — a sustained commitment to genuine artistry based upon ingenious uses of these powerful media.
1. The Trust. We conclude that there must be a structural reorganization of public broadcasting at the national level. For a variety of reasons, we believe that the existing national leadership organization, the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, is unable to fulfill this role. We recommend that the Corporation for Public Broadcasting be replaced by a new entity called the Public Telecommunications Trust. The Trust, a nongovernmental, nonprofit corporation, will be the principal fiduciary agent for the entire system and all of its components, disbursing federal funds to stations for operations and facilities expansion, as well as setting goals for the system and helping to evaluate performance. In addition, the Trust will supervise a wide range of leadership, long-range planning and system development activities.
One of the primary responsibilities of the Public Telecommunications Trust is to provide the system with protection from inappropriate interference in the sensitive area of program making that will occur both in and outside public broadcasting.
The Trust will also be charged with the responsibility of – administering activities designed to improve the system’s service to the public, especially as the effects of social and technological changes are felt in the 1980s. Included among these responsibilities are expansion and improvement of facilities and signal coverage, broadening of station involvement with minorities and women, expansion of employment opportunities, development of sophisticated training programs, establishment of both accountability criteria for federal funds and informational and research activities.
The Public Telecommunications Trust will be governed by nine presidentially appointed trustees with staggered, nonrenewable, nine-year terms. We recommend that the President make his selections from a list of names presented to him by a panel, chaired by the Librarian of Congress, drawn from governmental institutions devoted to the arts, the sciences, the humanities, and the preservation of our heritage. In addition, in order to involve the public telecommunications system in this process, the panel would include two representatives drawn from the system.
We call this new organization a Trust and its board members Trustees to underscore our conviction that the nine people who guide the course of the noncommercial telecommunications field in the next decade hold a trust for both the people working within the system and the public that benefits from its services.
2. The Endowment. We also recommend the creation of a second statutory organization, the Program Services Endowment, to be established as a highly insulated, semiautonomous division of the Public Telecommunications Trust. The Endowment will have the sole objective of supporting creative excellence and will underwrite a broad range of television and radio productions and program services, including public affairs, drama, comedy, educational and learning research, and new applications of telecommunications technology.
We recommend that the Program Services Endowment be governed by a 15-member board appointed by the trustees of the Public Telecommunications Trust from candidates nominated by the board itself. Three members of the board must come from the public telecommunications community. All board members will serve staggered terms of three years, renewable once. Nominees for the initial Endowment Board will be proposed to the trustees by the nominating panel. The Chief Executive Officer of the Endowment will be chosen by the Endowment’s Board.
Behind the recommendation of the Program Services Endowment is a desire to create a safe place for nurturing creative activity, which will otherwise become a casualty of the many other institutional priorities of this complex enterprise. It seems clear to us that there must be at least one place in the system offering to artists and journalists the principal prerequisite for creative achievement, the freedom to take risks.
3. Funding. The full-service public telecommunications enterprise we envision will require substantially greater funding than the system now receives. We realize that adequate funding alone is not a guarantee of complete success, but without it, success is unattainable.
We recommend that by 1985 total funding for America’s public broadcasting system grow to about $1.2 billion annually. We believe that the combined total from state government, viewers and listeners, the business community, and other nonfederal sources should rise from $347 million in 1977 to $570 million by 1985. We believe that the remainder of the estimated $1.2 billion overall public broadcasting system — about one-half of all funds — should be provided by the federal government.
We recommend that federal support to stations be disbursed by the Trust in direct proportion to the nonfederal support each station generates. At two federal dollars for every three raised locally, the $570 million in nonfederal support will generate $380 mil lion in federal money.
The Program Services Endowment will automatically receive federal funds equal to one-half the federal funds going to stations, or $190 million.
In addition, we recommend that the Trust receive federal funds of $20 million annually for its operating costs and activities, and $50 million in each of the next five to seven years to support facilities expansion.
We recommend general revenues as the principal source of federal funds for public telecommunications. We recommend the establishment of a fee on licensed uses of the spectrum, with the income from this fee used to offset in part the increased requirement for general tax revenues.
We have designed this carefully balanced funding arrangement to accomplish several essential objectives. We believe our recommendations will provide nearly automatic support from the federal government, free to the maximum extent possible from partisan politics. We have made funding recommendations that ensure the industry adequate levels of support generated from a variety of sources, but fatally dependent on none of them.
4. Television Programs and Services. The highest priority for the television system is the improvement in its capability to produce programs of excellence, diversity, and substance. Accordingly, we recommend that stations spend the bulk of their new resources on programming, locally, regionally, and nationally through aggregation of some of these funds. To emphasize this, we recommend that Community Service Grants — the federal matching grants to stations — be viewed as Program Service Grants. The Endowment will also supplement station efforts, by supporting innovative and untried programming ideas in a wide range of genres devised by producers working inside and outside the present system.
5. Public Radio. The top priority for the public radio system is the completion of the system so that it fully serves the nation in both large and small communities. In addition, the existing and the new stations must have a solid financial and community-support structure buttressing the service function that each licensee performs in its community.
Under the overall leadership of the Public Telecommunications Trust, we recommend the development and activation of an additional 250 to 300 public radio stations. The addition of new stations will result in improved national coverage for the public radio system, greater diversity among licensees, and broader local programming choice in many markets through multiple outlets.
The Trust, in cooperation with other elements of the public radio system, will develop a strategy of system expansion that includes regulatory reform activities and a radio development program that will assist in upgrading existing stations, activating new stations, and purchasing existing commercial or underutilized noncommercial stations.
We recommend that federal funds to public radio stations derived via our proposed matching formula be used for two purposes: improvement of local service and operations, and the financing by station consortiums of programming that transcends strictly local needs. We recommend that the Program Services Endowment support additional national radio programs, particularly new and innovative projects. The Endowment will also provide transitional support for the present National Public Radio programming services until such time as stations are able to aggregate funds to support programs of their choice.
6. Technology. In studying new telecommunications technology and public broadcasting’s role within it, our goal has been to devise ways in which all the people can have full access to the products of a public telecommunications system. While we have examined the new technology, we have concentrated on ways it might be used by public broadcasting to meet human needs.
We have concluded that it is unwise for us to attempt to chart the future course of public broadcasting as it continues to interact with new technologies. We are convinced, however, that it is essential for public broadcasting to have both the money and the flexibility necessary to enable it to chart its own course as it responds to the future.
To help the industry fulfill this responsibility, we make three recommendations: that public broadcasting and government join together to bring public television and radio service to at least 90 percent of the population over the next five to seven years; that public broadcasting move rapidly to develop a stronger, integrated research and development capability so that it can use new technologies for the public good; and that public broadcasting adopt a broader and more flexible approach to the ways its programs and services are delivered to the public.
7. Education and Learning. American public broadcasting had its origins in instructional radio and television. We recommend that the industry recommit itself to providing programs and services that assist in the education of all Americans. Because education in America is primarily a local matter, the major responsibility for this effort rests with the stations.
However, the quality of American education is also a national concern, and because we believe radio and television to have an important role in the process, we recommend that the Program Services Endowment initiate a major research effort to identify what radio and television can teach best, and to develop these capabilities. This is fundamental research, and the potential benefits of it for the entire society are immense.
We also believe that the Program Services Endowment should assume a central role in the creation of new instructional and educational programs. Consequently, we recommend that the Endowment finance and stimulate the development of quality programs that both test and demonstrate the potential of telecommunications for learning. We recommend that the Endowment, acting as a catalyst, allocate $15 million per year for such research and demonstration programs on radio and television. This money might be used to fund several promising educational programs or series, or it could be used as a match for licensee money in coproduction efforts.
8. Public Accountability. Because public broad casting and the emerging public telecommunications industry enjoy widespread public support, stations, which are the focal point for interaction between the institution and the public, must provide serious opportunities for individuals to participate in and understand the system. Mechanisms for public participation in station
planning and development should be continued and strengthened. These include greater commitment to equal employment opportunity, broadened access by minorities, public involvement in station governance, more complete financial disclosure, and community ascertainment. These measures of public accountability should be devised so as to preserve the station’s responsibility to maintain editorial freedom.
These methods, however, are not enough to pro vide stations with a systematic way to determine whether certain well-defined interests and needs of the public are being satisfied. We present a plan for the use of audience measurement data that will assist the public system in designing programs to meet a broad and diverse audience.
This report, as well as the process by which it was developed, is a testimony to the significance public broadcasting has come to assume in America today. Thousands of committed people within the industry are supported by a diverse, sometimes critical cross section of admirers from all walks of life. As listeners and viewers, as policymakers who will help mold the future of the system, as advocates of causes both great and small, as leaders of the many fields public broadcasting touches and illuminates, they came before us to express their views about an institution that matters. The true greatness of America lies in the strength that emerges from this kind of diversity of religious, racial, or cultural heritage. Public broadcasting must create an enterprise that attracts their continuing administration and support if it is to survive and flourish.
The revelation of diversity will not please some, notably the book burners and the dogmatists among us. It will startle and anger others, as well it should. But we have discovered in our own time that anger yields to understanding. America needs, perhaps even more than healing, a sense of understanding, something that is if we each continue to wall ourselves within the corner of society that we find safe, appealing, and comfortable.
Unless we grasp the means to broaden our conversation to include the diverse interests of the entire society, in ways that both illuminate our differences and distill our mutual hopes, more will be lost than the public broadcasting system.
William J. McGill, Chairman
President, Columbia University
Stephen K. Bailey
President, National Academy of Education
Executive Director, Alternate Media Center, School of the Arts
New York University
Henry J. Cauthen
Director, South Carolina Educational Television Network
President, Action for Children’s Television
Wilbur B. Davenport, Jr.
Professor, Massachusetts Institute of Technology
Virginia B. Duncan
Board Member, Corporation for Public Broadcasting
Eli N. Evans
President, Charles H. Revson Foundation
John W. Gardner
Alex P. Haley
Walter W. Heller
Professor, University of Minnesota
Josie R. Johnson
Board Member, National Public Radio
President, Quaker Oats Company
President, Screen Actors Guild
J. Leonard Reinsch
Chairman, Cox Broadcasting Corporation
Executive Vice-President, University of Texas at El Paso
Bill Cosby, actor, Carla Hills, a former secretary of housing and urban development, and Beverly Sills, opera star, voluntarily resigned from the Commission during the course of this study as their participation became limited by other professional commitments.
Copyright 1979 American University