Public Media Policybase

The Voters’ Channel: A Feasibility Study, 1990

The Markle Foundation, then a major backer of public TV, proposed in 1990 that PBS develop the Voters’ Channel, a project planned to make more useful information available to voters. Here are excerpts from the 132-page feasibility study prepared for Markle by the independent production company Alvin H. Perlmutter Inc. Markle offered $5 million to help PBS undertake the project in time for the 1992 election, but the foundation and PBS could not reach agreement on plans. The project was dropped in June 1991. [Current coverage.]

Preface | Summary of Recommendations | Introduction | Is It Feasible?

Preface

American government has become weaker in the age of television. Austin Ranney, 1983.

The rise of the electronic media has had the effect of draining content out of campaigns. Arthur Schlesinger, 1990.

In February 1990, The Markle Foundation commissioned Alvin H. Perlmutter, Inc., “to conduct a major feasibility study addressing the potential role of public broadcasting in enhancing the quality of discourse about candidates and issues in the 1992 Presidential election.”

This report is based upon interviews conducted by the members of the study group (see Appendix I) with 120 individuals and organizations, as well as answers written in reply to a questionnaire sent to a majority of public television licensees.

The recommendations and the material that supports them, come solely from these interviews and written responses.

Every effort was made to canvas as broad a range of opinion as possible. A complete list of those consulted — and those licensees who replied — is attached (see Appendices II and III).

The report is in 5 parts. Part I contains the 22 recommendations. Part II contains the rationale for those recommendations that deal with structure, management and scheduling. Part III contains the rationale for the programmatic recommendations. Part IV, the rationale for those that deal with outreach and promotion. And Part V contains an epilogue.

A Summary of Recommendations

It is proposed that:

1) public television and public radio be empowered to help people to become more fully informed as citizens, to raise the level of political discourse and to enhance the political process.

2) the Public Broadcasting Service, in Washington, D.C., shall select a production company, to be known, for this purpose, as The Voters’ Channel, to oversee and manage this project; and that, further, The Voters’ Channel , shall cease operations by March 30,1993, which allows sufficient time, following the election, on November 3,1992, for contracts to be honored and business to be concluded.

3) appropriate advisory boards be formed, including possibly:

1) a Citizens Board, consisting of distinguished Americans, to advise on matters relating to the public interest;

2) a Station Producers Group, consisting of representatives of a broad cross-section of public television and public radio entities, to advise on matters relating to production.

4) the President and the appointed staff of The Voters’ Channel shall contract for, commission and package program elements; and shall disburse the monies raised so as to:

1) enhance certain public television and radio programs including The MacNeil\Lehrer Newshour, Frontline, NPR’s All Things Considered and Morning Edition, and Marketplace and Monitoradio on APR, enabling them to carry out their plans for the coverage and analysis of the Presidential campaign.

and shall in addition:

2) create new television and new radio programs, the elements of which will be commissioned from public broadcasters, independent producers, and other production entities.

5) the new television programming will be conceived of and produced in three distinct phases:

Phase One — From January 1992 through August, there will be a number of mini-series and specials coinciding with particular stages of the election cycle.

Phase Two — From the first week of September, there will be a regularly scheduled, weekly one-hour program for 8 weeks.

Phase Three — A daily half hour program for the week prior to Election Day;

and that all programs and segments funded by The Voters’ Channel shall have a common title and be identified by common graphics.

6) PBS, in association with the stations, identify the ideal prime-time slot on the ideal night of the week, and feed all mini-series, specials and weekly broadcasts at that time, so as to encourage common carriage; the daily broadcasts will, likewise, be fed in a regular slot.

7) some of the programs in Phase One and all of the programs in Phase Two and Three have flexible formats, allowing for the treatment of multiple subjects and the use of various production approaches within a single program.

8) public radio and public television provide a well-rounded curriculum of programs, designed to provide both a political primer for those who need basic education and in-depth information for the politically sophisticated.

9) as an experiment in improving the political discourse, the major Presidential candidates and/or the Parties be offered increments of time, varying between 2 1/2 and 15 minutes on the weekly and daily programs, from September onwards, to be used to communicate directly with the electorate and encourage rational advocacy.

10) an essential ground rule of this air time will be that the candidates themselves are seen and heard for a substantial portion of the time.

11) a formula based on the Federal Election Commission funding criteria be adopted for dealing with candidates in the General Election other than the nominees of the Democratic and Republican Parties.

12) discussions continue among the Markle Foundation, PBS, the Democratic and Republican parties, the Senate, Congress and the F.C.C. to find a workable formula for granting time to Presidential candidates, given the ramifications of Section 315(a) of the 1934 Communications Act.

13) immediately following the mid-term elections, in November 1990, the offer of this air time be announced and made public.

14) portions of the broadcasts be devoted to third party candidacies that represent significant social, political or economic issues.

15) the broadcasts pay special attention to the political role of minorities and their issues.

16) substantial portions of the programs be devoted to three main themes:

a) THE VOICE OF THE PEOPLE, in which voters are given a means to articulate and express their feelings and concerns.

b) DECODING THE MESSAGE, in which all forms of political communications — paid and free, parties and press — are subjected to regular scrutiny and criticism.

c) THE STATE OF THE NATION, in which the present and future problems and options that confront the nation are carefully described and analyzed, irrespective of whether they are actually addressed by the candidates or the parties.

17) a series of in-depth “character and competence’ profiles of all the aspiring presidential candidates representing the two main political parties, be produced, as well as of any third party candidates that receive significant support, for local and regional use early in the political cycle, leading to a final program or pair of programs, analogous to The Choice, to be broadcast nationally after Labor Day.

18) an attempt be made to create and mount a series of debates during the general election, to encourage free exchange between the candidates.

19) 30 and 60 second information spots, to impart information and publicize programs, be created for use by PBS stations, as well as by NPR, APR and their member stations; and that steps be taken to solicit pro bono contributions from advertising agencies and public relations firms,

20) public radio and public television should cross-promote each others programming.

21) money be raised from U.S. corporations as well as cable channels and the three commercial networks to promote the programs commissioned and enhanced by The Voters’ Channel, as widely as possible in all communities and regions of the country.

22) a concerted effort be made to reach out beyond public broadcasting airwaves, with printed materials, course material for colleges and schools, tie-ins with newspapers, weekly news magazines, computer networks, and other channels of electronic communication including cable television, so as to extend the reach of the programs and the research created.

Introduction

We’ve got a kind of politics of irrelevance, of obscurantism, that is more prevalent than in any time I can recall.
Walter Mondale, 1990.

The study group found widespread disquiet at the tone and tenor of the 1988 Presidential campaign, and concern at the role much of television played. As columnist Jack Germond puts it:

The 1988 campaign was 35 days of visuals. George Bush in front of blue water. Dukakis in front of a blue curtain.

The prevalence of political ‘attack commercials’ and “photo opportunities” and the seemingly inexorable decline in the length of “sound-bites” in news reports, from an average of 42 seconds in 1968 to 10 seconds in 1988. may have contributed to a perceived and measurable rise in public cynicism and a decline in voter turn-out. Many concurred with the observation of the 1990 report by The Markle Commission on the Media and the Electorate, that:

American voters see themselves as distant outsiders with little personal consequence at stake in national elections.

For instance, The Markle Commission found that on the eve of the election in 1988 a full 30% of those polled were not sure of Michael Dukakis’ running mate and 22% were unable to name Dan Quayle as George Bush’s Vice Presidential nominee.

Thus The Markle Foundation’s vision of a better use of broadcasting “to help people be more fully informed citizens, to raise the level of political discourse, and to enhance the political process” and to use public television and radio to this end, was received with enthusiasm and expressions of encouragement and support by an overwhelming majority of those interviewed. As David Broder of the Washington Post puts it:

It doesn’t have to be this way. There’s nothing about the temper of the times or the technology of our communications system that must make campaigns negative or nauseating.

Most of those interviewed recognize the unique attributes of public broadcasting that befit it to make an important contribution to the political process in 1992. A few, however, note the relative insignificance of the size of the audience. Tom Rosenstiel, media correspondent of the Los Angeles Times:

It’s a given that the PBS audience is an elite, which will limit the importance of public broadcasting in affecting the general American public during the election.

But the preponderant view is that public broadcasters are in a unique position to enhance the quality of the debate. Tom Cohen, Senior Counsel of the Communications Sub-Committee of the Senate Committee on Commerce, Science and Transportation, observes:

The commercial networks won ‘t take a chance, won ‘t experiment. They’re driven by money. So who’ll do it? Who else is going to do it besides PBS?

And Judy Woodruff of The MacNeil/Lehrer Newshour:

As long as the networks are concerned about audience size, this should be done on PBS.

This is the majority view taken by the interviewees. Don Kellerman, Director of The Times Mirror Center for the People, the Press and Politics:

PBS is the national outlet which can strike beneath the surface to what’s in the trenches. No one else can do it because of time constraints, which are the nature of the beast.

Robert Johnson, President of Black Entertainment Television:

PBS has got to do what the others won’t.

And Amelia Parker, Executive Director of the Congressional Black Caucus:

Somebody has got to provide the counter-point. If not public television, then who?

Several respondents point out that, unlike cable, public broadcasting signals are universally available.

Addressing the size of the PBS audience, some respondents, like Democratic pollster, Peter Hart, believe the aim should be to boost the public broadcasting audience:

Get Phil Donahue or Oprah Winfrey to interview the candidates. They would bring a different audience to public television which is what you need.

But in a memorandum to the study group, Arnold Labaton, Senior Vice President at WNET in New York sounds an important note of caution:

For most television viewers, informational programming is spinach (or perhaps broccoli), and no matter how well prepared or disguised remains spinach. We should make every attempt to make the spinach palatable, short of eliminating its nutrients. We should also try to make it attractive and important to the young… But we should not harbor unrealistic expectations that, because we prepare it carefully, attractively and even deliciously, it will become desirable to most of those who have already decided it is not for them.

Many take the view that the quality of the audience makes it important. in a political context, irrespective of its size. Roger Ailes, media advisor to President Bush:

These are opinion leaders. Reaching them is very important for us. They pass on their views to others in the community.

Among public broadcasting professionals there is a widespread belief that this initiative could prove important in reinforcing the mandate of the system. As Bill Kobin, President of KCET, Los Angeles told members of the study group:

This not only will be a major contribution to American democracy but it also fits perfectly within our mission. It helps define what we can do best.

Public broadcasters have, historically, been pioneers. They were first with the one hour daily news. First with the dramatic mini-series. And first with televised tennis.

Many respondents state that this initiative of The Markle Foundation presents an opportunity, once again, for PBS, NPR and APR to be in the forefront. To set standards that others, in due course, might choose to emulate.

Newton Minow, a former Chairman of the Federal Communications Commission, told the members of the study group:

You should set an example.

Is It Feasible?

It’s hard to vote for something you don ‘t believe in. They give you certain choices, but what if you don’t like any of the choices? I hate to say it, but I felt my vote didn’t really matter. I didn’t know much about the candidates or the propositions. But to tell you the truth, I probably wouldn’t have voted anyway.

A Californian quoted by The New York Times,
on why he did not vote in the recent gubernatorial primary

Despite simpler registration, voter participation in America has declined over the last quarter century. In California, in 1966, 45% of those eligible cast their ballot in the gubernatorial primary. This month — June of 1990 — only 27% did so.

Theories abound as to why barely 50% of those eligible bothered to vote for either Presidential candidate in 1988, or why America has the lowest electoral turnout of any of the major democracies.

Depending on their idea of civic virtue, some are sanguine, speaking of ours as a ‘post-electoral age.” Charles Krauthammer, of Time:

Low voter turnout means that people see politics as quite marginal to their lives, as neither salvation, nor ruin. That is healthy. Low voter turnout is a leading indicator of contentment.

Most, like Jonathan Schell, of The New Yorker, are alarmed. In his book on the 1984 Presidential election, History in Sherman Park, he writes:

The lines that connect the individual citizen to the body politic and beyond that, to the world at large, have become attenuated. The parties, which in recent decades served to help people organize their political thinking, seem to play that role less and less. … Nor has television filled the breach: on television, it seems, the world draws closer, but matters less.

All respondents share this sense that television has had a corrosive effect on political life, and that its role and relationship to the democratic process should be re-examined and — if possible — reformed.

Thus, the plan to empower public television and public radio to experiment with ways of raising the level of the discourse and improving the dialogue in 1992 has been endorsed by respondents of every professional and political stripe.

No one anticipates the re-invention of the electronic wheel. What respondents say they want to see is a sober, responsible use of the public’s air-waves, in the public interest, and an honest conversation between the candidates and the people.

There are skeptics.

Among public broadcasters there are those who wonder whether a curriculum of programs such as this can attract a significant audience, even with an unprecedented promotional and outreach effort. A few would leaven the loaf with personalities and idioms drawn from popular culture.

And among those on the outside there are questions about the public broadcasting system itself. About whether, with a history of rivalry and discord, it will be able to execute a plan crucially dependent on a measure of consensus.

However, all respondents unite in believing that this initiative, set in motion by The Markle Foundation, is important, and its timing propitious.

This moment augers well. A moment when democracy is on the march around the globe, while thoughtful Americans worry about its health at home. When campaign finance and campaign dialogue reform are in debate on Capitol Hill. And a moment when public broadcasters are reorganizing themselves and rededicating their mission, adapting to shifts in the electronic ecology.

As the study group discovered, there is at this moment, a clamor for change.

Respondents who agree about little else, agree about this: that a way must be found to lift the current malaise affecting our political future; that voters must somehow be given back the starring role in the national political drama that is theirs by right; and that the technologies of broadcasting must be used constructively, rather than destructively, to recharge the democratic batteries of the nation.

Pious words are not enough. Whether The Voters’ Channel is feasible or not, will be a function of commitment. The study group finds that a majority of respondents — inside as well as outside the public broadcasting arena — are now ready to make that commitment.

Arnold Labaton, Senior Vice-President at WNET, the PBS flagship station in New York, in a memorandum:

Public television has the opportunity to provide the kind of valuable election coverage which will not otherwise be made available to the television audience. It is a wonderful and important opportunity. We will not succeed in reaching everybody, including some who would most benefit by our programs, but we can begin to build notice that there are interesting, often entertaining as well as informative programs about the issues which affect all our lives available on public television and, over time, we will reach more and more people in a significant and meaningful encounter.

Source: Scanned from a copy provided by Alvin Perlmutter.

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