Fred Friendly’s solar-powered plan to give public TV independence

From a book by Ralph Engelman

Current introduction: Like many of Friendly’s ideas, it was a very big one

To support public broadcasting by giving it a monopoly in the new communication satellite business. But at the time, 1967, another idea appealed more to Congress: Public broadcasting would come calling many times every year to seek renewal of the CPB appropriation.

That was the established federal funding method of choice 40 years later when public-media advocates proposed a comparably big idea: that Congress endow the field with proceeds from the auctions of excess TV frequencies. Not about to happen.

Here’s a new account of Friendly’s audacious long shot — a little-remembered alternative to the Carnegie Commission vision — excerpted from Ralph Engelman’s just-published biography of the legendary broadcaster, Friendlyvision: Fred Friendly & the Rise and Fall of Television Journalism.

Though Friendly is best known as Edward R. Murrow’s producer at CBS News, he later had an outsized effect on public TV—

  • overseeing a creative burst at National Educational Television and then, behind the scenes, helping to create the more politically viable PBS, yielding NET’s scheduling role to the new network and its production roles to WNET and WETA;
  • bankrolling the start-up of key public TV stations and a flowering of innovation that included such experiments as Newsroom and the Public Broadcasting Laboratory that brought the likes of Jim Lehrer and Robert MacNeil to the system, and
  • inventing PBS’s once-popular genre of intellectual reality shows, the Media & Society Seminars, which posed hypothetical dilemmas to real-world leaders.

Friendly had the character assets and deficits — and the achievements — of several normal mortals combined, as Engelman makes clear. After Friendly worked over the Ford Foundation board for a half-hour, Henry Ford II remarked: “That friggin’ Friendly, I should have him out selling my goddam cars.”

In this excerpt, we come to Friendly’s career in the 1960s, when he was president of CBS News; Murrow, who was soon to die, had privately reamed Friendly for weak coverage of the escalating Vietnam War. CBS war reporting had toughened, but CBS management denied airtime for coverage of Senate hearings on the war, and Friendly quit in a self-dramatizing gesture. —Steve Behrens

Excerpt from Ralph Engelman’s book Friendlyvision

Following his resignation from CBS, Fred Friendly carefully weighed — indeed, plotted — his next career move. Press speculation included a report that he might be hired by ABC to expand the weakest of the three network news divisions. It was reported that he had received offers from NBC, the BBC, a dozen major television stations, and an unidentified person who wanted to finance a series of documentary programs. But Friendly wanted to top, not simply replicate, his past positions and accomplishments.

On April 6, 1966, seven weeks after his resignation, came the announcement of an unusual dual appointment: television adviser to the Ford Foundation and professor of journalism at Columbia University. The two positions were linked. In addition to hiring Friendly, the foundation was funding a new chair at Columbia, the Edward R. Murrow Professorship in Journalism, so that it could be filled by the former president of CBS News. Friendly’s relationships with White House aide McGeorge Bundy and columnist Walter Lippmann were instrumental in his employment at the Ford Foundation. Immediately after Friendly quit CBS, he had received a telephone call from Bundy at the White House. Bundy said he would be leaving the Johnson administration to become president of the Ford Foundation and wanted to meet with Friendly. Bundy told Friendly that he had gotten his telephone number from Lippmann, who “planted the seed that you might have some ideas about noncommercial television.”

Many educational broadcasters were pleased that a man of Friendly’s stature would be devoting his considerable energies and ambition to the cause of noncommercial television. But as the veteran educational broadcaster James Day recalled, “His appointment … sent a shudder through the system: Ford’s money and Friendly’s style … were an awesome, and to some a fearsome, combination.”

While he was beginning two new jobs, Friendly undertook a third task: writing a book that would chronicle his years at CBS and his agenda for the future of television. Friendly wrote the manuscript at breakneck speed, completing it in eight months. In March 1967, Life magazine carried two installments of the book, Due to Circumstances Beyond Our Control …, which was published by Random House. The volume contains, at once, a reflective memoir of Friendly’s experiences at CBS, a history of the birth of the television documentary, a discussion of television coverage of the Vietnam War, a critique of network television, and a prescription for the medium’s future.

On the basis of his experience at CBS during a 16-year period, he advances a broad critique — one of the earliest and most trenchant — of commercial broadcasting in the chapter “Common Stock vs. the Commonweal.” Friendly examines the history of government regulation, making a convincing case for the inadequacy of the Communications Act of 1934 — and the Federal Communications Commission it established — to protect the public interest in the use of the airwaves. He reviews the development of a network and affiliate system that prized short-term profitability over innovative and controversial programming.

He also laments how the growing cross-fertilization of Hollywood and the networks threatened to render television a medium of entertainment and escapism. Yet the broadcast industry hypocritically used the First Amendment as a shield to protect its monopoly and profits. For Friendly, the system he describes is beyond repair “due to circumstances beyond our control,” a play on the words that appeared on television screens in television’s early days when programming was interrupted by technical problems.

Attempts at change from within the system were futile. Instead, Friendly calls for sweeping federal legislation to reverse broadcasting’s trajectory — “a Magna Carta of broadcasting” — enabling television to fulfill its potential as a public resource. Friendly concluded that a new noncommercial television system — which McGeorge Bundy had brought him to the Ford Foundation to develop — represented the hope of the future.

‘America must weigh this last best chance for a noncommercial television system that can run on its own solar engine, while at the same time benefiting its commercial partners,’Friendly advised.

Friendly criticizes the commercial broadcasting system but not its top officers. He portrays CBS Chairman William Paley and President Frank Stanton more as victims than villains, their best intentions stymied by the economic structure of network television: “Paley and Stanton looked on while programs proliferated which assaulted their sense of taste, and even decency; they seemed incapable of stopping the inexorable flight from quality.”

Critics commended Friendly for taking the high road, for emphasizing the structural issues plaguing the broadcast industry rather than the behavior of individual executives. Yet the accolades Friendly bestowed on CBS’s chief executives had a cloying quality. Would Friendly have written about the Stanton–Murrow conflict in such neutral terms had Murrow, who had died a year and a half earlier, still been alive? Friendly’s final words to Stanton had been “Someday you may ask me back”; only six months had elapsed when Friendly completed his manuscript. The flattery of Stanton and Paley may have derived from a mix of genuine sentiment and a calculated attempt to avoid burning his bridges with CBS.

Friendly’s memoir can be viewed as an apology — in the classical sense of a formal explanation or justification — for his resignation from CBS. His career at the network, from the great achievements with Murrow to the ascendancy of the money changers over the news department, served as a prologue for his dramatic departure. The epilogue pointed to public television’s potential to overcome the restraints that had led him to quit CBS. Friendly’s book was widely reviewed and praised. The historian Eric Goldman described the volume as “tartly analytical, astute, passionate and disturbing. No one can read it without a sharply heightened sense of the tragedy of American television.”

If Due to Circumstances Beyond Our Control … provided an epitaph for an era of commercial television, it also set the stage for Friendly’s next great project: public television. The book was a public relations tour de force. As a critic wrote in the Saturday Review, “If this is a feat of showmanship, he is, after all, a showman.”

Friendly’s memoir looked ahead as well as back. Its final chapter contains a bold plan for the future of noncommercial television that Friendly was advancing at the Ford Foundation. Friendly’s entry into the affairs of what was then called educational television occurred at a time when National Educational Television (NET) was a poorly funded, marginal 100-odd station association with a tape duplication and distribution system based in Ann Arbor, Mich. NET could not afford to rent the telephone lines that could provide the interconnection that would make it a true network. Instead, NET “bicycled” programs, sending copies through the mail to NET stations to be broadcast on an irregular basis. NET lacked outlets in key cities like New York, Los Angeles and Washington, D.C.

Friendly was among the first to conceptualize the possibility of “educational television” as an expanded national system of “public television.” It entailed a vision of an innovative fourth network for the quality programming in the arts and public affairs that CBS, NBC and ABC were incapable of providing in a sustained fashion. Soon after his separation from CBS, Friendly developed a comprehensive program for addressing noncommercial television’s lack of funding, programming, and interconnection.

Friendly’s first assignment at the Ford Foundation was to read a series of papers on the future of educational television commissioned from figures like Edward R. Murrow, Newton Minow and Irving Gitlin. Friendly immediately realized that none of the submissions addressed the critical question of the source of funding that would make a fourth network viable. At their first dinner meeting in New York City following their respective departures from the White House and CBS, Bundy told Friendly that he wanted to complete Ford’s investment in educational television by establishing a permanent, self-perpetuating infrastructure for a fourth network, securing its financial independence and an exit strategy for the foundation. Shortly thereafter, Friendly began toying with an idea for a permanent source of funding for noncommercial television. In the spring of 1966 he began considering the possibility that synchronous satellites might provide the magic potion for the fourth network.

Friendly had pioneered in the application of communications satellite technology to broadcasting from the outset. In 1962, he had produced the inaugural demonstration broadcast of Telstar. As president of CBS News in 1965, he was one of several broadcast executives who met in London to establish the protocols and rates for use of the Early Bird satellite. The costs of the first communications satellites were prohibitive. But Friendly was quick to grasp that the growing use of synchronous communications satellites would result in substantial savings for broadcasters and transform the communications landscape.

The new generation of satellites, held by gravity in fixed positions in synchronous orbit 22,300 miles above the earth, promised to supplant the patchwork of telephone lines and microwave relay stations used by the broadcast networks. The satellite system, once established, would provide a higher-quality interconnection at a fraction of the cost.

Friendly also realized that the synchronous satellite system would have a synergistic impact on the future development of other new communications technologies, especially cable television, which was still in its infancy. His idea was that a nonprofit entity would administer the satellite system and that a relatively small portion of the immense savings and profits generated by satellites for commercial interests should be set aside to constitute a permanent source of funding for noncommercial television, the fourth network. Friendly wrote that 1966 marked the year “when satellites promise to change television as much as television altered radio.”

It was a critical moment, because the FCC was soliciting proposals, and Congress was planning hearings, on the establishment of a domestic communications satellite system. James Day says of Friendly’s idea of using emerging satellite technology to both fund and interconnect a new public broadcasting system: “It was a brilliant leap of the imagination, a concept worthy of one of television’s most creative minds.”

When Friendly first approached Bundy with the idea, Bundy asked whether the satellite proposal was technically feasible. Friendly, about to leave for a West Coast vacation with his family, volunteered to meet in California with Harold Rosen, a physicist employed by Hughes Aircraft who had been instrumental in the development of synchronous satellites. Friendly met with Rosen, who came to New York two weeks later to meet with Bundy. After the meeting, Bundy committed himself to organizing a major foundation effort to develop a response to the FCC’s call for proposals on ownership and governance of the next generation of satellites.

Bundy and Friendly organized a crash program to prepare a position paper by the FCC’s deadline of Monday, Aug. 1. In doing so, Bundy used his extensive contacts in academia and government to recruit high-powered experts to examine the legal, economic and scientific implications of the proposal.

Preparation for the FCC submission, undertaken in secrecy, reached a frenzy in July. “In the 30 days prior to our submission,” Friendly recalled, “the 11th floor of the Ford Foundation looked more like a newsroom just before election than a philanthropic institution.” Participants experienced a strong esprit de corps. Executives and secretaries worked through the final weekend. Friendly’s publicist, Ben Kubasik, worked the press on behalf of the proposal, priming editors for a major announcement. Bundy directed the effort. But the idea had Friendly’s imprint; and in introducing and nurturing it he was, for a moment, transforming the normally staid Ford Foundation into something more akin to a See It Now production working on deadline.

At 10:30 a.m. on Aug. 1, 1966, the 80-page Ford Foundation proposal was submitted, with a cover letter from Bundy, to the FCC in Washington, D.C. The plan recommended that a nonprofit corporation operate the satellite system, leasing lines to commercial channels and realizing a profit that would fund educational television. In addition, the satellite would provide free interconnection to noncommercial stations. The Ford Foundation linked the development of a satellite system and a noncommercial television network as national goals. In his cover letter, Bundy characterized the financial support to be afforded noncommercial television as “a people’s dividend, earned by the American nation from its enormous investment in space.” At 11 a.m., a half hour after the proposal was submitted to the FCC, Bundy addressed a crowded press conference at the Ford Foundation’s headquarters in New York; Friendly stood at the back of the room.

First Friendly and then Bundy briefed Sen. John O. Pastore of Rhode Island, who chaired the Subcommittee on Communications of the Senate Commerce Committee. Pastore would refer to the Ford proposal as a bombshell and convened hearings Aug. 10 on space communication and the Ford Foundation proposal.

On Aug. 17, Bundy and Friendly testified before televised hearings of Pastore’s subcommittee. After a short opening statement, Bundy asked Friendly to elaborate on the rationale and logistics of the proposal. Friendly began with a reference to Edward R. Murrow’s speech in 1958 before the Radio-Television News Directors Association. When Pastore asked him to read his prepared statement, Friendly said he preferred to ad-lib. “All right,” the senator replied. “You are one of the best ad-libbers I know.”

Friendly repeated his oft-stated contention that the commercial television system shortchanged the public. It denied the American people vital information at a time when “what they don’t know can kill them,” a phrase he would use time and again. “Not only what they don’t know about Southeast Asia,” he continued, or “solid fuels or liquid fuel or great urban sprawls in Harlem and Watts and even in Johannesburg, but it denies them a kind of yeast and cultivation of their own intellect, which comes from an open window. And television, like radio, is an open window.” Shifting metaphors, he said that satellites could transform television from a capillary system of communications into a “mighty jugular vein.”

For Friendly and Bundy, the satellite proposal would make it possible for public television to foster the informed citizenry that Walter Lippmann believed was a prerequisite for a modern democracy. In his prepared statement, Friendly emphasized that the dawn of the age of communications satellites presented an opportunity that must be seized now or lost forever: “America must weigh this last best chance for a noncommercial television system that can run on its own solar engine, while at the same time benefiting its commercial partners.”

Countervailing forces opposed to the Ford plan were also at work, as subsequent testimony at the hearings made clear. They ranged from telecommunication giants like AT&T, ITT and Western Union to the networks. Friendly wrote after the hearings, “I am rash enough to believe that some satellite system benefiting noncommercial television is going to emerge in the coming months.” But the FCC and Congress, succumbing to pressure from vested commercial interests, let the Ford proposal die.

Friendly had promoted the satellite proposal with his characteristic élan. Despite the plan’s ultimate failure, he had helped raise public awareness about the development of domestic communications satellites. At the same time, he had placed on the national agenda the key issues of funding and interconnection for the soon-to-be-established public broadcasting system. The Ford plan also got Friendly’s relationship with McGeorge Bundy off to a strong start, confirming the foundation president’s belief that he had picked the right man to be his television adviser.

Bundy and Friendly were a study in contrasts. Bundy was a product of Groton, Yale and Harvard. As a Harvard dean, he had compiled a mixed record in addressing the threat posed by McCarthyism to academic freedom during the period Friendly produced See It Now. In his capacity as national security adviser to presidents Kennedy and Johnson, Bundy was one of the architects of U.S. policy in Vietnam; Friendly had produced the television show in 1965 in which Bundy had defended the war against critics in academia. Bundy was known for a coldly rational style of examining public policy issues.

Friendly, a middle-class Jew, had barely been graduated from high school and a two-year business college. If Bundy was cool, Friendly was hot, a man capable of being overcome by extreme enthusiasm or fury. These two disparate figures became good friends and forged a professional relationship that would have a lasting impact on the nation’s telecommunications landscape.

The Friendly–Bundy plan for public broadcasting had a competitor, the Carnegie Commission on Educational Television, which issued its report, Public Television: A Program for Action, in January 1967. Nominally an independent body established by the Carnegie Corporation of New York, the commission had close ties to the Johnson administration.

The establishment of the Carnegie Commission represented an end run around the old guard of educational broadcasting — NET and its patron, the Ford Foundation — based in New York. The Carnegie initiative was essentially a Cambridge/Boston operation in its personnel and geographical center of operations. The idea for what became the Carnegie Commission had first been proposed by Ralph Lowell, who had been instrumental in the establishment of WGBH in Boston. The commission was chaired by James R. Killian Jr., the chair of MIT’s corporation. Killian was a prominent representative of the axis of intellectuals who moved back and forth between Cambridge and Washington.

The Carnegie Commission prompted mixed feelings on the part of the Ford Foundation. Bundy and Friendly welcomed a report that promised to lead to a permanent source of funding and infrastructure for public broadcasting. Such an outcome would mark a crowning achievement for Ford’s investment in noncommercial television and the end to the foundation’s burdensome role as primary funder. At the same time, the blueprint for the future system was being drawn largely outside the purview of the historic leadership of noncommercial broadcasting at Ford and NET, whose influence on the final report was limited to testimony delivered during a commission visit to New York.

Two fundamental differences separated the Carnegie and Ford approaches. The first involved plans for the structure of the public television system. Friendly favored an authentic fourth network with a strong national reach in public affairs programming. The members of the Carnegie Commission envisaged a more decentralized member organization. Friendly argued that “the price of autonomy need not be the emasculation of a live NET network at birth. Crucial issues such as Vietnam, space and national politics require a national news organization with depth of personnel and facilities — and ability to get on the air: nationally and immediately.”

The second difference concerned funding. Friendly feared that direct government funding would foster undue caution, political pressure, and even censorship. Hence he and Bundy had advanced the satellite plan as a source of funding without recourse to either governmental appropriation or a special tax, thereby insulating the system from political pressure. The report of the Carnegie Commission recommended an excise tax on the sale of television sets to fund public broadcasting, a variation on the method by which the BBC was financed in the United Kingdom.

To Friendly’s chagrin, the Johnson administration seemed prepared to settle for congressional appropriations as the means for funding the proposed Corporation for Public Broadcasting.

Friendly understood that Ford and Carnegie shared a concern for insulating funding from government influence, even if their preferred mechanisms for doing so—the satellite plan and the recommendation for an excise tax on the sale of televisions—differed. He viewed the Johnson administration’s support for direct funding by Congress as a threat to the new system’s independence, especially in regard to coverage of politics and international affairs. Friendly alluded to the Senate hearings on public television that would be broadcast the following week: “It will be one of the great debates of our time, for . . . television will determine what kind of people we are, and there is no story, Vietnam possibly excluded, more important than television itself.”

Friendly expressed his belief that television journalism in the space age could deliver news quickly enough to permit a greater degree of public consideration of issues as they unfold rather than after the fact.

In his testimony before the Senate Subcommittee on Communications a week later, on April 12, 1967, Friendly gave qualified support to the report of the Carnegie Commission and to the proposed Public Broadcasting Act. But he told the assembled senators that he wanted to sound an “early warning” about the danger of establishing a dedicated trust fund with annual federal appropriations: “Of one thing we can be certain: public television will rock the boat. There will be — there should be — times when every man in politics — including you — will wish that it had never been created. But public television should not have to stand the test of political popularity at any point in time. Its most precious right will be the right to rock the boat.” Overwhelming reliance on government money would constitute a “license to fail.” He reiterated the case for the satellite plan and consideration of other mechanisms for protected revenues.

When pressed, he said he would support the bill as then drafted, with reliance on federal funding in order to launch the system, and in the hope that there would be substantial modifications in the future. Friendly subsequently testified in a similar vein before a subcommittee of the House of Representatives, reiterating his vision of public television as an “electronic preserve” comparable to the federal park system and as “broadcasting’s last best chance.”

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