Life cycle of a reform: independence of CPB Program Fund

By Steve Behrens

Jan. 2, 1979 — Robben Fleming, a university president and an authority on (labor) negotiations, comes to CPB as its third president.

Also in January, the politically appointed CPB Board suspends its committees to reevaluate their roles. This decision shelved the board’s Program Committee, which traditionally had voted aye or nay on national production proposals for public TV.

Even before Fleming arrived, the CPB Board had been rethinking this process.

Jan. 30, 1979 — The second Carnegie Commission proposes replacing CPB with a Public Telecommunications Trust, including a separately governed Program Services Endowment that isolated decision-making from political appointees.

Memories of Nixon administration attempts to control CPB program grants and network scheduling were still fresh. House bills proposed to dismantle or restructure CPB. PBS and pubTV stations sought larger roles in spending decisions.

March 1979 — The Carnegie II recommendations don’t lead to major legislation, but the CPB Board, with new Carter appointees and Sharon Rockefeller as chair, tentatively approves Fleming’s proposal to insulate TV program decisions from the board and CPB president. (For radio, CPB’s national production spending had long been delegated to NPR.)

August 1979 — Board creates a semi-autonomous Television Program Fund.

In an August memo, Fleming argues against assumptions that CPB must attempt to control public TV programming: “Because CPB funds are but a part of the total support for public broadcasting, and because the stations are in the last analysis the arbiters of what will be shown,” Fleming writes, “CPB can influence the nature of programming but it cannot dominate it, nor can it be held responsible for all programming.”

January 1980 — Prominent TV producer Lewis Freedman starts work as first director of the Program Fund and creates an unprecedented streak of major series, including Frontline and American Playhouse. He also provides starting funds to Vietnam: A Television History.

March 1982 — Fleming’s successor as CPB president, Ed Pfister, persuades the board that the Program Fund should report to him.

October 1982 — Nebraska network programmer Ron Hull succeeds Freedman as Program Fund director.

May–July 1983 — Both Democrats and Republicans on CPB Board seek more say in program decisions, complaining that they have to defend spending that they don’t control. Hull puts forth a successful compromise: The board will stay out of program grant decisions while the Program Fund will follow the board’s broad program priorities.

1984 and after — Reagan appointees consolidate control of the CPB Board. CPB President Ed Pfister resigns after the board nixes program exchanges with Moscow. Reagan appointees speak up against Frontline and Concealed Enemies (board members found the latter documentary too “agnostic” about whether Alger Hiss was really a spy, former Program Fund exec John Wicklein writes in 1986).

Hull feels rising friction with the board and resigns in 1988. But despite complaints from board members, CPB’s programming staff still made decisions on program grants, according to a longtime CPB program exec Eugene Katt. “There have always been efforts to encroach upon” the independence of Program Fund grantmakers, he says in a 2012 interview, “but the rules that governed it have never changed. As long as I was there, the programming staff made its own decisions.” Katt retires in the 1990s.

2003–04 — In an exception to that process, Republican CPB Chair Kenneth Tomlinson campaigns for conservative public affairs shows on PBS. In a December 2003 email, Tomlinson tells Paul Gigot of the Wall Street Journal that he’s “trying to pressure [PBS President] Pat Mitchell to produce a real conservative counterpoint to [Bill] Moyers.” In September 2004, with $5 million from CPB, Gigot and colleagues launch the weekly PBS show, Journal Editorial Report.

November 2005 — CPB Inspector General Kenneth Konz accuses Tomlinson of violating CPB rules in his campaign for conservative programs, and Tomlinson quits as chair. Carriage of the Journal show is weak, and it goes off the air in December.

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