Willard D Rowland Jr. Encyclopedia of Communication and Information. Editor: Jorge Reina Schement. Volume 3. New York: Macmillan Reference USA, 2002.
Public broadcasting in the United States is widely seen as an important component of the media culture of the nation (Carnegie Commission, 1979; Twentieth Century Fund, 1993). Its programming and the terms of public support for it are not without criticism; it has its detractors from both the right and the left, and it regularly is a subject of debate. On the whole, however, public broadcasting tends to be endorsed as a social good; American society is seen as being better off for having it because of its role in broadening the base of information, education, cultural experience, and political discourse.
However, U.S. public broadcasting is much different from its counterparts abroad. By comparison with other major systems of public-service broadcasting (e.g., in Great Britain, Canada, Germany, Italy, Japan, and most other advanced “information societies”), the U.S. enterprise is not seen to be as central and as important to the overall national media culture. It is largely an afterthought, heavily rooted in a formal educational rationale and in some eyes serving principally as a palliative to the perceived shortcomings of the dominant commercial broadcasting system upon which it has been grafted.
Broadcasting began in the 1920s, and by the middle of the century, it had developed its various basic institutional structures and social roles throughout the world. In other industrialized, democratic nations, broadcasting typically began and grew around a model of itself as a cultural institution, as an extension of language, arts, and national identity. In contrast, U.S. broadcasting was considered at the outset to be principally a business enterprise, as a creature and promoter of commerce, and this has continued to be the prevailing view.
As in other countries, U.S. broadcasting has been subject to regulatory oversight. It is licensed under the assumptions of spectrum scarcity and related expectations about its public trustee obligations as a government sanctioned quasi-monopoly. In the United States, the fiduciary responsibilities of commercial broadcasting (to serve “the public interest, convenience, and necessity”) were initially considered to be adequate to guarantee a broad range of services, such that no other major institutional alternative was seriously or widely contemplated. As a result, there was no commitment to a general model of a public-service broadcasting institution in the United States. The small, decentralized educational, noncommercial alternative that did emerge was considered to be only marginally necessary and was forced to begin life swimming upstream against the materialist currents of the dominant media structures and purposes.
Simultaneously, the modest educational broadcasting enterprise developed around a doctrine of localism and a resistance to the establishment of strong, national producing and programming entities. As such, it reflected the general public-policy structure for education in the United States, as well as the deeper constitutional debates about the structure of American government and politics.
During the latter third of the twentieth century, U.S. public broadcasting was given a new, seemingly firmer, public-policy mandate, plus public and private resources that were sufficient for it to build a system of local and national entities (i.e., stations, networks, and support agencies). That system was markedly larger and more stable than what had been imagined at the outset for noncommercial broadcasting. Nonetheless, at the beginning of the twenty-first century, it still remains a relatively small part of the overall broadcasting, media, and telecommunications nexus in the United States. Additionally, even as its existence seems more secure, it also is facing the substantial challenges of a new era of digital communications technology, marked by a widespread process of convergence and reconfiguration in media forms. Those developments are associated with increasingly rapid, broadband, multimedia and interactive forms of production and distribution, new business models, and changing regulatory assumptions.
History of Educational and Public Broadcasting
U.S. public broadcasting began in the 1920s and 1930s as a small collection of noncommercial radio stations that were licensed principally to educational institutions such as colleges, universities, and local schools. These stations were largely independent of one another, and they operated without any federal or even significant state or local funding. At the outset, public broadcasting had no special status under the relevant pieces of federal legislation (i.e., the Radio Act of 1927 and the Communications Act of 1934). Consequently, for its first twenty years, it also had no special regulatory protection through either the Federal Radio Commission (FRC) or the Federal Communications Commission (FCC), and for most of its first forty years, public broadcasting had relatively modest production capacities, little national programming, and no permanent interconnection (i.e., network) facilities. By the mid-1940s, noncommercial radio had been granted some reserved space in the emerging new FM (i.e., frequency modulation) band, though that status was never built back into the prior and then still dominant AM (i.e., amplitude modulation) band.
With the arrival of television in the early 1950s, interest in noncommercial broadcasting began to spread beyond school boards and colleges to national and community organizations that were seeking to develop broader-ranging social and cultural programming services that would be of interest to general audiences. The FCC also, in 1952, extended its spectrum reservation policy into the table of allocations for the very high frequency (VHF) and ultra high frequency (UHF) ranges. However, for most of its first decade or so and for most of its stations, the primary purposes of noncommercial television remained those of formal instruction (ITV) and education (ETV), and it had no major forms of national support and encouragement.
As with radio before it, certain dissatisfactions with the performance of commercial television began to emerge, and with them came increasing pressures for a more general-audience, public-service institution. This combination led to the activation of more stations and program exchanges in the noncommercial realm. The growth of the number of stations was stimulated by the direct aid of the Ford Foundation, which made capital facility grants to community and educational organizations throughout the country, and by the increasing interest of many universities and state agencies in building ETV capacities. By the mid-1960s, more than one hundred ETV and nearly four hundred noncommercial radio stations were on the air.
As their numbers, resources, and common needs had grown, the stations had formed a few of their own collective trade and service organizations at the state, regional, and national levels. The foremost of these, the National Association of Educational Broadcasters (NAEB), had roots dating back to the prewar educational radio days, and it had developed radio and television divisions that provided programming and other professional services. The Ford Foundation had helped create a rudimentary national production service and network, the National Educational Television and Radio Center (NETRC, later known as NET), which came to focus exclusively on television. It produced and distributed a regular but modest (and only videotape delivered) schedule of cultural and public-affairs programming. Meanwhile, as the number of stations grew, they formed new regional organizations, such as the Eastern Educational Network (EEN), the Central Educational Network (CEN), the Southern Educational Communications Association (SECA), and the Pacific Mountain Network (PMN), principally to provide more programming for exchange among the stations. Comparable regional associations also were created for radio.
The growing number of noncommercial entities and audiences created a critical mass of awareness, interest, and public support that led to more coordinated and explicit planning for the development of stronger national program production and networking capacities and for larger amounts of funding. Those interests began to focus particularly on the question of federal funding, and they culminated in the work of the Carnegie Commission and the passage of the Public Broadcasting Act of 1967. This act laid out the basic plan for completing the transformation from a relatively narrowly defined and unique U.S. educational broadcasting model to one that encompassed more of the general-audience purposes of public-service broadcasting, as reflected in similar institutions abroad.
Building on the tradition and imperatives of the largely decentralized, locally focused U.S. system of noncommercial radio and television, the 1967 act led to a series of actions that established the national structure and core dynamics that would define U.S. public broadcasting for the remainder of the twentieth century. The Public Broadcasting Act of 1967 chartered a new national, but theoretically nongovernmental, agency—the Corporation for Public Broadcasting (CPB). The act established a CPB governing board to be appointed by the president of the United States and confirmed by the U.S. Senate. It also authorized the corporation to receive federal funds and, in turn, to use those resources to create national systems of interconnection, to provide larger amounts of national programming, and to channel support directly to the noncommercial radio and television stations around the country.
Shortly after its own incorporation in 1969, working with the existing base of stations and other parties, CPB created two new organizations to manage the national interconnection systems— the Public Broadcasting Service (PBS) for television and National Public Radio (NPR) for radio. As a result of compromises with the stations, particularly with the larger producing stations in several major cities, national public television programming was to be produced by the stations themselves and other independent entities. PBS was to be the coordinator of the national schedule for public television, but it was not authorized to produce programs, and the stations were to retain considerable autonomy in decisions about when to carry the national programs. In radio, the stations had the same scheduling autonomy, but NPR was given both authority and CPB resources for producing national programming.
Throughout the 1970s, the initial structure of U.S. public broadcasting solidified, though it also continued to change on the margins. In other countries, one or two organizations tended to lie at the heart of the public-service broadcasting enterprise. In the United Kingdom, for example, the British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC), founded in 1922, received the bulk of the funding designated for public radio and television; it operated several national networks and many local stations, and it produced nearly all of the programming that was carried on its networks. In the United States, such singular dominance never existed, even after the development of the new national structure. CPB was a sort of primus inter pares among the national organizations, but it had no direct operational responsibilities for production, programming, or distribution. It could only facilitate those functions through other organizations. Also, while its national funding mandate gave it certain responsibilities for speaking to the White House, the U.S. Congress, and the press on behalf of public broadcasting, that authority was never total, with many of the representation functions remaining with the stations themselves and with their membership organizations.
The multiplicity and divided responsibilities of those agencies, as reflected in PBS, NPR, the regional networks, and the vast diversity and sheer growing numbers of stations, meant that programming and policy authority in the United States was highly diffuse. Nonetheless, the funding, programming, and board appointment experiences during the early years of CPB led to concerns that its influence, and that of the president and the Congress through it, were too great. As a result, by the early 1980s, both PBS and NPR had been through major organizational and governance crises that had led to greater independence from CPB and more explicit station ownership and control. Those reorganizations also differentially affected the national representation functions in public radio and television. Whereas NPR had not had such responsibilities for the public radio system at the outset, it did by 1977. Alternatively, a new organization in public television— America’s Public Television Stations (APTS)—was formed in 1980 to provide regulatory and legislative services independently from PBS.
This pattern of churning reorganization and constant, often inconsistent, debate about the roles and authority of the national organizations reflected the persistence of a strong local-station base in U.S. public broadcasting and the continuing debates over the appropriate extent of its federalist character. The newer national organizations had been welcomed as practical necessities if public broadcasting was to become anything more significant than a relatively small, dry, narrowly focused set of pedagogically oriented stations. However, there was little willingness within the system or in Congress and successive presidential administrations to permit the national organizations to coalesce and have the resources that would allow them to become strong centers along the models of commercial American broadcasters or public broadcasting abroad.
Meanwhile, although many licensees, particularly in radio, continued to be educational institutions, the newer stations and the growing number of state networks were increasingly licensed to nonprofit community groups. Unable to justify the costs in relationship to the value of their instructional services, and responding to the emerging emphasis on a more general-audience orientation, some school board and higher education licensees actually transferred station ownership to community organizations. In statewide systems, there also was a growing emphasis on governance by independent boards of directors made up of state and community leaders.
This public-service, corporate governance structure was similar to the pattern for other public U.S. cultural institutions such as museums, arts centers, and hospitals, and it had several consequences. It tended to draw to public broadcasting a powerful cross-section of professional, business, and cultural leadership well beyond the education sphere, thereby broadening its base of legitimization in the eyes of the public and state and federal political leaders. It opened the stations to a wider range of funding support, particularly in the private sector, and it also strengthened the authority of the local and state licensees relative to the newer and ever-growing national entities.
Meanwhile, other aspects of the public broadcasting system were continuing to change. In the mid-1970s, with congressional and CPB help, the interconnection systems had abandoned the conventional network structure of terrestrial land lines and microwave telephony for a new distribution system via geostationary orbiting satellites. As the newer national organizations developed, others waned. NET had been absorbed into one of the New York City public stations (WNDT, which became WNET) as a national program division. With the rise of CPB, PBS, and NPR, the role of NAEB became less clear. NAEB lost the financial and institutional support of the stations, which were now paying dues to the newer national programming and interconnection services. Increasingly defined as a professional association and therefore more dependent on the smaller revenues of individual memberships, NAEB finally went out of business in 1981.
Similarly, the regional television networks, now bypassed by the satellite system, began to abandon or substantially redefine their original roles as programming entities, with concomitant name changes and new charters. By the late-1990s, EEN had emerged as a general national programmer (i.e., American Public Television). CEN and SECA had added many aspects of the professional association work that had been lost with the demise of NAEB and changed their names to the American Telecommunications Group (ATG) and the National Educational Television Association (NETA), respectively. PMN had ceased to exist as an operating organization altogether.
Although certain large-city public television stations, such as WNET in New York, WGBH in Boston, and WETA in Washington, D.C., continued to provide the majority of the programs on the PBS schedule, and did so in partnership with nonstation organizations such as the Children’s Television Workshop (CTW), more stations and state networks across the country were offering programs for national distribution and competing for scarce national program dollars. Meanwhile, pressures for diversity of voice and access led in 1991 to the statutory creation of the Independent Television Service (ITVS) to promote program production and distribution outside of the normal process that had been developed by CPB, PBS, and the major producing stations. In radio, NPR remained the dominant producer and distributor, but over time, American Public Radio, later Public Radio International (PRI), grew up from within Minnesota Public Radio (MPR) and became a substantial competitor to NPR. In time, even MPR itself became a competitor to both NPR and PRI.
These changes were facilitated by the widening, more flexible distribution capacities of satellite and cable technologies and the steady, if small, growth of revenues in the public system. With an increasing demand for more diversity of service and the proliferation of program sources, the growth in the number of stations tended to shift away from the few remaining under-served areas in remote, rural portions of the country toward urban centers, providing an increasing number of communities with access to multiple public broadcasting signals. By the mid-1990s, well over one-half of the U.S. population was capable of receiving three or more public radio stations and two or more public television stations. To some people, this phenomenon became known as the “multiple services problem,” which implied an unwarranted duplication of services and waste of scarce resources. To others, it was the “overlap opportunity” that provided capacity for a wider range of program streams and community services similar to the stronger public-service broadcasting institutions abroad and parallel to the differentiated, audience-niche program channels that were being developed in commercial radio, cable, satellite, and Internet telecommunications.
The institutional structure of public broadcasting by the end of the twentieth century reflected an uneasy amalgam of both its deep-set Jeffersonian, decentralized educational heritage and its post-1967 efforts to create a more coherent quasi-federalist model and a powerful, general-audience, national public-service media presence. The agencies that had been put in place by the early 1980s remained largely intact. Newer associations of stations and other interests, such as the Station Resource Group (SRG) in radio and the National Forum for Public Television Executives (Forum), the Program Resources Group (PRG), and the Hartford Gunn Institute (HGI) in television, had come into being to address issues and provide services that the existing agencies appeared to be unable to render.
However, the overall structure and the fundamental issues that faced public broadcasting remained. The substantial funding, technological, and overall policy problems that faced public broadcasting persisted. Individually and collectively, these matters had significant implications for the system, raising all the traditional questions about public broadcasting’s own sense of itself and the public expectations for it. Additional national studies and task forces had tried to address them (Carnegie Commission, 1979; Twentieth Century Fund, 1993), but significant resolutions remained elusive. The continuing limits of public-policy commitment to public broadcasting were perhaps most clearly apparent when there was no mention of public broadcasting in the Telecommunications Act of 1996, the most sweeping piece of U.S. communications legislation since 1934.
Public Policy and Funding Patterns
The strengths and weaknesses of U.S. public broadcasting are reflected in the structure and amounts of its funding and in the associated legislative and regulatory environment.
The principal strength of the system’s funding pattern is its diversity. Public broadcasting abroad tends to be supported by a combination of annual taxes for the right to own and use television sets (i.e., license fees) and limited amounts of commercial advertising. By comparison, the U.S. system has a much wider variety of revenue sources. This pattern of multiple public and private funding tends to protect it from direct control by any single social institution, such as government or business.
The financial situation of U.S. public broadcasting improved considerably after the Public Broadcasting Act of 1967. By the year 2000, that growth had led to the establishment of nearly eleven hundred CPB-qualified radio and television stations, a sophisticated satellite distribution system, two full-time national networks, various other national and regional services, thousands of hours of original programming every year (with much of it having exceptionally high quality), and a professional cadre of more than sixteen thousand employees. The infusion of federal funds also helped strengthen the other public and private sources of support.
However, a major weakness of the funding system was the relatively small amount of actual funding that it provided. Total funding for public broadcasting had reached $2.0 billion by 1998, but that amount was only 2 percent of the total revenues for U.S. commercial broadcasting and cable, which were about $95.8 billion in 1998 (Broadcasting & Cable Yearbook, 2000). In addition, the diversity of funding sources reflected ambivalence about responsibility for the institution. No single sector, public or private, had emerged to sponsor public broadcasting.
By the end of the twentieth century, the principal funding sources for public broadcasting could be divided into tax-based funding (which includes federal, state, and local funding) and private support (which includes sponsorship, underwriting, memberships, subscriptions, auctions, and special events).
Tax revenues for public television are provided at federal, state, and local levels, though the latter is small and insignificant. In virtually all instances, federal and state funding is appropriated from general treasury revenues.
Throughout the educational radio period and the early ETV years, there was no federal funding for public broadcasting. In the late 1950s and early 1960s, some federal support (e.g., the National Defense Education Act of 1958 and the Educational Television Facilities Act of 1962) began to emerge for instructional programming and the construction of noncommercial television facilities. However, such funding was modest and did not become significant and include support for programming and operations until after the Public Broadcasting Act of 1967 and the creation of CPB.
The total amount of federal support (for CPB, facilities, and special educational initiatives) grew from approximately $7 million in 1966 to approximately $400 million for 2001. The latter amount is still small when compared with funding for public broadcasting abroad. By the late 1990s, public broadcasting’s per capita rate of federal support—the annual amount of national, tax-based public broadcasting revenue per citizen of the country—remained well below that of national government expenditures in all other advanced industrial, first-world nations (e.g., less than $1.20 in the United States versus $30 to $60 in Canada, Japan, and the United Kingdom) (Corporation for Public Broadcasting, 1999a). As a result, the U.S. public broadcasting program production rate, particularly in television, was far smaller than most other public-service broadcasting institutions around the world.
Additionally, federal funding has been consistently tenuous. The receiving-set license fees are widely employed in other countries and are relatively stable pools of funds, but in the United States, there are no special national funding mechanisms dedicated to public broadcasting. National task forces, study commissions, and leading political figures have at various times recommended the establishment of taxes on such things as the sales of receivers, the profits of commercial broadcasting and telecommunications, and the use or purchase of the spectrum. None of these ideas was ever implemented, and federal funding continued to come principally through appropriations from the general treasury.
There also have been serious limits on what is possible with regard to appropriations. Federal funding for public media has always been contentious in the United States. It lies at the heart of American ideological debates over the state of the arts, education, and communication (i.e., the “culture wars”) and First Amendment issues about the role of government in such matters. As a result, even as federal funding for public broadcasting tended to increase, it was periodically reduced and regularly subjected to serious threats of elimination altogether. Such episodes occurred in the early 1970s, the early 1980s, and again in the mid-1990s. Those crises also undermined efforts to maintain a firm policy of multiyear advanced authorizations and appropriations.
The costs of overcoming such problems have been significant. To generate the appropriations and to recover from the reduction episodes, public broadcasters and their supporters have had to engage in constant, intensive lobbying, thereby exposing themselves to regular political oversight, similar to the process that is required of any federal agency or program. Those efforts also have required public broadcasters to divert considerable energy and resources from other essential tasks, such as the core mission of program planning and production and the longer-term strategic planning needs for service development in a rapidly changing technological world.
Taken altogether, state and local government support for educational or public broadcasting has always been a larger source of capital and recurring revenue than has federal income. That support has been channeled primarily through university licensees and state educational and telecommunications authority station boards. Increased numbers of stations licensed to such institutions, as well as support for various state and local instructional programs, accounted for a considerable portion of the system growth in the 1960s and 1970s.
Steady increases in such support during the late 1970s and early 1980s, when state government budgets were otherwise widely leveling off or dropping, did much to offset the reductions in federal support. That growth has remained remarkably solid, even through the fluctuations in congressional support during the mid-1990s. However, while state and local support was significant and even increasing, its growth remained slow and modest enough to guarantee only minor continued increases in public broadcasting facilities and program services.
State government funding also varied widely in type and amount across the country; many states did not make public broadcasting a high priority. Even where such support was substantial, it was typically annual or, at most, biennial, its overall levels showed no dramatic increases, and its actual proportion of overall public broadcasting funding was still shrinking. Proportionately, it declined from about 50 percent of overall public broadcasting revenues in the early 1970s to about 30 percent in the late 1980s and through the 1990s. By the end of the twentieth century, state support remained a substantial pillar of U.S. public broadcasting, predicated largely on the traditional belief in its instructional and educational potential, enhanced by its more contemporary Internet, distance-learning, and web-based instructional efforts. A large majority of the states had even committed to special funding initiatives to help public broadcasting make the conversion to digital technology. Overall, however, it was unclear whether state support could become the basis for anything more significant, such as providing operating support for the large increase in the numbers of noncommercial public-service channels and program efforts implied in digital conversion.
In the absence of large amounts of federal and state funding, U.S. public broadcasting turned increasingly to private sources of support. In keeping with the pattern associated with other nonprofit institutions in the arts, culture, education, and health, public broadcasting came to rely increasingly on membership subscriptions, foundation grants, commercial underwriting, and special fundraising events. Altogether, these various forms of private funding grew at substantial rates after the early 1970s. Accounting for only about one-fifth of all public broadcasting revenues in 1970, they amounted to more than one-third by 1980. They more than trebled during the 1980s, and they accounted for well over one-half throughout the 1990s.
Up through the late 1950s, memberships and subscriptions were little used outside of a few listener-supported radio stations and the new community corporation ETV licensees. In time, particularly with the emergence of the stronger Carnegie Commission notion of public broadcasting, stations of all sorts began soliciting membership subscriptions; eventually, even school and university licensees began to seek subscriptions. Such patronage practices were already common in the arts and other cultural and social activities, such as symphony orchestras, opera companies, museums, and hospitals. The adoption of patronage practices for noncommercial broadcasting reflected expectations that public radio and television might play comparable roles in communities around the country. By the late 1980s, membership solicitation came to provide more than 20 percent of the total income for public broadcasting. That statistic rose to nearly 25 percent in the late 1990s.
The membership phenomenon was an encouraging sign of public loyalty and commitment to public broadcasting, and it reflected the institution’s increasing acceptance in U.S. culture. It also was a source of largely unrestricted support that provided an important margin of extra capacity and independence for the stations individually and for the system collectively.
On the other hand, only about 10 percent of the audience contributed in this way, and generating such revenues had certain material and opportunity costs. The regular, frequent practice of soliciting subscriptions in special membership drives (derogatorily referred to as “begathons”) required a large investment of staff and board time, and it disrupted program schedules, diverting stations and the national services from their core production goals and threatening to alienate viewers and listeners. Also, memberships turned over a great deal (a process referred to as “churning”), and their retention and replacement came to depend to a large extent on the value of the premiums that were offered, which themselves represented a considerable cost to stations. There also were questions about the frequently commercialized forms of pledge programming that stations were using. Those developments reflected an increasingly “transactional,” goods-for-support character to the membership and subscription process that in some respects seemed to be at odds with the normal nature and purposes of public broadcasting.
Public stations also became creative in developing special fundraising projects such as auctions and the sponsorship of performances and other events in the community. These devices were similar to the ancillary revenue efforts of other cultural and educational institutions. Many of them became the responsibility of volunteer (“friends”) groups, and they provided additional revenues, publicity, new audiences, and community grounding for the stations. As with memberships, however, these alternate devices also required considerable investment of staff time and energy, as well as an investment in inventories of material goods—all of which raised questions about cost-benefit ratios and their relationship to mission.
As with government funding, industrial and corporate support for public broadcast programming and operations is highly sensitive. The practice of underwriting was never explicitly defined and authorized in early legislation, and in many quarters, it was initially looked down on as antithetical to the educational mission. Nonetheless, the practice of soliciting underwriting developed early in the history of community ETV licensees, where appeals to foundations and various other private interests had become, like individual membership subscriptions, a material necessity and a symbol of public broadcasting’s legitimacy as a particular kind of cultural institution. In time, as public broadcasting’s popularity grew and its evening and weekend audiences took on a somewhat disproportionately upper-level, educational, professional, and politically significant demographic character, many national and local corporate interests began to recognize that there could be important public relations and political benefits in reaching such audiences. At first, identification of underwriters was possible only in brief, strictly regulated credits, but those practices became increasingly liberalized as program costs rose, federal funding proved to be continuously problematic, and corporate interests in reaching public broadcasting audiences grew.
Over time, federal policy actually began to encourage expansion of private, commercial support and even explicit sponsorship, particularly after the advertising experiments conducted under the auspices of the Temporary Commission on Alternative Financing in 1983. While that project did not lead all the way into the sort of limited spot-advertising provisions that exist for public broadcasting abroad, it did permit substantial movement in that direction by authorizing more liberalized sponsorship in the form of “enhanced underwriting.” During the 1980s and 1990s, such support grew from less than 10 percent to approximately 15 percent of all public broadcasting revenues.
Public broadcasters, their friends, and their critics have remained sharply divided over this issue. There were strong concerns that any increasing commercialization of public broadcasting was unhealthy—that it was driving the institution ever closer to the programming and audience considerations that guide commercial broadcasting and against which it is assumed that public broadcasting must stand. At the very least, questions were asked about what programming efforts and voices went unheard when underwriting resources were unavailable. Another practical concern was that increased commercialization would seem to threaten all the other significant forms of revenue generation and raise costs for such things as copyright and talent without any guarantee that it would offer sufficient replacement funds.
Other observers, however, felt that none of the other forms of financial support would ever provide the extent of revenue necessary for public broadcasting to survive, let alone to grow and substantially increase its range of services and appeal. From this perspective, there were no realistic alternatives to increased commercial revenues, and, although there were dangers associated with them, it was thought that they could be managed well enough to ensure that the better, unique characteristics of public-service programming would persist and even prosper.
A related issue was that of attempting to recover some of the profits on the public investment in programs that developed aftermarkets and ancillary commercial products (e.g., toys, books). There were mutually incompatible criticisms of public broadcasting for, on the one hand, allegedly not adequately exploiting such opportunities and, on the other hand, for being precisely that commercial and exploitative, particularly of children. In the end, such “deals” were never as potentially large as frequently represented, but they reflected the continuing pressure on public broadcasting to develop external forms of revenue and the confusions of public policy in that regard.
New Media and Digital Technology
As with all other media, the dramatic changes in telecommunications technology in the last quarter of the twentieth century had a substantial effect on the character and prospects for public broadcasting. Broadcasting had been built as an analog system of production and transmission, using open, “over-the-air” spectrum frequencies and serving generally as a mass medium. Beginning in the 1970s, the quickly spreading uses of and interactions among coaxial cable, fiber optics, satellite distribution, and computerization inaugurated a series of challenges to the conventional model and began to take broadcasting more explicitly into the complex welter of telecommunications. Those challenges became more significant with the rapid increase in the pace of digital technology development in the 1980s and 1990s, leading to a process of convergence and reconfiguration among media forms generally. By the end of the twentieth century, the very structure and associated industrial and service forms of traditional broadcasting were breaking down in the face of the much higher carrying and multimedia capacities of digital transmission, the Internet, and the World Wide Web. Public broadcasting was being challenged in similar ways.
Public broadcasting had been able to take creative advantage of the early phases of those changes, such as in its adoption of geostationary orbiting satellite services for distributing its national signals. In keeping with its ownership and fiscal base in the stations, it had been more open to the flexibility of that technology than had commercial broadcasting initially, where centralized network controls militated longer against such distribution options. It also had taken a leading role in the development of closed captioning for use by the hearing impaired.
In other respects, however, public broadcasting’s reactions were more muted and uncertain. It had difficulty thinking through and effectively using all the multichannel capacity that was available to it in both conventional broadcast channels and the broader spectrum pipelines represented by coaxial and fiber-optic cable. In contrast, the commercial television responses of the broadcasting and cable industries to the newer program service opportunities seemed initially stronger, and by the mid-1980s, those industries were cooperating to develop new services that to many eyes resembled much of traditional public broadcasting.
Apart from certain limited efforts in its early days—the so-called golden years of radio (in the 1930s and 1940s) and television (in the 1950s)—commercial broadcasting had not demonstrated much of its educational and cultural service potential. The commercial marketplace seemed incapable of providing such programming on a continuing basis, and public broadcasting had come into existence largely in an effort to fill that need. However, the newer cable channels, such as Nickelodeon, the Discovery Channel, Arts & Entertainment, the History Channel, CNN, and C-SPAN, had much deeper funding resources than did public broadcasting, and they seemed to be providing much of the special educational, public affairs, and children’s services that had been public broadcasting’s traditional mandate. The true extent of the new channels’ replication of the programming of public broadcasting remained debatable, and public broadcasters were quick to note that such services were available only on cable and direct broadcast satellite television, both of which involved a fee. These new channels were not free, over-the-air stations, and many of them were more commercialized than public-service models would permit. Nonetheless, their presence and persistence vexed the question of public broad-casting’s special status as an institution deserving of continuing public funding by federal and state governments.
There also was the persistent problem of public broadcasting’s small minority position in the overall structure of telecommunications and its concomitantly small audiences. Throughout the 1960s and 1970s, educational and public broadcasting stations constituted a minor but nonetheless noticeable share of the channel capacity of conventional broadcast radio and television (e.g., in television, the local ETV or public station was typically one of five or six locally receivable broadcast signals or of ten to twenty cable channels). By the 1990s, with the steady expansion of cable and direct broadcast satellite capacities, public broadcasting had not kept pace. The number of its stations continued to grow but at a much slower rate than had been the case during the late 1960s and early 1970s, and its relative share of the broadcast, cable, and satellite channel offerings had declined. In television, even with the development of new local stations, its presence amounted to no more than two or three signals in a sixty to one hundred cable-channel environment. Public broadcasting’s audiences were likewise small, typically accounting for less than 5 percent of the viewers and listeners at any one time.
Despite proposals that it do so, public broadcasting had developed no master plan nor any clear, longer-term goal for maintaining and building a larger share of the nation’s telecommunications carrying capacity. Throughout the growth of the cable and satellite era, public broadcasting therefore tended to be restricted in its thinking about the alternative service models that were available to it with increased numbers of signals and channels. Federal policy throughout much of the 1980s and 1990s, as reflected in the programs of CPB, the National Telecommunications and Information Administration (NTIA, which is a division of the U.S. Department of Commerce), and the Public Telecommunications Facilities Program (PTFP, which is a program within NTIA), actually contributed to that restrictive thinking, bowing to pressures within Congress and even among public broadcasters themselves that “overlap” stations and more diversity of signal and voice should not be encouraged. For many years, public broadcasting had the technical capacity to provide multiple streams of complimentary programming nationally and in every community, but with its continuing fiscal uncertainties, perhaps most dramatically exposed in the congressional calls for “zeroing out” of federal funding in the mid-1990s, public broadcasting tended not to press forward in the multiple-channel arena.
By the late 1990s, that issue began to be put into a new perspective, due in part to the decision by the FCC to convert all broadcasting to digital technology and by the steady growth and public acceptance of Internet, web-based online and interactive communications. Together, those changes provided a whole new set of opportunities for public broadcasting to supplement and even compete with its traditional video services. It was becoming increasingly apparent that, if public broadcasting did not position itself to take advantage of those opportunities by expanding the range, volume, and even forms of its services, it risked remaining trapped in the straitjacket of an obsolete mass-media model.
At the same time, it was uncertain if national, state, and local public policy would support all the implications of these new opportunities. The digital conversion process was an “unfunded mandate,” something the federal government was requiring of public broadcasting but for which adequate federal and state funding was in doubt. Likewise, it was unclear whether the federal government was willing to continue supporting the traditional reservations, set-aside and must-carry policies that had done so much to help public broadcasting find and keep a toehold in the U.S. telecommunications system. The cable television industry had always resisted the FCC’s must-carry requirements. As it was beginning to implement digital cable services in the late 1990s, much of that resistance was continuing, and FCC support for must-carry appeared questionable. Similarly, the direct broadcast satellite industry was resisting implementation of a “local-into-local” station carriage requirement, an equivalent of must-carry. Although that policy had been written into law in 1999 as the Intellectual Property and Communications Omnibus Reform Act, it had been vigorously opposed by the direct broadcast satellite industry.
Summary and Conclusion
By the turn into the twenty-first century, the institutional structure of U.S. public broadcasting that had been built on the original educational broadcasting model and put into place in the late 1960s and early 1970s remained largely intact. Public radio and television were much larger and more secure entities than they had been twenty-five years earlier, with solid, measurable, albeit, by commercial standards, still small sets of audiences.
However, public broadcasting also continued to be laden with an organizational complexity that was difficult to explain and understand. Without a clear national consensus on its appropriate goals, size, and structure, that complexity had increased throughout the 1980s and 1990s, making it difficult to describe the institution and the various roles of its many organizations. For similar reasons, it also was struggling with a continuing base of funding that was small by comparison with public broadcasting elsewhere in the world, and it was facing the challenges and opportunities of new interactive, Internet, and web technologies, as well as the federally mandated conversion to digital broadcasting, all without clear sources of adequate capital and operating funding.
The old debates about how much public broadcasting should focus on being an institution of formal education versus a high-quality general-audience service remained, as did the tensions over the relative balance of control between and among the stations and the national entities. Likewise, there was an even more intense phase of the debate over the extent to which the commercial telecommunications marketplace, in its new broad-spectrum environment, could provide the diversity and quality of alternative programming services reflected in public broadcasting.
By the beginning of the twenty-first century, there were signs that the stations and national services were making significant plans for creative uses of their impending new digital and multimedia capacities, and it appeared that many of them would be notably different from those that the commercial industries were proposing to use. However, the costs of digital conversion and the development of sophisticated Internet provider (IP) services were substantial, and it appeared they could not be met by existing funding sources. Additionally, it was unclear whether federal policy would continue to support the reservation of educational, noncommercial channels and require their carriage on the newer digital cable and direct broadcast satellite environments.
During the late twentieth century, U.S. public broadcasting had worked its way up to a relatively stable plateau upon which it had built a diverse funding system, a large local station infrastructure, and an active set of programming services and support agencies. It had a large corps of dedicated and effective personnel and a strong, if small, base of membership and public support. It continued to be seen as a public and social good and as more necessary than not. It therefore did not appear to be in danger of disintegrating and fading away. However, without adequate public-policy support and resources to fulfill its basic mission, public broadcasting was going to have difficulty moving up to the next plateau. Public broadcasting remained an important, some would say indispensable, element of U.S. telecommunications and culture, but it was still far from being central to those institutions. Public broadcasting was still swimming upstream against a swift, dangerous set of commercial and political currents.