Vast Wasteland

Public television has become a dumping ground for political hacks and a source of endless Britcom reruns. Increasing its appropriation now would only be throwing good money after bad.

"I DON'T THINK there's any reason for public television to exist anymore," thunders Garrison Keillor in an interview in the January 5 issue of The Nation. PBS is "so far from being an important force in broadcasting, and their accomplishments are so far in the past. There isn't anything that they do that can't be done and done better by any one of a dozen cable channels. They've been completely rendered obsolete by cable television."

If this judgment from the Sage of Lake Wobegon seems harsh to you, you should snap up a copy of Made Possible By...The Death of Public Broadcasting in the United States, the splendid critical history by Village Voice media critic James Ledbetter. This eminently readable and copiously documented book lays out how and why public television has become (to borrow Alexander Woollcott's famous phrase) the bland leading the bland.

Shaped from its inception by White House politics--two of its most important architects were McGeorge Bundy and Eugene Rostow, who helped design and manage Lyndon Johnson's war on Vietnam--public TV has never been able to insulate itself from political pressure. Indeed the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, from which PBS gets its congressionally appropriated federal subsidy, has been "used over the years as a dumping ground for the worst sort of political hacks," Ledbetter writes. And the tradition continues: Bill Clinton's first appointment to the CPB board was Diane Blair, an Arkansas crony whose husband, Jim, is counsel to Tyson Foods.

Ledbetter traces PBS's malaise to Richard Nixon's attempt to destroy public TV, which resulted in "slashing the amount of airtime devoted to critical assessment of sitting presidents and Congresses." In the ensuing years, "habits of self-censorship have become so ingrained that naked censorship is rarely necessary." Those habits have only been intensified by what Ledbetter calls "the malling of public television"--its increasing dependence on corporate underwriters (read: sponsors) and the marketing of programming-tied products (like the department-store variety of objects licensed by Sesame Street).

Take the oil companies, preeminent funders of national public television and thus, in Ledbetter's words, "the most obvious purchasers of the medium's silence." Case in point: Shell Oil, whose role in destroying the environment in Nigeria, supporting that country's military dictatorship, and tacit involvement in the assassination of novelist Ken Saro-Wiwa sparked a major international controversy. On public television, Ledbetter charges, "it is nearly impossible to state any connection between Shell and Nigeria at all; the few times that Saro-Wiwa's execution was mentioned on the PBS Newshour, there was no reference to Shell, and Shell's actions in Nigeria have never been explored on the Newshour, Nightly Business Report, ... or any nationally available PBS public-affairs program." No wonder some wags have tagged PBS the Petroleum Broadcasting System.

Dissecting PBS programming, Ledbetter traces the death of the public-TV documentary and the abandonment of the system's early educational function in favor of an endless diet of Britcoms, English whodunits, Lawrence Welk reruns, and John Tesh concerts. In doing so, he shows why assaults on the medium by the Gingrich Right are misplaced: "Public television doesn't scare its viewers because [it] avoids just about anything that might offend anyone. It cares far less about programming of 'high value' than it does about programming that cannot be assailed."

The U.S. government spends only $1.09 per citizen on public TV, infinitely less than other industrialized countries like Japan ($31.05) and Great Britain ($38.99). But full public funding to allow the termination of corporate sponsorship is only part of the answer. Until public TV rethinks its mission in a cabled and digitized new world communication order, and is isolated from political interference by special interests, an increase in its appropriation would only be throwing good money after bad. Made Possible By... illustrates Garrison Keillor's contention that PBS has become a "complete dinosaur." It should be required reading for anyone contemplating a pledge-week donation to keep it alive.

 
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