Beyond Big Bird

PBS is a relic in an age of TV choice.


"One of the strengths of KCET is that when I turn it on, it isn't always something that I want to see," said one volunteer during the PBS station's March pledge drive. He summed up the attitude of many public television's most devout supporters: It isn't always enjoyable, but dammit, PBS is important.

In fact, PBS has looked pretty important over the last 10 months. In September, the network's series on the Civil War drew an incredible (by PBS standards) 12 percent of the national television audience. In October, PBS kicked off a $2-million ad campaign to promote the new season, including its first-ever ads on commercial television stations. And in November, the PBS board of directors took control of programming away from member stations and placed it in the hands of PBS Vice President Jennifer Lawson. The move promised to streamline an unwieldy system in which several different committees decided which programs were funded.

But beneath the surface successes, PBS appears to be in trouble. It isn't mortally ill, not by a long shot. But it is declining in importance. Indeed, long term trends are at work that could spell the end of public television.

Before PBS, there was educational television. In 1949, the Federal Communications Commission reserved 242 channels for noncommercial instructional television. The next year, KUHT-TV in Houston went on the air as the nation's first educational station. By the early 1960s, there were 75 educational television stations on the air.

Educational television was pretty low-rent stuff. With little money to spend on programming, most stations relied on talking-head discussion shows, chalkboard-and-pointer instructional programs, and the occasional nature documentary.

PBS was supposed to counter all of this. In the preface to the 1967 Carnegie Corp. report that first proposed a public television system, E.B. White wrote that this system should be "the visual counterpart of the literary essay, should arouse our dreams, satisfy our hunger for beauty, take us on journeys, enable us to participate in events, present great drama and music, explore the sea and the sky and the woods and the hills."

In 1968 Lyndon Johnson created the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, which would pump money into public television and radio to create White's "visual counterpart of the literary essay." One year later, CPB and public television stations formed PBS to jointly produce and program new shows.

PBS was in many ways a model Great Society program: originated by ivory tower intellectuals, intended to achieve lofty goals, and given generous federal funds. And like many Great Society programs, PBS never quite lived up to its promise The talking heads of educational television were simply interrupted every now and then by Cookie Monster or Julia Child.

The audience for it all was small. By the late 1970s, PBS usually averaged about 4.5 percent of the prime-time viewing audience. At the time, the lowest-rated of the three commercial networks could easily draw 15 percent.

Over the years, PBS's audience didn't grow, but public television itself did. The number of stations jumped from about 100 when the system began to about 300 in 1990. Today, public television is a $1-billion-a-year business. WNET, the member station in New York City, alone has an annual budget of more than $100 million. Perhaps most emblematic of the changes at PBS is the Washington, D.C., station, WETA. WETA started out in the home of one of its supporters, but now it has a $40-million annual budget, a skylighted complex in Arlington, Virginia, and Sharon Rockefeller (wife of Sen. Jay Rockefeller) as its president.

And as public television grew, the bureaucracy became more complex. An amalgam of alphabet organizations'"CPB, PBS, NAPTS, EETN, PMN, and SECA being the most prominent'"came together to fund programs and coordinate the actions of public television stations. Programming was particularly complicated. PBS itself could put shows into development through the PBS-CPB Program Challenge Fund. But programs were typically developed at a handful of large member stations'"WGBH in Boston, WETA in Washington, D.C., and WNET in New York City being the most important. These stations drew their money from a variety of sources: the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, other stations through the Programming Cooperative, viewers, foundations, and corporations.

This complicated arrangement shielded the system from accountability. "The public television bureaucracy is certainly confusing to outsiders," notes conservative journalist David Horowitz, who is writing a book on PBS. "It seems designed so that everybody involved can avoid the responsibility for the programs. If you have some criticism of one of their shows, and you want to find out who is responsible for it, the response is always 'Well, funding was approved by this committee. And this group placed it on the schedule.' Or, 'It was produced by WGBH or by the BBC.' Everyone can pass the buck to someone else."

At least in the early days, there was arguably a need for public television. When PBS was formed, most households'"except in a few big cities'"could receive only the three networks. There was little variety in TV programming. The commercial stations stuck to sitcoms, shoot 'em ups, and game shows. High culture and public affairs were almost nonexistent.

But even as the PBS bureaucracy was growing fat, changes in technology and in the marketplace were occurring that would challenge PBS's need to exist. The growth of independent commercial stations and the success of the VCR and compact disks gave people a greater choice in home entertainment. But the biggest problem for PBS is cable.

Thanks to those little boxes on top of their TVs, most people now have a large variety of channels to watch. The average viewer can choose from 30 channels, and that number will probably double by the end of the decade. As a result, PBS's share of the prime-time audience has declined by about 12 percent over the last decade, from its high of 4.5 percent to 4 percent in 1990. As cable channels develop, PBS's decline seems likely to continue, perhaps even to accelerate.

Many of the new channels just imitate'"or more likely rerun'"the programs offered by ABC, CBS, and NBC. But others have appropriated the kind of programing that was once unique to PBS, the programming that it was once argued must be subsidized by government because the market would not provide it. And, in most cases, the specialized channels give viewers more of what they're looking for.

PBS has "Nova" and "Nature." But the Discovery Channel devotes most of its daily schedule to science and nature programming. PBS offers "Austin City Limits" and "Lonesome Pine." But the Nashville Network gives country music fans 12 hours of music videos, live performances, and interviews each day.

Some PBS stations carry adult learning programs, but the Learning Channel specializes in educational shows. "The MacNeil/Lehrer News Hour" lets PBS viewers catch up with the news at dinner time each weekday, but CNN gives viewers the latest news around the clock. PBS lets us sees "Masterpiece Theater" and "Great Performances," but the Arts & Entertainment network offers fine arts and drama 24 hours a day.

PBS gives viewers "Wall Street Week" and the "Nightly Business Report." But CNBC and FNN offer nothing but business and financial information. PBS has "Tony Brown's Journal," a public-affairs program aimed at blacks, but BET targets all its news and entertainment programs specifically at blacks. Some PBS stations occasionally show classic films. But American Movie Classics and Ted Turner's TNT carry several different classic American and foreign films every day.

And when I watched a day's worth of KCET programming, the PBS affiliate clocked an average of 10 minutes of pledge breaks per hour'"the longest was 19 minutes. Home Shopping Network begs for money 24 hours a day.

If the market now offers cultural and public-affairs programming, why should taxpayers continue to shell out $200 million a year for public television? And why should the FCC reserve a valuable share of the broadcast spectrum exclusively for public television programming? PBSers offer two reasons, PBS is free (unlike cable), and PBS still offers some programs that cable will not touch.

In fact, PBS does reach more than 90 percent of American homes, while cable reaches only 60 percent. But the people who most watch PBS are those who are most able to afford other forms of entertainment and information. They are better educated and more affluent than the typical couch potato.

In its audience breakdowns, PBS claims that its viewers are only slightly more affluent than the average TV audience. For example, PBS says that 32 percent of its audience earns less than $20,000 a year, compared to 36 percent for America as a whole. And 15 percent of PBS viewers earn over $60,000 a year, but for America as a whole the number is 13 percent.

These figures may be true if the broad demographic spectrum of people who plop their children down in front of "Sesame Street" is included. But the hard-core prime-time audience is decidedly upscale. In Memphis, Tennessee, for example, 68 percent of the subscribers to WKNO's viewer magazine have a household income of $50,000 or more; 62 percent have an investment portfolio of $50,000 or more; and 68 percent have a household net worth of $100,000 or more.

These figures are similar across the nation. Writer Andrew Ferguson notes that WETA's viewer magazine lures advertisers with promises of an upscale audience. "For these purposes," he says, "the station admits that its contributors have an average household income of $95,583, an average investment portfolio of $249,693, and an average household net worth of $627,663."

If PBS viewers are actually no richer or more influential than the average "Cheers" fan, he asks, why do all those Fortune 500 companies underwrite PBS shows? "As a WETA fund-raiser told me, 'They know that during prime time public television can deliver the demographic they want: affluent, highly educated, the movers and shakers, the socially conscious and well-informed.'" These aren't the sort of people who can't afford cable.

Still, Henry Becton, president of Boston's WGBH, contends that there are still certain types of programs that are unique to PBS. "The cable channels don't do opera or classical music," he says. "You won't find Peter Sellars doing Mozart on A&E."

Well, that's not exactly true. PBS may have a higher volume of classical music than cable. But one can find the classics on commercial channels. A&E's schedule has never been loaded with classical music, but it has offered viewers "Eugene Ormandy Conducts the Philadelphia Orchestra" and "Mahler: Songs of the Earth."

And there's a very good reason that commercial channels don't carry more classical music. Richard Ottinger, CEO of the Georgia Public Television Network, notes that his network's audience for opera and classical music has fallen over the last decade, thanks largely to improvements in home stereo. "The quality of sound on television isn't that good," he says. "The people who like this type of music would rather listen to it on compact disk. On television the sound comes through a tinny little box."

As cable channels continue to multiply, finding a niche for PBS will become increasingly difficult. Ottinger, for example, wants the network to offer "more local coverage, more political coverage, and more service or how-to shows." But cable is filling even these niches. Almost every system sets aside one channel for community programming and coverage of city or county council meetings. Some larger systems even have 24-hour local news channels. CNN and C-Span provide all the politics even the most voracious news junkie can stand. Finally, many channels offer some sort of how-to programs, and the Learning Channel specializes in information-you-can-use shows.

Richard Hutton, senior vice president for programming and production at WETA, offers another common solution: "We should focus on quality. Cable can't match us there. They have nothing like 'The Civil War' or 'Eyes on the Prize."'

True enough. But cable is still in its infancy. As channels such as TNT and A&E begin to produce more of their own programs and gain more experience at making original programs, the quality of their shows will probably improve. In March, for example, TV Guide asked 11 experts to pick the best new shows for children. Most of the shows were on cable; some were on the networks. None were on PBS.

Besides, quality may be just a code word for "more expensive." If PBS's audience continues to decline and upscale viewers turn more to other forms of entertainment, it may become more difficult to get government and corporations to shell out money for PBS's "quality" programs.

In short, PBS insiders want to preserve their autonomy and government subsidies, but they can't seem to agree on the best strategy for doing that'"or to come up with a strategy that will work. Becton offers a common solution: "We must remain unique and different from commercial channels."

The world is a much different place than it was 20 years ago, when PBS was taking its first steps. But the management of PBS has changed very little, and that limits the system's ability to find creative alternatives to commercial programming. "People tend to stay at PBS for a long time," says Bob Chitester, founder and former president of WQLN, the PBS station in Erie, Pennsylvania. "And the people at the top tend to have long tenure. There are station managers there who were there when I first started 20 years ago."

Like most government agencies, public television continues to operate much as it did when it was started, refusing to adapt to changing circumstances. Chitester contends that the network's schedule reflects PBS's lack of new ideas and reluctance to change. "If you look at the really important shows, you'll find that almost all of them are 15 or 20 years old," dating back to PBS's early years, he says. "'Sesame Street' is great, but there's no way for a new 'Sesame Street' to evolve within the PBS system."

Two years ago, the board of directors created the position of "programming czar" to streamline the bureaucracy, stem eroding viewership, and push PBS into the 1990s. The post was given to Jennifer Lawson, who moved quickly to consolidate her authority. She ended funding for two low-rated PBS staples, the children's show "Newton's Apple" and the documentary series :'American Masters." She is developing a new children's game show and has announced plans to showcase more popular music.

Despite a general agreement that some sort of change must be made in PBS, some public television staffers, especially those at the local stations, regard attempts to reform the system with wariness. No one will criticize Lawson on the record. But privately some fear that her appointment, along with the more permissive rules for identifying corporate underwriters enacted six years ago, is part of a process of commercializing'"or mainstreaming'"PBS programming. Lawson denies this charge.

PBS producers, says Chitester, almost never ask if anyone else wants to see the shows they make. "I helped create programs that my mother wouldn't watch," he says. "It was fun and games at the taxpayers' expense." PBS producers fear that Lawson's changes may cost them the freedom to do what they want without worrying about attracting an audience. "One of the strengths of PBS is that it provides an outlet for different voices," Boston's Becton told TV Guide. "We need to offer an alternative to commercial television, and to do that we need a producer-driven system, not a schedule-driven system."

This difference between the mind-set at PBS and that of the cable channels was demonstrated in March, when the Discovery Channel picked up the British documentary "The Greenhouse Conspiracy" for broadcast in the United States. Aired in Britain last August, the documentary, which questions whether global warming is indeed occurring, drew tremendous praise from both reviewers and scientists.

But PBS declined to purchase the American rights, deeming the documentary too one-sided. PBS critics note that the system regularly shows one-sided documentaries, including several programs that uncritically accepted the direst global warming predictions. In response, one PBS executive told Media Watch, a conservative press watchdog group, "I'm not sure it's useful to include every single point of view in order to cover every base because you can come up with a program that's virtually impossible for the audience to sort out."

When PBS turned down "The Greenhouse Conspiracy," Discovery jumped at the chance. "Politically, I'm not sure the views of the executives at the Discovery Channel differ from those at PBS," notes Richard Miniter, an environmental policy analyst at the Competitive Enterprise Institute who urged PBS to air the documentary. "But market forces compel the Discovery Channel to show things that don't necessarily conform to their world view. This was a very marketable product'"a highly documented, well-crafted documentary that already had stirred up a controversy and gained quite a bit of publicity. The Discovery Channel had an interest in showing it that PBS didn't." Discovery will air the documentary in late June.

So what does the future hold for PBS? If Jennifer Lawson fails to stem the exodus of viewers, could we see the system privatized or abolished? 

In 1981 the Reagan administration considered turning PBS into a scrambled, over-the-air subscription service, but it ultimately rejected the idea because the cost of the needed new equipment would far outweigh the revenue that the network could raise. Moreover, privatizing the system could easily lead to the demise of the network. Its staff, accustomed to Becton's "producer-driven" system, just wouldn't know how to cope in a profit-driven company.

"Most of the people in PBS management have worked their way up in the system or have come to it from academia. There aren't many people with commercial broadcasting backgrounds there," observes Chitester, who produced "Free to Choose." "They couldn't easily adapt to a market system'"producing shows that viewers want to see, rather than the programs they themselves want to see, trying to earn a profit. They wouldn't fit in in that type of environment ."

Full commercialization or privatization of PBS seems unlikely. PBS remains popular on Capitol Hill. And while PBS is actually run by its staff, it has been very successful at loading its local boards of directors with community VIPs who want to help out "Sesame Street." They form a very strong lobbying voice for public television.

Despite all of the controversy surrounding the National Endowment for the Arts, that program was never in danger of being abolished, and its budget was barely touched. If Congress continues funding Karen Finley, it certainly isn't going cut the money for Big Bird.

But the pressures on PBS will continue to mount. Each year cable channels grow, both in number and in strength, drawing viewers and corporate dollars away from public television. Videotape and compact disks also cut into PBS's audience. Meanwhile, budget pressures at both the federal and state level will mean smaller budgets for public television. After adjusting for inflation, the federal contribution to PBS will decline slightly this year. And many states have made nominal cuts in their funds for public television.

We can't count PBS out just yet. The existence of the Rural Electrification Administration and numerous other government agencies that have long outlived the problems they were created to solve indicates that PBS could be around for a very long time. But it isn't too farfetched to imagine the system slowly withering away.

Charles Oliver is assistant editor of REASON.