We Need A National Television Policy

THE debate over whether TV newscasts designed for classroom viewing in public schools should be supported by commercial sponsorship raises a more important point than whether seventh graders will see a Clearasil ad in the early afternoon rather than in the evening. The presence of television in our schools itself reflects a national consensus that TV can serve as a powerful social good. Much of this revised respect for something that has long been called ``the boob tube'' is attributable to what television has become throughout this decade.

Today, we face an unprecedented choice of distribution media for television programming, including broadcasting, cable, and home video. There seems to be no national vision, however, of how these various pieces should fit into the larger structure of a medium that so powerfully touches our lives. National policy goals have been established in a range of other areas, including foreign relations, taxation, and environmental quality. Why not for television?

The chronic failure of policymakers to set forth such a national vision is illustrated by the time lag between the passage of the Communications Act of 1934 and the response to all that has happened since - a gap that still remains to be closed. The Communications Act predated the introduction of television as a mass medium. Understandably, it offered no vision about TV's development as a social institution.

But in a 1966 letter to the Carnegie Commission of Educational Television, author E.B. White offered an appropriate standard to follow. ``I think television 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. It should be our Lyceum, our Chautauqua, our Minsky's and our Camelot.''

Unfortunately, Congress has not responded to White's vision nor presented an alternative of its own. Dedicated interest groups have entered the vacuum to advocate increased cultural or educational programming, or more programming for children, the elderly, or minorities. But the results have been fragmented because no core national policy has been established.

Service to minorities that are underserved or unserved is an important aspect of defining television as a social good. Congress and other arms of government should identify the various viewing audiences and evaluate how TV can enhance larger programs, such as education and the arts.

Various national goals are already embodied in the charters of the Department of Education, the Department of Housing and Urban Development, and the National Endowments for the Arts and the Humanities. These can and should be restated as national goals for television as well, including the enrichment of our children's education, the honoring of heterogeneity in our communities, and the promotion of music, dance, theater, and film.

Many of these goals need little more than a government-wide sense of purpose and the initiative of private-sector entrepreneurs to produce programs supported by advertisers or directly by viewers themselves. Economic forces, however, may not by themselves provide the level and breadth of service that a social good requires. Society must be willing to fill in the gaps of the economic marketplace by encouraging new private-sector incentives in our tax laws or through direct loans and subsidies for air time and programming.

Government funds, unfortunately, also create a potential for tampering with program content, as evidenced by the record showing how the Nixon administration withheld or redistributed public broadcasting funds for political purposes.

Any appropriations scheme, therefore, must be accompanied by a plan to insulate the programmers from the government. Additionally, government should not create disincentives for seeking other funds - including commercial support. Congress, for example, maintains a low level of financial support for the Corporation for Public Broadcasting because it expects that public broadcasting will seek outside funding. Yet, at the same time, Congress casts a skeptical eye on commercially-based sources of revenue for the public system, such as joint-venture pay programming. These avenues should not be discouraged.

Other nations, such as Britain France, West Germany, and Japan, have undertaken successfully the difficult task of defining television as a social good. These examples should spur Congress. But the best incentive of all would be the fostering of a widespread perception among government officials, the communications media and, most important, the viewing public, that now is the last best chance to shape a television system that reflects the values we share as a society and can respond to the new values the future will bring.

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