Commercial TV Can't Do PBS's Job

CONGRESSIONAL Republican initiatives to gut or privatize public broadcasting incorrectly assume that the information superhighway will rectify the market failure of broadcast radio and television to present quality programming. These proposals mistake abundant communications channels for quality programming and ignore communications economics.

Public broadcasting emerged out of the market failure of '60s television and radio to provide quality programming. To correct that failure, the Public Broadcasting Service chartered its mission to serve listeners as citizens through public education. Three years later, National Public Radio vowed at its founding to serve listeners as ''curious, complex individuals who are looking for some understanding, meaning, and joy in the human experience.''

Earlier, in 1949, Pacifica Radio launched programming ''to explore the causes of strife between individuals and nations'' and ''to promote peace, social justice, the labor movement and the arts.'' Pacifica's mission remains more editorial than PBS's and NPR's yet falls within the public system's goals for high quality, diversity, and creativity.

Public broadcasting emerged amid widespread concern about television content and as more television channels were becoming available.

Following urban riots in the mid-60s, the Kerner Commission had faulted broadcasters for failing to educate Americans adequately about race, and many hoped that a public broadcasting service would do a better job. Earlier, President Kennedy had laid the basis for a greater number of television channels through legislation requiring that television receivers be equipped to accept ultra-high frequency (UHF) signals, and he had stimulated more international news programming through legislation promoting satellites.

Now, when television content is a daily concern for many and as expanded cable television, satellite, and telephone communications systems diffuse through the nation, Congress mistakenly claims that channel abundance will remedy market failures to provide quality programming. Communication economics indicate otherwise: More money can be made with programming that panders to the public. Despite a series of scandals shaking television talk shows, advertisers, program producers, and broadcast and cable network managers will continue to program material, no matter how tasteless, that will attract audiences.

The market rewards such judgment, particularly in the cases of television talk shows that cater to young audiences. That the humiliation of guests is now an integral part of the TV talk-show formula warrants no consideration. Viewers are expected to discount routine belittlement of self and other as part of a show's entertainment or production value.

While communications technologies assure there is adequate band width on the information highway for a great deal of interactive, individually generated and distributed programming, universal access and common carriage still have to be defined, legislated, and implemented. More commonly available electronic mail is the opposite of broadcasting: It clusters persons around interest issues.

Federal support for public service broadcasting should be increased, not cut. Americans spend less on public broadcasting than other industrialized nations. Based on figures for fiscal years 1994 and 1995, Americans are spending approximately $3 per television set per year through congressional legislation for the Corporation for Public Broadcasting.

Britons and Japanese each spend $39 and $42, respectively, in receiver fees. Canadians spend $31 per person in parliamentary grants.

By contrast, calculating federal support for public broadcasting by the population of the United States, Americans spend about $1.15 per person per year. Pending legislation would diminish this embarrassingly low support to $1.10 next year and $1.05 the following year. For 1998, draconian legislation in the House would cut support totally.

Public broadcasting is as urgently needed now as 30 years ago. No less wise a man than foreign-policy expert George Kennan remarks of commercial broadcasting that ''it is the custom of the media to purvey whatever it is they have to purvey in disconnected, staccato bursts or images, never inviting the viewer's or listener's attention to any thought or proposition for more than a few moments, never asking, or allowing time, for any comparison or analysis of contrasting or seemingly conflicting thoughts, and thus not only not stimulating and developing the capacities for sustained and thoughtful attention to any subject, but positively debauching it.''

Considering the shortcomings of Republican policy for public broadcasting, grave questions arise whether congressional Republicans are capable of fashioning innovative communications policy. Are privatization proposals really mechanisms so corporate interests can grab the best electronic real estate? Are the budget meat cleaver and threat of privatization through termination of federal support political weapons? Are Republicans employing these weapons to cow local public broadcasters into pressuring NPR to drop Nina Totenberg's news reports and PBS to turn away Bill Moyers's documentaries because their journalism upsets many in Congress?

Congressional Republicans seem to have few, if any, answers other than a market mantra embellished with slogans about information.

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