A badgered PBS takes hard look at its programming
Boston — Buffeted by attacks from conservatives in recent years, the Public Broadcasting Service - whose lineup ranges from ``Sesame Street'' to ``Frontline'' - has completed a formal look at its own program practices and pronounced them basically sound. But lots of updating and clarification is needed in the written version of PBS policies, says a report released yesterday by a 10-member committee from both inside and outside public broadcasting, chaired by E. William Henry, a former member of the Federal Communications Commission.
The report proposes a whole new set of guidelines to replace the ones PBS has been following for 15 years - although viewers are unlikely to notice much change in the kind of programs PBS airs.
Among many points, the new standards:
Reinforce PBS's ability to accept or reject programs.
Urge regular policy reviews.
Stress PBS's right to resist attempts by funders or others to influence improperly what it airs.
Reaffirm PBS's commitment to public affairs programming that reflects viewpoints outside the mainstream - even if individual programs are not objective.
To help achieve this last point, the reports says there should be a way of allowing viewer ``response to controversy over program content.''
``One of the strong recommendations the committee makes is to figure out a way for people to talk back to PBS,'' PBS president Bruce L. Christensen said by phone. ``We don't know how we'll do it, but it might include figuring out some way to put letters to PBS on the air, not unlike a newspaper's Op Ed pieces.''
But neither the new policies nor the panel that proposed them is likely to please some of PBS's more conservative critics, whose attacks have centered on the nature of public affairs programming in general.
One of PBS's most vocal critics has been Accuracy in Media, a conservative group described by its president, Reed Irvine, as ``a media watchdog.'' Reached by phone in Washington before the formal release of the panel's findings, Mr. Irvine said ``I don't recall any identifiable conservatives being named on that committee. I want to be careful not to characterize a report I haven't seen - I'm expressing my fears and I may be pleasantly surprised - but while they talk of material from outside the mainstream being put on, I think one of the big problems of PBS is getting stuff that represents the mainstream being put on.''
But Christensen says, ``I think you'll continue to see a mix of programs that will make both right, left, and probably center unhappy at particular times.'' ``Ours is an attempt to find the standards by which we can judge those programs in such a way that they are not either unfairly kept off the air, or given air time when they don't really warrant it because they aren't the good, accurate, quality programs which are defined in the work that the committee's done.''