The Cost of Survival
Public TV - less public, more corporate than
by William Hoynes
Extra, the magazine of Fairness and Accuracy
in Reporting (FAIR), Sept / Oct 1999
Public television has survived. The high-profile assault from
conservative critics, which was front-page news in the early 1990s,
now seems like ancient history. As we enter the digital television
age, we no longer hear Congressional threats to "zero out"
public television, plans to "privatize" public broadcasting
have receded from the opinion pages, and the often shrill claims
of a so-called "liberal bias" on public television are
much less conspicuous. Indeed, PBS's 1998 Annual Report talks
of a "new PBS" that has been in development since 1995,
precisely the time when the conservative effort to scale back,
even eliminate, public broadcasting petered out.
This new PBS is positioning itself to be a "modern media
enterprise" for the next century. But even as the PBS leadership
takes steps toward transforming public television to meet the
demands of the new marketplace, there are plenty of questions
from the current century-dating back to the original formation
of public broadcasting in 1967- that public television, whether
old or new, still has to address. For starters, public broadcasters
have always waffled about what it means to be "public."
And, now more than ever, the meaning of non-commercial broadcasting
needs to be reexamined.
Most fundamentally, our public broadcasting system still has
to grapple with how it can fulfill its founding mission-to "provide
a voice for groups in the community that may otherwise be unheard,"
serve as "a forum for controversy and debate," and broadcast
programs that "help us see America whole, in all its diversity"-that
the Carnegie Commission articulated so eloquently more than three
In political terms, it seems that public television has turned
the corner. Indeed, if surviving is public broadcasting's primary
goal, as it surely was in the darkest days of the early 1990s,
then public broadcasters have triumphed. Not only did they fend
off a very real threat to their existence, but public television
has emerged in good financial shape, with new revenue streams,
new financial partners and renewed political support.
There are, however, substantial costs that go along with this
kind of survival orientation. While public broadcasting executives
scrambled to defend public television in the face of sustained
criticism and vociferous threats, the defensive effort left little
room for reflection about the mission of public television or
the content of its programming. For supporters of a more democratic
and inspired public television system, there was hope that the
battle to save public broadcasting would provoke its leadership
to reexamine the kinds of programs that serve the multi-faceted
There is plenty of evidence that public broadcasters engaged
in well-organized political maneuvering, both inside and outside
Washington, and explored new ways to generate revenue for the
system-with impressive success on both counts. At the same time,
there can be little doubt that the public television community
missed an opportunity to re-engage their founding questions about
public service, community accountability, diversity and how best
to contribute to a vibrant public life.
The new PBS is, by its own definition, more market-savvy and
commercially oriented than ever before. The "PBS brand"
is the key to the growth of this multimedia enterprise, a sign
that public television has adopted the newest language and strategy
of the advertising industry. For the new PBS, the brand becomes
the primary asset of the system, marking the shift to a conceptual
framework that renders public service a kind of value-generating
activity and makes the idea of non-commercial broadcasting increasingly
dubious. If PBS is "doing good while doing well," combining
public service with entrepreneurship, as its 1998 Annual Report
boasts, it's time that we take a careful look at what, indeed,
it is doing.
What's different about public TV
In the tradition of public service broadcasting in Europe,
the public television schedule includes a range of program types
that are aimed at diverse interests and publics. PBS is perhaps
best known for its longstanding commitment to quality children's
programming, which has often stood in stark contrast to network
offerings for children. In addition, public television stations
have historically been a haven for cultural programs that feature
drama, music and dance, along with regular programs that explore
science and nature. For many years, these kinds of shows gave
public television a distinctive flavor, and the PBS slogan "If
PBS doesn't do it, who will?" seemed a useful metaphor for
describing much of the programming.
Over the past decade, however, cable television stations began
to offer regular cultural programming, science and nature shows,
and even quality children's programming. In fact, programs that
were previously on PBS stations now appear on their commercial
competitors. For example, PBS's successful children's science
program The Magic School Buss moved to Fox in 1997.
Even if some of the programs on cable are increasingly similar
to public television, PBS used to be able to lay claim to providing
a commercial-free environment. This made public television a real
alternative and it became a preferred destination for many viewers,
especially parents of small children. In the age of the new PBS,
however, it is harder to tell what makes public television commercial-free.
Children are sold breakfast cereal and fruit juice, among other
products, before and after the morning dose of kids' programs.
What's more, children's programs on PBS serve as daily advertisements
for their own repertoire of licensed products, from toothbrushes
to stuffed toys to computer games, a textbook example of how a
non-commercial climate is undermined by the merchandising of public
service. PBS continues to provide a home for quality educational
programming, but it is becoming much more difficult to define
how it is "non-commercial" or why it is different from
its more obviously commercial brethren.
Public television also has a long-standing tradition of broadcasting
a range of public affairs programs. As a non-commercial public
service, PBS stations have long identified programming about current
issues and events as a central part of their mission. These public
affairs programs have been the source of most of the controversy
in public television's 30-plus-year history, dating back to the
Nixon administration's efforts to bully public broadcasters into
steering clear of programs that featured critical perspectives.
Certainly, the original vision for public television placed public
affairs programming at the center of its mission.
The quality of PBS's public affairs lineup remains an essential
measure of the strength and value of public television. In an
era in which fast-paced, celebrity-filled 21 hour news seems to
set the tone for much of public discourse, public television continues
to offer the possibility for a deeper, more deliberative and wide-ranging
public discussion about the issues of the day. In theory, at least,
public television should be free of the commercial pressures to
attract audiences by dramatizing the news, trying to appeal to
select demographics who are valuable to advertisers, and creating
programs that are consumption-friendly.
Data and methods
In 1993, my colleagues and I conducted an in-depth study of
the 1992 public television schedule (Extra!, 9-10/93). This study
revisits the public affairs line up to explore how the new PBS
measures up, both to its 1992 performance and, more generally,
to the lofty goal of contributing to public life by providing
a diverse alternative to commercial broadcasting.
The current study gathered a sample of the most widely circulating
regular public affairs programs that appeared on PBS stations
during the two-week period between November 30 and December 13,
1998. ('Widely circulating" was defined as those programs
that regularly appear on more than 100 stations or reach 50 percent
of U.S. households.) The sample (using either transcripts or video)
includes all editions of the news, business, talk/interview and
documentary programs from that two-week period. The current sample
includes both morning and evening programs, while the previous
sample included only evening programs, because such morning programs
(which focus on business news) did not exist at the time.
Overall, the sample consisted of 75 separate programs, which
included a total of 276 stories and 651 sources. All stories were
coded by topic, geographic focus and whether they included "live"
(in-studio) discussions. All on-camera sources, whether taped
or live, were coded for gender, nationality, occupational status,
political party, institutional affiliation and whether they were
participants in or analysts of the events in the story.
Elite news: Is there an alternative?
The clearest method for assessing the range of perspectives
available on the public television schedule is to examine the
sources that appear on camera. One useful approach for analyzing
the range of sources is to look at their occupational status.
This gives us insight into the social position of those who are
granted access to the public airwaves. Two decades of media research
has shown that most television news generally highlights the views
of a narrow set of elite voices, often to the exclusion of those
who lack government or corporate status, or "expert"
credentials. This kind of elite-centered news is often so taken
for granted that it can become the definition of quality journalism.
But there is no reason to assume that news sources ought to
reflect such a limited set of perspectives. In fact, research
on news work makes a persuasive case that relying on a relatively
narrow pool of established sources results from journalists' efforts
to routinize the day-to-day work of gathering and reporting news.
In general, it is both more efficient and less risky to draw from
the traditional class of news sources.
It is only a failure of our imagination to assume that public
affairs programming on PBS stations cannot break free of the constraining
conventions that define news as the activities and views of elites.
This analysis is based on the assumption that public television
can enrich our democracy by featuring diverse sources and robust
debates, and that such programming is a central component of the
public broadcasting mission.
... More than three-quarters of the sources were corporate
representatives, government officials or professionals (primarily
journalists and academics). Corporate representatives were the
most frequent source type, accounting for 26.7 percent of the
sources. In addition, another 9.6 percent of the sources were
people on Wall Street-brokers or others who work in the financial
services industry-whose views (in comments ranging from 2 to 23
seconds) appeared on a regular feature of Bloomberg Morning News,
"The Street Says."
In total, more than one-third of the sources (36.3 percent)
represent economic elites from the corporate world and Wall Street.
This stands in sharp contrast to the source profile in 1992, when
corporate representatives accounted for 18.4 percent of sources.
(Even when we remove the morning business programs from the current
sample, the corporate presence in 1998, at 22.5 percent, represents
more than a one-fifth increase from 1992.) These data indicate
that corporate perspectives are a staple in the public television
The occupational status of sources differs both by program
topic and program type. ... coverage of the economy is, more than
international or domestic political coverage, dominated by one
social sector: the business class. Corporate representatives account
for more than half of the sources; combined with the 20 percent
of sources who represent Wall Street, three-quarters of the sources
in economic stories are from the corporate or investment world.
The only other substantial source category was professionals-15
percent of the sources in economic stories-many of whom were journalists
at business news outlets who specialize in summarizing the thinking
within the corporate or investment community.
The economic news, then, is almost entirely refracted through
the views of business people, investors and reporters who explain
what corporate leaders and investors are currently thinking. In
contrast, voices from outside of the corporate/Wall Street universe
are rarely heard: Non-professional workers (1.1 percent), labor
representatives (1.5 percent), consumer advocates (0.4 percent)
and the general public (1.8 percent) are virtually invisible.
In sum, the economic coverage is so narrow that the views and
the activities of most citizens become irrelevant.
The visibility of business news programs, by itself, is an
important indication of the presence of corporate voices (not
to mention the corporate underwriting announcements that surround
most of the programs). Significantly, the business news shows
focus primarily on developments in the corporate world, especially
issues of interest to investors. In that way, perspectives from
outside of the corporate/Wall Street world are marginalized or
... Each genre of program has its own distinctive source profile,
and business programs are framed primarily by corporate sources
(45.3 percent) and Wall Street views (19.4 percent). The business
programs are, by a wide margin, the least likely program genre
to include the views of citizen activists (2.5 percent) or the
general public (1.3 percent) . As a result, the business programs
may be helpful to investors and brokers, but they provide a remarkably
narrow view of fundamental economic questions about production,
consumption and exchange. And, tellingly, it is business programming
that provides the vast bulk of public television's coverage of
Talk among the Political class
Sources who appear "live" in interview or discussion
segments have much more freedom (and time) to articulate their
views on the issue at hand, in comparison to sources whose generally
brief comments are edited to fit taped reports. And since many
of the programs on public television feature lengthy panel discussions,
these live sources often have substantial room to advance their
own positions. In this sample, 17 of the 18 programs regularly
included live sources; many of the programs consist almost entirely
of such panel discussions and interviews.
... government officials (25.6 percent) and professionals
(25.6 percent) each account for more than one-quarter of the total
sources; these two groups, along with corporate representatives,
are the routine sources on public television programming. Among
the 185 live sources in the sample, however, more than half (54.1
percent) were professionals-mostly journalists, who appeared each
week as analysts on such programs as Washington Week in Review,
This Week in Business, The McLaughlin Group and the NewsHour.
Members of the general public did not appear in any of the
live segments in this sample. The total absence of public voices
from these live discussions is one indication of the failure of
public television to create a forum for voices that would otherwise
... government officials are the principal sources for stories
about international affairs and domestic political issues. Professionals
(largely journalists and academics, but also writers and musicians)
are the principal sources for the limited coverage of social and
Coverage of domestic political issues features the perspectives
of government officials (50.Y percent) and professionals (31.2
percent, the vast majority of whom were journalists), with very
few contributions from other social groups. This is an example
of the ways that public television programming produces a discourse
by and for a "political class" of Washington insiders.
Discussion of domestic political issues gets reduced largely to
debates among Congressional leaders and the White House, with
analysis, often highly partisan, from a regular group of high-profile
reporters who cover the Washington scene.
Corporate representatives and Wall Street views make up another
11 percent of the sources in domestic political coverage, with
corporate perspectives a regular component of stories about antitrust
policy. Consumer or labor advocates were virtually invisible in
stories about domestic political issues.
... news programs are the domain of government officials (42.8
percent) and professionals (34.7 percent), who combined constitute
more than three-quarters of the sources. The large number of talk/
interview programs on PBS stations revolve around the voices of
professionals-largely journalists and academics, but also doctors,
lawyers, musicians and writers-who serve either as expert analysts,
or, less frequently, as celebrities who discuss their lives and
Given that there was only one regular public affairs documentary
(Frontline's "Nazi Gold") in the two-week period covered
by this sample, there is insufficient data to indicate the source
patterns for this genre. At the same time, the source profile
on this one documentary is consistent with findings from our 1992
sample, which indicated that documentaries (the 1992 sample included
such programs as Frontline, POV and Bill Moyers' Listening to
America) featured the widest range of sources and were the most
likely genre to include the views of the general public and citizen
Previous research on both public and commercial television
has shown, with remarkable consistency, that news sources are
overwhelmingly male. This sample of public affairs programs on
PBS stations fits this traditional pattern, with a relatively
small percentage of female sources, who appear in very specific
types of stories.
Overall, 21.5 percent of the sources in this sample were women,
which is slightly less than the 23.1 percent of sources who were
women in our 1992 sample. (In the sub-sample that does not include
the morning business programs, 26.9 percent of the sources were
Just as important as the overall figures is the specific gendering
of so much public affairs programming. Table 5 shows the source
breakdown, by gender, for each story topic and program genre.
In this sample, women constitute a majority (56.5 percent) of
the sources in coverage of social issues. For all other issues,
the percentage of female sources ranges from 16 to 32 percent.
Reports and discussions of social issues-including health, family,
religion and sexuality-increasingly are becoming the site for
including women's views in public affairs programs. Women appeared
most frequently on talk/interview programs (43.2 percent) and
were, by far, least likely to appear on business programs (12.5
The striking finding that women are the majority of social
sources, while noteworthy, is somewhat misleading. That is because
the all-women's discussion program To the Contrary accounts for
more than 60 percent of the women who appear in social stories
(and 59 percent of the women who appear in talk/interview programs).
In coverage of social issues on all of the other programs in the
sample, women make up 32.5 percent of the sources. Even without
the self-defined women's program on PBS, female sources still
appear in coverage of social issues more than for any other topic,
but they account for only one-third of the sources.
These two findings-that women are the majority of sources
for discussion of social issues and that most of these women appear
on To the Contrary- suggest both how certain topics are considered
"feminine" and how PBS stations have responded to the
demand for more gender equity in their programming. Social issues
continue to be defined as women's issues; this definition can
both open space for new voices and, simultaneously, effectively
marginalize these perspectives by limiting access to a narrowly
New voices? Citizen activists and the general public
One method for expanding the range of perspectives on public
affairs programs is to regularly include the views of members
of citizen activist groups. Such groups, regardless of their political
stripe, often have articulate spokespeople who can offer informed,
and sometimes contrary, views on a variety of issues. Moreover,
citizen activist groups represent constituencies-for example,
union members, those affiliated with a specific religious group,
or members of a particular ethnic group or community-who often
organize to advocate for and educate about ideas, policies and
issues that are neglected in the public discourse. Citizen activist
organizations, sometimes lacking resources and sometimes allied
with powerful interests, can add both new ideas and a sense of
passion to our televised public discourse. For public television,
the value of regularly including perspectives, from both left
and right, that seek to challenge a sometimes comfortable consensus
cannot be underestimated.
In this sample, citizen activists accounted for 4.5 percent
of the sources (5.0 percent in the sub-sample without morning
business shows), representing a decrease from the 1992 level,
when citizen activists made up 5.9 percent of the sources. Activists
appeared least frequently on business programs (2.5 percent) and
in coverage of the economy (2.9 percent), helping to solidify
the single-mindedness of this corporate-oriented coverage. Activists
appeared most frequently in coverage of social issues (7.9 percent)
and on the sole documentary in the sample (8.3 percent).
In sum, a variety of citizen activists- including civil libertarians,
advocates and opponents of gun control, environmentalists, family
values advocates, and campaign finance reformers- appeared on
public television's public affairs lineup. But these voices constitute
less than 5 percent of the sources, a blip on the screen in comparison
to the regularity with which corporate, government and professional
In addition, this diverse collection of citizen activists
spans such a wide range, and they appear with such relative infrequency-for
example, there is no regular labor voice in discussions of the
economy, and no regular consumer perspective in debates about
antitrust policy-that they cannot help but be marginal, if intriguing,
participants in the public discourse.
Another method of opening up the discourse is to regularly
include perspectives of the general public, not just in the aggregate
from public opinion polls, but to allow real people to participate
in debate and discussion about current events and issues.
In our study of 1992 programming, we looked at when and where
members of the general public appeared on public television. We
found that more than 12 percent of the sources on the public affairs
lineup were uncredentialed members of the general public (including
persons on the street, students, voters and victims of crime or
disaster). The relatively high frequency with which members of
the general public appeared as sources on public television was
a noteworthy difference from the norms of commercial broadcasting.
When we examined the situations in which these public sources
appeared, however, we found that their appearances were almost
all very brief sound bites. In fact, among "live" sources,
the presence of these public voices was a much smaller 2.3 percent
of the sources. We concluded that, despite their unusually high
inclusion as sources, members of the general public rarely appeared
as political actors. Instead, their comments generally spoke to
their personal experiences, and were followed by "legitimate"
experts who would analyze and contextualize these personal expressions.
In the current sample, members of the general public account
for 5.7 percent of the sources and none of the live sources. (In
the sub-sample without the morning business programs, 8.5 percent
of the sources were from the general public.) This represents
a significant decrease from 1992 in the appearance rate of public
sources. In the two most frequently covered topic areas, domestic
political issues and the economy, voices of the general public
are virtually non-existent, accounting for 2 percent of the sources.
On business programs, public views are even less visible, comprising
only 1.3 percent of the sources.
The elite-oriented framework of business news is so all-encompassing
that investors become a stand-in for the public. Indeed, the December
8, 1998 edition of Morning Business Report featured a segment
that began by asking "what average Americans think about
Social Security reform," and proceeded to explore the results
of a new "Investor Poll" about the stock market. After
the initial invocation of average Americans in the introduction
to the story, the entire discussion referred to what investors
thought about a range of investment and economic questions.
What Is the PBS Identity?
This study has examined the subjects and sources of two weeks
of public television's public affairs programming. The principal
findings of this study are consistent with our previous study
of a six-week sample of 1992 programming. Indeed, the two studies,
despite their six-year time gap, found similar elite-oriented
sourcing patterns and a shared emphasis on the strategic dimension
of domestic political issues. In important respects-both the voices
included as on-camera sources and the underlying frameworks employed
by producers and reporters-the current slate of public affairs
programs on PBS stations is much the same as the public affairs
line-up earlier in the decade.
Our 1993 study concluded that "the challenges ahead for
public television are to enhance the diversity of its programming
and to refocus on the 'public' that public television is intended
to l serve. On both counts, we find that I there is significant
room for improvement." The findings of the current study
indicate that public television has not improved on these counts;
in fact, the trend seems to be in the opposite direction. Public
television's sources were, in several areas, less diverse; the
most conspicuous changes are the increased visibility of corporate
voices and the less frequent presence of the perspectives of citizen
activists and members of the general public. And the increasing
commercialization of the system-including the growth of corporate
sponsored PBS-related World Wide Web sites-suggests that the public-as-citizens
approach is taking a back seat to the public-as-market model at
the "new PBS."
The views and concerns of the public were substantially less
present in the current sample than they were in our 1992 sample,
as those who lack institutional power or "expert" credentials
are rarely visible on public television's public affairs programming.
Corporate voices-and their views on such issues as consolidation,
the high tech industry, the stock market, and regulatory policy-are
prominently projected on public television. Stories about the
economy are organized around the views and activities of corporate
actors and investors. The regular daily and weekly business programs
are the main source of this narrow economic frame. These programs
are, in large measure, focused on and directed at the minority
of Americans actively involved in the buying and trading of stock-not
necessarily a "minority group" ill-served by commercial
Certainly, there is useful information on these programs:
For example, Bloomberg reporter Phil Boroff provided thoughtful,
and often critical, analysis of the Internet stock frenzy, and
the announcements of corporate layoffs were more prominent on
the business news programs than elsewhere on the schedule.
However, the business news programs rely upon an extremely
narrow range of sources and implicitly define the economy as major
corporations and their shareholders. (The vast majority of stories
about investment-related issues focus on the trading of individual
company stocks, and only rarely discuss the performance or economic
significance of mutual funds.) As a result, the business news
programs recast economic news into corporate news and serve as
a forum for a corporate-oriented discourse about the economy.
Since most American media are owned by major corporations, one
might look to public television to provide a broader and less
corporate-oriented view of economic matters.
In answer to the question "If PBS doesn't do it, who
will?" this kind of business programming is readily available
on CNN, CNBC, Bloomberg and other television channels, along with
the business press and the Internet. Public television stations
should reevaluate why they broadcast programs that are widely
available elsewhere; appeal to such a limited, elite audience;
and are so narrow in their definition of sources and subjects.
Indeed, concerns of the corporate and investment communities
are the principal frame for most economic coverage on public television,
making the perspectives and experiences of citizens, workers and
consumers seem tangential to the real economic news. This inattention
by public television to the views and experiences of working people
is part of a long-standing pattern that was well-documented in
a 1990 study by scholars at the City University of New York ("PBS
and the American Worker," CUNY Committee for Cultural Studies)
and confirmed in our study of 1992 programming. The growth of
business programs and the increasing visibility of the corporate
voice on public broadcasting only reinforce the importance of
broadening the range of perspectives that are part of the public
dialogue on PBS stations.
Instead of wide-ranging discussions and debates, the kinds
that might engage viewers as citizens, not simply as audiences,
public television provides programs that are populated by the
standard set of elite news sources. Whether it be corporate sources
(talking about stock prices) or government officials and Washington
journalists (talking about political strategy), public television
offers the same kind of discussions, and a similar mode of insider
discourse, that are featured regularly on commercial television.
This insider orientation makes it hard to identify what, outside
of the one-hour length of the evening news and the documentary
format, defines public television as innovative, independent or
alternative. Despite the current focus on the value of the PBS
brand, there is little about the substance of the public affairs
schedule that would give public television a distinctive identity.
Some inside public television have called for public affairs programs
to be more "engaging." (Columbia Journalism Review,
5-6/99) Given the continuing growth, largely on cable networks,
of programs that feature a now-standard set of pundits and insiders
carrying on familiar and sometimes overheated arguments, public
television's elite-oriented discussions may have a difficult time
engaging viewers because they are a toned-down version of the
Rather than imitating their competitors by becoming more heated
or entertainment-oriented, public television can engage citizens
by developing public affairs programs that are both substantive
and distinctive, broadening the discourse beyond traditional elite
voices, and making public television a more genuinely public institution.
In the emerging digital age, despite the temptations of commercialization,
public television can be a valuable democratic resource if its
leadership takes seriously its founding mission to broadcast programs
that include fresh perspectives, expand dialogue, welcome controversy
and serve all segments of the public.
William Hoynes is a professor of sociology at Vassar College.
Research assistance was provided by Sarah From and Johanna Buchignani.
and Media Control