PBS's Private Parts

Bit by bit, for-profit media companies are buying into public broadcasting

by James Ledbetter

from Extra! media magazine, May / June 1998


Inspired by the deregulatory environment promoted by both the Clinton administration and Congressional Republicans, the American communications industry went through a delirious orgy of mergers and acquisitions during the mid-l990s. In a single month in 1995, three multibillion-dollar media mergers were announced: Westinghouse and CBS joined forces, creating a massive network of television and radio stations; Disney acquired Capital Cities/ABC, becoming the world's largest media company; and Time Warner announced that it would acquire Turner Broadcasting, an unprecedented marriage of cable giants. The January 1996 passage of a sweeping telecommunications "reform" bill removed -among other things-limits on how many radio stations an individual company could own, effectively putting a "For Sale" sign on every small radio station in the country; a flurry of radio station sales ensued.

With television and radio giants freed for a massive shopping spree, the assets of public broadcasting suddenly but inexorably became prime real estate. Cable companies, which had heretofore been more or less gentlemanly competitors, immediately became predators, having off-the-record discussions with congressional committee chairmen about "takeovers" of public broadcasting.

Discovery Communications, the company whose Discovery Channel nature documentaries had made it one of public television's primary "competitors," was in early 1995 talking about helping PBS pick up the slack for programs such as Nova, should Congress cut off federal funding-provided, of course, that they would be shown on Discovery cable networks first.

Jamie Kellner, the president of the WB network, suggested that public television stations could raise money for themselves by selling blocks of primetime airtime to up-and-coming commercial networks like his own. "I wouldn't want to see it end," Kellner said. "But I think the way to prevent the ending is to be realistic about what you need, and what you need is a revenue stream."

Telephone companies, too, felt they could help themselves to a slice of the public broadcasting pie. Sen. Larry Pressler declared on a network talk show that he'd spoken to representatives of Bell Atlantic, who'd generously offered to take the Corporation for Public Broadcasting off the government's hands, as long as it got bidding dibs on PBS's affiliate stations. "There are a lot of companies that would love to buy CPB," Pressler said.

This takeover bid was bold to the point of silliness. Neither CPB, PBS nor NPR holds the licenses of affiliated stations, and therefore no national organization was positioned to sell public broadcasting assets in any takeover, hostile or friendly.

Of course, a Republican Congress could theoretically remove that limit, too, if it desired. In February 1996, Texas Congressmember Jack Fields introduced what he called a public broadcasting "self-sufficiency" act. Among its provisions was a section declaring that public broadcasters would be "allowed to surrender" their licenses to the FCC, and receive a portion of the proceeds. Since Fields offered no evidence of a massive desire among public broadcasters to "surrender" their licenses, many in public broadcasting suspected that he was trying to secure a new area of the broadcast spectrum where Bell Atlantic could try to stake its claim. Henry Becton, president of Boston's WGBH, promptly dubbed Fields' proposal a "self-destruction act."

The Public Beachhead

But the '90s flurry of corporate media acquisitions did involve the purchase of major pieces of public broadcasting. The role of commercial media companies in public broadcasting has evolved well beyond the seed money of the '70s or the underwriting of the '80s: They now use the public broadcasting system to promote their own media products. In many cases, private media companies have become some of the major profiteers of the nonprofit system. As of 1996, there was almost no major American media company that, in one manner or another, had not established a major beachhead in public broadcasting.

While no comparative financial figures exist, the symbolic leader of PBS privatization is certainly General Electric, producer of nuclear plants and light bulbs; owner of the NBC network; and, as of 1994, America's sixth-largest military contractor. General Electric made a PBS star out of National Review columnist John McLaughlin, who went on to host programs on General Electric's CNBC channel. When NBC began airing The McLaughlin Group on some of its affiliates, the average viewer could easily confuse PBS and GE/NBC political programming.

Public radio seemed almost to celebrate the confusion; as it crescendos behind the identification of corporate sponsors, the theme song for Marketplace, public radio's nightly business affairs program, merges into GE's familiar advertising jingle: 'We bring good things to life."

By 1992, the mingling of General Electric-owned media and public television became an on-screen merger when the two networks announced that they would team up to cover the Democratic and Republican conventions. PBS president Bruce Christensen boasted: "You get the news gathering of NBC plus the perspective Robin [MacNeil] and Jim [Lehrer] give to those activities. It's a wonderful match and marriage." Part of the wonderful marriage was cross-promotion of convention coverage by both PBS and NBC, meaning that for the first time, the system designed to provide an alternative to network television provided free advertising for network television.

The primary service of growing information giant Bloomberg is business stories and data, but as it expanded in the '90s, it found a ready audience among news-starved public television stations for end-of-the-hour, five-minute summaries of local news, broadcast on split screens with market updates. Among the various services displayed in a 1996 ad campaign, Bloomberg ads promoted "business news," "information services" and-to no noticeable outcry-"public broadcasting." Bloomberg's New York facility also became the site where PBS host Charlie Rose produced his nightly program, after he abandoned a studio at New York's WNET. (Although the WNET studios were apparently too expensive for Rose, WNET did lease a studio to The Montel Williams Show.)

Indeed, Rose, who in the early '90s became one of the best-known faces of adult public television, was by the mid '90s using public television only as a distributor. His program was produced in Bloomberg facilities, and underwritten by the USA Network, which was jointly owned by communications giant Viacom and the MCA unit of Seagram's.

PBS's most popular news feature, The NewsHour with Jim Lehrer, is produced by the Washington-based MacNeil/Lehrer Productions, which, in late 1994, sold two-thirds of itself to Liberty Media Corp., a subsidiary of TCI, the country's largest cable provider. TCI, which also holds a stake in Time Warner/Turner, is controlled by media magnate John Malone, a man Al Gore once referred to as "the Darth Vader of telecommunications." In his very public 1995 defenses of PBS, Gore praised the NewsHour as one "of the crown jewels of public broadcasting"; Gore did not mention that Darth Vader now owned a majority of the jewel.

Revenge of the Merchandise

Telecommunications companies, too, are major players in the world of public broadcasting. AT&T, which subsidized public broadcasting even before the federal government did, was for several years the primary underwriter of the NewsHour in the '80s and '90s. USWest hooked up with the CPB in 1995 in an online services project. In March 1995, PBS president Ervin Duggan proudly announced that PBS was teaming up with communications giant MCI to merge PBS programming with Internet, online and CD-ROM media services.

PBS was quick to point out that this was not the first joint venture with a commercial media company: Turner Home Video had paid a reported $20 million for the contract to distribute PBS videos, and Disney/Buena Vista had the right to air the children's program Bill Nye the Science Guy on commercial and public stations. NPR caught the Buena Vista bug as well: In 1997, it was reported that Buena Vista was negotiating with NPR to co-produce a TV version of the radio gameshow Wait, Wait . . . Don't Tell Me!, which was proposed to be sold to commercial television.

All historical evidence indicates that when commercial companies are involved with producing and distributing public broadcasting programs, they will reproduce the constrictions found in commercial broadcasting. There is already enough pressure on the system to choose programming that will attract member dollars. The more PBS and NPR rely on commercial tie-ins and merchandising, the more their programming will be determined by what is merchandisable.

The best example is the fate of This Old House, the well-known public broadcasting series on carpentry and home renovation. In March 1989, the program's original host, Bob Vila, was fired after a dispute with his producer over Vila's endorsement of commercial products. By 1996, however, the series itself was a commercial product. WGBH and Time Inc. had created This Old House magazine, a bimonthly publication with some 300,000 readers.

That was a first step toward marketing the program itself on commercial television stations, which WGBH and Time Warner began doing in the fall of 1996. An executive at Telepictures, a division of Warner Bros., explained the attraction of This Old House: "It's a 17 year brand that appeals to the most valuable, sought-after demographic- someone who owns his own home, has children and disposable income. That's the promised land for advertisers."


James Ledbetter is the media critic for The Village Voice. This piece is excerpted from his recent Verso book, Made Possible By . . . The Death of Public Broadcasting in the United States.

Media Control and Propaganda