The Cost of Survival

Public TV - less public, more corporate than ever

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 decades ago.

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 public interest.

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.

Corporate views

... 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 diet.

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 excluded.

... 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 the economy.

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 be unheard.

... 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 cultural issues.

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 work.

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 activists.

Censored subjects

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 women.)

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 percent).

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 defined arena.

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 sources appear.

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 television.

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 same format.

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.

Propaganda and Media Control