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PBS’s Double Bind

There’s a phenomenon afoot that is increasingly evident this year—at Sundance, Real Screen, and beyond. Let’s call it producer fatigue; what was formerly indignation with PBS has morphed into simple dismissal. It seems so complicated, the thought goes, why work with public television at all? In a year when public television funding sources brought a majority of the documentaries to Sundance, when the PBS schedule has never seen so much space for independent work, when PBS documentaries once again led Emmy wins, it is ironic that the will to be a public television producer seems to be fading in some quarters.

It is most evident with a younger generation of producers who have never known a world without cable and who have no knowledge about how media systems have been structured in the US. That makes it hard for them to grasp the differences between Showtime, IFC, A&E, HBO/Cinemax, and, say, PBS. Why sweat the details?

Independents are not the only group confused about the opportunities public television can afford them. The government is dismissing the need for a public media system as well, perhaps because they don’t care to differentiate commercial offerings from noncommercial ones either. While the world is drawn into America’s ill-defined “war on terrorism,” the Bush administration continues to deal its budgetary death blows at home, and in February, PBS was once again on the chopping block for 2003 and 2004. John Lawson, head of PBS’s national lobbying organization, the Association of Public Television Stations, recently said in a meeting that PBS has not been under such a threat since Newt Gingrich, as speaker of the House, engineered the “Contract with America.” Then there was an all-out effort to defund public television and radio. This time, it’s a quiet revolution taking place under the cover of war, tucked into budgets and bills, so far with little public outcry.

In case you think the threat to the PBS as we know it isn’t serious, a February 2003 letter in response to Bush’s proposed 2003 budget, signed by executives of the entire system—PBS, NPR, APTS, and CPB—states it bluntly:

“The vast majority of CPB funds go directly to more than 1,000 local public radio and television stations. These cuts would hit them at an already difficult time, when they are eliminating programming and cutting other services due to the weakened economy and deep cuts in state funding. . . . This service is deeply threatened by this budget proposal, as is CPB’s investment in new national programming for TV and radio. In addition, this budget proposal makes no provision for advance funding, ending a twenty-nine-year tradition that has allowed public broadcasters leverage for raising nonfederal funding; adequate lead time to plan, design, create, and support the programs and services we are mandated to provide; and a buffer from the political process.”

The 2003 funding was restored after intense lobbying, but 2004 is still up for grabs. Political machinations aside, many newer producers are simply not getting PBS. Presenting recently at the Real Screen Summit this year in Washington, DC, I was struck by the number of producers who had never worked on a public television project. Friday morning, limited informational sessions were filled for Sundance, National Geographic, Discovery, HBO, and Court TV. I was one of four PBS icon series producers presenting in the afternoon closing session, and I wondered whether it, too, would be crowded. No worries there—it was a major panel and the room was full, but the first question was what I’d been hearing from producers from the entire summit: Why try? It was an odd echo of the current administration’s return to “why care?”

These trends are linked, I believe, in several ways—a primary one being the lack of an exciting and compelling language that is effectively disseminated in mainstream culture, setting PBS apart as a must-have for producers and politicians alike. The midcentury generation that crafted the inspiring institutionalization of public funding for public culture that so many have benefited from is passing. The language that ensured its vitality is being eroded by a steady drumbeat of commercialization and a political will to retreat from government support from anything but defense, commerce, and security. Informed critiques, thoughtful commentary, and good, questioning journalism are under fire, and myths of “liberal media bias” (see footnote below) abound to further discredit all efforts to bring anything like a democratic dialogue to bear on our society’s pressing issues.

Met with apathy from potential content suppliers and antipathy from government funders, it seems like PBS can’t get a break, like many other cultural and educational nonprofits. Spiraling state and federal deficits, a nasty recession, tax breaks geared for the top percentiles, massive military spending, and a virtual absence of informed debate about national values are conspiring to deprive the country of its hard-won cultural institutions. Disagreements about the quality and direction of public television decisions aside, it is a sure bet that if the PBS system were defunded tomorrow, there would be no way to gain the political traction necessary to create a new public media system as far-reaching as PBS is in this country. So if we want public media, or public anything for that matter, the time is now to make the case for the positive cultural impact, the incredible cost-effectiveness of nonprofit institutions in general—public television alone is only $1.09 per person per year in taxes—and at the same time, we need to push the PBS system we have to be better, bolder, and more relevant.

Producers are a key constituency for providing vitality to public television, which is why the system has to do a better job getting out the opportunities and advantages of working for public television. Congress provides fewer than twenty percent of the total funding for public television, but it is this critical seed money that leverages much of the rest, so the stakes are high. Without a tax-based revenue stream on the horizon (or something similar) to replace straight-out funding from Congress, public television is consigned to walk the tightrope of an increasingly mine-filled political landscape to meet Congressional approval.

Let’s not forget the good news mentioned at the outset, though. For producers looking for work, public television’s bureaucracy may seem daunting at first, but the opportunities are growing and the economics are better than they have ever been. Sure, it may be harder to find your way through public television than the one-stop shopping of HBO or A&E, but only if you believe it is just another network or cable outlet. It isn’t, and we should stop inviting the comparison. Of course PBS could be doing more adventurous programming, but in public affairs, history, independent documentary, and nature and science programming, PBS already excels. And it’s true that the economics aren’t always as lucrative as one might hope, but it is also true that acquisition fees and funding possibilities have never been higher systemwide, nor has the emphasis on finding meaningful, challenging stories instead of cookie-cutter formulas.

Simply put, the nonprofit arena is still the best place to do something you believe in. Commercial efforts do not prioritize values over profits as a matter of course. In general they alternately look for the next “big thing” or the next cheap thing. If we are lucky, they do “quality” on the side, as a reward for bringing in the dollars on most of the other programs. Public television and public culture strive in the opposite direction. There is no other place dedicated to the difficult and often contradictory propositions of democracy and a diversity of information. These concepts need to be nurtured, supported, and made available through our education systems, our libraries, our galleries, our concert halls, and our public television system. And that is the heart of the matter—Who pays for the fostering of a healthy cultural landscape? Because we all pay when it is absent.

This window to put back some of the muscle behind public funding may be brief, though. We have yet to see the worst of the impact from government budgets and policies that are being unveiled every day in the guise of things like homeland defense. Producers, like everyone involved in public television, need to understand the larger issues at play with public media. It’s a global question now, and if you want public television to work with you in the future, take some time to figure out the best way you can support it now. It’s not just an issue of your next film, it’s the future of media that’s at stake.

For more on media
bias, see Eric
Alterman’s recent
book, What Liberal
Media? The Truth
About Bias and the
News (Basic
Books, 2003).
See also: www.whatliberal
media.com.

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