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What The Media Tell Americans About Free Enterprise

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September 1996


PBS: Already Commercial
Guest Editorial, by Laurence A. Jarvik

In all of the heated debate about privatizing public broadcasting, one observation has struck me most forcefully about PBS: It is a fact seldom commented upon that many PBS shows have had their roots firmly fixed in commercial soil from their inception. Many of public television's bestknown offerings are either transfers from the networks, adaptations from them (often using the same personnel), or purchases (on a commercial basis) from British television companies (including such forprofit competitors of the BBC as Thames Television).

The MacNeil-Lehrer Report, for instance, was produced by a team from NBC News and resembled the Huntley-Brinkley Report. Bill Moyers shuttled between PBS and CBS News. William F. Buckley's Firing Line had run on RKO General stations before moving to PBS. Frontline's first anchorwoman was NBC News' Jessica Savitch. The American Experience was headed by veteran Moyers' producers from CBS News. National Geographic specials were simply moved from CBS. Ken Burns' The Civil War was sponsored by General Motors.

Sesame Street was produced by the makers of CBS's Captain Kangaroo. British comedies like Monty Python's Flying Circus were sold profitably to individual stations, as were howto programs such as This Old House and The French Chef. Masterpiece Theatre and Mystery! were brought to PBS by the Mobil Corporation. The story of Milton Friedman's Free to Choose is a case study of how private sponsorship made possible a major PBS miniseries.

One could choose a different selection of programs to analyze, but it would be difficult to find truly excellent PBS fare which did not have some commercial connection. It is precisely these market forces which serve to improve the range, quality, and choice of programs on public broadcasting.

The extent to which public broadcasting had developed into a large, powerful, and wealthy establishment over the past three decades remained largely obscured from public view prior to 1992, when political deliberation over continued funding for the system began in earnest. As a result of the subsequent years of debate and disclosure there is now a bipartisan consensus in Washington that public broadcasting can be selfsupporting. In 1996 Congressman Jack Fields, chairman of the House Telecommunications Subcommittee, introduced what he called the "Public Broadcasting SelfSufficiency Act." Although I have opposed such a billiondollar final payment to the Corporation for Public Broadcasting (as a "trust fund"), no one has come forward to publicly argue against the principle of selfreliance.

Indeed, a January 1996 public opinion survey commissioned by CPB found broad support among the American public for PBS sales of videotapes and merchandise, commercials, retail stores, online computer services, and mailorder catalogs. Fiftyseven percent of those asked said, "The more sales the better." Eightysix percent agreed that "sponsorship announcements are okay because public broadcasting has to do something to raise money in the face of the decreased support from the federal government." That is, the public now accepts that educational and cultural programming on PBS can be successfully supported by private revenue streams.

A system which began with a $5 million appropriation for CPB in 1967 has grown over thirty years into a multibillion dollar worldwide multimedia empire. With over a thousand public radio and television stations, public broadcasting is now the largest network in the United States. When judged by the number of stations, National Public Radio, the Public Broadcasting Service, Pacifica, and Public Radio International are bigger than Fox, CBS, NBC, or ABC.

In addition to their on-air activities, public broadcasters publish magazines and newsletters; provide computer programs, online services, sites on the World Wide Web, study guides and textbooks; host conferences; license toys, games, and clothing; produce stage shows; sell products through mail order catalogs and retail stores; and distribute videocassettes and compact disks. From these activities a large industry has grown to parallel commercial broadcasting. And, just like other telecommunications giants, public broadcasting spends millions on public relations firms and lawyers to lobby Congress.

The political issue of "zeroing out" federal subsidies is no longer a matter of "if" but merely a matter of "when." For the evidence is clear and convincing: public broadcasting does not need tax dollars in order to do its job.

Dr. Jarvik is a cultural studies fellow at the Capital Research Center and the author of PBS: Behind the Screen, to be published in November by Prima Publishing.


Rich Noyes


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