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
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
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
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.