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Stocks, bonds and Barney: how public television went private.

In the spring of 1992, as Congress reconsidered the funding of public broadcasting, Bob Dole shared a few choice words. "The liberals love it," he snapped on the floor of the Senate. "They have their own network. . . I have never been more turned off and more fed up with the increasing lack of balance and the unrelenting liberal cheerleading I see and hear on the public airwaves."

Hard to tell which PBS Dole has been watching. The network's handful of headline-grabbing episodes in the past few years has indeed been about documentaries deemed by conservatives too liberal to run. But as with "Tongues Untied," a treatment of black homosexuals, the result in dozens of cases was a speedy retreat in the face of right-wing pressure. (Over 200 of PBS's 351 stations declined to run "Tongues Untied.") Meanwhile, gradually and with less fanfare, a decidedly un-liberal trend has developed: Corporations are underwriting more and more public programming. The results are a proliferation of the kinds of shows that a Republican Minority Leader, and, more frequently, anyone playing the stock market, might just stay home to watch.

PBS has been using its sizable viewer-ship - a 2 to 5 percent share of the Nielsen ratings - to lure companies into sponsoring programs. The network is too poor to fund any shows in toto, but corporate underwriting - up 22 percent in the past year - comes with a variety of built-in catches. Last year, for instance, Texaco pulled its funding from the "Great Performances" series the week before it was to air "The Lost Language of Cranes," a drama about gays. IBM had a near-valiant go at corporate conscientiousness a few years ago and agreed to put up $2 million for a series the Audubon Society had developed on environmental hazards, but Big Blue backed away before any episodes could be filmed. Why? Although IBM had a clean enough pollution record, the same could not be said of dozens of its clients. "The Machine That Changed the World," on the other hand, a series about computers, was paid for in part with $1.9 million from Unisys. Turns out Unisys evolved from the company profiled in the series' first episode.

By underwriting public TV, corporate entities can go beyond hawking products to espousing the economic models a corporation, by nature, favors. Corporate interests are more likely to promote management over labor, free manufacturing over regulatory laws, and certain tax policies like investment tax credits and a capital gains tax cut. The business programming on PBS - shows like "Wall $treet Week with Louis Rukeyser," Adam Smith's Money World," and "The Nightly Business Report" - is subtly anti-labor and anti-tax, undoubtedly due in no small part of the fact that all three of PBS's regular business shows are heavily financed by corporations.

In a single week's worth of watching "The Nightly Business Report " early this summer, you would have seen, to list but a few examples: guest analyst Beryl Sprinkel suggesting how the rejection of Bill Clinton's stimulus package would achieve Clinton's economic goals of promoting growth and cutting the deficit; Nikko Securities economist Robert Brusca dismissing Clintonomics as "detrimental and in fact hostile to job growth"; and a spot on how government effort s to crack down on money laundering have only served to over-regulate the banking and auto industries.

But over that time, not one defense of Clinton's proposal to raise taxes was given by anyone other than a Clinton official or a congressional Democrat. One program skipped the pros and cons of the issue altogether and was instead devoted entirely to illuminating the loopholes in existing estate tax.

PBS, a few weeks earlier, had aired Adam Smith's lament for the over-regulat ed drug industry which Smith sympathetically describes as "punch-drunk" before intoning: "Pharmaceuticals - this is a high-tech, high-wage industry. It's creating jobs in America. But the drug companies are under attack. Their stocks have nosedived. Where's the attack coming from? No, not from the Japanese or the Germans, but Washington."

"Wall $treet Week's" host, Louis Rukeyser, peppers his investment advice with watch-your-wallet quips throughout the program. In the same weeks during which the above episodes ran, you could have tuned in to catch references to "our tax-hungry politicians," and "Washington... [where] folks apparently have a thirst for taxing everything from income to output." A reference to Jurassic Park led to the jibe that "we have creatures in unions and management who haven't had an original thought in at least 65 million years."

And on June 18 came a 5-minute address to Clinton, pretending to advise the President on how to succeed in the private sector:

Mr. President ... even though you were, in fact, a hard-working, relatively low earner all the years up to now, the minute you started bringing in the bigger bucks in the private sector, some crazy politician would probably start talking about you as if you had been a permanent member of that hated class, the rich ... Why, some nutty guy is even likely to start taking potshots at you as one of those who had some kind of obscene party in the eighties when the rest of the country supposedly suffered and who therefore needs to be hit with every kind of punitive new tax they can think of. Plus 10 percent.

Of course, nobody watching a show on how to invest money wants to be told to pay more taxes. Still, public television evidences a less than populist conceit by running three such programs, what with only 2 percent of the country's population trading a stock more than five times a year, according to a 1986 Federal Reserve Board study. In fact, only 4 percent of American families own bonds, a mere 3 percent have trusts, and well over half don't even have a savings account. For the 43 percent that do, the average worth is only $1,500.

Public television is such a willing host to business TV, of course, because the business shows are cheap; they receive near-total corporate funding, usually from financial firms. But what about programs geared toward the workforce? There's nothing at the national level right now, save one show. "We Do the Work," a magazine series about laborers, and it airs on only 40 stations nationwide. A City University of New York study completed in 1989 found that nine times the amount of PBS programming focused on the upper classes than "addressed the lives and concerns of workers as workers."

It's not because labor's alliens aren't trying. In 1980, when labor unions offered to provide seed money or "Made in USA," a series about working people's history - not about labor unions - PBS told union representatives their sponsorship constituted a conflict of interest and would be grounds for not airing the shows. Asked how the situation differed from that of "Wall $treet Week" - funded at the time by Prudential-Bache - PBS's then-president Larry Grossman told The New York Times: "There's a difference between an underwriter with a general interest in the program's subject and one with a specific interest in it." In other words, a financial company has a general interest in finance, but a labor union has a specific interest in labor. Hmmmm.

PBS eventually conceded to the union, but not without limiting labor contributions to .3 percent of the series' projected budget. So where to go for the money? "It's pretty near impossible to get a corporation to underwrite a labor program," says Gordon Quinn, an award-winning producer who has peddled several ideas for labor-oriented shows, "and going straight to PBS for money is sort of a hopeless cause. The answer you usually get is, |We already did something on labor this year.'''

Perhaps PBS doesn't see any value in pumping money into something so downmarket as labor unions. "Our demographic is higher-income than any of the commercial networks," boasts PBS corporate spokesman Stu Kantor.

Not by much, it turns out - 22.2 percent of public-TV household earned $60,000 a year or more, compared to the 19.3 percent of the overall-TV market. Still, an image PBS is intent on cultivating. Jan Wilson, director of corporate support for PBS, wrote an article last winter in the Advertiser, a trade magazine put out by the Association of National Advertisers, entitled "Public Television: How it Can Fit Into Your Marketing Plan." She wrote that she was able to convince Lexus to underwrite the series "Travels" because "it knew its principal market would be people who are affluent, sophisticated, and active." "Masterpiece Theater" was actually the brainchild of the Mobil p.r. chief Herb Schmerz, who set out to create the series as an advertising forum for his company. It was underwriting like this that earned PBS the tag "Petroleum Broadcasting Service." The Schmerz legacy lives on in the form of those 30-second "underwriter-ID spots" which made an end run around PBS's "no advertising" rule and now punctuate most programs.

PBS isn't entirely to blame for this corporate invasion. "It was a matter of survival," admits John Wicklein, a former administrator of the Corporation for Public Broadcasting. Indeed, when a public-sector organization gets less than one-fifth of its budget from Congress, the odds are strong that it'll have to cozy up to corporate America. So is complete congressional appropriation the answer? No, because that would leave PBS hostage to the very government good journalism is supposed to monitor. As it stands, public television has more than once been held to this constraint. Remember "The Lawmakers"? In 1982, the series profiling members of Congress was nearly pulled from scheduling because of its slavishness. But the members themselves, particularly Tip O'Neill and Stephen Solarz, lobbied the Corporation for Public Broadcasting to keep the show on the air.

What's needed is a trust fund, untouchable by Congress or any presidential administration. The money could come from taxing American households for each television set in use (a la the British system), or charging local broadcasting stations for their use of the airwaves, in effect collecting the licensing fee that has forever been waived by Congress, but which could raise as much as $1 billion a year. Both ideas have been kicking around Washington for years, but to no avail. "There's not one member of Congress who sees public broadcasting as a cause within his or her own constituency," says Jack Willis, the station director of Minneapolis's public station, KTCA, and a former PBS executive. "So there's nobody on our side." But by counting more and more on big money, public television remains wedded to a remarkably narrow, upper-middle class market. And there's nothing very "public" about that.
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Title Annotation:corporate sponsorship of PBS programming
Author:Konigsberg, Eric
Publication:Washington Monthly
Date:Sep 1, 1993
Words:1766
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