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The Vanishing Vision: The Inside Story of Public Television.

James Day University of California Press, $29.95 By Lawrence K. Grossman

Reader Alert: This reviewer spent eight years (1976 to 1984) as president of the Public Broadcasting Service (PBS), pursuing James Day's "vanishing vision." My more or less turbulent PBS tenure is described in Day's book largely, though not entirely, in flattering terms.

Also in the interest of full disclosure, readers should be aware that my praise of this book appears on its back cover. It may be hard to imagine that a book detailing the many petty bureaucratic entanglements that have consistently plagued American public television could be of interest to the general reader. But James Day's The Vanishing Vision is. It's appealing and timely, a cautionary tale about what can go wrong in the public sphere when a system has no clear definition or mission. Is public television supposed to compete with the high-gloss commercial sector to provide a quality alternative? Or should it be a collection of grassroots outlets, with little central authority or overall vision?

PBS's basic problem is that it was built by people who knew almost nothing about television. They did not understand, for example, that the cost of a major series far exceeds what any local station can afford. When I came to PBS in 1976, the Corporation for Public Broadcasting (the funding arm of public TV) received millions in federal funds but bore no responsibility for the public television schedule. Meanwhile, PBS (the programming arm) was responsible for the national schedule but had no money to commission programs. The result was--and is--incessant internecine warfare.

Consider the case of "The MacNeil/Lehrer Report" (now the "Newshour with Jim Lehrer"). When I became PBS president, the show was being produced and broadcast by WETA in Washington and WNET in New York City. I suggested making it a national program--giving the show to other stations for free for six months in the hope that they'd eventually pay for it.

I thought this was a good plan. But the individual stations objected to what they saw as an encroachment on their autonomy. Not that they had a problem with "MacNeil/Lehrer." It was the fact that I recommended a specific program to local stations--as if the Secretary of Education urged all local schools to use a specific text.

Though "MacNeil/Lehrer" went forward it was a revealing moment. American public television was designed much like our school system--local outlets with little central authority. But viewers don't care about stations. They care about programs. And quality programs--such as "Sesame Street" or Ken Burns's "Civil War" or the authoritative "Vietnam: A History"--require more capital than any single station, or even a handful of stations, can muster. With commercial television aiming lower and lower--despite a multiplicity of channels and a few exceptional entertainment highlights, most television is more debased than ever--this country desperately needs TV that aims higher.

As Jim Day puts it, we need a medium "with respect for the intelligence of its viewers, willing to address its audience not just as consumers but as sentient human beings; a medium dedicated to offering the best because it is the best and not simply because it reaches the largest numbers inside the advertiser's demographic target."

Other countries have always recognized this need and have designed public broadcasting systems that fulfill it. hi this country, public TV and radio were an afterthought, constructed only after commercial outlets had become extraordinarily profitable and, not coincidentally, politically powerful. Even when leftover channels were finally reserved for noncommercial educational and public service use, no provisions were made to give them the money they needed to operate. To survive, American public broadcasters had to invent an often intrusive and occasionally embarrassing patchwork quilt of funding mechanisms. These include begging for public memberships, corporate and foundation underwriting, and federal, state, and local educational appropriations. It's true that having no single funder makes American public television less encumbered by political interference than any other nation's public system, including the BBC. But chronically inadequate funding has also left the system financially insecure.

As a result, America's public television time always has been filled with more than its share of British imports, which tend to be well produced and, like hand-me down suits, much cheaper to acquire than new shows. Once, when introducing a distinguished visitor from the BBC to a public television meeting, I cracked, "I can't imagine where American public television would be if the British didn't speak English." That remark attracted attention and, understandably, upset many of my colleagues. But the joke was all too true. As Day writes, "Public television's mission is not to add to the volume but to the quality, not by importing from abroad, and not by appropriating quality' commercial shows that lose out in the competitive drive for audience, but by creating new art, new ideas, new and different programs." American public television's record in achieving that mission is far less than it should be. We export Schwarzenegger but have to import "Prime Suspect."

Notwithstanding the recent demand of the Republican congressional majority to "privatize" public television, new telecommunications technologies offer fresh opportunities to revitalize the tired and inadequate public system. The internal conflict of PBS is that the airtime and money taken up by finely produced, restrained shows like "MacNeil/Lehrer" mean less experimental programming. That could dramatically change in an era of exploding technological advances. A public broadcasting service for the 21st century could be multi-channeled and interactive, connecting schools, universities, libraries, museums, and homes with quality programming, education, and civic information. With sufficient funds and channels, PBS could provide forums for citizen groups, as well as nationally broadcasted series such as "Civil War."

How to pay for this new, improved system? With money from spectrum auctions, license fees for the commercial use of public airwaves, satellite paths and cable monopoly franchises, and a tax on the mergers and acquisitions of companies that profit from the public's telecommunications resources. The FCC has already demonstrated that billions of dollars can be raised through spectrum auctions. Though some are moving to give away tens of billions of dollars worth of spectrum, that spectrum belongs to the public; it should be auctioned off, and some of the proceeds used to advance the, public good.

Equally important, as Jim Day points out, public television itself needs total reorganization and simplification. What money there is can be spent on quality programming and content rather than on overlapping, top-heavy organizations, stifling bureaucracy, and excess hardware. For example, the country has 50 percent more public TV stations than are needed to reach every American.

James Day, the idealist, is right. The vision cannot be allowed to vanish. In the new multi-channel world, we must reserve an important place for the best our civilization can provide. Lawrence K. Grossnian, author of The Electronic Republic: Reshaping Democracy in the Information Age, was president of the Public Broadcasting Service and NBC News.
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Author:Grossman, Lawrence K.
Publication:Washington Monthly
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Jan 1, 1996
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