Public Broadcasting Turns 50
The Breakthrough Commission Behind PBS and NPR
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In 1965, a high-powered team of academics, business leaders, and artists took on an unprecedented challenge: how to bring public television to American households. The 15-member commission worked closely with President Lyndon Johnson’s staff, including Bill Moyers, the legendary journalist who was his special assistant at the time.
“There was great enthusiasm about the unprecedented support to create the first non-commercial television channel at a time television had not fully come of age,” Moyers said. “We became a central part of the American consciousness and a valuable institution within our culture.”
“…miracles in communication are our daily routine...Today our problem is not making miracles—but managing miracles. We might well ponder a different question: What hath man wrought—and how will man use his inventions? The law that I will sign shortly offers one answer to that question.”
The work led to a landmark report titled Public Television: A Program for Action by the Carnegie Commission on Educational Television. It spurred the passage of the Public Broadcasting Act on November 7, 1967. The blueprint for public broadcasting on a national scale became reality with the establishment of the Corporation for Public Broadcasting (CPB)—the linchpin of the public-private partnership that sustains nearly 1,500 public television and radio stations today.
During the signing ceremony in the White House’s East Room, President Johnson spoke loftily about “enlightenment of all people” while commenting on the mind boggling pace of communications technology.
He acknowledged the work of those who helped create the Act, including John W. Gardner, Carnegie Corporation of New York’s former president, who was by then Secretary of Health, Education and Welfare; the Corporation’s president at the time of the ceremony, Alan Pifer; and James R. Killian Jr. of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, who chaired the commission. Killian had delivered passionate testimony before a Senate committee a few months earlier:
“We have attempted to design something that corresponds to American traditions and American goals, that can coexist amicably with commercial television, and that, together with commercial television, can meet the highest needs of our society.”
Fifty years later, public broadcasting faces many obstacles in the crowded media environment, but its creation offers some wise lessons about managing the potential of a new and powerful medium to serve the greater good.
As I sifted through the archives held by Carnegie Corporation of New York, I found research, private memos, and newspaper clippings that laid out the grand prospect of public broadcasting, along with all the hurdles.
Commission members made contact with all 124 educational TV stations operating at the time, visiting 92 of them in 35 states. Members even traveled to seven countries to study their television systems. In its report, published in January 1967, the commission issued 12 recommendations on setting up the CPB, outlining its relationship to local stations, and encouraging research on programming and television technology that should be done. The introduction to the first chapter reads:
“Television has been fashioned into a miraculous instrument. The opportunity is at hand to turn the instrument into best uses of American society, and to make it of new and increased service to the general public.”
Carnegie Corporation of New York gave seed money to the CPB, as did Ford Foundation, in addition to its pioneering work on a proposal to improve reception for public broadcasting stations through satellite technology. Commercial broadcasters also showed support. Frank Stanton, the president of CBS, sent a telegram to Killian praising the commission’s report and pledged $1 million for the CPB. Instead of treating the emerging public system as a competitor, Stanton said: “With [this $1 million check] go CBS’s best wishes for the immediate and lasting success of the Corporation in fulfilling the great promise public broadcasting holds for this nation.”
Today there are valid debates about the relevance of public broadcasting in an era of a countless commercial and nonprofit outlets. The country is also grappling with how to manage the Internet and the unprecedented flow of information—and misinformation—in the digital age. There are ongoing discussions about how to handle massive online platforms such as Facebook, Google and Twitter.
After all, it was PBS that broadcast all 250 hours of Watergate hearings when the commercial networks would not. It put children’s educational programming on the map with the groundbreaking Sesame Street show. NPR aired live coverage of Senate deliberations on the Vietnam War in its first broadcast. And more than four decades after its premiere, PBS NewsHour remains a staple among the evening news shows.
“Being able to figure out how to best utilize those platforms and not have them used for misinformation is something that’s hugely important and something we’re starting to see debated really seriously,” said Joseph Lichterman, a senior business associate at The Lenfest Institute for Journalism who has written about the history of public broadcasting. “The amazing thing about the Carnegie Commission 50 years ago is they recognized how powerful this relatively new medium of TV could be for the benefit of public good.”
Rick Edmonds, a media business analyst and leader of news transformation at the Poynter Institute for Media Studies, said nonprofit journalism is flourishing, and public TV and radio are partly to thank.
“I think it’s fair to say that the more established ones, like NPR and PBS, provided the models and the underpinning for doing the kind of work that commercial television and radio didn’t do as thoroughly and didn’t do as well,” he said.
Edmonds and others said the current administration’s attacks on the media, the proliferation of false and partisan news, and the ongoing threats to the public broadcasting budget have also made funders more interested in supporting quality nonprofit journalism.
Alberto Ibargüen, president and CEO of Knight Foundation, also credits PBS with helping start many commercial outlets. He said it is no coincidence that channels such as Discovery, History and National Geographic came after PBS, as they took a similar approach and commercialized it. As new platforms surface, public broadcasting offers an enduring lesson on credibility, he said.
“Yes, it is fallible because we are humans doing it, but it is also a system of producing news and information that checks and rechecks and tries to verify before it broadcasts, as opposed to a system that’s, ‘Here is a platform, say anything you want,’” says Ibargüen, a former PBS board chair.
Recognizing the shifting nature of technology and communications, a second Carnegie Commission was formed in 1977 to examine the future of public broadcasting. And in 2008, Carnegie Corporation of New York convened a meeting on public television and its transition into the digital age. Moyers and others said the 50th anniversary of the Public Broadcasting Act is an opportunity to reflect and assess how to move forward.
“How do we meet the growing and changing demands of a democracy that is far more diverse and far more polarized and far more politicized than it was when we started?” he said. “Our problems never differ much from the original ones, they just emerge in a different culture and different technology and a different social order.”
New York Times columnist James Reston wrote in 1967 that the Carnegie Commission’s report could well be recognized as “one of the transforming occasions in American life.” As we face another era of mind boggling communications miracles, this historic collaboration among the corporate, government and philanthropic sectors reminds us of the breakthroughs that such far-sighted partnerships can achieve in allowing creativity and opportunity to flourish.
Vesna Jaksic Lowe is a New York-based communications consultant and writer.