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Public Television in the United States of America: Evolution, Institutions, Issues and Relevance to India
The theory and process of mass communication has always been concerned with one crucial issue-how can media and its technologies serve democratic and culturally pluralistic societies? If we believe that pluralistic media are fundamental to the value system of such societies, the exercise of the freedom of speech and expression will entail a sacrosanct condition.
The theory and process of mass communication has always been concerned with one crucial issue-how can media and its technologies serve democratic and culturally pluralistic societies? If we believe that pluralistic media are fundamental to the value system of such societies, the exercise of the freedom of speech and expression will entail a sacrosanct condition. This being that the individual is able to obtain information that is significant to him or her culturally, created by the community and independent of those in power.
THE PURPOSE OF PUBLIC SERVICE BROADCASTING
Public service broadcasting, as it originated in Europe, was created to serve the above goals. The ideal has been to provide citizens with electronic media that would be independent of both government and economic control. Such broadcasting has always emphasised the significance of public control reflected in the fact that it is accountable to the audience in a way in which the commercial media are not even though they are popular. Such broadcasting is also based upon the concept of an active and self-fulfilling human being. It has traditionally been given the mandate to produce programming with informative, educative and also entertaining content. Therefore, it has been expected to meet the needs of the various facets of the personality in a balanced way so as to provide a whole image of the individual.
The concept of public service broadcasting developed late in the history of US radio and television. Indeed, the public service notion has been institutionalized only marginally in the United States at a low level of social, political and material support. As Raymond Williams once argued, American public broadcasting has been added only “as a palliative to the weakness and contradictions of the heavily dominant private commercial system.” In fact, it had never had the centrality to the American culture and politics that it had in Britain, in virtually all Western European and Scandinavian nations and in several other countries (including Canada, Australia, New Zealand and Japan).Though, in most of these countries such broadcasting is being challenged on various ideological, economic and technological grounds, it remains at the centre of their cultural and communication policy debates.
For instance, the introduction of new delivery systems especially the cable television system, direct broadcast satellite and lately the digital multimedia have greatly increased(nationally and globally) not only the availability of program sources but also possibilities of convergence. This has weakened the argument for a public service broadcast system that itself was a response to the public interest principle rooted in the reality of limited spectrum space. Similarly, the move towards
a global economy and the deregulation of the communication industry as a precursor to the international trade of products and services has awakened a private sector previously blocked from a significant market entry. Despite the above trends, public service broadcasting is still the sine quanon of the national electronic media experiences abroad. However, in the United States all the increase in financial support, station numbers, program sources and distribution means, public broadcasting remains an innovative, dynamic yet minor feature of American mass media and hence the entire socio-political discourse.
A PERMISSIVE SYSTEM
Before we explore the business model structured and being operated for public television in USA to enable us to delineate the critical issues involved, it is pertinent to make a mention of the controlling philosophy. The controls that nations impose on electronic media reflect the government’s attitude towards its own people. The electronic media in the US provide the classic example of a predominantly permissive system. The Constitution of the land encourages free enterprise and makes freedom of communication an article of faith. Though, many other countries deplore American commercialism because it focuses almost exclusively on what the people ‘want’ rather than on what the critics, experts, government and religious leaders think they ‘need’.
During the emergence of popular mass audience radio broadcasting in the 1920’s, there were few doubts about the public interest adequacy of private commercial forms of control and use. The ideology of a progressive, socially responsible private enterprise economy was the driving force. There was such optimism about the positive values of commercial forms of popular communication that, throughout the decade of the 30’s, there was little support for fashioning radio under any other structure. The assumption remained that, there was such considerable identity between private and public interests in broadcasting, as in the thought of eighteen century libertarianism, the best services would emerge in a largely unfettered private enterprise.
Occasionally, doubts were expressed about such prospects and there were explicit attempts to develop alternative, non-commercial radio services typically under the auspices of educational, religious, labour or municipal government institutions. But these attempts were at such odds with the predominant worldview that they remained relatively ineffective during the 30’s when the basic structure of American broadcasting was being erected. As a result The Radio Act of 1927 made no provision for supporting or developing non-commercial broadcasting and much of the work of the new Federal Radio Commission (FRC) also militated against the few existing public service efforts.
Indeed, the public service organizations abroad tended to be seen and dismissed in the US as “state broadcasting”. It remained an article of faith that
whatever weakness there was in the US setup could be overcome in time through AN enlightened, public spirited private broadcasting leadership, a moderated FCC(Federal Communication Commission) oversight and the introduction of yet another newer electronic technology.
ARRIVAL OF TELEVISION
In the above light, it is clearer why US television also proceeded on the line of development, which patterned after radio, provided only a small space for formal public service institutionalization. However, to its academic, philanthropic, state educational and private high cultural constituencies, non-commercial television was more exciting as compared to educational radio and therefore from the outset it did attract more substantial support locally and nationally. But as before, the fundamental belief through the 50’s and 60’s,was indeed, that any failures that might emerge in the commercial realm could be corrected by appeals to private broadcasters’ conscience, gentle regulatory coercion and an ETV (Educational TV) service supported at minimal levels, largely by local interests, universities and state authorities.
SETTING UP OF CPB AND PBS
The weaknesses of the commercial adequacy assumption were sufficiently apparent by the late 1960’s and resultantly federal policy for broadcasting began to institutionalize certain adjustments. Federal support now moved beyond providing just reserved frequencies to fund a few forms of instructional programming (1958) and the construction of non-commercial facilities (1962).Besides, in the mid 1960’s the Carnegie Foundation, a non-profit organization, stepped into the picture and set up the Carnegie Commission on Educational Television (CCET).In its watershed 1967 report the Commission proposed that the Congress establish a national “corporation for public television”.
The report deliberately used the word public rather than educational to disassociate its proposals from what many had come to regard as the “somber and static image” projected by the existing ETV services. It also chose the word public to emphasize its recommendation for an inclusive service embracing not only formal instruction and classroom television but also a broad cultural/informational service intended for the public.
The Public Broadcasting Act 1967, thus, lead to the creation of a powerful national level superstructure, including the Corporation of Public Broadcasting (CPB) , the Public Broadcasting Service (PBS) and National Public Radio (NPR); a
proliferation of public stations; stronger regional activities and more hours of national programming. The licensee governance was broadened to include a wide range of citizenry-leaders and representatives of an expanding realm of professional and social interests. These changes were further accelerated after the 1967 Public Broadcasting Act which introduced additional federal funding and attracted attention to non-commercial television as a national enterprise, a public broadcasting “system” as contrasted to the private network-affiliate system.
PBS OPERATIONS AND LOCAL AUTONOMY
What is however worth mentioning is the fact that CPB itself does not operate or manage stations. The Congress had emphasized that the stations should retain local autonomy remaining free to select any schedule programs according to local needs. The last thing the Congress wanted to create was a centralized federal broadcaster. Further, commercial experience had shown that a network needed a strong identity that could come only from a uniform program schedule. But station licensees, zealous to protect their local identity, operating under varied ownership and funding patterns resisted a national network. As a means of continuing service, while the philosophical debate continued, PBS program selection from the 1974 to 1990 occurred through a complicated mechanism called, “Station Program Cooperative” wherein member stations voted for programs that they would carry and finance. In 1990, however, the SPC was dissolved and all programming decisions were centralized with the PBS.
This happened probably because stations nearly always voted and paid for programs successful in the past, rarely investing dollars in new ideas.
Despite the existence of a national programming service, it is interesting to observe, that the public television stations vary enormously in size, resources, goals, philosophy and actually possess functional as well as creative autonomy. Thus, though all are licensed by the FCC as “non-commercial educational”, some flirt with commercialism and many play no discernable formal educational role at all. Amongst the four classes of owners holding public stations, states and municipalities hold about 40% of the licenses, colleges and universities own about 25%, public school boards’ hold about 3% and community foundations control a third of the outlets.
The latter are non-profit foundation licensees created especially to operate non-commercial stations. They recruit support from all sectors-schools, colleges, art organizations, businesses and the public. Usually free of obligations to local tax sources, they tend to be politically more independent than stations that depend for revenue on local or state dollars. Among the best known community stations, because they produce much of what appears on PBS, are WETA in Washington, KQED in San Francisco, KCET in Los Angeles and WGBH in Boston.
ISSUE I: FUNDING
What one deduces from the above are two important issues and their implications for the system in operation. Compared to those in many other countries, public television stations in US are woefully funded on a per person basis. For every tax dollar allocated to public broadcasting in US, the governments of Britain and Canada fund their BBC and CBC services respectively with about $25 and Japan’s
NHK public network receives about $15 in government funding per person served. Infact, in the beginning of 1980’s, tax based sources in the US provided more than two-thirds of all revenue and in the 1990’s it represented less than half and has remained constant at that level. CPB appropriations as a source of funding have remained at 15%.
However, federal appropriations and other grants trickle down only when television stations match federal grants. Actually the desperate scramble to match federal grants forces local fund raisers to push memberships/subscription drives to the saturation point (which is infact a strong point of the business model followed).These include both, locally and nationally, selling commercial rights to market merchandise associated with programs, selling newly produced programs to commercial television or pay cable, renting station facilities, selling books, videotapes to viewers etc. Besides, nearly 25% of the public television’s revenues come from individual viewers and listeners.
Thus, the public stations are modelled to generate revenue as well as strive to reach out to the community in their respective markets. However, federal and state funding uncertainties make it difficult for the stations to meet bigger financial commitments like the current deadline for conversion to digital broadcasting. The
Association of Public Television Stations estimates that the conversion costs for its members collectively will exceed $1.7 billion (a sum that public stations do not have on hand as compared to their network-affiliate counterparts.
ISSUE II: PROGRAMMING CHOICES AND NEW TECHNOLOGY
The second important issue is of program source and its interface with new technology.A few major market stations act as primary producers for the PBS. In the 1990’s they provided more than a third of national programming, with another 10% or so coming from lesser public television stations. Stations such as WGBH, Boston have long histories of creative innovations in science, documentary and drama presentations. Locally produced programs consist of mainly news and public affairs along with some educational/instructional material telecast during the daytime hours for in-school use. For instance, “The News Hour with Jim Lehrer” has consistently been acclaimed as one of public TV’s best news and information programs. PBS provides a steady diet of other public affairs programs as well including “Washington Week in Review”, “Nightly Business Report”, “Wall Street Week” and “Frontline”. Occasionally, documentaries attract viewers who do not normally watch non-commercial services. This category is exemplified by “The Civil War”, an 11 hour 1991 series that won widespread praise and viewership and helped sell thousands of copies of a companion book /videotapes of the series, proceeds from which helped meet the program’s production cost.
All the performing arts-drama, dance, music find a home in public television. Among the evening programs, “Masterpiece Theatre” is probably the best known. Music and dance appear regularly on three PBS programs that began in the mid-70
and are still growing strong-“Great Performances” (1974); “Austin City Limits” (1975) and “Live from Lincoln Centre” (1976). Public broadcasting has a clear mandate to provide constructive, imaginative children’s programs. The Children’s Television Workshop (CTW) created “Seasme Street”, a wonderfully original show of large scale puppets. No series, on either commercial or public television, has ever been given so much scheduled airtime as has Seasme Street which has now achieved a classic status as the pre-eminent program for preschoolers. Besides, since 1977 CPB has funded more than 20 instructional television (ITV) series for use in class rooms.
A common argument heard these days is that the development of alternative media, especially cable, has weakened the major rationale for such programming on public television. Programs for children, good drama, science and history once the exclusive domain of public broadcasting, now appear on several cable networks delivered via DBS as well as the cable systems. The counter argument, ofcourse, is that these newer distribution technologies are subscription based and many people who might otherwise want these services cannot afford them. Even now 98% of the US population is still accessible to at least one over-the-air public television signal. Further, audience research shows that five times as many people watch PBS primetime programs as watch The Discovery Channel and seven times more see PBS than A&E; two of the most often cited channels offering PBS like programming.
But it is evident, that cable, DBS , internet competition and the increasingly widespread use of VCR’s, DVD’s and CD-ROM’s for educational material make the public broadcasters more aware each passing day. They have to now constantly
review the role they will play as one of the providers of many viewer choices in an environment centred on localism, diversity and universal access. Though, it goes without saying that American citizens are indeed accustomed to getting entertainment and information over the air at no additional direct expense once they purchase a receiver. Public broadcasting’s appeal as a “free” service is strong, and for many citizens, any delivery system charging a subscription fee is comparatively less attractive.
DIGITIZING PUBLIC TELEVISION IN INDIA
India’s public broadcaster Doordarshan (DD) is currently witnessing the greatest challenge, in a fast globalizing domestic television market, with aggressive competition from satellite-to-cable channels like Star TV, CNN, and ESPN etc. With a nation wide terrestrial broadcasting set up that reaches an estimated 479 million viewers, there is an urgent need to set achievable goals, to adopt digital broadcasting and make a smooth transition into a multichannel and interactive future.
In a universe of multi-system cable operators and direct-to-home (DTH) satellite initiatives by the private broadcasters like Zee Telefilms (offering many dozens of program channels), public television stations (called ‘kendras’) and their national network in DD could be approaching the “information superhighway” at a distinct technological disadvantage. Interestingly, with digital video compression technologies the concept of “channels” may disappear altogether in future as viewers would have the option to select from menus of programs sorted by content (sitcom, drama, nature etc) than source (DDI, DDII etc).
In the above context, the envisaged setting up of a Communication Commission of India on the lines of FCC in the United States of America would provide an integrated regulatory regime to enable the only terrestrial public broadcaster in India to imbibe two way communication services well in time of its competitors. Two ways interactivity is a major growth area in the new century and would be made possible by converting from an analog to digital transmission, storage and distribution technology. It would also involve convergence of television and internet to increase viewer’s potential for greater participation. This would entail the public television stations in India to develop innovative business models in their respective market areas, involving perhaps, strategic partnerships with private competitors in self-financing mechanisms, participative programming and time bound use of the above mentioned multi-media technologies.
The core goal of public service broadcasting has always been to promote diversity and nurture genuine freedom of choice. Therefore, the increase in choice made possible by digitization of information and consequently distribution capacity in broadcasting holds the future for the citizens’ enlightenment in a multichannel world. India’s public broadcaster has to cease this opportunity before it is too late, to successfully fulfil the communication requirements of a culturally diverse and geographically large democratic polity. The launching of DD (direct-to-home) on December, 16th, 2004 for 33 television channels is a step in the right direction.
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5. Korzick Garmer, Amy & Firestone, Charles M. (Editors) (1998), Digital Broadcasting and the Public Interest, Washington, Aspen Institute Publication.
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