PBS's Private Parts
Bit by bit, for-profit media companies are buying
into public broadcasting
by James Ledbetter
from Extra! media magazine, May / June 1998
Inspired by the deregulatory environment promoted by both
the Clinton administration and Congressional Republicans, the
American communications industry went through a delirious orgy
of mergers and acquisitions during the mid-l990s. In a single
month in 1995, three multibillion-dollar media mergers were announced:
Westinghouse and CBS joined forces, creating a massive network
of television and radio stations; Disney acquired Capital Cities/ABC,
becoming the world's largest media company; and Time Warner announced
that it would acquire Turner Broadcasting, an unprecedented marriage
of cable giants. The January 1996 passage of a sweeping telecommunications
"reform" bill removed -among other things-limits on
how many radio stations an individual company could own, effectively
putting a "For Sale" sign on every small radio station
in the country; a flurry of radio station sales ensued.
With television and radio giants freed for a massive shopping
spree, the assets of public broadcasting suddenly but inexorably
became prime real estate. Cable companies, which had heretofore
been more or less gentlemanly competitors, immediately became
predators, having off-the-record discussions with congressional
committee chairmen about "takeovers" of public broadcasting.
Discovery Communications, the company whose Discovery Channel
nature documentaries had made it one of public television's primary
"competitors," was in early 1995 talking about helping
PBS pick up the slack for programs such as Nova, should Congress
cut off federal funding-provided, of course, that they would be
shown on Discovery cable networks first.
Jamie Kellner, the president of the WB network, suggested
that public television stations could raise money for themselves
by selling blocks of primetime airtime to up-and-coming commercial
networks like his own. "I wouldn't want to see it end,"
Kellner said. "But I think the way to prevent the ending
is to be realistic about what you need, and what you need is a
Telephone companies, too, felt they could help themselves
to a slice of the public broadcasting pie. Sen. Larry Pressler
declared on a network talk show that he'd spoken to representatives
of Bell Atlantic, who'd generously offered to take the Corporation
for Public Broadcasting off the government's hands, as long as
it got bidding dibs on PBS's affiliate stations. "There are
a lot of companies that would love to buy CPB," Pressler
This takeover bid was bold to the point of silliness. Neither
CPB, PBS nor NPR holds the licenses of affiliated stations, and
therefore no national organization was positioned to sell public
broadcasting assets in any takeover, hostile or friendly.
Of course, a Republican Congress could theoretically remove
that limit, too, if it desired. In February 1996, Texas Congressmember
Jack Fields introduced what he called a public broadcasting "self-sufficiency"
act. Among its provisions was a section declaring that public
broadcasters would be "allowed to surrender" their licenses
to the FCC, and receive a portion of the proceeds. Since Fields
offered no evidence of a massive desire among public broadcasters
to "surrender" their licenses, many in public broadcasting
suspected that he was trying to secure a new area of the broadcast
spectrum where Bell Atlantic could try to stake its claim. Henry
Becton, president of Boston's WGBH, promptly dubbed Fields' proposal
a "self-destruction act."
The Public Beachhead
But the '90s flurry of corporate media acquisitions did involve
the purchase of major pieces of public broadcasting. The role
of commercial media companies in public broadcasting has evolved
well beyond the seed money of the '70s or the underwriting of
the '80s: They now use the public broadcasting system to promote
their own media products. In many cases, private media companies
have become some of the major profiteers of the nonprofit system.
As of 1996, there was almost no major American media company that,
in one manner or another, had not established a major beachhead
in public broadcasting.
While no comparative financial figures exist, the symbolic
leader of PBS privatization is certainly General Electric, producer
of nuclear plants and light bulbs; owner of the NBC network; and,
as of 1994, America's sixth-largest military contractor. General
Electric made a PBS star out of National Review columnist John
McLaughlin, who went on to host programs on General Electric's
CNBC channel. When NBC began airing The McLaughlin Group on some
of its affiliates, the average viewer could easily confuse PBS
and GE/NBC political programming.
Public radio seemed almost to celebrate the confusion; as
it crescendos behind the identification of corporate sponsors,
the theme song for Marketplace, public radio's nightly business
affairs program, merges into GE's familiar advertising jingle:
'We bring good things to life."
By 1992, the mingling of General Electric-owned media and
public television became an on-screen merger when the two networks
announced that they would team up to cover the Democratic and
Republican conventions. PBS president Bruce Christensen boasted:
"You get the news gathering of NBC plus the perspective Robin
[MacNeil] and Jim [Lehrer] give to those activities. It's a wonderful
match and marriage." Part of the wonderful marriage was cross-promotion
of convention coverage by both PBS and NBC, meaning that for the
first time, the system designed to provide an alternative to network
television provided free advertising for network television.
The primary service of growing information giant Bloomberg
is business stories and data, but as it expanded in the '90s,
it found a ready audience among news-starved public television
stations for end-of-the-hour, five-minute summaries of local news,
broadcast on split screens with market updates. Among the various
services displayed in a 1996 ad campaign, Bloomberg ads promoted
"business news," "information services" and-to
no noticeable outcry-"public broadcasting." Bloomberg's
New York facility also became the site where PBS host Charlie
Rose produced his nightly program, after he abandoned a studio
at New York's WNET. (Although the WNET studios were apparently
too expensive for Rose, WNET did lease a studio to The Montel
Indeed, Rose, who in the early '90s became one of the best-known
faces of adult public television, was by the mid '90s using public
television only as a distributor. His program was produced in
Bloomberg facilities, and underwritten by the USA Network, which
was jointly owned by communications giant Viacom and the MCA unit
PBS's most popular news feature, The NewsHour with Jim Lehrer,
is produced by the Washington-based MacNeil/Lehrer Productions,
which, in late 1994, sold two-thirds of itself to Liberty Media
Corp., a subsidiary of TCI, the country's largest cable provider.
TCI, which also holds a stake in Time Warner/Turner, is controlled
by media magnate John Malone, a man Al Gore once referred to as
"the Darth Vader of telecommunications." In his very
public 1995 defenses of PBS, Gore praised the NewsHour as one
"of the crown jewels of public broadcasting"; Gore did
not mention that Darth Vader now owned a majority of the jewel.
Revenge of the Merchandise
Telecommunications companies, too, are major players in the
world of public broadcasting. AT&T, which subsidized public
broadcasting even before the federal government did, was for several
years the primary underwriter of the NewsHour in the '80s and
'90s. USWest hooked up with the CPB in 1995 in an online services
project. In March 1995, PBS president Ervin Duggan proudly announced
that PBS was teaming up with communications giant MCI to merge
PBS programming with Internet, online and CD-ROM media services.
PBS was quick to point out that this was not the first joint
venture with a commercial media company: Turner Home Video had
paid a reported $20 million for the contract to distribute PBS
videos, and Disney/Buena Vista had the right to air the children's
program Bill Nye the Science Guy on commercial and public stations.
NPR caught the Buena Vista bug as well: In 1997, it was reported
that Buena Vista was negotiating with NPR to co-produce a TV version
of the radio gameshow Wait, Wait . . . Don't Tell Me!, which was
proposed to be sold to commercial television.
All historical evidence indicates that when commercial companies
are involved with producing and distributing public broadcasting
programs, they will reproduce the constrictions found in commercial
broadcasting. There is already enough pressure on the system to
choose programming that will attract member dollars. The more
PBS and NPR rely on commercial tie-ins and merchandising, the
more their programming will be determined by what is merchandisable.
The best example is the fate of This Old House, the well-known
public broadcasting series on carpentry and home renovation. In
March 1989, the program's original host, Bob Vila, was fired after
a dispute with his producer over Vila's endorsement of commercial
products. By 1996, however, the series itself was a commercial
product. WGBH and Time Inc. had created This Old House magazine,
a bimonthly publication with some 300,000 readers.
That was a first step toward marketing the program itself
on commercial television stations, which WGBH and Time Warner
began doing in the fall of 1996. An executive at Telepictures,
a division of Warner Bros., explained the attraction of This Old
House: "It's a 17 year brand that appeals to the most valuable,
sought-after demographic- someone who owns his own home, has children
and disposable income. That's the promised land for advertisers."
James Ledbetter is the media critic for The Village Voice.
This piece is excerpted from his recent Verso book, Made Possible
By . . . The Death of Public Broadcasting in the United States.
Control and Propaganda