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Public Broadcasting.

The Oxford Companion to United States History
Anthony HarkinsAnthony Harkins

Public Broadcasting. 

Throughout their history, public radio and television have struggled to survive in a minimally regulated broadcasting system dominated by commercial interests. Although educational radio stations airing instructional programming were prevalent in the 1920s, their numbers plummeted in the 1930s in the face of economic hard times and powerful national commercial radio networks. The limited federal regulatory legislation of the interwar years, primarily the Communications Act of 1934 that established the Federal Communications Commission (FCC), made no explicit provision for educational and nonprofit stations.

This situation remained largely unchanged for the next thirty years despite the FCC's reservation of a small number of radio bands and television channels for nonprofit stations. Then, in 1966, spurred by the FCC's failure to diversify commercial television and reflecting the spirit of President Lyndon B. Johnson's Great Society initiatives, a report by the Carnegie Commission on Educational Television on the state of public broadcasting led to the most significant event in the history of the medium: the passage of the Public Broadcasting Act of 1967. To address congressional concerns about the dangers of both political interference and the creation of a “fourth network,” the legislation established a highly decentralized structure under which the newly formed Corporation for Public Broadcasting (CPB) would allocate federal grants to separate national associations of noncommercial television and radio stations—incorporated in 1969 as the Public Broadcasting Service (PBS) and National Public Radio (NPR). These associations would in turn coordinate interconnection among their member stations.

Over the following three decades, federal funding, the number of stations, and the audience for public programming all grew substantially, and the medium solidified its position in American culture. Many programs attracted a large and loyal audience including public radio's news feature All Things Considered and Garrison Keillor's variety show A Prairie Home Companion; PBS's educational and witty children's show Sesame Street; the British drama import Masterpiece Theatre; the science series Cosmos and Nova; and Eyes on the Prize, the 1987 series documenting the history of the civil rights movement. Charged with the sometimes contradictory mandate of providing unique, high-quality, and diverse programming to the most varied audience possible while maintaining strict objectivity and balance, public broadcasting faced increasing criticism from both the political left and right. From the left came charges that women and minorities were underrepresented, that programming catered too much to an elite audience, and that the system had become overly reliant on corporate underwriters. Conservatives complained that the CPB and public-broadcasting networks were overly centralized bureaucracies that reflected a liberal, even left-wing bias and used federal funds to glorify aberrant social practices. The conservative critique came to a head in 1995 when the Republican-controlled Congress called for the phased-in elimination of all federal funding for public broadcasting. However, a widespread show of support (particularly for the beloved Sesame Street) defeated this effort.

In the heyday of the major networks' almost exclusive control of the airwaves, public broadcasting clearly provided innovative and influential children's, cultural, and public-affairs programming that was otherwise unavailable. Although public television and radio continued to provide moments of national cultural import, such as Ken Burns's 1990 documentary series The Civil War, in the far more diverse and expansive communication environment at the turn of the century, its future remained unclear.

See also Journalism.


John Witherspoon and Roselle Kovitz, The History of Public Broadcasting, 1989.Find this resource:

    Marilyn Lashley, Public Television—Panacea, Pork Barrel, or Public Trust?, 1992.Find this resource:

      Anthony Harkins