In March 1966, Massachusetts Senator Edward Kennedy received a letter from a nine-year-old constituent.
“I would like it very much if you would ask the Massachusetts Government to give some money to Channel Two,” she wrote, referring to WGBH, Boston’s non-commercial television station. “It does not get enough money because it doesn’t have advertisements. Channel Two might like to get some money from the government as long as the government will not tell Channel Two what to say.”
WGBH was one of the most well-funded stations in the country, producing hours of original programming. While there were a handful of other stations similar to WGBH, most areas of the country weren’t served by such robust non-commercial broadcasters.
Kennedy wrote back, saying that WGBH was already receiving some federal funding and promising that “the Federal government is able to assist the educational television facilities across the country without limiting or restricting their programming.” What he didn’t mention was that there was already a major effort underway to totally overhaul the country’s public television network.
Beginning in late 1965, the 15-member Carnegie Commission on Educational Television had been working began work to assemble a report that studied the state of noncommercial television and proposed mechanisms to improve the system with increased funding, improved technology, and revamped programming.
There was an “urgent need to project the requirements for the future if we are to meet educational, social and cultural demands. This will call for recommendations on not only the facilities and finances of educational television, but also the manpower and organization,” President Lyndon B. Johnson wrote in November 1965 in a letter to the board’s chair, former MIT president James R. Killian Jr.
Their work culminated in a report, “Public Television: A Program For Action,” which addressed the challenges Johnson raised. Released 50 years ago this week, the document became the foundation for what would become the Public Broadcasting Act of 1967, which was signed into law that November. That legislation established the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, which led to the creation of both PBS and NPR. (The Carnegie Commission was solely focused on TV; financing for public radio was a last-minute addition to the legislation.)
It is no small irony that, exactly 50 years later, the Trump administration is reportedly planning to eliminate public funding for the Corporation for Public Broadcasting. The commission’s report had called for a ongoing funding mechanism — a tax on the purchase of every new TV set — that would protect public broadcasters from political battles in Washington. That recommendation didn’t make it into the final legislation, and CPB, PBS, and NPR have over the years become frequent political targets, primarily for Republicans. It’s a long way from Johnson’s Great Society to the Trump administration — but it’s worth looking back half a century at the forces that animated and informed the rise of today’s public media system.
The Boston philanthropist Ralph Lowell, considered the founding father of WGBH, initially proposed the idea for a commission in 1964 and was instrumental in organizing it. It was only three years after Federal Communications Commission chairman Newt Minow had given his famous “vast wasteland” speech, which summed up some of the anxiety surrounding the still relatively new medium:
When television is good, nothing — not the theater, not the magazines or newspapers — nothing is better. But when television is bad, nothing is worse. I invite each of you to sit down in front of your own television set when your station goes on the air and stay there, for a day, without a book, without a magazine, without a newspaper, without a profit and loss sheet or a rating book to distract you. Keep your eyes glued to that set until the station signs off. I can assure you that what you will observe is a vast wasteland.
The commission — which included then-current or former presidents of Harvard, MIT, and Cal Tech; business and union leaders; and artists such as the author Ralph Ellison and concert pianist Rudolf Serkin — met for its first meetings on December 17, 1965, and it began to grapple with how it could grow a non-commercial television system that until then was mostly an exchange of pre-recorded educational programming.
Lowell — of the Boston Brahmin Lowells — addressed that first meeting of the Carnegie Commission and starkly described what confronted the assembled group.
“We have in this country right now, two systems for using television,” Lowell said. “One the commercial, is huge, powerful, enormously well financed. It has vast technical capacity, superb equipment, endless energy. The other, the educational is relatively puny, ineffectual, and financially undernourished. It is all too often lacking in people, in leadership and in drive.”
Throughout 1966, the commission conducted surveys, commissioned studies, and received feedback from more than 225 individuals and groups. Its members traveled to 92 stations in 35 states as well as broadcasters in seven foreign countries, including Japan, Germany, and the U.K.
The work of the commission, which was funded by the Carnegie Corporation of New York, established much of the public-broadcasting ethos that still underpins the programming and journalism PBS, NPR, and other public broadcasters produce today. It even came up with the phrase “public television” itself. (Other ideas considered: General Television Service, TV One, and Standard TV.)
By developing a centralized corporation, the commission was able to support the creation of standardized national programming as well as local stations across the country to better cover their communities while creating programs to educate and inform their local viewership:
Public Television programming can deepen a sense of community in local life. It should show us our community as it really is. It should be a forum for debate and controversy. It should bring into the home meetings, now generally untelevised, where major public decisions are hammered out, and occasions where people of the community express their hopes, their protests, their enthusiasms, and their will. It should provide a voice for groups in the community that may otherwise be unheard.
Public Television programs can help us see America whole, in all its diversity. To a degree unequaled by any other medium, Public Television should be a mirror of of the American Style. It should remind us of our heritage and enliven our traditions. Its programs should draw on the full range of emotion and mood, from the comic to the tragic, that we know in American life. It should help us look at our achievements and difficulties, at our conflicts and agreements, at our problems, and at the far reach of our possibilities. Public Television programs should help us know what it is to be many in one, to have growing maturity in our sense of ourselves as a people.
In the end, the commission called for the creation of a Corporation for Public Television, a publicly funded nonprofit that could support local stations and fund programming. It advocated investments in technology to enable nationwide live broadcasts and connect the distant stations into a coherent system.
Those stations that became the system’s building blocks mostly traced their roots back to educational broadcasters based at universities and other educational institutions.
“Here in Wisconsin, where I am, public broadcasting in radio and later television had existed for 50 years. It was part of university extension. That’s where educational radio began, with extension services at universities,” University of Wisconsin professor Jack Mitchell told me. Mitchell was NPR’s first employee, a producer for All Things Considered.
“It wasn’t everywhere, but throughout the midwest — Wisconsin, Illinois, Minnesota, Ohio State — that’s where the center of educational broadcasting had been, and it was really a university-based thing from the early 1920s through 1967,” Mitchell said. “Part of the point of the Carnegie Commission was to pull it out of a strictly educational background and make it more of a public service.”
By the 1960s, financial support for educational broadcasting was haphazard. Foundations — particularly the Ford Foundation — supported broadcasting, and stations also received a mix of funding from various levels of government, institutional license holders, individual donations, and underwriting.
Along with more uniform funding mechanisms, the Carnegie Commission also sought to redefine the type of programming on public TV. Until then, programming varied widely from station to station. While stations such as Boston’s WGBH did broadcast local news and performances by the Boston Pops and Boston Symphony Orchestra, many stations only aired instructional programming, for only a few hours a day.
Much of the content came from the National Educational Television, a nonprofit underwritten by the Ford Foundation, which produced 10 hours of programming each week. There was also the National Association of Educational Broadcasters, which advocated on behalf of non-commercial broadcasters.
“It was a very unstable proposition…There was no funding. The programming remained inconsistent, even though there were set-aside frequencies,” Catholic University professor Joshua Shepperd, who also leads the Library of Congress’ Radio Preservation Task Force, told me. “It required a certain amount of centralization because universities in Idaho, for example, weren’t as good as in Boston with WGBH.”
The Carnegie Commission didn’t want to produce programs that were aimed only at classroom viewing or purely instructional purposes, which had been NET’s primary focus. Instead, it wanted to support more cultural and public affairs programming — including journalism — that viewers of all ages and backgrounds would want to watch.
“The challenge is not in the direction of ‘anything you can do, I can do better,’ but rather in doing it as well as the best of journalism, and then fostering the ingenuity to challenge every item for its genuine significance…[and] to relate seemingly different areas in the news to display patters of human behavior, e.g. crime-to-psychology-to-economics-to-politics-to education; or athletics-to-medicine-to-longeviity-to-family responsibility,” commission member Robert Saudek said in a November 1966 memo. “If we are going to strike at the king we had better kill him, or he will strike back.”
In its final report, the commission detailed its vision for high-quality local and national content. It envisioned a system of funding, facilities, and editorial flexibility that could support the creation of “first-rate programming”:
The major innovation in Public Television will arise out of the environment it will provide to attract talented people and release their skills and creativity in a medium of great service to the American public. This environment with its freedom, its scope, and its adequate facilities, should enable Public Television to develop a broad range of quality programs beyond anything now available.
The Corporation for Public Television was the central component of the commission’s plan for public television. It said it would “be reluctant to recommend the other parts of its plan unless the corporate entity is brought into being.”
The commission envisioned the corporation as an independent nonprofit that would receive federal and private funds and distribute them to support local stations and programming.
That’s generally the way the Corporation for Public Broadcasting works today, except for the private-money part — donations are generally directed at individual programs, stations, or networks. In the 2014 fiscal year, CPB’s operating budget was $445.5 million, and 95 percent of that money goes toward directly support the public broadcasting system.
The source of that federal money was originally proposed to be that excise tax on all new television set purchases. “We felt that the problem here was a problem of principle,” Killian said in an interview on ABC shortly after the report was published. “How one insulated this — a corporation for public television — from the annual budgetary review both on the part of the Congress and on the part of the executive branch. And it seemed to us that a trust fund into which funds would flow from a fixed tax, such as the excise tax, was the best way of giving this protection and insulation. If someone comes up with an invention that does this thing, that meets this requirement equally well, other than the excise tax, I think we would all be very happy about it.”
That, however, wasn’t politically feasible. Though Killian and other board members testified before Congress and lobbied senators and representatives, the bill wouldn’t have gotten through Congress if there had been a fixed funding mechanism attached to it, according to Mitchell, the Wisconsin professor.
Instead, the Johnson administration requested $9 million in general funding for CPB in its first fiscal year, 1969. The corporation ended up with a $5 million appropriation.
In its report, the commission calculated that an excise tax would’ve provided the corporation with $40 million — just in its first year, plus whatever private funds it would have raised.
“The idea had been that not only would the excise tax go into funding the corporation, but other people would donate,” Mitchell said. “All the funding then would be centralized in this one place and they would be able to create a unified service that would make sense. That didn’t happen either, so what it turned out to be was that every program had to scramble for its own funding. That has crippled public television tremendously. If you wanted to do a program series on whatever, you had to go out and get five or six funders who would come up with the money for you to do it. That would take two or three years sometimes to pull together the funding. It was never dynamic and it was never flexible. Whereas, if you had one big pot of money, and they said let’s go out and do this series, and then bang you’re doing it. That crippled public television especially and radio too to some extent, but that was the fatal flaw: No money.”
CPB’s appropriation has been stagnant at around $445 million since the 2012 fiscal year. Its appropriations are passed through Congress two years at a time, which it says helps shield it from some political pressures, and President Obama’s final budget proposed maintaining funding levels at current levels through the 2019 fiscal year.
The Trump administration hasn’t announced a formal proposal on CPB funding, but a report in The Hill says officials were planning to follow a Heritage Foundation budget proposal that would reduce federal funding to zero at CPB, the National Endowment for the Arts, and the National Endowment for the Humanities. PBS and NPR “could make up the lost money by increasing revenue from corporate sponsors, foundations and members,” the Heritage plan argues.
Politicians threatening public broadcasting is nothing new — from President Richard Nixon seeking budget cuts (an effort derailed in part by the testimony of a young Mister Rogers) and later seeking to ban public affairs programming, to Mitt Romney’s declaration in a 2012 presidential debate that he would cut funding even though he said “I like PBS. I love Big Bird.” A CPB spokeswoman said CPB had yet to be contacted by the Trump administration and pointed to a statement the corporation issued after The Hill’s report:
From time to time, some argue the Corporation for Public Broadcasting and funding for public media are no longer needed. This thinking and proposals like the one being reported in the mainstream media and elsewhere today have been circulating around Washington for years and have been soundly rejected on a bipartisan basis — most recently by the Republican-controlled House of Representatives in 2015.
Despite the funding challenges, CPB says it remains committed to the values described in the Carnegie Commission report. Terrestrial broadcasting remains an important way for public broadcasters to reach underserved and rural communities, but as Internet usage has grown, CPB has funded digital programs to increase the reach of public broadcasters online. The corporation, for instance, funded the development of a streaming video player for PBS.
“What we had done was really look at that as another platform for our full experience of content,” CPB senior vice president, education and children’s content operations Debra Tica Sanchez told me. “In the commercial space, what was happening was that commercial providers were looking for ways to produce small bites of the content to be consumed by kids. Where you might get a two-minute segment online as a non-cable subscriber, for example, coming to PBS.org you would get the entire episode online. Our mandate and our mission is universal reach and access for all. We want to make sure our content has that broad reach.”
When the report was published, there were 124 educational television stations in the United States. NPR launched in 1970 with 90 charter stations. Today, there are 366 public TV stations and 1,123 public radio stations in the United States.
That growth has been possible despite the limitations of the system and its creation. Public radio, a last-minute addition to the Public Broadcasting Act, has become a key cog in local and national news, with NPR and its member stations producing the most prominent radio journalism in the United States.
A second Carnegie Commission on public broadcasting was convened in 1977, but its report proposing on how to expand the system didn’t gain much traction. Even to this day, CPB, PBS, NPR, and the local stations still have differences that they confront from time to time.
Regardless, public broadcasting, which assumed its modern form as a result of the initial Carnegie Commission report, has become an indelible part of the American fabric.
After the commission’s work was concluded, Killian, the former MIT president, joined CPB’s board, eventually becoming its chairman. In a 1981 interview for an oral history project on the history of public broadcasting, he insisted that public broadcasting was here to stay.
“I have the feeling that the American people want public television,” he said. “And when they’re faced with the possibility of losing it — unless cable comes in and does things that I don’t see them yet doing — there will be a welling up of public support for the continuation of public broadcasting.”