Cinema and Media Studies American Public Broadcasting
by
Laurie Ouellette
  • LAST MODIFIED: 23 August 2017
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199791286-0270

Introduction

Public broadcasting arrived late in the United States. While most Western democracies developed large national public broadcasting organizations funded by taxes in the 1920s, the United States adopted a privately owned system funded by advertising. Reformers, however, succeeded in establishing a dispersed, minimally funded system of educational broadcasting, devoted to university lectures and other instructional programming. In the 1960s, National Educational Television (NET), the precursor of the Public Broadcasting Service (PBS), experimented with noncommercial cultural and public affairs programming on a national scale, funded by the Ford Foundation and other philanthropies. Throughout the decade, anxieties about the commercial model intensified, triggered by concerns about the homogeneity and low quality of television. At this time, television was dominated by three broadcast networks (ABC, CBS, and NBC), and programming was geared to the largest possible audience. The expectation that broadcasters serve the public interest clashed with their quest to maximize profits, and critics worried that the nation’s most popular mass medium did little to inform and enlighten citizens. The case for public broadcasting was advanced by philanthropic foundations, prominent citizens, and reformers, including Newton Minow, chairman of the Federal Communications Commission (FCC). In 1966, a team of intellectuals, artists, university presidents, social scientists, and corporate executives assembled by the Carnegie Commission of New York investigated the need for public broadcasting and recommended “immediate federal action.” The Public Broadcasting Act was passed by Congress in 1967, authorizing the creation of the Corporation for Public Broadcasting (CPB), a private nonprofit organization to be partly funded by congressional allocations. With national distribution, public funding, and a mission to provide general programming imbued with quality and diversity as well as resources for informal education and citizenship, the existing system of educational radio and television stations became public broadcasting. In 1969, a new television network called the Public Broadcasting Service (PBS) was beamed into homes nationwide, offering children’s, cultural, minority, and public affairs programming. In 1970, National Public Radio (NPR) was created to produce and distribute news, public affairs, and cultural programming, providing an alternative to commercial radio. In the early 21st century, the US public broadcasting system is comprised of hundreds of local stations; the CPB, PBS, and NPR; and several additional production centers and distributors. Always reliant in part on corporate underwriting, public television has become more concerned with ratings and market pressures over the decades, leading many critics to lament its diminished democratic potential. US public broadcasting was also immediately vulnerable to conservative efforts to reduce or eliminate funding, a pattern set in motion by Richard Nixon that continues into the 21st century.

General Overviews

The titles in this section discuss the concept of public broadcasting as an alternative to commercial or private broadcasting, and chart the development and infrastructure of public radio and television in the United States. Murdock 2005 draws from social and political theory to characterize the mission and importance of public broadcasting worldwide in democratic societies. Ouellette 2002 theorizes the tension between private and public in broadcasting, focusing on the United States. The anthology McCauley, et al. 2003 presents a range of critical perspectives on the institutions, policies, and audiences associated with public broadcasting, with a focus on how public radio and television serve the public interest. Aufderheide 2004 offers a concise history of public television in the United States, while Mitchell 2010 chronicles the development of public radio following the passage of the 1967 Public Broadcasting Act.

  • Aufderheide, Patricia. “Public Television.” In Encyclopedia of Television. Edited by Horace Newcomb. Chicago: Museum of Broadcast Communication, 2004.

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    An engaging overview of the mission and history of public television in the United States.

  • McCauley, Michael P., B. Lee Artz, DeeDee Halleck, and Paul E. Peterson, eds. Public Broadcasting and the Public Interest. New York and London: Routledge, 2003.

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    A collection of essays about the problems of public broadcasting and its successes and failures in serving the public interest. Of note are several essays that address the future of public broadcasting in the digital age.

  • Mitchell, Jack. “Public Radio since 1967.” In The Concise Encyclopedia of Radio. Edited by Christopher H. Sterling and Cary O’Dell, 615–622. New York and London: Routledge, 2010.

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    A short overview of the institutions, stations, and programs that make up public radio.

  • Murdock, Graham. “Public Broadcasting and Democratic Culture: Consumers, Citizens, and Communards.” In A Companion to Television. Edited by Janet Wasko, 174–198. Malden, MA: Blackwell, 2005.

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    A strongly argued, theoretically robust defense of public broadcasting as an essential cultural institution in democratic societies.

  • Ouellette, Laurie. “Public versus Private.” In Television Studies. Edited by Toby Miller, 53–55. London: British Film Institute, 2002.

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    A cultural studies perspective on class and paternalism in the mission of public broadcasting and the bifurcation of bad (commercial, popular) and good (public, highbrow) television in the United States.

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