Filmmaker Ken Burns sat at Restaurant Nora in downtown Washington, sipping Jack Daniels and working up the courage to ask Ward B. Chamberlin Jr., the public broadcasting executive seated across from him, for the biggest favor of his career.
It was early 1989, and Mr. Burns was consumed with his latest project: “The Civil War,” a documentary slated to air in five one-hour installments on the Public Broadcasting Service.
A five-hour historical film is ambitious by almost any standard, so Mr. Burns was more than a little skittish about asking Mr. Chamberlin — then the president of WETA-TV (Channel 26), the Arlington station helping produce the project — for permission to double its length.
“If this is what you need, we’ll do it,” Mr. Chamberlin said when Mr. Burns finally made his request. “This is what we’re about.”
The television business has experienced major upheavals in the 16 years since that meeting, but Mr. Burns and other proponents say PBS is as committed now as it was then to serious programming such as “The Civil War,” which set viewing records when it aired — all 11 hours and 20 minutes of it — in 1990.
This willingness to take chances on filmmakers such as Mr. Burns — now regarded as a premier documentarian — makes PBS worth the tens of millions of dollars it receives annually in federal funding, proponents say.
It is a philosophy perhaps best captured by the slogan the Public Broadcasting Service used for years: “If PBS doesn’t do it, who will?”
But PBS is no longer the only game in town, critics point out.
In the past three decades, niche networks have cropped up on cable and satellite television that provide many of the same types of programs that have been the hallmark of PBS.
Nickelodeon and the Disney Channel, for example, target many of the same young viewers who watch “Sesame Street” on PBS.
Across the television dial, the Discovery family of networks — including the Discovery Channel, the Travel Channel and Animal Planet — offer round-the-clock science and nature programs, while the 24-hour news channels touch on the some of the same stories covered on “The NewsHour With Jim Lehrer,” PBS’ flagship newscast, and “Frontline,” the only weekly news documentary series on television.
Supporters say PBS’ shows are far superior to the programming on the commercial networks, but the critics aren’t convinced.
“[PBS] has never been less essential. It’s simply not needed,” said Tim Graham, director of analysis for the Media Research Center, a conservative group that monitors the media for examples of bias.
There is little appetite to eliminate or privatize PBS on Capitol Hill, though.
Newt Gingrich famously vowed to “zero out” federal funding for public broadcasting a few weeks before becoming House speaker in 1995, but the Republicans essentially backed down when they were accused of trying to kill Big Bird. The issue hasn’t been raised since.
Still, the questions over the relevancy of PBS are helping shape an increasingly hostile debate over accusations of liberal bias in its public-affairs programming and the role of the Corporation for Public Broadcasting (CPB), the congressionally chartered organization that channels federal funding to PBS.
A PBS primer
The Public Broadcasting Service went on the air in 1969, two years after the CPB was created. Its mission: To provide a forum for educational and cultural programming that largely was being ignored by the three major commercial broadcasters at the time, ABC, CBS and NBC.
PBS is not a network; it is an association of about 350 public television stations that uses its collective buying power to purchase programming for national distribution.
Congress, the member stations, individuals and private foundations fund PBS. Sixteen percent of its revenue, or $80.2 million, came from the federal government in the fiscal year that ended Sept. 30.
The shows that air on PBS — all commercial-free — come from a variety of sources.
It purchases the broadcasting rights to “Sesame Street,” for example, from Sesame Workshop, a nonprofit company in New York that receives funding from the CPB, as well as from foundations and licensing agreements that allow other companies to make books, toys and games that feature Big Bird and other characters.
The broadcasting rights to documentaries usually are bought from the filmmakers themselves.
MacNeil/Lehrer Productions and WETA produce “The NewsHour.”
Stations choose to air PBS’ programming at their own discretion.
In January, PBS declined to add to its national distribution list an episode of the children’s series “Postcards From Buster” that featured two women in a same-sex union, although some stations chose to air it anyway.
Overlapping with cable
Eighty-five percent of U.S. homes with a television set have a subscription to a cable or satellite service, according to Nielsen Media Research Inc.
The explosion in the popularity of cable and satellite — created as tools to provide programming to rural areas where broadcast signals would not reach — has steadily eroded the lock PBS and the original broadcast networks once had on viewers.
Channels such as Nickelodeon, Discovery, History and A&E may offer programming that is similar to what viewers find on PBS, but the commercial shows are not nearly as good, the public broadcasting proponents say.
“I’m a fan [of some of those channels], but they don’t consistently — every hour of every day — demonstrate the same commitment to programming. They can’t. They would go out of business if they did,” said Patricia E. Mitchell, president and chief executive of PBS.
PBS’ critics often cite the Discovery Channel — the Silver Spring cable network created in 1985 to provide round-the-clock documentaries — as a prime example of the kind of cable network that duplicates the Public Broadcasting Service’s work.
But as PBS executives have noted, Discovery’s lineup is dominated by shows such as “American Chopper,” a weekly behind-the-scenes look at a custom motorcycle shop in New York, and “Pop Nation,” an eight-part series on Barbie dolls, “Star Wars” action figures and other collectibles.
Similarly, Mr. Burns dismisses the History Channel documentaries as lacking “depth and dimension.”
“I Tivo it, and a lot of it is superficial,” he said.
“Sesame Street,” “Reading Rainbow” and the other children’s series on PBS generally are held in higher regard than their commercial counterparts because they emphasize education over entertainment.
“It’s exactly the opposite of Nickelodeon and Disney. The goal of children’s networks is to get eyeballs to the set and get kids to ask Mommy and Daddy to buy them cereal,” said Jeffrey A. Chester, executive director of the Center for Digital Democracy, a consumer advocacy group.
A Discovery spokesman said his company has a different strategy than PBS and is focused as much on entertainment as educating viewers.
A History Channel spokeswoman disputed Mr. Burns’ criticism, citing the Peabody Award the network picked up last week for “Rwanda — Do Scars Ever Fade” a documentary that chronicled the African nation’s recovery from the 1994 genocide.
Even if cable and satellite networks duplicate what PBS does, those channels do not reach 15 percent of the nation’s television households, PBS executives said.
This makes shows such as “Sesame Street” necessary because they reach children at a critical stage when educational shows can help prepare them for school, they said.
PBS is critical to rural areas where poorer people can’t afford cable, said Marie Antoon, executive director of Mississippi Public Broadcasting, which operates a TV station that carries PBS programming.
“I know it sounds simplistic to someone who lives in Washington, but we don’t have a lot of museums in this state. A show like ‘Live From Lincoln Center’ is like a window out to the world for us,” she said.
Competing for dollars
Not all of PBS’ programming is high brow.
Financial pressures have forced the service to rely too heavily on programming that mirrors commercial shows, some critics say.
PBS depends upon corporate underwriters to pay for the programming it purchases, but it has suffered in recent years because companies have cut back on so-called image advertising.
PBS generated $184.3 million in revenue from program underwriting in fiscal 2004, down from $221.9 million in 2001.
Increasingly, the money that companies once set aside for underwriting is being spent on traditional advertising, said Dalton Delan, executive vice president and chief programming officer at WETA, one of the top producers of PBS programming.
“Now, unfortunately, the media buyers are looking at the 22-year-old in sneakers who thinks the sun sets and rises on ‘CSI’ and ‘Survivor,’” Mr. Delan said.
As an example, he cited “Washington Week in Review,” the Friday-evening political roundtable program WETA produces. Since 2004, the show has been without a corporate underwriter, forcing the station to pick up much of the production costs, Mr. Delan said.
Generally, it costs six figures to underwrite a show such as “Washington Week,” he said.
To attract sponsors, critics have charged PBS with airing shows that mimic commercial fare.
“Antiques Roadshow” is frequently cited as an example of the kind of program available on cable. Critics also said PBS missed the mark when it gave a weekly show last year to conservative commentator Tucker Carlson, who already had a daily program on CNN.
“Viewers can get it elsewhere. It’s not worth their taxes and it’s not worth their contributions,” said Jerold M. Starr, executive director of advocacy group Citizens for Independent Public Broadcasting.
Some of the lawmakers who hold PBS’ purse strings agree.
At a Feb. 17 hearing on public broadcasting, Rep. David R. Obey, Wisconsin Democrat, said commercial television “makes me gag” but that public television was becoming more like it.
“I don’t know if I should continue supporting funding,” he said.
Ms. Mitchell doesn’t apologize for programs such as “Antiques Roadshow,” saying they attract underwriters who might be spooked by some of the more provocative PBS fare.
“‘Frontline’ wouldn’t be on the air if we depended on corporate underwriting. … We’re always going to have go for a balance to attract underwriters,” she said.
Ms. Mitchell, formerly a producer and TV journalist, has visited 120 stations since becoming president of PBS in 2000. Questions over its relevancy never come up with the people she meets, she said.
On Tuesday, Ms. Mitchell is scheduled to deliver a speech at the National Press Club to remind journalists of the relevance of PBS. She said she will spend the final year of her term — she will step down in June 2006 — working to raise PBS’ profile.
In a poll of 1,001 persons by the Roper Public Affairs & Media research service this year, respondents ranked PBS as the second-best value for taxpayer dollars behind the military.
PBS has averaged 1.8 million viewers during the prime-time evening hours this season, which concludes this week. It ranks sixth among all television channels — behind the four major broadcast networks and the WB, tied with UPN and Nickelodeon and ahead of all other cable networks.
Ratings for PBS are up about 6 percent this season, as are the ratings for basic cable channels. The four major broadcast networks are down 1 percent, and premium cable networks such as HBO and Showtime are down 14 percent.
National Public Radio reaches about 22 million listeners a day, but unlike PBS, which must compete with cable and satellite TV channels, there is no popular alternative to NPR.
Satellite radio services reach about 5 million paid subscribers. That figure is expected to climb to 20 million by 2010, but that will be 9 percent of the total radio audience, according to projections by the Forrester Research information service.
Given the advantage PBS has as a free, over-the-air service, it should do far better, according to Mr. Graham, the Media Research Center analyst.
He cited “The NewsHour With Jim Lehrer” as an example. It draws about 3 million viewers a night, but it would do much better if viewers were really interested in its sober approach to news coverage, Mr. Graham said.
“They see themselves as ‘spinach TV.’ We will feed you what you don’t want to watch,” he said.
Such thinking is too subjective, said Les Crystal, executive producer of “NewsHour.”
“Do we do some subjects that are spinach? Maybe. One could argue that stories we’ve done on Darfur (in Sudan) are spinach to some people but meat and potatoes to others.”
Questions of bias
CPB Chairman Kenneth Y. Tomlinson hired a consultant last year to monitor the political views of the guests on “Now,” a weekly PBS newsmagazine co-hosted until recently by Bill Moyers, the New York Times reported earlier this month.
Mr. Tomlinson, a Republican appointed to the CPB Board of Directors by President Bill Clinton and elevated to chairman during President Bush’s first term, told The Washington Times he is concerned there is not a “balance” in the viewpoints presented in most of the public-affairs programming on PBS.
He cited Mr. Lehrer’s “NewsHour” as an exception, saying it has “changed the face of broadcast news for the better.”
Programs that do not follow Mr. Lehrer’s model will diminish the relevancy of PBS, Mr. Tomlinson said.
“Public television has to be challenged to demonstrate to the American public that they can give them both sides of the story,” he said.
The CPB’s inspector general has agreed to a request from Mr. Obey and Rep. John D. Dingell, Michigan Democrat, to investigate whether Mr. Tomlinson has overstepped his bounds.
The CPB chairman said he will comply with the probe, adding that his campaign to bring balance to PBS is for its own good.
“This is for the safety of public television. It has nothing to do with politics,” he said.
The Media Research Center has not studied bias on PBS, Mr. Graham said. Analysts at another watchdog group, the Center for Media and Public Affairs, said it is virtually impossible to determine bias in PBS programming because it comes from so many sources.
The bias debate is a shift from the mid-1990s, when Republicans on Capitol Hill, led by Mr. Gingrich, tried to eliminate federal funding to public broadcasting.
Now, critics are accusing conservatives of trying to control public broadcasting.
“Their point seems to be, ‘We can’t kill PBS so we’ll reshape it in our image,’” Mr. Chester, the consumer advocate, said.
Congress will never eliminate public broadcasting as long as there are people who do not have access to cable or satellite television, said Rep. Ralph Regula, Ohio Republican and chairman of the House Appropriations labor, health and human services subcommittee, which held the February hearings on public broadcasting.
“Until that changes, there will always be strong interest in keeping it around,” Mr. Regula said in an interview.
The bias debate has intensified calls to restructure the way PBS is funded.
Ms. Mitchell is trying to build support for a plan to establish a trust fund from the billions of dollars the government will receive as part of the national conversion from analog to digital television signals.
The Citizens for Independent Public Broadcasting advocacy group has called for the creation of a national trust fund or endowment since 1996. If PBS depended upon an endowment, it would be free of the whims of Congress and the White House, said Mr. Starr, the group’s executive director.
The idea is slowly catching on, he said.
“It’s kind of now or never,” Mr. Starr said.