For the 78th episode of the Journalism History podcast, host Nick Hirshon spoke to Camille Reyes about the history of the Public Broadcasting Service as a platform for new ideas and information that has been haunted and hobbled by capitalism and cronyism.
Camille Reyes is an assistant professor in the Department of Communication at Trinity University in San Antonio, TX. She is the author of “Neither Public, nor Private: Inventing PBS Television, 1965–1967″ in the March 2021 issue of Journalism History.
Featured image: PBS logo by Herb Lubalin (CC BY-SA 4.0)
Camille Reyes: Can we create programing that speaks to something like a public good? I don’t want that idea to become further and further lost.
Nick Hirshon: Welcome to Journalism History, a podcast that rips out the pages of your history books to re-examine the stories you thought you knew, and the ones you were never told.
Teri Finneman: I’m Teri Finneman, and I research media coverage of women in politics.
Nick Hirshon: And I’m Nick Hirshon, and I research the history of New York sports.
Ken Ward: And I’m Ken Ward, and I research the journalism history of the Great Plains and Rocky Mountains.
Nick Hirshon: And together we are professional media historians guiding you through our own drafts of history. This episode is sponsored by Taylor & Francis, the publisher of our academic journal, Journalism History. Transcripts of the show are available online at journalism-history.org/podcast.
PBS is one of the most trusted institutions in the United States, a platform for new ideas and information that was borne of the Great Society programs of the 1960s. It has aired some of the most beloved television shows of all time: Sesame Street and Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood, Nature and Nova, Masterpiece Theater and Antiques Roadshow.
For years, PBS promos have said these iconic shows are made possible by contributions from “viewers like you.” But the survival of PBS has increasingly depended on commercialization, with more and more support from corporate sponsors and billionaires who are actually, in the words of Steven Colbert, “viewers nothing like you.” It is part of a system rooted in capitalism and cronyism, and the rejection of the wisdom of research into public television systems abroad.
On this episode of the Journalism History podcast, we explore the inception of PBS – and the march toward a commercial-only media system in the United States –
with Camille Reyes, a communication professor at Trinity University in San Antonio, Texas.
Nick Hirshon: Camille, welcome to the Journalism History podcast.
Camille Reyes: Thanks, Nick. I’m happy to be here.
Nick Hirshon: Well, I’m excited to have you here today to discuss your article in Journalism History about the invention of PBS in the late 1960s. And with this piece you’re placing the creation of PBS in historical context at a time when television was still a novel medium, and when Lyndon Johnson put forth a set of domestic programs named the Great Society.
These were supposed to eliminate poverty and racial injustice, and the Great Society did indeed bring about faith in government. One example of that is the inception of PBS. And you conclude that PBS is, quote, “rooted in ambivalence stemming from a kind of American exceptionalism sometimes undertaken strategically and other times existing as blind spots.”
So, Camille, as we get started here, can we explore that concept of American exceptionalism? What does that term mean, and how does that apply to the Great Society?
Camille Reyes: Sure. So I rely a lot on Daniel T. Rogers’s ideas about exceptionalism. He talks about exceptionalist narratives being “engines of national self-consciousness.” And I think that idea really applies to this sort of pre-policy formation of PBS in the U.S.
Because at that time, you know, you already mentioned the Great Society, but we’re in the middle of the Cold War. And the Cold War is meeting this cultural pluralism that kind of works together to create this sense of ambivalence. They want PBS to be, ah, anti-communist, but one of the main reasons for its formation was to be non-commercial. So it’s sort of supposed to be –
anti-capitalist, too, at the same time, so very – a delicate balance there.
And then the cultural pluralism of the time is about to explode in the late ‘60s with the Civil Rights Movement. And so you have these sort of liberal bureaucrats with the best of intentions wanting to create this new system that is anti-commercial, but they kind of do it in a paternalistic manner sometimes.
And I guess that’s what I’m talking about when I’m looking at American exceptionalism in this context. Um, I think it’s a pretty fascinating history, but we can talk more about that, I’m sure.
Nick Hirshon: Sure. Well, and I’m glad that you placed PBS in this Great Society because for me I always think of, ah, the Great Society as being Medicare, Head Start, you mentioned the Voting Rights Act,
and, ah, maybe we don’t think so much about PBS. And you walk through the process of how this started.
So in December of 1964, television professionals from educational television stations across the country gathered for the first national conference on what they called the Long-Range Financing of Educational Television Stations.
Camille Reyes: That’s a great title, isn’t it?
Nick Hirshon: Yes. That’s a lot to fit onto a logo or on a bumper sticker. Um, they have a sympathetic, powerful president at the time in Lyndon Johnson. They know that he is looking for change, and they’re pushing forward the idea of public television during a ripe moment for affirmative legislation. Some of the programs that I just mentioned are obviously on their way. And that conference leads to a task force that you focus on primarily in your article, known as the Carnegie Commission on Educational Television.
So can you tell us a little bit about this commission? Who were the members of the Carnegie Commission on Educational Television, and how did they garner public support for what would then become PBS?
Camille Reyes: Yeah, sure. So –
I do want to say that the Carnegie Commission is sort of the new contribution, I hope, with this article. Because lots of excellent scholars before me have talked about this blurred line, you know, the blurred line between public and private. Um, so you have, you know, people like Bob McChesney and Victor Pickard, who’ve written extensively about that tension between public and commercial interests, and Susan Douglas.
I – my title for the article actually is an homage to one of her books. Um, Laurie Ouellette. So lots of people have written about these tensions in mass media in this country. What I was hoping to do with this article was to focus on something that is much less studied, and that’s this report –
that the Carnegie Commission developed that basically became the blueprint for PBS.
Congress doesn’t pass all of the commission’s recommendations, but they pass a lot of them with the Public Broadcasting Act of 1967. But to answer your question, who was on this commission? Um, it was fifteen members. All of them white men except for two. There was one woman named Oveta Culp Hobby who, I’m in Texas, so Texans will know her name. She was the chairman of the board of the Houston Post company, and also Eisenhower’s former secretary of, of health.
And then Ralph Ellison, the author of Invisible Man, was a member. But the rest of the commissioners were mostly from business, ah, from corporate – or corporations and from universities.
And the chairman, who was exceptionally talented by all accounts was James Killian. And he was at MIT and had been friends with some of the officers of the Carnegie Corporation. I think that’s part of why he was named the chair, but Killian ran a tight ship and produced an enormous amount of research in preparation for this report that went to Congress.
They visited – the commissioners visited ninety-two existing educational television stations in the country, and they also sent researchers to seven systems of public television abroad, which I really loved digging into in the archives.
Um, so yeah, that’s who they were.
Maybe I should stop there and let you ask some questions. Sorry.
Nick Hirshon: And you mentioned how they tried to garner broad public support for the programs with hiring a public relations agency and a publisher to promote the report and ideas that it contained. This PR firm, Osgood Nichols and Associates, had held a press conference when the report was released, distributed it to the press.
Ah, but for all of those public relations efforts, the Carnegie Commission did have a notable opponent, the Ford Foundation. And the Ford Foundation put forth a competing view of public television focused on early satellite technology. And at the time, the Ford Foundation was led by Fred Friendly, the former producer for Edward R. Murrow on CBS, including producing that landmark 1954 challenge to Senator Joe McCarthy.
Camille Reyes: Right.
Nick Hirshon: And the press made a lot of this battle between these two foundations, and this, uh, obviously annoyed some people at the Carnegie Commission. So what happened here, Camille, between the Carnegie Commission and the Ford Foundation?
Camille Reyes: So, as best I can tell, it looks like there was a sort of gentleman’s agreement early on with the president of the Ford Foundation and the president of the Carnegie Commission. The Carnegie Commission didn’t want to just embark on this project without sort of the blessing of the Ford Foundation because the Ford Foundation had been instrumental in funding educational television in the United States, and so they didn’t want to, you know, burn any bridges there.
And initially, ah, the Ford Foundation was in support of the Carnegie Commission’s plan to, to embark on this work in 1965, ah, but there was a sort of change in leadership. And Fred Friendly comes on along with I think it was Held or Heald [editor’s note: Reyes is referencing Ford president Henry Heald], I don’t know how to pronounce his name, ah, as the president of the Ford Foundation, and they, as you mentioned, had a different vision.
And it seems like the press made a bigger deal about the, the rivalry than, than there actually, you know, than actually existed, but what was interesting to me about this is that AT&T was very much opposed to the Ford Foundation’s plan because it relied so much on that early satellite technology, and they wanted to use that technology essentially for free, and AT&T of course wasn’t going to do that.
And so AT&T publicly came out in the New York Times in favor of the Carnegie Commission plan, which of course, did a lot to, to push that forward.
Nick Hirshon: Sure. Well, let’s take a look then at how the Carnegie Commission researched this report, if we can. Uh, their key objective here was to make sure the government indirectly funded the public media system but did not control it. And that’s important to keep in mind to understand what happened with PBS – right? – because the Commission directed researchers to explore the public television systems in Canada,
Great Britain, Italy, Japan, Russia, Sweden, and West Germany.
And, Camille, you took a close look at two of these reports in particular. So if we can go first at Great Britain. The Commission receives a twenty-six-page report in May 1966 on the BBC. So what does that report say? What are they trying to learn? What knowledge do they gain about their investigation into public broadcasting in Great Britain?
Camille Reyes: So the report on Great Britain was one of my favorites of the seven. The author, John Crosby, is a very, ah, flamboyant writer. And he talks about how superior British television is to American television, both commercial and educational. He doesn’t, you know, mince any words about that. And he also talks about how broad BBC programing was. He says that, “Even bee-keeping will be got around to –
eventually.” Ah, so it was a – was a pleasure to read that report.
As far as what the commission takes from it, there’s a lot of similarities in sort of the structural choices that are made for PBS, or the recommendations to Congress that are made for PBS. In particular, similarities to the way ITV, which was BBC’s sort of second channel at the time, to the way that ITV was structured.
So the commissioners arguably take a lot from the BBC in constructing their recommendations, although they’re not very transparent about that, but it’s pretty clear that that’s what’s happening. And of course, the relationship between the BBC and educational television in the U.S., even before PBS, has always been very strong. Both sides have shared programming with the other and that of course continues to this day.
So I think the commissioners underplayed the connections to the BBC in that report, and I think that’s another example of sort of that exceptionalism at work. They wanted to be different but in a lot of ways they were really, really similar to the BBC. They even wanted to fund PBS in the same way that the BBC was funded with a license, ah, tax. Sorry, a per-television-set tax.
Congress rejected that idea, but that was the Commission’s intent. So there’s a lot of similarities between the two.
Nick Hirshon: And then they’re also looking at these other countries. A month after they received the report on the BBC, as you’ve just described, there’s a report in June of 1966 on the West German television system. And this report uses more methods from social science –
than the BBC report did. It’s written by Crocker Snow Jr., who lived for four months in West Germany working in public television and visiting stations throughout the country. So what did he find in West Germany?
Camille Reyes: So his report is super thorough, and he gets at some of the tensions around how public television audiences in West Germany were perceived compared to the way audiences in the U.S. were perceived. So Snow argues that – well, doesn’t argue. He reports back that the officials in West Germany are telling him that there is not enough unity among the social classes in Germany to function in the way that educational television and even commercial television does in the United States.
Of course that’s, ah,
I think, a misperception about the way audiences worked in the U.S. because it’s not as if we had some sort of grand unity among the classes in the ‘60s or at any point, but that was the, you know, perception that these West German officials had.
And what I find interesting about this audience discussion between West Germany and the United States was that this sort of specter of the mass media audience persisted in both places, but in the U.S. it was particularly interesting that the commissioners were so concerned about appealing to the mass audience when they wanted to create a system that was an alternative to commercial television.
And one of the big complaints that the commissioners and other, you know, members of the liberal establishment had about commercial television in the ‘60s was that it –
was too reliant upon mass audiences. And if you could break free from that reliance on the mass audience, then you could do all kinds of great public service television.
So even though they talked about this, they didn’t really put that into action with, you know, the plans that they came up with. The plans that they come up with were oddly still very focused on a mass audience.
Nick Hirshon: And so we’re starting to see some problems here in the exceptionalism that you said, you described at the start of being a problem with the inception of PBS. And another issue, the report repeatedly stressed diversity in programing, variety of programming, local community diversity, inner-city population.
But even though the report is scattered with these terms – diversity, local, community, service – they’re terms that you point out are sometimes used to cover up and continue institutional racism. For example, the report acknowledged that public television depends on an identification with the –
community it serves, but it offered few policy specifics for how to achieve that understanding of local community.
So I know you go into this in a lot of depth. What was PBS’s diversity problem?
Camille Reyes: Yeah, so I do want to caveat – I don’t think that they were, were being racist. I think they were, again, sort of following the trend of the time, which was about cultural pluralism, and I think they were trying to recognize that.
And by trying to specifically, in one case, call out inner-city populations, which is like the closest they come to talking about diversity in a way that we might talk about it today, by trying to do that I think they were really making a good-faith effort to recognize that the audience for PBS was not some –
homogenized mass, but, as I was just talking about, in practice they fall far short.
With the inner-city programming in particular, they talk about how it was going to be experimental and low cost. So they automatically knock down the possibilities for, you know, programming, for example, made by black people for black people. On the local community level, they stressed – the commissioner stressed over and over again in the press that they didn’t want to create a fourth television network. Of course, this is way before Fox and all of that.
So they didn’t want to create this fourth television network to go along with the three big commercial networks. They wanted it to be different, they wanted it to be non-commercial, and the main – one of the main ways they hoped to achieve that was by having this local focus. But when you look at the blueprint that they made, the suggestions, the structural suggestions that they make,
they limited local communities to one hour of programming a week. That’s it. One hour. They specify that.
The rest of the programming was supposed come from these two big regional centers in basically, Boston and New York. So they undermine their own rhetoric through the blueprint that they recommend to Congress.
Nick Hirshon: And you mention the problem here with these board of directors. Many board of directors, you’re quoting here in the piece, “have lent nothing more than their names to the effort. And we have found also in those stations where directors and trustees take an active interest, the station itself is most likely to thrive.” So maybe they’re not learning some of those lessons.
Ah, let’s finish, if we can, as we start to wrap up here, by bringing it to the modern day of PBS. So today PBS continues –
to suffer cuts from the federal government, and that has created problems that you spell out in your research. We’re used to PBS thanking “viewers like you” for donations, but you point out it’s now getting more support from “viewers nothing like you.”
Corporate sponsors and billionaires are the primary donors. Viking Cruises and Audible sponsor Masterpiece Theater. Goldman Sachs is running a commercial. The producers of Sesame Street announced a partnership with HBO for exclusive rights to first-run episodes of the series.
So you seem to be a little bit worried at the beginning and the conclusion of the piece about this increasing corporatization, commercialization of PBS, and that, that could compromise its integrity, and by extension the information needs of a functional democracy. So today, as you watch PBS, as you reflect after having done this research, how do you feel about it?
Camille Reyes: Yeah, I’m very concerned about the sort of state of mass media in this country. It is going in, I think, the wrong direction –
by becoming more and more corporatized. For example when Disney bought many of Fox’s assets, including 21st Century Fox movie studio, I find that to be very alarming. It’s not that I’m anti-corporate media. I consume a ton of corporate media and enjoy it thoroughly, but I want a diversity of ownership, as do most media reformers.
So I’m very concerned about the direction, especially in our sort of political climate that is so divisive right now. Going back to exceptionalism for a moment. Daniel Rodgers talks about exceptionalism forming these sort of islands of “stable consensus,” he says, and these islands are very much imagined.
And I feel like we’re in that kind of moment now where there’s this idea that we have some sort of stable consensus around media in particular,
when in fact our mass media system is, is quite divided and polarized in the same way that our polity is polarized. So I’m concerned, and I, of course, don’t have answers, but I am hopeful that we can become aware, as they were in this moment in the ‘60s, that there is a benefit to the public to valuing something over, you know, the almighty dollar.
Can we create programming that speaks to something like a public good? I don’t want that idea to become further and further lost in this moment where, you know, you look at statistics from Pew research, for example, that show our faith in our media –
across the board is lower than it’s ever been. I’m hopeful that we can recover some sort of sense of a public good to help make that situation better. Because of course there’s a very important connection between the press and media and democracy in this country. So I think it’s a really important subject to consider.
Nick Hirshon: I think it’s something that we don’t think about too much associated with PBS certainly compared to Fox and CNN and MSNBC that we hear so much about. But you convey an interesting anecdote from the New Yorker investigative journalist Jane Mayer reporting on the late conservative billionaire David Koch, who resigned from the board of New York’s PBS station WNET after the station had aired a documentary critical of him.
And this despite the unusual opportunity that he was given to join a special roundtable debate program in rebuttal of that documentary,
a discussion to which the documentarian themself was not invited to. And so you conclude that WNET should be lauded for airing that documentary critical of a key board member, but a subsequent documentary was produced elsewhere, entitled Citizen Koch, was removed from the PBS pipeline after early approval.
So there are – these are tangible ways to see this, you know, kind of playing out that I don’t think we often focus on with PBS.
Camille Reyes: I agree. You’ve got to keep an eye on it.
Nick Hirshon: Yeah, for sure, and as we are very concerned about, you know, the fiscal security of the nation moving forward, how will the needs of PBS be met? Well, thank you so much for appearing on the episode. As we wrap up today, I’d like to pose to you a question that we ask all of our guests on this podcast, why does journalism history matter?
Camille Reyes: Wow. Why does journalism history matter? That’s a huge question. Um, I think I was –
hinting at it a moment ago, though, with the connection to democracy. I think that journalism history is really important for reminding us that we are more than just consumers in the United States. It seems like we are reduced to consumers everywhere we look.
I used to work in public relations, so I don’t want to be a hypocrite. I contributed to that extensively. But we are citizens, too. And we are neighbors and thinkers, and we deserve to have journalism and media that reflect our multifaceted roles.
Nick Hirshon: Certainly. Well said. Well, thank you again for exploring PBS, and so much for joining us on the Journalism History podcast.
Camille Reyes: Thank you very much, Nick. It was a pleasure.
Nick Hirshon: Thanks for tuning in, and additional thanks to our sponsor, Taylor & Francis. Be sure to subscribe –
to our podcast. You can also follow us on Twitter at @JHistoryJournal. Until next time, I’m your host Nick Hirshon, signing off with the words of Edward R. Murrow, “Good night, and good luck.”