Reinventing Public Media

by: Michael Curtin / University of Wisconsin-Madison

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Previous columns on media reform have generated a good deal of comment, as well as some thoughtful and even playful criticisms of reform advocates as a ponderous crowd of self-interested mandarins who simply hate what everyone else loves — television. Quite correctly, John Hartley describes the medium as curious, mischievous, adventurous, licentious, and more. Its sheer unruliness is one of its great attractions, and John is right to contend that this unruly aspect more than any other is what makes TV a popular medium.

On the other hand, television is also serious business, offering up its audiences for exchange in the marketplace. Whether those audiences can in fact be enumerated, graded, and delivered to advertisers is the subject of much debate, but nevertheless the organization of television as a meaning-making institution is very much influenced by this second aspect of television. As a result, we get to see some things, but not others, and what we do get to see is presented to us as if it sprouted from the earth barely tainted by commercial calculation. Most viewers understand the games being played, but their influence over the institution remains limited.

Which brings me to a third aspect of television: politics. Although I’m well aware that as good postmodern critics we must acknowledge the personal as political, it’s nevertheless important to recall another rather old-fashioned notion of politics as an arena of contest and deliberation over the disposition of social resources. So even though I agree with John that political pugilism on TV talks shows and news coverage of the US politics is largely comic opera, I nevertheless think it important to hold television responsible for this second notion of politics as much as the first.

Why, for example, has the debate over Social Security spiraled into a predictable cycle of tired sound bites and political one-upsmanship, when in fact this is an issue of epochal importance? Is it due to the cold calculation of political operatives or is it due to the fact even well-intentioned politicians and activists realize they can’t get a fair hearing for effective alternatives, since it would require discussing interlinked issues regarding Medicaid, private medicine, and our regressive tax structure? The current media system would simply melt down in the face of such complexity, and consequently we’re likely to muddle along with comic opera when in fact the fate of the social welfare system is at stake.

So even though one might agree that television is an unruly and popular medium, it is also a medium of exclusions. It excludes deliberation on important social issues and it marginalizes activists whose ideas are hard to capture in six-second sound bites. It furthermore excludes programs for audiences that fall outside of its key demographics, preferring to speak to viewers with significant purchasing power. The exclusions built into US broadcasting operate in the realm of entertainment as well as information, as network executives slavishly follow programming trends in pursuit of relatively similar audiences, so that police procedurals and reality programs now saturate the airwaves, making a program like Desperate Housewives seem like a daring departure from the norm, at least for the moment. Cable programming is likewise redundant with only occasional exceptions. This is not to say that all or even most commercial broadcasting is bad, but it is undeniable that American television demands very specific styles of creativity, so that it is all too common to hear people like Dave Chapelle, Ben Karlin, or Steven Bochco fantasizing about other media venues where they might ply their trade. Thus, it’s not simply audiences that deserve alternatives; it’s the creative community as well.

As one considers television reform, it therefore makes sense to think across genres and to imagine multiple channels that might serve diverse audiences and artists. One of PBS’ great shortcomings has been its status as a lightning rod for criticism because it is assumed that any single program it telecasts is common property, an expression and/or representation of the people. As we consider prospects for reform, why not advocate four or five public TV channels and a similar number of radio channels, so that we might shed the illusion of a people in favor of a country with many voices?

Although such an agenda seems ambitious, Allison Perlman suggests that reformers go even further, pressing for reform of commercial television, and Anna McCarthy urges us to consider the appalling condition of print journalism as well. While I sympathize with both positions, I worry that debates regarding the former would become entangled with capitalist ownership issues and that the latter would invariably get bogged down in free speech issues. Public broadcasting seems a practical place to begin, in large part because it is an undeniably underdeveloped resource with tremendous potential. Moreover, it’s a propitious moment for genuine reform, since over the next decade, the transition to digital television will yield a windfall of tens of billions of dollars as the federal government auctions off spectrum space that used to belong to analogue broadcast stations. Many dreams are being hatched about how the money might be used, yet it doesn’t seem like much of a stretch to suggest that this windfall should be applied to improvements of the very medium from which it derives. Combine this with a modest tax on broadcasters and one could establish an array of public channels with substantial and ongoing funding that would be relatively insulated from political pressure groups. Public media reform therefore seems a practical objective, and given widespread discontent with commercial television, it might have political legs, but it will only have legs if it is a truly popular alternative, as Laurie Ouellette and Justin Lewis have insightfully argued.[1] That will require breaking beyond the cultural and class biases of the current public system and transcending the exclusions of the commercial broadcasting, so that we might begin to invent new approaches to diverse genres and audiences.

Laurie Ouellette and Justin Lewis. “Moving Beyond the ‘Vast Wasteland’: Cultural Policy and Television in the United States.” Television and New Media 1.1 (2000): 95-115.

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Corporation for Public Broadcasting
Free Press… media is the issue
“Turning Back the Tidycans,” a previous Flow article from Volume I, Issue 9.

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