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Surprise, surprise, PBS commercialism trumps public interest

By Tate Hausman



IF YOU'VE BEEN watching your local PBS station over the last five years, you've probably noticed the change. You've wondered about the increasing frequency of corporate logos flashing across your screen. You've noticed more voice-overs extolling the virtues of McDonald's, IBM, or General Motors. And doesn't there seem to be less international news, less diversity of perspectives, less investigative journalism?

To no one's great surprise, a new study has emerged to prove what you already suspected: PBS has become more corporate and less public than ever before.

"The Cost of Survival: Political Discourse and the 'New PBS,' conducted by Professor William Hoynes of Vassar College, analyzed 75 public affairs programs over a two-week period in late 1998. The study found that business elites have a much louder voice on PBS than all others, and that the presence of groups such as labor, women, and activists is steadily decreasing. The report's findings should be troubling for the broadcast service established to "provide a voice for groups that may otherwise be unheard."

Among the study's notable nuggets, Hoynes reveals that more than one third of all on-camera sources (36.3 percent) were representatives of corporate America or Wall Street. That's nearly six times the number of representatives from the general public (5.7 percent) or from citizen activism group (4.5 percent.) In certain topic areas, such as economics, fully 75 percent of the talking heads belonged to the "business elite"-- conservative bankers, brokers, and corporate reps.

"Economic coverage," says the study, "is so narrow that the views and activities of most citizens become irrelevant."

Other key findings include:

  • The biggest story of the two-week period (the presidential impeachment hearings), drew 70 percent of its sources from government officials and 21 percent from mainstream journalists. Voices of public activists were entirely neglected, so that public television's coverage of the impeachment was filtered through the same politically elite lens as commercial coverage.

  • Women made up only 21.5 percent of news sources. When they did appear, they tended to speak about subjects such as health, sexuality, family, and religion, rather than political or economic news.

  • International news coverage made up only 5.4 percent of news programming, down from 11.7 percent in a similar study done in 1992. The Middle East was the only international topic that was the subject of more than two stories in the sampled time period.

Like any controversial study, "The Cost of Survival" is not without its critics. Stu Kantor, director of Corporate Communications for PBS, defended PBS with a predictable critique: the study's methodology was significantly flawed. "The two-week period in question," says Kantor, "was an unrepresentative time to study. Most PBS stations were involved in fund drives, and that skewed their coverage." Furthermore, Kantor objects to Hoynes' exclusion of documentaries from the study, especially since Hoynes himself admits in the study that documentaries are one of PBS's main strengths.

"I think Professor Hoynes shares PBS's goal of creating quality shows that treat viewers like citizens in a democracy, rather than consumers," says Kantor. "We do that by letting well-informed experts have in-depth discussions about issues and letting viewers form their own opinions."

Sounds reasonable. But from Hoynes' perspective, the choice of those "well-informed experts" is the crux of the issue. "Journalists are trained to exclude their own opinions from a story, to let the facts and sources speak for themselves," says Hoynes. "So when PBS relies on a very narrow list of sources--in this case, the corporate elite who completely dominate PBS's public affairs programming--they show their true bias."

Hoynes' study explains why PBS has become increasingly corporate with a simple truism: Follow the money trail. When Congress threatened in the early '90s to revoke funding for public television, PBS turned toward big business for support. What evolved was the 'New PBS'--a more marketing-savvy, more corporate-friendly, more commercial version of the old system. Today, approximately 42 percent of PBS's cash comes from corporations, private foundations, or endowment agencies.

The difference is palpable. For an example, visit www.pbs.org and click into the "Role of Corporate Sponsorship" page. The text makes it abundantly clear that PBS sponsorship is an effective form of advertising: "PBS program sponsorship is recognized by corporate leaders as an effective communications tool ... In fact, a 1998 PBS Image Study revealed that a strong majority of PBS viewers feel that companies that fund PBS have a commitment to quality and excellence; believe underwriters are usually industry leaders; would choose to buy a product from a company that supports PBS, all other things being equal."

This artless appeal to corporations for advertising revenue corroborates what Hoynes' statistics imply: The "New PBS," especially its public affairs programming, may not be much different from the commercial networks. What, if anything, still makes PBS a valuable alternative to mainstream TV?

According to Stu Kantor, it's the depth. "PBS provides an alternative to 'sound-byte journalism'--journalism that is meant to boost ratings, not to inform the public," he says. "PBS isn't restricted by those forces, so our programming is much, much deeper."

For Professor Hoynes, that's not good enough. "Public television must engage citizens ... by broadening discourse beyond traditional elite voices," he writes in his study's final paragraph.

"Public television can be a valuable democratic resource if its leadership takes seriously its founding mission to include fresh perspectives, expand dialogue, welcome controversy and serve all segments of the population."

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From the July 8-14, 1999 issue of the Sonoma County Independent.

Copyright © Metro Publishing Inc. Maintained by Boulevards New Media.




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