Tag: public broadcasting

TV History Thursday Night, Part 4: You’re (Not) Watching PBS


That’s an article from 13 years ago, at a critical moment in the history of broadcasting. Yes, the American Cinema Foundation was hosting a big Hollywood event, a national online conversation about the future of PBS, sponsored by the Corporation for Public Broadcasting. Yes, the American Cinema Foundation was well known as a group of Hollywood conservatives. The irony of that title is that what keynote speaker Rob Long demanded wasn’t a seat at the PBS table at all. He wanted it ended, but in the nicest, wittiest, most reasonable way. For weeks, the “blob” of employees and administrators of PBS stations sputtered in rage. But what they didn’t do—the only thing that might have saved most of their jobs over the following decade—was to listen to us. We were polite. We were entirely polite. We said, “You’re doomed”.

Public broadcasting wasn’t always a political issue. Well, it was once only a mildly political issue. When the first college instructional stations signed on in the mid-Fifties, there was still widespread, bipartisan belief that TV could bring the very best teachers into every classroom within reach of an antenna. The US armed forces, faced with the Cold War job of instructing hundreds of thousands of recruits about the new mysteries of electronics and atomic energy, worked hand in hand with universities and the corporate world to explore the possibilities of mass teaching through television. This was true on the other side of the Iron Curtain as well.

Your local college TV station was probably started by a professor of electrical engineering who learned his stuff in the Army. It might have been built from donations of Raytheon, General Electric, and Texas Instruments parts. Those were the earliest, most naive days of educational TV. If you watched old Doc Jensen talk about Egyptian mummies and pyramids every morning at 7:45 and passed a test, you could get college credit.