As a reaction to the wasteland of network television, there arose in the ’60s a mighty dream — The Public Broadcasting Services (PBS) -a truly educational and non-commercial television resource. The American people finally were to be exposed to a wide variety of opinion. TV censorship would be relegated to the commercial networks.
The dream never materialized. Instead, public television became the ward of the Establishment — of corporations that serve as key underwriters and executives preoccupied with financing difficulties rather than with programming.
And censorship, while publicly disclaimed by PBS executives, became a way o£ life in public broadcasting.
Some examples: in 1977, public television officials dropped a controversial documentary called “Plutonium: Element of Risk” from the PBS schedule. They said the KCET (PBS-Los Angeles) program failed to conform to PBS’s “journalistic standards.” It could have been an early warning signal about the dangers of nuclear power, long before TMI.
WGBH (PBS-Boston) is currently embroiled in some legal actions, many of them stemming from its questionable treatment of an important film against racism, “Blacks Britannica” (BB). The film, commissioned as part of its “World” series, was scheduled for U.S. broadcast on July 13, 1978, but cancelled after station officials, referring to the political ideas in the film, said they were “unsuitable for Americans.” A reorganized or censored version of the film was aired in August, 1978, without a single creative credit since all those involved in its original production withdrew their names from the PBS program.
David Koff, director of “Blacks Britannica,” has sued WGBH and PBS for damages arising from the political censorship and artistic mutilation of his work.
In January, 1979, WETA (PBS-Washington, D.C.) became a focal point for close scrutiny with serious documented charges of financial mismanagement, incorrectly reported income from non-federal sources, insensitivity to community (particularly black) needs and issues, and the CIA’s leasing of the station’s antenna A MTA inquiry committee (hand-picked by the chairman of the board) subsequently substantiated some of the charges, prompted outside examination of others, and failed to investigate still others.
In May, 1979, controversy erupted again at WGBH, this time over the “reorganizing of ‘The Shirt Off Our Backs’,” a powerful documentary about the world garment trade. This documentary was not the product of a relatively powerless independent, as was the case with “BB” but rather the production of one of Britain’s biggest broadcasting groups — Granada Television.
More recently, a Coalition to Make Public TV Public has been formed in New York to investigate a magnitude of controversial public broadcasting issues and what they reflect about access to public TV. The group was formed after WNET (PBS-New York) rejected four films for the station’s “Independent Focus” series without a word of explanation to the independent review panel which had recommended them.
Finally, it is interesting to note that PBS, which is always in search of funding, is selective about its funding sources. While General Motors helps sponsor Milton Friedman’s “Free to Choose” series and Merrill Lynch sponsors the “American Enterprise,” PBS rejected labor union funds for a planned TV series on labor history called “Made in U.S.A.”. In rejecting the funds, PBS president Larry Grossman said “We get nervous when the first money in is money from labor unions. People will look at the long list of unions in the underwriters’ credits and accuse us of selling out.” PBS apparently is less concerned about being accused of selling out to major corporations, particularly those in the oil industry.
In fact, television industry insiders refer to the Public Broadcasting Service as “the oil network.”
San Francisco Chronicle columnist Charles McCabe, in explaining why PBS failed to fulfill its dream, said “One of the reasons why this never happened was the takeover of educational television by the petroleum industry. Educational television is now effectively controlled by Mobil, Exxon, Sun, Atlantic Richfield and suchlike. …The power of oil thinking (anything that challenges untrammeled laissez faire is frowned upon and ultimately expunged) on educational TV is the greatest kind of power, the power to prevent, and to do it secretly.”
McCabe concludes that the “oil companies book what PBS shows. More important they keep dissent to an irreducible minimum on the non-commercial networks.”
As New York Times columnist John J. O’Connor recently said in an analysis of corporate control of PBS, “Something is rotten in public television.”
The media’s failure to expose the quiet transformation of the Public Broadcasting Service into “The Oil Network” and the censorship which occurs within PBS qualifies this story for nomination as one of the “best censored” stories of 1979.
Washington Journalism Review, April/May 1979, “The Horowitz Affair,” by John Friedman; Jump Cut, November 1979, “Racism in Public T.V.”, by Joel Dreyfuss; In These Times, Feb. 6 and Mar. 5, 1980, “Public Television,” by Pat Aufderheide; San Francisco Chronicle, June 12, 1978, and Feb. 28, 1980, The Oil Network,” by Charles McCabe; New York Times Service, Mar. 23, 1980, “PBS Has Gone Middle-Class, by John J. O’Connor.