Why Public Media Matters for Media Studies

April 25, 2012
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If public spaces increase democratic participation through public discourse and visibility, educators posited as early as the 1920s, would a mediated non-profit ‘public forum’ help to promote the ‘promise’ of American democracy?  I’d like to argue in this brief space that the fundamental thrust of their question still provides grounds for healthy debate over the purpose of media studies, as well as a coherent logic for media research.

It is a popular conservative position to stand against publicly based institutions and a typical liberal position to halfheartedly support them. The ‘public’, a concept so central to the emergence of democratic spaces during the progressive era, services during the depression, and civil securities during the Great Society, has clearly waned as a rhetorical and conceptual imperative. The logic of privatization has become so strong that every space is seen as a potential extension of accumulation and distribution tactics. It contends not that equity equates to socialism or other absurdities, but that the democratic endeavor is naturally achieved through increased consumer choice and additional pathways of communication. Proponents list an impressive series of recent accomplishments on behalf of private industry: interactive media has increased the capacity for content to reach intended audiences in a way that promotes sustainable consumerist relationships, narrowcasting has provided entire demographics with both lifestyle content and personalized commercials to satiate their habitus, and one may participate freely, safely, and with like-minded users in online spaces. So why would federally funded stations that run low demographic and low-impact programming need to continue if increased consumer capacity and aesthetic complexity have made a ‘public’ media space mandate obsolete? Forty-five years after the 1967 passage of the Public Broadcasting Act, PBS and NPR’s wide hodgepodge of civic, pedagogical, childrens, science, documentary, and how-to programming seem like an anachronism. The ‘promise’ of increased specialization of consumer demand as democratic participation has become a dominant policy position regarding public broadcasting, as well as rationale to privatize and weaken public schools, public housing, settlement houses, public parks, and public universities. Amongst media studies itself, with the deluge of information around private industry, convergence practices, and transnational flows, what significance could a study of our unpopular and endangered non-profit sector offer?

The Free Press has recently presciently pointed to decreased state support and rhetorical attacks upon PBS stations, and the survival of public broadcasting in its current form relies upon these crucial state and federal dollars. But I’d also like to pose a broader historical context. Public broadcasting is not a revolutionary ‘alternative’ to commercial media. It is a specific set of institutional practices, an autonomous self-sustaining extension of the government, and a channel delegated for curricular programming and adult education. In this way it resembles many industrial and aesthetic characteristics so thoroughly studied today. But it is also an enduring concept that served as a basis for an entire generation of media studiesThough the well-documented business-friendly Communications Act of 1934 privatized American media, the concept survived and an entire corpus of communications research emerged to promote media literacy, educational technology, and understand content reception. For over 30 years the consensus regarding the primacy of public media for public spaces inspired researchers to constitute a sustainable academic advocacy culture. This included figures such as Wilbur Schramm (Stanford), who utilized qualitative and quantitative analysis to examine propaganda, UNESCO initiatives, and the effect of communications technology on national development; Dallas Smythe (Illinois), who wrote cutting and trenchant critiques of commercial media practices while heading an influential congressional advocacy campaign that led to the FCC Blue Book and the Sixth Report and Order; and Keith Tyler (Ohio State), who was at the center of many public technology initiatives from closed-caption instructional television to the Midwest Program on Airborne Television Instruction (see Allison Perlman’s recent work on the MPATI), while overseeing research on educational radio and television aesthetics later utilized by American Public Broadcasting. During the advocacy period between 1934 and the passage of the 1967 Public Broadcasting Act, communications research followed an intended purpose.

Hence, at a moment in which public institutions are weathering attacks in virtually every sphere, it’s worth noting that in media and communication studies alone attention to the concept of ‘the public’ has historically engendered wide (and productive) regulatory debate about democratic participation, a media advocacy movement that persisted for over thirty years, and an entire genre of non-commercial programming rubrics. While ‘mapping’ of industry practices and new media innovations will no doubt continue, and it’s a given that commercial media is entertaining, provocative, and occasionally addresses social expediencies, there is no sustainable incentive within logic of accumulation to support a mediated forum for working out social problems with equanimity. Incentive has to be created. Put succinctly, when a research orientation begins with bottom-up evaluation and assessment of how media may promote ‘public’ good in all of its variations, consequent methods can be constituted to examine media not only as proxy of ‘official’ utterances, but toward the realization of debatable social imperatives within a visible field. Such analysis demands strong evidentiary practices, but it also requires that we begin with a rigorous conceptual discussion about implicit assumptions endemic to the object studied and the purpose of analysis itself.


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5 Responses to “ Why Public Media Matters for Media Studies ”

  1. David Craig on April 25, 2012 at 11:26 PM

    An interesting reaction to Public Broadcasting is that it has allowed for the complete abdication of any public interest programming by commercial television. Granted, notions of what served the “public interest” were always ill-defined and subject to particularly scrutiny by advocates of free speech. Nevertheless, the presence of PBS has served to ghettoize pro-social content that might otherwise be viably produced for commercial networks, whether for profit or to accommodate the demands for media corporate-citizenship. From personal experience, I can say that public broadcasting has inhibited those operating within commercial media to provide pro-social content.

    In addition, based on the limited definition of what qualifies as “educational”, PBS has avoided experimentation with new programming formats and genres. Conversely, commercial media has embraced the new digital technologies which have inspired new formats on television like reality, docu-soaps and/or live action competition programming. These formats may lack the sophistication or the elitist appeal of what is traditionally thought of as “public broadcasting”, but audiences have proven far more complex in reading these formats, supporting the claim made by the 1950’s Hollywood anthropologist Hortense Powdermaker that “all entertainment is educational, perhaps even moreso due to it’s appeal to the emotions.”

    However, the rigid notion of what qualifies as “educational media” may ironically offer a solution to PBS’ survival. The advances in Information and Communication Technology in the Digital Age are producing a “Great Transformation” throughout our society, as reflected in the notions of a Participatory Culture espoused by Henry Jenkins. No where is this more evident than in our educational systems. Primary and secondary education schools are rapidly evolving to factor in digital learning and media literacy into their core curriculum. Top-tier institutions of higher learning are starting to offer distance learning programs (in the case of M.I.T., much of the information is provided for free). It’s inevitable that schooling will become not a right of passage or a scholastic achievement but a perpetual process in the wake of a complex, technologically-evolving and globalized world. PBS is in a unique position to collaborate with local and national educational systems and institutions of higher learning, to promote and generate new and future programming teaching formats and genres and to allow for citizen/students to engage in participatory and interactive learning.

    • Jonathan Gray on April 26, 2012 at 1:28 PM

      David, when you say, “public broadcasting has inhibited those operating within commercial media to provide pro-social content,” I wonder how much that operates at the level of actually inhibiting development of such content, and how much it acts at the level of providing an excuse for not doing so. I’m having a hard time believing, for instance, that if PBS disappeared overnight, the good folks at NBC, CBS, AMC, etc. would all of a sudden feel relieved that they could produce the pro-social content projects they’d always dreamed of making but somehow couldn’t. American broadcasters have long proven unashamed of copying what works elsewhere, and don’t seem too worried about appearing to be replicating one another, so why would they allow PBS to cast such a long shadow? I don’t doubt that broadcasters find PBS’ existence convenient when they want to reject a pitch and kindly tell the pitcher to go talk to PBS instead … but I’m intensely skeptical that PBS stops them from doing what they’d otherwise do.

    • Josh on April 27, 2012 at 12:34 PM

      Hi David, yes I think that your work nicely complicates the binary between public/private by looking at how specific producer/directors/talent have worked within the system to increase visibility of otherwise neglected experiences and topics. While I’m not qualified to make a judgment regarding current decision-making at the CPB, I do want to clarify the basic thrust of my post: by calling upon a concept of increased democratic participation as a foundational paradigm, a generation of researchers were effectively able to build an entire media system and develop frameworks for evaluation that we still use today. There’s something to that, and I argue not for a specific institution or method, but the identification of imperatives by which to study discursive processes around media. Such a debate would have to begin as distinct from officially mandated messages but would of course inevitably enter into discussion and evaluation with industrial practices.

  2. David Craig on April 29, 2012 at 10:00 AM

    I would also like to challenge you on the notion of a “non-profit”. Depending on what you read, 12 to 20% of PBS funding comes from the government. I can’t tell how much comes from subscriptions (“viewers like you”.) But a good share of the programming is privately funded by endowments, foundations and corporations. Those endowments and foundations typically belong to successful capitalists and entrepreneurs. Meanwhile, the corporations reap the benefits in non-renumerative but clearly promotional ways. Conversely, there is plenty of commercial television that, in fact, serves as “loss leaders” for the network to satisfy other non-profit interests (public, “sustaining”, industrial, corporate, or otherwise).

    • Josh on May 2, 2012 at 2:25 PM

      Yes, this is a central point regarding the de-funding of the CPB. It speaks first to the non-revolutionary character of ‘non-profit’ media, as I mentioned above. I’d still distinguish between underwritten production conducted by educators, and programming produced for the purpose of reaching target demographics. The impulse is fundamentally different as should be consequent analysis. That said, you’re right to point out that ‘who’ is funding a program leads to specific decisions regarding content. Especially with recent philanthropic ‘investment’ by the Koch Brothers into the CPB as well as the general introduction of advertising into the PBS format, the basic impulse of public broadcasting is threatened. The goal of a ‘public’ is not to create an artificial binary between non-profit and private, but to point to the difference between reporting ‘official knowledge’ as it is presented, and approaching information with a critical lens, be it via quantitative or qualitative methods. While commercial media has figured out how to offer more ‘choice’, I think we must be careful not to assume (and I know we agree about this point specifically) that additional opportunities for consumerism will replace the virtues of a public forum.