Quality Time?

The Report of the Twentieth Century Fund Task Force on Public Television

Richard Somerset-Ward
Release Date: July 1, 1993

New technologies are revolutionizing global media and communications. Many believe that those institutions that fail to adapt will pimply perish. Market forces, of course, will determine most of the winners and losers in the new media order, but governments must decide whether commercial forces alone will provide for the needs of their citizens. The future of American public television, in particular will be highly dependent on the policies of the public sector.

At the heart of questions about the present and future role of public television in the United States lies peculiarly American dilemma. While other nations always have relied heavily upon governmental support for television programming, in the 1940s and 1950s Americans allocated the available over-the-air channels in such a way that the system is overwhelmingly privately owned. This approach reflected, among other things, a basic American idea about journalism and media: that whatever its faults, the marketplace has one great virtue when it comes to providing support for the sources of news and information–it frees them from financial dependence upon government or party. Of course, it is also true that the market does not capture many values that we hold dear. what sells is seldom the same as what constitutes anyone’s notion of a cultured and thoughtful society. The term “mass media” explicitly suggests the lowest-common-denominator approach of most commercial television.

Given the fragile roots, it is scarcely surprising that support and policy directions for public television from Washington has been inconsistent and controversial. And today, when the reality of multichannel cable systems, VCRs, and even interactivity are demolishing the old market realties that shaped the development of television, both public television’s friends and enemies often seem uncertain about what, if any, role it should play in the future.

In Quality Time?, the development and future of public television as a cross-cutting issue is debated. Some regard public television as a natural resource to the public, serving as a social program and the public’s right to know. Others view that public television should be an institution of news and managed as an information business venture similar to commercial television with corporate sponsors. Though both sides may seem to disagree, friend and enemies do agree that television, both commercial and public, is ripe for, if not in need of, complete reinvention, or at least creative recycling.