January 13, 2005
The second meeting of the new PBS-inspired "Digital Future Initiative," held yesterday in Washington, DC,
did nothing to allay fears that public television is facing a serious identity crisis. Desperate for funding, PBS has he
lped create a committee that is supposed to help "envision the future of public broadcasting." Based on what appears to
be an extraordinarily brief and superficial examination of the plans and potential for noncommercial digital communica
tions, the group is to recommend to Congress that some form of "Trust Fund" be established.
What is most striking about the five-hour meeting on 12 January was the absence of a public interest programming vision
. The new PBS "Public Square" plan, which has been touted as public broadcasting's grand plan for the future,
PBS president Pat Mitchell said that the three areas that would mark PBS's future were education, civic engagement, and community partnerships. Much was made of the current role PBS plays in providing educatio nal services, especially to teachers and schools. PBS wants to have the resources so it can provide "on-demand, multimed ia curriculum" services, a noble goal. But public broadcasting was designed to be an alternative to commercia l media, not just a national K-12 and lifelong learning service.
A series of panels featured station representatives and PBS officials. It's clear that this initiative is designed fo r this narrow constituency of stakeholders. Left out, it appears, are independent producers, community media makers, and a whole range of digitally connected potential programmers. Some stations said that they were b eginning to serve as community media "hubs" or "access units." But in a very revealing presentation, it was noted that t he stations expected to actually own the rights to the programming made on behalf of the nonprofit groups they choose to work with (groups like the Boy Scouts were mentioned several times).
The biggest news from the event came at the end. The PBS lobbying group APTS announced it planned to join forces with the Digital Opportunity Trust (DOIT) proposal advanced by former PBS president Larry Grossman and former FCC chair Newt Minow. According to APTS President John Lawson, th e group's survey of congressional aides had revealed there was support for a "limited" trust fund focused on education. Vowing "no more quixotic crusades" that would try and get Congress to support serious noncommercial funding, Lawson said they would propose a "digital education" fund. APTS and DOIT would present such a legislative proposal to Congress by mid-February, to coincide with the PBS stations' "Capital Hill Day" of lobbying.
The Lawson-DOIT plan may undermine the plans of PBS and the "Digital Future Initiative" to advance a recommendation to Cong ress that would also provide more funding for the network. But it is clear that if there is to be a debate on whether we can "put the public back in public television," it will have to come from outside the narrow focus of the st ations, PBS, and this Trust Fund group.
Karen Everhart, "Trust Fund Possible Only with New Unity and Broad Support," Current, 13 Dec. 2004
"Public Square," a Multi-Media Coll aboration of PBS and CPB
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