The headquarters of the Public Broadcasting Service seem a world away from those of the major commercial television networks. ABC, CBS, and NBC have imposing offices taking up whole blocks of pricey midtown Manhattan real estate, not to mention lavish studios in New York and Los Angeles.
PBS's digs are in a modest brick office complex 10 minutes outside of Washington. And PBS itself does not produce a single program that airs on the nation's public-television stations.
But then, PBS President Ervin S. Duggan likes to think of his organization as more than a television network.
"We are a public good, like a museum," he says.
Duggan sat down recently to discuss the future of PBS, which is 25 years old next month.
"It would be a mistake to call it redefining ourselves," Duggan, an intense Washington insider who early this year became PBS's fourth president, says. "But a strategic goal of PBS under my leadership will be to bind ourselves as never before to our educational mission."
Education has become something of a mantra among staff members of the three legs of public television's structure--the PBS network itself, the federally funded Corporation for Public Broadcasting, and the nation's 351 noncommercial television stations. Besides underwriting, producing, and airing more educational and instructional television shows than ever before, public television is reaching out to schools in new ways.
- This past summer, PBS launched its Ready to Learn project at 11 stations across the country, combining expanded preschool programming with community partnerships stressing training to help parents better prepare their children for school.
- Also this summer, PBS expanded its adult-education services with Going the Distance, a new program that for the first time allows students to earn an Associate of Arts degree from 50 community colleges by watching distance-learning television courses.
- And, in one of its most ambitious and technologically advanced services ever offered to K-12 education, PBS is just now launching Mathline, a computer and video service about mathematics for teachers. The first phase of the project is designed to help middle school math teachers learn about and apply national standards in the field.
Delivering the National Goals
Public television's commitment to education has always been substantial. But PBS is more eager than ever to make sure the public knows about initiatives that often receive little attention amid public skirmishes over federal funding, alleged political bias, and shows with controversial themes.
In June, Duggan took the unusual step of writing a letter to members of Congress to rebut frequent criticisms leveled at public television, mostly by political conservatives. These criticisms, which have percolated ever since a bitter 1992 Congressional battle over funding for public broadcasting, include charges that PBS's programming has a liberal bias; that some individuals and organizations are getting rich off shows produced with federal subsidies; and that the entire public-broadcasting endeavor could exist and thrive without millions of dollars of annual support from federal taxpayers.
"Public television distinguishes itself from commercial television by its commitment to education," wrote Duggan, a former aide to President Lyndon B. Johnson who served as a member of the Federal Communications Commission before taking the PBS post. "In terms of overall education, no one in the telecommunications industry even comes close."
In a recent interview, Duggan pounds the point home further.
"We are becoming a national delivery system for the education goals," he says, pointing to recent PBS projects that directly address the national goals aimed at insuring students enter school ready to learn (the Ready to Learn service), improve lifelong learning (Going the Distance), and making U.S. students first in the world in mathematics by 2000 (Mathline).
"We feel we have a role to play as a national distribution system," he adds. "We reach [nearly] 100 percent of homes, and two-thirds of teachers in the country use materials from public television."
However, a re-emphasis on education will not solve all the questions that cloud PBS's future. Funding is a perennial concern. Many observers wonder why PBS doesn't get more of a take when its children's shows spawn popular toys and other products. Others question whether the public-television system supports too many stations serving the same geographic areas.
And for more than a decade, critics have contended that public television's basic mission of presenting quality public affairs, cultural, and educational programming has been ceded to such cable-television channels as Cable News Network, C-SPAN, the Arts and Entertainment Network, the Discovery Channel, and the Learning Channel. The big question now seems to be: Is PBS a relic of a television era that is coming to a close or a forward-thinking organization that is poised to take a leadership role in the new information society?
In a major study of public television last year, a task force of the Twentieth Century Fund strongly endorsed the latter role for PBS.
"Given the explosion of commercial outlets, it is more important now than ever that the choices available to us should include a substantial, independent, noncommercial enterprise that has public service and education as its principal mandate," the task force's report said. "In its first 25 years, public television has demonstrated its ability to fulfill that mandate.
Among the panel's members were former Secretary of Health, Education, and Welfare Joseph A. Califano Jr. and former U.S. Sen. Timothy E. Wirth of Colorado. The panel also included then-F.C.C. Commissioner Ervin Duggan.
National Educational Television
In one sense, public television is merely returning to its roots when it stresses its educational offerings. After all, public television in the United States started out as educational television, with the first so-called ETV station, KUHT, going on the air in Houston in 1953.
Funding from the Ford Foundation helped create additional educational stations, and the National Educational Television center was formed to produce instructional programs that stations shared throughout the 1960's. In 1967, a report by the Carnegie Commission on Educational Television recommended a federal excise tax on television sales to fund what it called "public television." The panel also proposed a private corporation that would use the federal funds to create a national network of educational television stations and produce programming.
The federal Public Broadcasting Act of 1967 incorporated some of the commission's suggestions. It created the Corporation for Public Broadcasting to encompass public radio as well as television. Instead of an excise tax, the law provided that the C.P.B. would receive annual appropriations from Congress.
In 1969, two developments helped establish public television as it is today. One was the creation of PBS, which would be owned by its member public-television stations and operate the technical system for broadcasting shows nationwide. It began distributing programs in the fall of 1970.
The other was the debut of "Sesame Street," the brainchild of the Children's Television Workshop in New York. The popular show proved that television could educate as well as entertain. It also solidified public television's role of providing the type of programming to which the commercial networks only paid lip service.
PBS's commitment to preschool children expanded this summer with the debut of "PTV, the Ready to Learn Service." The service packages such children's shows as "Sesame Street," "Barney & Friends," and "Lamb Chop's Play-Along" into long morning and afternoon blocks for preschool children and their parents or caregivers.
In between shows, short segments tout educational messages and tie the shows into an identifiable "environment." And it's no secret that the package is meant to look hip, the better to compete with children's shows on the Nickelodeon and Disney cable channels, and with broadcast commercial stations.
While the Ready to Learn service has a very young target audience, PBS has dubbed its expanded college television course for adults "Ready to Earn."
The project is PBS's answer to the need for a more thoughtful school-to-work transition. Its first project, Going the Distance, will be launched next spring in 20 pilot markets.
Math on the Information Highway
While these two projects alone are ambitious, PBS is moving into a whole new dimension with Mathline, its new service for math educators. Mathline combines PBS's expertise in television with the expanding information highway.
"We've tried to bring together technologies in a way that really serves people," says Sandra H. Welch, PBS's executive vice president for education, who initiated the project two years ago.
When they first announced Mathline, PBS officials said it would be sort of like a mathematics channel, which stirs images of a C-SPAN for calculus junkies.
In reality, only a small portion of Mathline involves traditional television. The rest consists of on-line communications between math instructors in an electronic "learning center," where experienced mentors help fledgling teachers learn new methods.
The project is designed to help teachers learn about new teaching techniques associated with the standards developed by the National Council of Teachers of Mathematics.
"We started there because it was the N.C.T.M. that was first out of the box with standards" among national curriculum groups, Welch says.
This month, the first phase of Mathline is getting under way. The Middle School Math Project involves 500 teachers in 20 public-television markets or state educational-television systems.
The teachers begin by watching short video segments that demonstrate a new mathematics teaching method. In "Something Fishy," for example, a Maryland teacher uses pretzels and goldfish-shaped crackers to teach her pupils how scientists count the number of fish in the Chesapeake Bay. The students learn how proportions can be used to count a large population.
The videos are aired on the participating stations at a time when teachers can tape them, and instructional materials are distributed over the second key component of the system: the on-line computer hookup.
Groups of about 25 to 30 teachers make up on-line "learning communities," in which they can discuss the teaching method demonstrated in the videos or tell how their own classrooms of students reacted. An experienced math teacher serves as the on-line "facilitator," encouraging the group to communicate and stick to deadlines.
Proponents of the system say it brings a whole new meaning to professional development.
"This touches a nerve because it really respects teachers," Mary Harley Kruter, the director of the Mathline project, says. "If teachers are to become true professionals, we have to take charge of our professional development."
As Kruter speaks, she is interrupted by an on-line call from a participating Mathline station.
"The real heart of this program is people talking to each other and learning from each other," she adds.
Twin Cities Public Television in Minneapolis and St. Paul piloted the Middle School Math Project last spring. Mark Lynch, the project coordinator for the PBS station, says there were some minor problems setting up on-line connections between teachers and the station. But once the bugs were out of the way, teachers loved the service.
"Teachers see the videos and say, 'Oh great, that is what they meant by that new standard,'" he says. "But the real learning takes place when those teachers go into the learning group to discuss what they saw."
Jon Sorensen, a teacher at Franklin Middle School in Minneapolis, used his home computer and modem to tap into the on-line group.
"I'm a relatively new teacher," he says. "There were veteran teachers on-line, and I could just sit back and read what they had to say."
Jeanne Dickman Bennett, a teacher at Westwood Middle School in Spring Lake Park, Minn., says the project was the best in-service training she had ever received. "Most teachers are isolated in their classrooms," she says. "This gives them exposure."
Paul Dillenberger, a veteran math teacher in Minneapolis who served as the on-line facilitator, says the project frees teachers from in-service training at a set time.
"They can sit in 10 minutes here or there to participate in the discussion," he says. "You also tend to get a lot more thoughtful responses than you might get in a teaching seminar."
Kruter says the on-line groups are not just a "chat forum; it's structured."
Of course, the new system isn't free. PBS got funding for the project from the C.P.B., the Carnegie Corporation of New York, the A.T.&T. Foundation, and the Cellular Telecommunications Industry Association.
School districts must pay $500 per teacher to enroll in Mathline, but Welch notes that many have successfully applied for federal Eisenhower math and science grants or sought local corporate underwriting to cover the costs.
A $3.2 million grant from the cellular-phone industry group will go in part for an experiment that will make the project even more futuristic. Some teachers will hook up to their on-line groups via laptop computers equipped with cellular-telephone modems. Teachers working in aging classrooms with outdated wiring will need such devices to make use of Mathline and other modern technologies.
"This will show that teachers can leap onto the information highway," Kruter says.
Another part of the grant will help establish an on-line collection of data bases about math, which Welch says will be Mathline's next big "product."
Welch has visions of creating similar services in other subjects, such as an Englishline or a Scienceline.
"The model we have created for Mathline is something that could very easily translate to all the other curriculum areas," she says.
A Perfect Match
Kruter came to PBS to direct Mathline after 25 years as a math teacher and coordinator in suburban Washington. Like many people, she didn't really understand how the world of public television operated.
"When I came here, I thought PBS was just like NBC--it told its stations what to do," she says. "But public television is a highly decentralized endeavor. So is public education. What a match."
Duggan agrees, saying that, in his first months on the job, even he felt bewildered by the system.
"What's surprising about PBS and PTV [public television] is the complexity of the system and the immense amount of freedom in the system," he says.
Even people who work in public television require years to figure out its complex governance and operational structure.
In a nutshell, the Corporation for Public Broadcasting is the private organization established by the 1967 Public Broadcasting Act to funnel federal money into public television and radio. Most of its federal funds ($253.3 million in 1993) go to local public-television and -radio stations for operations.
By law, the President appoints C.P.B.'s board, but its members can't all be from the same political party, thus insuring bipartisanship.
PBS is owned by its member stations, who elect its board and vote on major issues. Unlike the commercial television networks, PBS doesn't produce or own a single show. It makes programming decisions and purchases rights to air shows over its technological apparatus.
Public-television stations, the third leg of the triad, retain a lot of control over what goes on the air and when. Many are part of state-funded systems such as Kentucky Educational Television or South Carolina ETV. Others are community stations, broadly serving metropolitan areas, or institutional stations licensed by universities, municipalities, or, in a few cases, school districts. (See story.)
Some critics charge that there are too many public-television stations. Some larger cities have three or more stations serving the same audience, with only marginal differences in mission and programming.
Richard W. Carlson, the president of the C.P.B., has called for the consolidation of stations, noting that more than 100 of the 351 total overlap into one another's viewing areas.
"The patchwork quilt of public stations across the nation must be reorganized so viewers can have more choices and better services," Carlson wrote in an op-ed piece last April in The New York Times.
"The opportunity for strategic alliances is there in many parts of the country," Carlson adds in an interview. "Sometimes, they need a little push."
Already some stations are examining consolidation. Maine's two public stations merged to form the Maine Public Broadcasting Corporation, which now has pooled assets to program two separate channels with greater variety.
New York City's WNET is exploring a merger of some operations with Connecticut Public Broadcasting, although programming on the two systems would remain independent.
Since local stations are the link to educators and school districts, anything that makes public television more efficient could benefit educational projects such as Mathline.
But Duggan seems skeptical of the call for consolidation. "There is a great danger of oversimplifying this issue," he says. "It's very easy to use the word 'efficiency.'"
He points to two stations that serve Washington. WETA is the flagship station in the market and a major producer of such programming as "The MacNeil/Lehrer NewsHour" (with New York's WNET). WHMM is owned by historically black Howard University, and its programming is heavily geared to an African-American audience.
"There are differences in mission for many stations," Duggan says. "We should hesitate before we start killing off those stations. Educational television needs more streams of programming, not fewer."
Taking on the Critics
As his letter to Congress last June suggests, Duggan seems ready to respond aggressively to public television's critics.
One critic, Laurence Jarvik, has turned public broadcasting into a nearly full-time target. Jarvik, a Washington policy analyst who was with the conservative Heritage Foundation and now operates the Center for the Study of Popular Culture, is particularly galled by what he calls private "profiteering" of the federal taxpayer's contribution to public television.
PBS children's shows that yield popular toys, such as "Barney" and "Shining Time Station," anger him. The relatively generous salaries paid to top executives in public television and at organizations with ties to public television, such as the Children's Television Workshop, anger him. Simply put, the entire federal appropriation to public broadcasting angers him, because he believes it is no longer necessary.
"Private, for-profit businesses doing business with public broadcasters are making considerable profits selling merchandise connected with PBS shows," he writes in one of his missives. "Yet, not one penny of public broadcasting's children's-television revenues are returned to the American taxpayer."
In an interview, Jarvik argues that public television could survive on its own without help from the federal government.
"We don't have a [federally funded] 'Corporation for Textbook Publishing,'" he says. "Why? Because it is a very profitable business" for the private sector.
Duggan admits that PBS has not always benefited when a children's show hits it big in the toy market. He adds that the network is now "driving harder bargains," and that PBS should recoup its investment in "Barney & Friends" under a new arrangement.
But he also points out that public television seldom underwrites all the costs of a television show and, thus, is not entitled to all the profits of spin-offs. And he believes the entire issue is a "diversion."
"Very few people are getting rich from public television," he says. "People who want to get rich go into commercial TV."
As an aide to President Johnson in 1967, Duggan worked on the Public Broadcasting Act, and he has been an advocate for public television ever since.
He began his career in the capital as a reporter for The Washingon Post. The city's power relationships intrigued him enough to co-author, with Ben J. Wattenberg, a 1977 political novel entitled Against All Enemies. It is about a fictional U.S. Vice President's attempt to unseat the President.
Although he worked for several Democratic politicians, Duggan was appointed by President Bush to the F.C.C. Some liberal critics charge that he is bringing too conservative an outlook to PBS. (For example, Duggan has been bashed for declining to help finance a sequel to the mini-series "Tales of the City." Some observers believe he did so because the series' focus on homosexual characters angered some viewers and conservative Christian spokesmen. Duggan testily replies that the network could not afford the expensive drama.)
Outside his office, copies of The National Review rest on a table alongside television-industry trade magazines.
C.P.B. President Carlson says Duggan has the right skills to lead public television.
"PBS is a big ship," he says. "Ervin has the political sophistication to succeed in that job."
In defense of government funding for public television, Duggan makes a final point. The availability of bookstores does not eliminate the need for libraries, he says. Private art galleries do not eliminate the need for museums.
"Our mission is education, culture, and citizenship," he says. "That's what the nation's schools are about, and I like to think that's what we're about."