The Politics of Public Television
VTR Date: September 19, 2005
Richard Heffner and William F. Baker discuss the politics of public television.
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GUEST: Dr. William F. Baker
I’m Richard Heffner, your host on The Open Mind … and as I look back to the early 1960’s and the role my colleagues and I played in helping acquire and then activate New York’s Channel 13/WNET as what has become America’s
flagship public broadcasting outlet – the nation’s most watched public television station, and our largest producer of cultural and arts programming – I rejoice that we were then so removed from national partisan politics, from the pressures of rival ideologies that now plague station and national public television management.
Today, those who have come after us aren’t so fortunate. And I’ve asked William F. Baker – since 1987 the intrepid President and CEO of EBC, the Educational Broadcasting Corporation that is the licensee of both Thirteen/WNET and WLIW21 New York – to join me here to illumine for us today’s politics of public television.
Indeed, I would first ask Bill Baker if we’re in anything more now than one of those frequent down-and-dirty periods that simply come and go in the public media.
Or do the pressures of rival ideologies loom larger for him and his fellow public broadcasters now than ever before? Which is it Bill? Worse?
BAKER: Dick … first of all thank you for having me on this wonderful program of yours which I enjoy every week on Channel 13. And the answer to your question is “I don’t know”. I thought during the Gingrich era when it looked like, honestly, we were going to go out of business; we were actually quietly in the backroom looking at shutdown plans for Channel 13, if you can image that.
And we thought, well once we weathered that one, we had thought maybe it would never come again. Mostly because we thought that the …that the Congress would realize that the American public loved public television so much they wouldn’t, they wouldn’t let it die … they didn’t want it to die.
HEFFNER: Isn’t that what happened last time?
BAKER: And … and so this last go-round came and kind of surprised us and we were worried that maybe the American public would feel that either one, we were kind of crying “wolf” or number two, that gee, they’d had it with us, enough of this misery from public television, let’s fight other battles.
Well we were again delighted that the people of this country rose up and the Congress in a very bi-partisan way embraced us again and saved us for the second time.
I think the … the things that are going on in public television reflect what’s going on in America. We’re living in a very polarized society, a very polarized country. A country that is also very fragmented and everybody’s pointing the finger at everybody else. And, and we get … we get the aftershock of all that. So … is it going to continue? Is it something that we’re in … in this … are going to be in this hole for a long time and are going to be digging out?
The answer is “I don’t know”. I hope not, because it’s a terrible and needless distraction. It takes a lot of our time, it makes us hesitant about things. But you know something, we’re going to … the decision in our backroom is “Let’s go for the mission. Let’s do what we think is right.” And if, for some reason that takes us out of telling the truth, if asking the hard questions, if doing children’s programs that make a difference for our society are things that the, that the public wants us to stop doing … then we will go out of business.
But if they want us to continue to do all these things, we’ll be around for a long time.
HEFFNER: But then it was largely a matter of money. Now it’s largely a matter of ideology, isn’t it?
BAKER: Well, the two are inter-connected because those individuals who have been critical of us have wanted to simply cut our funding. No one has suggested that we stop broadcasting. They’ve suggested that we stop getting government money.
Well, in effect, the two are connected. If we stop getting government money, we go out of business. Unless there’s some other source that replaces that.
Well no one has ever been able to conceive of any other source that could replace that much money, other than our going fully commercial or … and, of course, if we went fully commercial, we’d be driven then, again, by other forces … forces that were not, maybe, political … but, but are the same thing. They would be forces that say, “What do you put on television that can get the maximum audience?” Rather than, “What do you put on television that can provide the maximum benefit for the audience?”
HEFFNER: What do you do differently now than you did before the present storm came on the horizon?
BAKER: Oh, I don’t think … as far as program content goes, I don’t think we really are doing anything differently. We decided a long time ago that we are what we are. And we’re not about to change. And that if … again, as I say, if somebody wants to take us out; they will.
But if the people prevent that, we’ll be around. So we think the biggest danger of all is to change. We think staying true to our mission of providing the very highest quality programming; of enriching our society. Of doing the things that have been kind of out of the limelight lately, but are a big part of what we do.
For example, half of our schedule is children’s programming. As you mentioned in the introduction, we’re the biggest arts and performance producers in America of serious arts performance … arts and performance. So, we’re just staying the course. We’re not about to change.
The only thing that we’ve had to change on and this is almost silly … but it’s a FCC ruling … it’s … and it may be partly political … is language.
There are very specific FCC rules now that do not allow you to use certain words in time periods before 9 o’clock. Well, you know, sometimes that’s a … you know, you think “Well, what kind of a big deal is that? You know, just don’t let anybody say those words.”
Well, if you do the fine arts, which we do in drama … those words are sometimes in there (laughter). Poetry. If you do serious documentaries, sometimes those words are stated by some interviewee. So …
HEFFNER: And then what do you do?
BAKER: Well, we’ve been wrestling with that. Just recently there’s a program on the air … a matter of fact I’m not going to highlight it because if somebody does highlight it, they’ll push the button and we’ll wind up with a fine. We can get a fine of $500,000 an utterance to a maximum of $2 million dollars. I don’t think we would like any of those.
But the answer is, is that we look at all of those words very carefully and ones … and for the most part … we believe in free speech and we think … if something is said in the context of a documentary or an arts program and it’s critical to the message and the content … that we have to err on the side of free speech and if we get fined, that’s a risk we have to take.
Sometimes that seems almost kind of silly. “Why did you let that word go through?” or something. But what we’re saying is, is that free speech in this country is everything. That that’s the highest ideal, the whole society is predicated on free speech. I mean if you start picking away at the edges of free speech … that gets to be a very dangerous thing.
HEFFNER: Bill, you say the FCC has been very specific.
HEFFNER: Is it a kind of George Carlin list of seven words?
BAKER: Yes, it is. That’s exactly what it is. MmmHmm.
HEFFNER: What do you do with your programming …
BAKER: Want me to say those words on your show?
HEFFNER: Well, this show goes on Channel 13 …
BAKER: At noon, right.
HEFFNER: Then what are we going to do?
BAKER: We’ll bleep them out. If I say them.
HEFFNER: Well, tell me … what does happen if an error is made. Bleep?
BAKER: Well, I mean if … if … as I say, if something is said and it’s … and it’s out of context, or it’s not necessary, we would probably bleep it to avoid being fined.
If, if we feel it is necessary for the, for the context of the message or it’s historically relevant, we’ll leave it in and hope for the best.
HEFFNER: Has there been any testing of …
BAKER: Yes, there is currently some testing going on. And we’re currently actually before the FCC in a couple matters, as is our sister station WGBH. A matter of fact one of the cases involves a Masterpiece Theater program that was broadcast in which some language or some activity happened and, and that’s now being discussed and … before the FCC.
HEFFNER: To my knowledge this has not made very much of an impression in the, in American press …
HEFFNER: Am I right?
BAKER: Yeah. I think that’s correct. You know, it’s interesting …
BAKER: Well, it used to be … I’d say back in the, quote, “good old days” of American mass media that the networks and the other very powerful entities would kind of all rally around some of these very powerful and important free speech points and make a big noise about it.
Well, now because the media is so driven … commercial media is so driven by commerce and making a dollar … I mean that’s the way they were created and they’re fine media businesses and many of them are doing great work … but they really don’t want to fight some of these old fights that the Frank Stantons of this world, from CBS, used to fight. And so that kind of leaves us, the little poor public TV folks hanging out there.
HEFFNER: Now there has been much in the press about public television being attacked by its own. Ah, how are you going to deal with that?
BAKER: Yeah. Let me also amplify something I just said … and then …
BAKER: … I’ll answer your question. The other factor is, is that in a lot of the … particularly the FCC rules, there are two different standards. There is no standard for cable. And you know, people sit at home and watch all the television channels coming in over the set … some of them are over the air signals and some of them are cable channels, not broadcast over the air. But individuals can’t tell the difference.
The ones that are the cable channels and the cable networks, don’t have any of those restrictions. Those of us who are the over the air people, do have the restrictions. So, it’s a kind of goofy regulatory system that we’re involved with, too, that isn’t exactly pure. So that’s, that’s another problem. Now you were going to ask …you asked another question.
HEFFNER: Well, I was going to ask about the larger political …
HEFFNER: … pressures. Pressures on the question of whether public television is one-sided …
HEFFNER: … whether it is Liberal rather than Conservative. What is your thinking about that?
BAKER: Well, I obviously have a lot of thinking about that. First, let me reflect the thinking of the American public. For years we have been doing studies or have commissioned studies and studies have been done, not involving us at all, by independent third party individuals.
And basically the studies show that 7% of all of America thinks public television is too Liberal. 7% thinks it’s too Conservative. And 80% thinks it’s pretty much in the middle. I think this Conservative/Liberal thing is such a crazy thing to talk about when you talk about journalism. It doesn’t make any sense …
HEFFNER: Why doesn’t it make sense?
BAKER: … because … if, if journalism’s principal role is to get to the truth. If one of its rules is to ask tough questions of everybody … particularly people in power … that might be perceived by some … parties aside, as Liberal … you know, well, gee, you asked somebody important … a Senator, a Congressman, the President … a very tough question isn’t that out of line, you should be deferential?
Well, it’s not the media’s job to be deferential. It’s the media’s job to ask the tough questions, to try to seek the truth so it can provide that information to the American public. If it provides biased information, which we certainly make very effort to make sure we do not do. I mean what we do is try to present every side of every issue, then, then I think one could characterize a medium as either being Conservative or Liberal. But I don’t, I don’t think we’re in that category at all.
HEFFNER: Now. I don’t mean to pun … now …
HEFFNER: Our mutual friend, Bill Moyers …
HEFFNER: … is no intellectual eunuch … is a man with very specific ideas and I’m … I’ve always been so impressed with … we did a program some years ago when your wonderful book, “Down the Tube” came out … it’s subtitle, “An Inside Account of the Failure of American Television”.
Bill had said in his forward, “Bill Baker (and your colleague George Dessart have communicated here something true. Something powerful. Something painful. Something they believe in. They are lucky that the powers that be don’t usually behead their critics any more. For this is dangerous stuff.”
HEFFNER: Not easy to hear. And Bill, of course, if you were to scratch anyone and ask them, “Is Moyers Liberal in his politics or Conservative”, would … I don’t think …give the answer … you just gave, “Well, he’s a newsman and he finds the truth. I think first they’d say, “He’s a Liberal finding the truth.”
BAKER: Well I don’t know. I mean, I, of course, know Bill very, very well and, and I think Bill is perhaps the greatest journalist in American journalism. And I’ve watched every … I watched every one of Bill’s “Now” programs and I can tell you he had people on from every side of every issue and allowed them to speak, just as you allow people to speak on this program.
But to characterize our entire industry … the American public industry … public television industry by one half hour program out of the thousands of hours that we create and broadcast, seems a little inappropriate. I mean we broadcast programs of every ilk, of every kind with hosts and producers of, of every political and, and intellectual bent. That’s what we do in public television; we have many, many points of view. There are many programs that Channel 13 and our sister stations broadcast that I don’t agree with; I mean I don’t agree with the content, but I do agree that it’s important that content be on the air so that individuals can, can see every perspective and every point of view that’s out there.
HEFFNER: Well, now what is it that you’re trying to do? To balance? To be fair and balanced? Is that your objective in terms of presenting different points of view?
BAKER: Our effort to present different points of view is simply to present information. In the context of balanced and fair and all of those other kinds of words, I start sounding like a cable news network or something like that. I don’t want to get into that jingoism.
I want to, I want to run an organization, I want to be part of an organization that is, that is owned by the American people that presents every possible point of view in the most intelligent way we can. And that’s what I think we are doing. But we’re also doing a whole bunch of other things.
Again, you know the public affairs piece of the public television spectrum is a … still, unfortunately a fairly small piece. 50% of our schedule, as I say, is children’s … big piece of our schedule is raw educational programs. One of the things I like to say is that I’m the principal of the biggest high school in America. We have 80,000 a people watching GED on TV on Channel 13 or on Channel 21.
So we’re doing a whole bunch of things. You know, “Nature, Great Performances, Masterpiece Theater, American Masters”. All of these things are part of a rich, heterogeneous tradition of American public television.
We are not a pure form in the sense of we are, we are not a news channel, we are not a kid’s channel. We are a full service public television channel.
HEFFNER: And you said before with the statistics that you offered that most American … judging not 13, Channel 13 or 21, but in judging …
BAKER: Public TV
HEFFNER: … public television generally, it’s a balance …
HEFFNER: … it’s a wash in terms of their attitude toward its politics. What do you think?
BAKER: I agree. I mean, you know one of the things that I like so much about public television is that it really is reflective of America. And I never forgot when I first came … and individuals have said to me, “Gee, aren’t you worried, Bill that someone can … there can be some ideology that can come in and take over public television, or force you into doing something?” And I said, “Well, there may be some powerful force some day … political or otherwise that tries to come and manipulate the content of public television.”
But I said, I never forgot when I came from commercial television … now 17 years ago … to public TV and I was … I had … I was President of a very large commercial television business, that was a very fine one. We really were very proud of the quality of the things we did. So a move to public television wasn’t an insane one for me.
But yet, I was, you know, the boss and kind of respected, I had been a successful television producer myself. Never forgot walking into one of the control rooms, I can’t remember … a control room or an office … of one of our major producers at Channel 13 and said, “why don’t you do this, this and this, with your program.” And they were reasonable suggestions. These were not political or, you know, anything of that nature. Just reasonable content suggestions that I felt would make the program better, and after all I was the President of the station.
This producer looked at me … someone who’d been there for many years … I think is still there … said, “No, I won’t do that.” I said, “No?” You know, it was the first time anybody had ever said “no” to me who was producing a television series.
I said, “No. Why did you say No?” He said, “Because …” or she, it was … “I don’t believe that’s correct. I want to do it my way.”
And I thought at first … at first I was angry, I thought what kind of a reaction is this? I’m the boss, they should do what I tell them. Then I thought, you know, that’s what makes this institution so wonderful, that we allow people … we allow our producers, we allow our talent to have their head, to do what they think is right, to be a truly unique and … unique organization in the American mass media.
And really reflect free speech and free opinion. So whenever I think of anybody kind of trying to come in and take over … you can put an ideologue in my job at Channel 13 … lots of luck! (Laughter) Lots of luck. Because Channel 13 is going to be what it is.
HEFFNER: Well, would you say that about your sister channel, too?
BAKER: Yes, I would. I really would. I would say … I mean, there may be some channels that could be manipulated one way or another, you might even be able to manipulate PBS, or CPB, but you’re not going to be able to manipulate them all, or whatever it is.
We are … you’re one of the creators of public television, I’m … I’m not telling you anything, but I am, hopefully, telling the audience some things. This is a …almost Byzantine structure.
We have been criticized for years and I criticized us in my, in my first book, saying, Gee, there’s so many pieces to this, so many separate boards and moving parts and, you know, why not consolidate this make it more efficient.
Well in our Byzantine, goofy structure … that weakness is also a strength. It is a strength because it can’t be manipulated. If you can manipulate WNET, you might not be able to manipulate WGBH. Or if you can manipulate PBS, you won’t be able to manipulate WNET. So there will always be these powerful free speech entities fighting their way and clawing their way out … out of trouble.
Now, the dilemma is, of course, that takes a huge amount of energy. And I get … I, I feel sometimes so badly that I’m on the air, you know, groveling for money and asking the wonderful folks out there, “Please, you know, give us some more. Please help us.”
But ultimately we know that that’s our connection. The connection with the audience is really where it all happens. We know that if we suddenly responded to a corporate entity, a government, a politician, that the folks that watch public television are very smart folks, and they’re going to pull the plug on us, so we’re always playing; we’re always playing to our, our greatest source of independence … the American public, who support us directly with their free-will contributions.
It’s sometimes tough getting there, I’ve spend a lot of time on television, you know, bleeding from the heart (laughter) …
HEFFNER: I watch you.
BAKER: And from the mouth. But, but you know, it, it works and that direct connection with the American people is really quite powerful. And I, I’m often very touched.
You know, one of the things, too, that gives me … probably is the thing that’s kept me at Channel 13 through thick and thin more than anything. I ride the company car … the subway … here in New York.
And, and because I’ve been on TV asking for money for so long, people recognize me. And the most touching part of it all … I mean there isn’t a day that goes by, when somebody who isn’t… someone one who’s clearly a person without economic means … but yet, clearly, also very, very smart … they usually come to me and talk about some of our performance programs and ask me questions that I can’t answer … say, “Thank you. We really need you. I really appreciate what you’re doing.” And that kind of thing is what is so touching to me and keeps me going.
HEFFNER: What do the deposit slips show?
HEFFNER: What do the deposit slips show now?
BAKER: It’s, it’s been a struggle. The deposit slips show that we’re still hanging on. But it’s not to the degree that we’d like. Now we have kept our costs very much under control is good. The station is a very efficient medium. We are … so we’ve been able to keep our cost side under control.
We were hoping to grow the membership side. Our membership hasn’t shrunk; it’s not getting smaller, but it’s not growing. And that part of it is worrying us. And we don’t have any simple answers. We don’t know what the reasons are. We know our audiences are still strong. You know of all of the hundreds of measured channels, there’s something like … I don’t know, something like 600 measured … that number may be wrong, maybe it’s 300 … measured channels in America … you know cable and broadcast channel.
BAKER: Of all of those hundreds of measured channels, public television is the sixth most watched channel in America. So we have 87 million people a week watching public television in this country. 87 million. 13 million kids watch public television every week. 58 million people, individual people … go to our website every month. I mean it’s amazing, amazing numbers.
HEFFNER: Is that why …
BAKER: By the way the numbers I gave were all monthly numbers. I’m sorry.
HEFFNER: Is that why they’re not going to get you down?
BAKER: I think that’s why, yeah.
HEFFNER: And it’s why the Gingrich attack years ago, when you were here then …
HEFFNER: … to talk about “it didn’t work”. And you seem convinced that this one won’t, either.
BAKER: I, I … yes, I feel comfortable, but what worries me is that these attacks, and I’m getting back really to you … believe it or not, I actually listened to your questions … ah, getting back to your original question, which is “oh, is this a rhythm, are we going to be going through this?”
My fear is, is that this keeps going on like this … and we get hit every … the Gingrich attack was ten years ago … although now he’s a big fan, I might add, of public television …
BAKER: … which I think is kind of a touch of irony. You know, if these attacks get more frequent, will the American public get tired or start thinking that we’re crying “Wolf” or that somebody’s crying “Wolf”.
The truth is, is that these attacks are real. And that any one of them could put our lights out. And that’s the scary thing.
HEFFNER: In the minute and a half that we have left …
HEFFNER: … of course, I wonder whether you and your colleagues will get tired and I look at this wonderful book, “Lighthouse Island” that you did … this wonderful picture book about your escape …
HEFFNER: … from the troubles you’ve seen …
HEFFNER: … I wonder whether public television will get tired? Doesn’t it become too much, already?
BAKER: Well, I mean I think maybe a few of us might poop out. Excuse my language. I hope you don’t have to bleep …
HEFFNER: We won’t bleep it.
BAKER: Ah, but I think … I think that this institution will not. I can tell you the kinds of people that we have working at Channel 13 and the other public stations around America, are people that amaze me every day and make me proud every day and make me want to keep coming to work every day.
No, we’re not going to give up. And that’s why it’s so important that the public stay with us and they not give up as well. And by the way, you’re clearly a … you know, I think … you’re my hero … I don’t know whether the audience realizes it, but Dick Heffner was the guy that started Channel 13. And, and look, you know, how many years later is this …44 … almost 45 years later … we’re still humming along.
HEFFNER: You giving away my age?
HEFFNER: Bill Baker, thank you so much for joining us today.
BAKER: Thank you, Dick.
HEFFNER: And thanks, too, to you in the audience. I hope you join us again next time, and if you would like a transcript of today’s program, please send $4.00 in check or money order to The Open Mind, P. O. Box 7977, FDR Station, New York, New York 10150.
Meanwhile, as another old friend used to say, “Good night and good luck.”
N.B. Every effort has been made to ensure the accuracy of this transcript. It may not, however, be a verbatim copy of the program.