Despite the initial controversy, MacNeil/Lehrer’s brand of intellectually rigorous newsgathering was a hit with viewers. In 1983, pbs wanted to expand the newscast to an hour. It was another fight, says Linda Winslow, the NewsHour’s current executive producer.
“A number of stations traditionally felt they were just not convinced that news and public affairs was a big part of the mission of public broadcasting,” she says. Stations saw their role as providing an alternative to the commercial networks and questioned why they should cover the same events as ABC, NBC, and CBS.
Something else was at work in stations’ reticence to engage in news. Grossman believes the reluctance reflected their origins as extensions of controversy-averse universities and boards of education. “The idea was to avoid issues that would fragment, or raise hackles,” says Grossman. “It had a lot to do, I think, with the educational culture that says our job is not to antagonize anybody or to raise tough issues as part of education. Our job is to make everybody happy.”
The system’s risk-averse tendencies were reinforced by the reaction to a 1970 documentary, Banks and The Poor, distributed by PBS. The hard-hitting piece of journalism suggested members of Congress were complicit with exploitative banks. Soon after it aired, an antagonized Nixon administration started reorganizing the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, which began channeling federal monies for production away from PBS and toward the local stations themselves.
Bill Moyers, speaking at the 2006 PBS annual meeting, made reference to that brouhaha as a way to explain public television’s queasy attitude toward pursuing tough journalism, lest it jeopardize federal funding, which makes up about 15 percent of the system’s budget.
“Far too many other unconventional programs never had a chance,” Moyers told the meeting. “Even when the strings are not tightly pulled, you knew they are there, and the worst thing that came out of that ugly episode was that we have never been able to completely shake out of our collective mind the fear that the chicken snake might prove to be a boa constrictor.”
Today, at times a deeply seated conflicted attitude toward news seems to ooze from every pixel. During President Obama’s State of the Union speech in January, Washington’s WETA-TV—the same station that produces the estimable PBS NewsHour and Washington Week for PBS distribution—embarrassingly forgot to turn off automated station promos at the top of hour, interrupting the President. That said, WETA was one of a minority of public television stations carrying the speech live.
Most public television stations have chosen not to rock the boat and to stick with a decades-old formula of a little bit of something for everyone: daytime educational kids shows; the PBS NewsHour and Nightly Business Report in the evening; dramas, science, performances, and documentaries in primetime; and the Charlie Rose and Tavis Smiley talk shows to cap the day.
There are, of course, pockets of distinguished news coverage on PBS. Jim Lehrer in recent years has made sure that PBS alone among broadcasters has committed to full coverage of political conventions, and a much-needed overhaul of the NewsHour website has resulted in a 43 percent increase in pageviews in fifteen months. Frontline, produced by Boston’s WGBH-TV for PBS distribution, is attempting to become more nimble by presenting occasional magazine-style shows featuring multiple stories as a break from its signature long-form documentaries. Both have partnered with each other and with other news organizations, such as the nonprofit ProPublica, to co-produce timely investigative pieces.
But PBS is shrinking its Friday night public affairs schedule this fall by a half-hour—to sixty minutes, or half what it was until April 2010 when Bill Moyers Journal and Now on PBS went off air—partly in response to stations that would prefer lighter entertainment fare. Michael Getler, the PBS ombudsman, says PBS is at a “serious disadvantage” by having no news on the weekends.