8. PBS -- THE OIL NETWORK
As a reaction to the wasteland of network television, there arose in
the '60s a mighty dream -- The Public Broadcasting Services (PBS) --
a truly educational and non-commercial television resource. The American
people finally were to be exposed to a wide variety of opinion. TV censorship
would be relegated to the commercial networks.
The dream never materialized. Instead, public television became the
ward of the Establishment -- of corporations that serve as key underwriters
and executives preoccupied with financing difficulties rather than with
And censorship, while publicly disclaimed by PBS executives, became
a way o£ life in public broadcasting.
Some examples: in 1977, public television officials dropped a controversial
documentary called "Plutonium: Element of Risk" from the PBS
schedule. They said the KCET (PBS-Los Angeles) program failed to conform
to PBS's "journalistic standards." It could have been an early
warning signal about the dangers of nuclear power, long before TMI.
WGBH (PBS-Boston) is currently embroiled in some legal actions, many
of them stemming from its questionable treatment of an important film
against racism, "Blacks Britannica" (BB). The film, commissioned
as part of its "World" series, was scheduled for U.S. broadcast
on July 13, 1978, but cancelled after station officials, referring to
the political ideas in the film, said they were "unsuitable for
Americans." A reorganized or censored version of the film was aired
in August, 1978, without a single creative credit since all those involved
in its original production withdrew their names from the PBS program.
David Koff, director of "Blacks Britannica," has sued WGBH
and PBS for damages arising from the political censorship and artistic
mutilation of his work.
In January, 1979, WETA (PBS-Washington, D.C.) became a focal point
for close scrutiny with serious documented charges of financial mismanagement,
incorrectly reported income from non-federal sources, insensitivity
to community (particularly black) needs and issues, and the CIA's leasing
of the station's antenna. A MTA inquiry committee (hand-picked by the
chairman of the board) subsequently substantiated some of the charges,
prompted outside examination of others, and failed to investigate still
In May, 1979, controversy erupted again at WGBH, this time over the
"reorganizing of 'The Shirt Off Our Backs'," a powerful documentary
about the world garment trade. This documentary was not the product
of a relatively powerless independent, as was the case with "BB"
but rather the production of one of Britain's biggest broadcasting groups
-- Granada Television.
More recently, a Coalition to Make Public TV Public has been formed
in New York to investigate a magnitude of controversial public broadcasting
issues and what they reflect about access to public TV. The group was
formed after WNET (PBS-New York) rejected four films for the station's
"Independent Focus" series without a word of explanation to
the independent review panel which had recommended them.
Finally, it is interesting to note that PBS, which is always in search
of funding, is selective about its funding sources. While General Motors
helps sponsor Milton Friedman's "Free to Choose" series and
Merrill Lynch sponsors the "American Enterprise," PBS rejected
labor union funds for a planned TV series on labor history called "Made
in U.S.A.". In rejecting the funds, PBS president Larry Grossman
said "We get nervous when the first money in is money from labor
unions. People will look at the long list of unions in the underwriters'
credits and accuse us of selling out." PBS apparently is less concerned
about being accused of selling out to major corporations, particularly
those in the oil industry.
In fact, television industry insiders refer to the Public Broadcasting
Service as "the oil network."
San Francisco Chronicle columnist Charles McCabe, in explaining why
PBS failed to fulfill its dream, said "One of the reasons why this
never happened was the takeover of educational television by the petroleum
industry. Educational television is now effectively controlled by Mobil,
Exxon, Sun, Atlantic Richfield and suchlike. ...The power of oil thinking
(anything that challenges untrammeled laissez faire is frowned upon
and ultimately expunged) on educational TV is the greatest kind of power,
the power to prevent, and to do it secretly."
McCabe concludes that the "oil companies book what PBS shows.
More important they keep dissent to an irreducible minimum on the non-commercial
As New York Times columnist John J. O'Connor recently said in an analysis
of corporate control of PBS, "Something is rotten in public television."
The media's failure to expose the quiet transformation of the Public
Broadcasting Service into "The Oil Network" and the censorship
which occurs within PBS qualifies this story for nomination as one of
the "best censored" stories of 1979.
Washington Journalism Review, April/May 1979, "The Horowitz Affair,"
by John Friedman; Jump Cut, November 1979, "Racism in Public T.V.",
by Joel Dreyfuss; In These Times, Feb. 6 and Mar. 5, 1980, "Public
Television," by Pat Aufderheide; San Francisco Chronicle, June
12, 1978, and Feb. 28, 1980, The Oil Network," by Charles McCabe;
New York Times Service, Mar. 23, 1980, "PBS Has Gone Middle-Class,
by John J. O'Connor.