The Public Broadcasting Act 50 Years Later
By Brandon Gordon
When Lyndon B. Johnson signed the bill that created the Corporation of Public Broadcasting in November 1967, he was envisioning a way for the public to gain access to quality television. Unlike Great Britain, the United States had no public service broadcasting system in place when television came in vogue. Instead they had a mixture of commercial television stations that were highly lucrative and small non-commercialized radio and television stations that aired local and national educational programs.
Issues Addressed With Public Broadcasting Act of 1967
The main issue was the lack of quality educational programming and the inaccessibility of existing programs. Most of the educational programs were regulated to smaller radio and television stations due to lack of funding. The broadcasting system in the US was originally set up for commercial advertisers to draw audiences.
Side issues included the ongoing competition for available spectrum space and the lack of interest from the investors and owners of the radio and television stations to open up the space for quality programming. It was felt that there was no money to be had with non-commercial programming.
The Radio Act of 1927 and the Communication Act of 1934 provided the emphasis the broadcasting pioneers needed to push out non-commercial stations and favor the commercial stations. The Federal Communications Commission was formed in 1934 to address the concerns of the public over the blatant disregard over the content and to regulate the air waves. In other words the FCC provided a set of rules and regulations that broadcast companies needed to abide by or lose their license.
Impacts of Public Broadcasting Act of 1967
Lyndon Johnson's action in signing the Public Broadcasting Act provided the means for the American people to have access to information and quality entertainment that they didn't have before the Act was implemented. When it was first introduced and signed, it was called the "Public Television Act."
Jerrold "Jerry" Sandler noted the omission and rallied to have it changed to the "Public Broadcasting Act" to include radio stations. The reasoning was that he believed that radio deserved a "piece of the pie." The "pie" was the government support that was promised for stations that decided to become non-commercial stations and provide the public with information they could use.
The immediate impact of the Act was to give the non-commercial stations an even playing field with the commercial stations. With the government monetary support the non-commercial stations could now compete for space and provide quality programming to the American people.
The expectation of having a guaranteed public trust was one of the catalysts for the passage of the Act, but soon floundered as partisan politics took over.
Holding the Vision
In some important ways public radio and television has held to the premise set forth in the Public Broadcasting Act. A rich array of quality programming and information can be found on any PBS or NPR station through public support. The act was passed to encourage innovation in television, and that resonates now 50 years later. Millions of dollars are pumped into original commercial-free programming to be displayed on paper-thin televisions, and we have the Public Broadcasting Act to thank.