Launched in December, 1985, Project Literacy United States (PLUS) is a national public service campaign of Capital Cities/ABC, Inc. and the Public Broadcasting Service (PBS). The unprecedented collaborative effort is focused on raising national awareness of the problem of adult functional illiteracy in the United States, developing and encouraging volunteer action to address illiteracy, and encouraging those who can help and those who need help to participate.

Working through 222 ABC affiliated stations and 313 PBS member stations, PLUS has created 366 literacy task forces across the country. Each task force works at a local level to generate increased community action in literacy efforts and to coordinate resources in advance of the national public awareness broadcasts.

The on-air programming phase of PLUS began in September, 1986, with “At a Loss for Words: Illiterate in America,” an ABC News Closeup documentary with Peter Jennings. A companion documentary, “A Chance to Learn,” followed two weeks later on PBS. Since the inaugural programs, ABC has featured literacy as a theme in more than eight of its regular prime-time series including, “Hotel,” “Webster,” and “Who’s the Boss,” as well as airing literacy segments in “20/20,” “Nightline” and “This Week with David Brinkley.” PBS has also dealt with literacy in its programming, including segments in the “MacNeil/Lehrer Report” and a documentary, “Project Second Chance: Dropouts in America.”


In addition to regular programming and specials, PLUS public service announcements air 10 to 14 times a week on the ABC Television Network. They have featured such personalities as President Ronald Reagan, Charlton Heston, Wally “Famous” Amos, Barbara Bush, Linda Evans, John Ritter and Dennis Weaver.

About half of the announcements are devoted to the PLUS “Learner of the Month” series in which students from different parts of the country relate their personal stories of how life has changed for them since they have gained reading skills.

According to Bruce L. Christensen, President of PBS, “This is impressive evidence of how stations are going the extra mile to make the link between a documentary about a problem and the people and services that stand ready to help.”

Now extended into its third year, PLUS programming and task force activities are concentrating on three areas: civic literacy, literacy in the work force, and literacy and youth. National television specials, additional literacy-related program segments, extensive local programming, new public service announcements, and off-air promotional events are being produced around the PLUS theme.

Research conducted by ABC to measure public awareness of PLUS as well as awareness of the adult illiteracy problem in the U.S. reports that 32 percent of the respondents were aware of PLUS and 71 percent were aware of the illiteracy problem.

The PLUS task force in Los Angeles was convened by KCET-TV (PBS) in conjunction with its existing outreach committee for the station’s 26-part literacy series, “American Ticket.” The 80-person task force is comprised of literacy service providers, educational planners, religious and civic groups, government and business leaders, and representatives from the local PBS and ABC stations. The task force has also sponsored five “Students for Literacy” workshops on local college campuses and worked with the Los Angeles County Public Library to produce a “Literacy Referral Directory” for Southern California. In addition, the group helped to organize a business seminar, “Literacy: A Good Investment,” which was sponsored by the Times Mirror Company. More than 200 business and community representatives from 105 organizations attended the seminar.

In 1987, at a White House luncheon ABC and PBS were named as winners of the President’s Volunteer Action award for the PLUS campaign.

James E. Duffy, President of Communications for the ABC Network, says, “PLUS has put the subject of adult illiteracy on the national agenda. Never before have broadcasters undertaken a major public service campaign on the scale of PLUS. From the network to individual television stations across the country, PLUS has demonstrated how effective television can be in raising awareness and stimulating action.”