At PBS, a fragile state of balance

Times Staff Writer

In December, PBS President Pat Mitchell predicted in a routine speech that 2005 would be a transformational year for public broadcasting.

She couldn’t have known that an animated rabbit would become an agent of change.

Yet “Postcards From Buster,” a gentle children’s program that was to have shown a real-life Vermont family with lesbian moms in one episode, has in some quarters emerged as a powerful symbol of what’s wrong with PBS these days.


And for once, it’s not the attacks from the right that rankle. In an interview with The Times, Mitchell said she is particularly troubled by criticism from a broad range of left-leaning advocacy groups and media critics who’ve taken her to task for pulling the lesbian mothers episode.

“They are our natural allies and friends,” Mitchell said by phone from PBS headquarters in Alexandria, Va. “I’d expect them to be more understanding. The sad thing is, the people who want to see public television get better resources are hardly helping by participating in this kind of debate.”

The debate began with a salvo from the Bush administration in the form of a letter from the Department of Education objecting to the “Buster” episode. The secretary of education, Margaret Spellings, asked PBS to consider returning federal grant money if it aired the program.

But Mitchell, concerned about how the episode would play with parents in local communities, said she had already decided not to distribute it to member stations.

She stands by her “Buster” decision, which she said she made in consultation with various member stations. “They depend upon us to distribute programming to them that serves the interest of the community. Localism is at our core. We’re not a network that sends out a program and says, ‘Live with it, New Orleans or Biloxi.’ ” She also said, “I can’t make decisions as president of PBS based on my personal feelings about something.”

Mitchell emphasized that PBS has and will continue to cover gay issues, including gay parenting, in prime-time programming, saying that “children’s programming has its own set of principles and standards.”


An internal review for children’s programming is already underway. The goal now is to turn what happened with the “Buster” episode “into a positive,” Mitchell said.

But what the standards are will have to be worked out in a new era of extra scrutiny. The children’s TV institution “Sesame Street,” for example, which gets funding from the same Ready to Learn grant that got “Buster” in trouble with the Department of Education, announced its 36th season Thursday with a press release describing “parody segments including ‘Desperate Houseplants’ and ‘Grouch Eye for the Nice Guy.’ ” Will Biloxi need to be protected from the playful reference to “Queer Eye for the Straight Guy”?

“We look forward to having them on the air,” Lea Sloan, vice president of media relations for PBS, said of the segments.

Critics on the left want to see even more backbone than that. According to Jeff Chester, executive director of the Center for Digital Democracy, PBS has been “so finely attuned now to the whims of the administration they didn’t need to be told” to pull the “Buster” episode.

“It’s a scary way to control content in a democracy,” said children’s programming advocate Peggy Charren, referring to the Department of Education’s letter. Charren serves on the board of WGBH-TV, the PBS station that produced “Buster.”

A shift to the right

These critics say PBS went overboard in 2004 to placate the Bush administration, trimming “Now,” the show founded by the now-retired Bill Moyers as a bastion of free-ranging liberal inquiry, from an hour to 30 minutes, and putting on the air conservative commentators John McLaughlin, Tucker Carlson and Paul Gigot. The question now, according to FAIR, a left-leaning media watchdog group, is who will balance them.

“What’s been lost is the idea that public broadcasting should operate independent of political pressure,” said Peter D. Hart, a public opinion analyst and FAIR’s activism director.

It’s this perception that Mitchell appears most eager to dispel. On Wednesday, PBS announced a new outside review panel that has been in the works since last spring and that will review editorial standards in nonfiction prime-time shows. The panel will be chaired by PBS board Chairman Alberto Ibarguen and will include former CNN anchor Bernard Shaw; Marvin Kalb, senior fellow at the Joan Shorenstein Center on the Press, Politics and Public Policy; and John Siegenthaler, founder of the First Amendment Center at Vanderbilt University.

Still, some suspect that PBS’ recent soul-searching is more motivated by financial concerns and Beltway politics than by a quest for quality programming. Most pressing is a multibillion-dollar trust fund proposal to Congress that public broadcasters hope will help them finance the fast approaching era of universally mandated digital television.

“We’re standing on the edge of a chasm,” said John Lawson, chief executive officer of the Assn. of Public Television Stations, a trade organization for PBS member stations. “We are leaving what we have been and staring at a very different digital future. No one knows what that future is. We are trying to put the pieces of a strategy together that we believe will lead to the rebirth of public television in the U.S.”

“We’re in a period of almost seismic change in the television business,” Chester agreed. A government mandate to turn off analog broadcasts and replace them with channel-expanding digital may come as early as next year.

PBS now leads other stations in obtaining digital access through cable after a recent deal that ensured digital cable carriage both before and after the transition.

But while the deal benefits PBS stations, it won’t matter much to viewers if PBS can’t keep its signature dramas and documentaries from being replaced by antiques shows and Yanni specials, Chester said: “It’s like they have a big, fancy car with no gas.”

Even beyond the costs of digital transition -- estimated at nearly $2 billion -- PBS is facing financial challenges. In its new budget, the Bush administration has effectively proposed a 25% cut to public broadcasting entities.

The Department of Education has also threatened to divide a Ready to Learn grant for children’s programming into two parts, which could result in PBS losing its sole grantee status.

Fundraising alternatives

Public broadcasters have been considering funding options for future initiatives, notably a massive $5-billion trust fund created by the early return of a portion of their analog spectrum to the federal government. The idea is that the government could then auction it off to organizations for public uses such as high-speed Internet connections or cellular systems, and PBS would have a permanent source of funding.

Critics such as Jerrold M. Starr, executive director of Citizens for Independent Public Broadcasting, however, worry that attention to revenues is crowding out the equally important issue of honoring the original mission of public broadcasting, including serious news and public affairs shows to provide a forum for controversy and debate, a voice for groups that might not otherwise be heard, to “see America whole in all its diversity.”

He called public television “a very important source of alternative information and ideas in a society in which information is becoming increasingly controlled by giant corporations in collaboration with the government.”

The problem may be, Starr said, that the culture inside PBS has become too much like “the culture of the Beltway.”

Were PBS to embrace a stronger, more independent mission, Starr said “a phalanx of public interest groups” would marshal support. “But in so doing, [PBS] would lose a certain degree of control,” he said.

But Lawson said public broadcasters are not intimidated by government pressure even as they continue to seek funding for new programming.

“We had to have guaranteed cable coverage. We’ve got to get on satellite, which is next, and we’ve got to find new funding streams, and new partnerships to create the new generation of content to leverage the infrastructure,” said Lawson.

“Public television will survive and continue to secure federal resources as long as we have station boards and citizens willing to express to their members of Congress that they support public television.”