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The future of public broadcasting

By Peter West - posted Tuesday, 23 October 2012

In his US election campaign, Governor Romney has promised to cut out funding for public broadcasting. True to the trivializing of modern politics, this has been summarized as 'Big Bird - Bye Bye'.

Let's take this opportunity of reflecting on what public broadcasting does, with some passing glances at the US and then a look at Australia's ABC and SBS. I'll be keeping mainly to TV.

The first point about public broadcasting is the issue of being able to disagree with government. It's the contrast between a single-party state and a multi-party state. If we looked at the USSR or Nazi Germany, the State controlled the media. Around the Pacific rim today, there would be very many countries in which the media are dependent for their views on what the government lets them say.


The second issue (naturally, related to the first) is that of balance. In some countries one media owner has unwarranted power. Public broadcasting is meant to offer an alternative to the dominant view. It has little point if it reinforces existing opinions. We should be hearing fresh points of view, not the same ones over and over. We could list any number of social issues: control of natural resources; the roles of the army and the police; to what extent clean energy is used; issues of abortion and birth control. Thomas Jefferson's idea was that good media were essential to democracy. He felt that a healthy society needed many views on social issues, not just one. And make things more nuanced, not always be dumbing down. As Malcolm Turnbull said in a useful recent discussion, 'We have a duty to raise the level of public discourse'.

It was disturbing to hear in the Sun-Herald on 14th October this year that Dick Smith was unable to get News Ltd papers to include any material critical of that corporation.

The American PBS does seem to meet the challenges we discussed.

Mainstream US media tend to pander to the lower end of the spectrum. We need to talk about an elite: Washington Post, Huffington Post,[a digest of other news stories] , perhaps New York Times, and on television, CNN. These days we must also refer to Fox News. For an amusing if startling commentary, see Mark Howard's statement that Fox News makes you stupid.

So the challenge for public broadcasting in the USA is massive: to raise levels of sophistication and education of Americans. Australian viewers would recognize the News Hour on SBS. It is a solid (if sometimes dull ) presentation of various American views, with debates, commentary and issue-exploring programs. It is very American-centred. But the mainstream American media are far more so. I happened to be in New York during the OJ Simpson trial. That issue was on TV virtually 24 hours a day. On almost every station. Or consider the 11th of September attack on New York. Clearly, the most important event anywhere that year, to judge from US TV. Or perhaps some air strike by US forces. Any of these issues will saturate US TV. What is going in Canada or the Caribbean will barely appear in most news programs, unless American interests are threatened.

In sum, the PBS offers a range of intelligent, educational and alternative programs. I would be inclined to think that issues such as the native peoples of Brazil or wildlife programs will appear in the main on PBS or on the Discovery Channel, but rarely on mainstream US TV.


Let's turn to Australia. Our media landscape is dominated by commercial interests. Many of us found out how mindless Australian commercial TV is when the Olympics were on a commercial station in mid-year. And we were forced by the station's monopoly of the Olympics to watch large amounts of commercial TV. Inane commentary, brainless 'celebrities' who cluttered up the screen, and a barrage of advertisements at ear-shattering volume and high intensity : these were merely the most obvious faults.

Australian public broadcasting, like its US cousin, provides an alternative to the commercials. There are some programs of depth and solidity. On the Australian ABC, these are not interrupted by advertising ( whereas on some of the newer commercial stations there seems to be about 8 minutes of the show, sandwiched between 5 minutes of mind-numbing ads.) Australian public broadcasting can be proud of some solid news presentations, some fine educational programs and some top-quality drama.

Unfortunately it also has its faults. Where would we start?

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About the Author

Dr Peter West is a well-known social commentator and an expert on men's and boys' issues. He is the author of Fathers, Sons and Lovers: Men Talk about Their Lives from the 1930s to Today (Finch,1996). He works part-time in the Faculty of Education, Australian Catholic University, Sydney.

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