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Cable Television no substitute for Public Broadcasting

May 17, 1992

Guest Column
By Claude Kistler
The Spokesman-Review

The national debate raging over the federal budget includes continuing support of the Corporation for Public Broadcasting. The CPB was established by Congress in 1967 to fund and foster a steady and ambitious stream of imaginative, high quality alternative, non-commercial programming services through public television (PBS) and public radio (NPR).

By all measurements the project has been and continues to be successful beyond dispute, nationally and locally.

Public TV set the standard and continues to lead the industry in developing and broadcasting such creative children’s programming as “Sesame Street” and “Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood” for pre-schoolers to middle schoolers’ “Square One TV” to improve math skills, and “Where in the World Is Carmen Sandiego?,” a geography series.

Public TV is the source for college-credit telecourses which expand the “walls” of higher education to admit and teach adult students who are home-bound or need innovative access to the traditional classroom. Satellite services give economically distressed school districts and rural students a chance to learn the likes of Russian, or calculus. The future will extend opportunities to make outstanding teachers and experts from any institution in the country available to share their knowledge with students and audiences anywhere else.

Public TV leads the industry in broadcasting programs in the performing arts of classical music, contemporary drama, ballet, and traditional theater from around the nation and the world. Millions of viewers who cannot go to hear Luciano Pavarotti sing with the Metropolitan Opera or the London Symphony Orchestra because of place or finances enjoy such extraordinary talents and events on a regular basis through PBS telecasts.

Public TV leads the industry in historical documentaries, public affairs programming, and in-depth analyses of current issues, providing a gamut of opinion and expression. Producer Ken Burns, of the award-winning series “The Civil War,” has said often that his acclaimed series would never have been produced by or aired on any commercial network.

Public TV leads the industry in broadcasting programming on issues of science and nature which are vital in this age of exploding technology and global industrial progress on a fragile planet.

Public TV is responsible for the technology of closed captioning for the hearing-impaired, which is an essential part of the industry and our society today.

Local public television stations are rooted in the values and standards of each or their hometowns through program selection and scheduling. They are indispensable community institutions that touch more lives than any other single educational, entertainment or cultural resource.

Here in Spokane, KSPS-TV is proud of its commitment to community service that goes above and beyond the trademark PBS programming. We have broadcast reading programs that teach adult illiterates in the privacy of their own homes. We broadcast early childhood education programs in partnership with pre-school and day care providers.

We operate as a technology center in partnership with private and public service agencies as a catalyst for advancing information and change throughout our community. We broadcast programs of critical local interests and set up “meetings” by inviting experts and community leaders to the studio who listen and respond to viewers’ questions and suggestions, enabling all citizens to participate without leaving home or family to do so. Topics covered in just the past few months with local panelists include AIDS, Alzheimer’s Disease, the homeless, rural health care, teen suicide prevention, drug and alcohol abuse awareness, and extended care for the elderly.

After 25 years public TV is still unique in offering a non-commercial quality programming service in a medium of enormous variety and growth. The explosion of cable television is only an expansion of commercial TV, designed to turn a profit as it presents programming to deliver advertiser messages to viewers. The premium cable channels are available only at an added price for those households who pay to hook up to basic cable in the first place.

There is no other television service with a mandate to operate in the public interest that is available to every person in the country with a working television set, not matter what age, residence, financial status, educational level or selective interest. While cable channels may offer some similar programs as PBS, they cannot localize such services to meet or solve specific community programs nor can they adjust schedules to be sensitive to local tastes or timelines.

Thirty years after his historic “vast wasteland” speech, former FCC chairman Newton Minow last year updated his views on the status of television. He said the television medium has become a “severely distorting influence in at least four public areas…We have failed to use television for education, to use television for children, to finance public television properly and to use television properly in political campaigns. If television is to change for the better, men and women have to make it a leading institution in American life rather than merely a relative mirror of the lowest common denominator in the marketplace.”

I believe that the $1 per year per American in taxes committed to Public Broadcasting is an investment that should be increased, not diminished. There must be federal support to guarantee the continuation of national program services of the highest quality and integrity, and to guarantee that local stations exist to serve the uniquely local audiences.

Claude Kistler is general manager of KSPS, the Spokane public television station owned and operated by Spokane School District 81.

Sunday, May 17, 1992

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