Viewers Like You

Viewers Like You: How Public TV Failed the People

LAURIE OUELLETTE
Copyright Date: 2002
Pages: 288
https://www.jstor.org/stable/10.7312/oull11942
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  • Book Info
    Viewers Like You
    Book Description:

    How "public" is public television if only a small percentage of the American people tune in on a regular basis? When public television addresses "viewers like you," just who are you? Despite the current of frustration with commercial television that runs through American life, most TV viewers bypass the redemptive "oasis of the wasteland" represented by PBS and turn to the sitcoms, soap operas, music videos, game shows, weekly dramas, and popular news programs produced by the culture industries. Viewers Like You? traces the history of public broadcasting in the United States, questions its priorities, and argues that public TV's tendency to reject popular culture has undermined its capacity to serve the people it claims to represent. Drawing from archival research and cultural theory, the book shows that public television's perception of what the public needs is constrained by unquestioned cultural assumptions rooted in the politics of class, gender, and race.

    eISBN: 978-0-231-50599-4
    Subjects: Sociology, Performing Arts, Business, Political Science

Table of Contents

  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-iv)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. v-vi)
  3. ACKNOWLEDGMENTS
    (pp. vii-x)
  4. INTRODUCTION: THE CULTURAL CONTRADICTIONS OF PUBLIC TELEVISION
    (pp. 1-22)

    In January 1995, Newt Gingrich threatened to “zero out” federal funding for public broadcasting. According to the Republican Speaker of the House, taxpayers were being forced to help subsidize a cultural welfare program for well-heeled elites. A few months later, the working-class Conner family on Roseanne tuned in to PBS. Why? To subvert the expectations of the A. C. Nielsen Corporation, the TV ratings service. In the episode, the sitcom characters had been chosen to participate in the ratings as a Nielsen family and are eagerly anticipating their chance to “help shape the culture of America.” When a company bureaucrat...

  5. CHAPTER ONE OASIS OF THE VAST WASTELAND
    (pp. 23-66)

    In 1992, the Corporation for Public Broadcasting published a retrospective of milestones, accolades, and vintage photographs to celebrate the twenty-fifth anniversary of public broadcasting in the United States. Grandly entitled “From Wasteland to Oasis: A Quarter Century of Sterling Programming,” the report constructs a triumphant narrative of undisputed cultural progress. Following the passage of the 1967 Public Broadcasting Act, public television arrived on the airwaves, providing worthy alternatives to what FCC Chairman Newton Minow, in his 1961 speech to commercial broadcasters, famously called a “vast wasteland.” Leaders in government, education, business, and culture supported the national intervention in television, spurred...

  6. CHAPTER TWO THE QUEST TO CULTIVATE
    (pp. 67-104)

    In 1995, Newt Gingrich vowed to “zero out” congressional funding for public broadcasting. Following a line of conservative reformers dating back to the Nixon administration, the Speaker of the House stated the rationale for “privatization” in populist terms. Why, according to his argument, should hard-earned tax dollars subsidize a cultural service for elites who can easily pay for it? In the ensuing policy debate, liberal supporters insisted that public television could bring culture and knowledge to every home. Vice-President Al Gore argued that programs like Sesame Street teach millions of children, giving the disadvantaged among them a “chance for a...

  7. CHAPTER THREE TV VIEWING AS GOOD CITIZENSHIP
    (pp. 105-140)

    In 1992, conservative media watchers affiliated with the Committee on Media Integrity spearheaded a campaign against public television, claiming that it drained tax dollars to propagate liberal ideology. PBS public affairs programs have a chronic bent to the left, said the critics, whereas “conservative opinions remain much less common on public TV than in the nation that helps pay for them.” As sparks flew in Washington and the editorial pages of national newspapers, the media watch group Fairness and Accuracy in Reporting (FAIR) weighed in from the Left with a political cartoon. An image of suit- and tie-clad men gathered...

  8. CHAPTER FOUR SOMETHING FOR EVERYONE
    (pp. 141-174)

    In 1994, PBS president Ervin Duggan raised eyebrows during a national press conference when he claimed that “we are all Anglophiles.” Given the ethnic diversity of the United States, the journalists who attended the event wanted to know how this logocentric presumption correlated with the promise that “PBS should reflect America.” Duggan denied having made a “sweeping statement” and redirected the remark to PBS’s iconographic British imports, a “strain of programming … that says something about the taste and enthusiasm of our audience.”¹ While dismissed as a curious misstatement, the incident points to a cultural contradiction at the heart of...

  9. CHAPTER FIVE RADICALIZING MIDDLE AMERICA
    (pp. 175-216)

    Newt Gingrich was not the first conservative politician to protest against public broadcasting on behalf of the common people. The 1967 Public Broadcasting Act sailed through Congress on the wings of Lyndon Johnson’s Great Society programs; PBS began broadcasting two turbulent years later under the watchful eyes of a new president, Richard Nixon. The White House’s attacks on public broadcasting fused the president’s perception of liberal bias with complaints about cultural elitism and the bruised dignity of Middle America. The dispute escalated in June 1972 when Nixon rejected an early funding bill on the grounds that public television had become...

  10. EPILOGUE: PUBLIC TELEVISION, POPULARITY, AND CULTURAL JUSTICE
    (pp. 217-228)

    In 1995, in the wake of conservative pressures to dismantle public broadcasting, the Public Broadcasting Service hired an advertising agency to revamp its “brand” image. While the campaign was new, the assumptions on which it relied spoke to a cultural history. In one promotion, a fortysomething white woman defines public television as the only television worth watching. The spokeswoman has quit her professional job and moved from the urban northeast to live on a remote Western ranch. Shown riding a horse and performing rural chores, she explains that the superficialities of modern life have given way to “real people and...

  11. NOTES
    (pp. 229-264)
  12. INDEX
    (pp. 265-288)