AMERICANS' perception of the Public Broadcasting System is that of benevolent uncle, bestowing upon us Big Bird and National Geographic specials. These days, however, PBS is behaving more like Big Brother.
What has provoked the Jekyll/Hyde transformation is the success of non-PBS producers who are delivering needed educational programming to public schools across the U.S.
Historically, PBS has been viewed as the "educational" channel. In this role it has been a producer of high-quality, high-dollar productions that are part entertainment and part education. None of the programming is live, nor is there any intent to make it so. The PBS programs are intended to enrich the educational experience. It has always been clear that PBS programming is not a substitute for regular classroom instruction.
In the early '80s, reports like "A Nation At Risk" made it clear that the academic performance of American students was sub-par. Groups like the College Board said part of the problem was a lack of access to adequate coursework -- particularly in rural America and the inner cities. Because of the lack of funding, sparsity of teachers and low enrollment, courses, particularly mathematics, science and foreign language, were simply not taught in many schools.
Responding to the challenge, in 1984 and 1985 three groups, one in Oklahoma, one in Texas and one in Washington state, began to offer credit-bearing courses nationwide. They were delivered by satellite. They were live and allowed students to interact with their instructors. This meant that students in the remotest part of the North American continent could see and speak with a professor from Oklahoma State University or get an answer to a homework problem worked out by a teacher in a studio in San Antonio. Equal access had finally arrived!
In 1985 officials of PBS were approached and offered an opportunity to participate in the fledgling effort. They declined, saying they weren't interested in live, interactive programming.
Much has changed since the early '80s. Where there were three providers of public school programming, there are now many (including PBS affiliates). Where there were a few courses, there are now dozens. And where schools being served were numbered in the tens, they now number in the thousands.
One thing has not changed -- the attitude of PBS. Last fall groups of educational providers joined to form the National Educational Telecommunications Organization and proposed the launching of an education satellite, EDSAT. This organization proposed to Congress that it provide a loan guarantee for EDSAT. PBS countered with the announcement that it planned to use excess capacity on another satellite for live, interactive programming, and it implied that some non-PBS providers might not be welcome.
During the current session of Congress PBS is lobbying hard to kill the EDSAT loan guarantee. Through efforts by PBS administrators and hired lobbyists, Montana Republican Sen. Conrad Burns' bill to provide loan guarantees has been bottled up. The same kind of effort can be expected in the House.
If PBS is successful in undercutting EDSAT, we will have satellite transmission capacity being purchased by public money. Access will be controlled by a provider of programs that is also a television carrier. This carrier/provider, which apparently views everyone else as competition, seemingly plans to make allocation decisions based not on quality or need, but on a mechanism that will restrain competition. Corporately, PBS seems to be saying, to paraphrase the words of the Li'l Abner comic strip character General Bullmoose, "What's good for PBS is good for the USA." PBS considers itself the sole gatekeeper of the nonprofit telecommunications world.
Such a scenario is not in the public interest. We should all be trying to provide Americans with universal access to more programming of the highest quality at the lowest possible cost, not trying to stifle competition. Let the free market work!
Smith L. Holt, dean of arts and sciences at Oklahoma State, is a board member of the National Educational Telecommunications Organization.