The *real* reason for the demise of PBS?
Date: Wed, 8 Mar 95 22:14:59 PST
From: Peter Langston <psl>
Subject: The *real* reason for the demise of PBS?
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[This copyrighted article is forwarded to RRE by permission.]
From: firstname.lastname@example.org (Russell Sadler)
I am enclosing a column I wrote a couple of weeks ago. I am a very
mainstream, mass media journalist. For the last 25 years I have syndicated
a daily radio and television commentary and a weekly newspaper column. The
broadcasts are carried on 5 commercial television stations and 6 radio
stations in Oregon and Northern California. Two radio stations are public,
the rest are commercial. The column is carried in daily and weekly newspapers
I think you will find this column is a different explanation for
the new congressional leadership's effort to "defund" public broadcasting.
Rupert Murdoch, the Australian media baron, stupefied the media
business when his Fox network outbid the venerable CBS for the rights to
broadcast National Football League games this year. People in the
television business knew Fox did not own enough stations in the top 50
media markets to charge enough for commercials to recover the $1.6 billion
Murdoch spent taking the NFL away from CBS. Rupert Murdoch is no fool with
his money. The industry waited for Murdoch to drop the other shoe.
There was less surprise when Murdoch announced his holding company
paid $500 million for a 20 percent interest in the New World Communication
Group, Inc. New World owns six television stations in the top 20 markets,
four in the top 50 markets and two in the top 70, including stations in
Dallas, the 8th largest market and Detroit, the 9th largest. Murdoch
switched most of these stations from CBS affiliates to his Fox network. Now
Murdoch had the means to charge more for commercials in the NFL games.
Despite this brilliant high stakes entrepreneurship, Murdoch apparently
lost $350 million in his $2.1 billion bid to build a national network. He
needs more stations in the largest television markets.
There are no television frequencies available, especially the more
lucrative VHF channels 2 - 13. They are licensed to ABC, CBS, NBC and Fox
affiliates, a variety of independent stations and public television
Enter Big Bird and Barney, two of public television's artistic and
financial success stories. The new Republican leadership began a campaign
to convince the American people Big Bird and Barney and their "elitist"
audience were responsible for the national debt.
Government has no business doing what private enterprise can do
better, chanted the ideologues. They do not explain why the vast wasteland
of commercial television did not produce its own Big Bird and Barney
instead of Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles and Mighty Morphin Power Rangers.
Sen. Larry Pressler, R-South Dakota and chair of the Senate Commerce
Committee announced Bell Atlantic was prepared to take Big Bird and Barney
off the government's hands and syndicate it to cable, satellite and
television outlets. Americans could still enjoy Big Bird - for a fee, of
There is a hollow, leaden ring to this heated, ideological
rhetoric. Congress spends about as much on military bands as it spends on
public broadcasting. Pressler comes from a sparsely populated state that
has one of the largest public broadcasting audiences in the country. It
can't be the money. Pressler can't be reflecting the views of his
constituents. Congress really isn't after the public broadcasting's liberal
bias - real or imagined. It turns out the new congressional leadership
wants the public broadcasting channels, especially in the top 50 markets.
Public broadcasting licenses are owned by a variety of state and
local governments, non-profit groups, colleges and universities. If the
congress cuts public broadcasting funds and these stations are forced off
the air, the government can reissue the licenses. Guess who is waiting in
Shortly after Murdoch's Harper Collins publishing company offered
House Speaker Newt Gingrich the controversial $4.5 million book deal,
Murdoch and other broadcasters asked for and got closed door meetings with
House Republicans and Pressler's Commerce Committee staff. No one knows for
sure what went on in these "private" meetings but reporters for Newsday and
Los Angeles Times columnist Lars-Erik Nelson believe turning public
broadcasting channels over to private broadcasters was a topic of discussion.
Bell Atlantic tried to make a deal with Murdoch last year for the
20th Century Fox film library worth an estimated $4 billion. Murdoch wants
to sell, apparently to raise cash to replace the money he is losing on the
NFL. Bell Atlantic has cash from its telephone operations and wants the
film library to supply its planned venture into home entertainment. The
deal fell apart when Bell Atlantic decided it did not have enough broadcast
outlets to pay the bill. Bell Atlantic executives met privately with
Pressler to complain about the lack of broadcasting frequencies in major
television markets. Privately, the new congressional leadership believes
public broadcasting stands in the way of restructuring the new electronic
media and the solution is just turn off the spigot that pays for Big Bird
The federal government holds a 13 year lien on any public
broadcasting facility built with grants from the Corporation for Public
Broadcasting. Those facilities include much of the modernized studio and
transmission equipment in the largest markets and the extensive translator
networks built by rural public stations like Jefferson Public Radio. If
these stations cease broadcasting because of a lack of money, the federal
government can just take over the property, issue the licenses to private
operators and sell the lucrative studio and transmission facilities to
their campaign contributors.
There is a surprising reason for this intense interest in
old-fashioned television stations in the age of cable, satellite
transmission and optic fiber cables. Murdoch's satellite television
service demonstrated a revolutionary transmission technology that
compresses signals 8 to 1.
Stripped of technobabble, that means within a
decade it will be possible to transmit eight separate digital broadcast
signals on television channels that can only transmit one now. If existing
television stations can deliver 30 or more channels of home enetertainment
into the Top 150 American television markets, it will drastically alter the
economics of the cable and telephone industries.
Murdoch's compression technology will permit today's commercial and
public television broadcasters - long dismissed as technological dinosaurs
- - to compete with cable, telephone and satellite transmissions companies or
even short-circuit their potentially lucrative market.
Perhaps the bitter battle over Big Bird and Barney's future makes a
bit more sense now.(ENDIT)
Russell Sadler Southern Oregon State College
519 South Mountain Avenue Department of Communication
Ashland, OR 97520 1250 Siskiyou Blvd.
503-482-3959 Ashland, OR 97520
"Whatever hits the fan will not be distributed evenly."
-Russell's Rule the Fourth
© 1995 Peter Langston