Public Interest Standards from Radio to Public Television
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The history of radio and television communications in the United States does not reflect a simple path to the dominance of mass media. It was and still is the site of a prolonged struggle over the public obligations of media. The airwaves were considered public property and not owned but only licensed by operators, but public obligations in the United States came to be defined primarily in commercial terms. Still other groups lobbied for more extensive public obligations including reserving licenses for nonprofits—though their efforts were unsuccessful. They sought to direct the power of the new media of radio for democratic and educational purposes. The first wave of broadcast regulation culminated in the formation of the FCC in 1934 in which commercial interests predominated. Though there were some challenges to this in the early 1940s the next wave of activism arose in the 1950s with the movement for Public Educational Television. This was largely an elite-driven movement for “quality programming” in reaction to the low quality of network programming and the total lack of children’s programming on television. It led to the formation of PBS. The other significant initiative arose in the 1960s when the critique of network television extended to its virtual ignorance of minorities the poor or any group other than the white suburban nuclear family. The large networks largely conformed to the image of conformist media that Horkheimer and Adorno criticized. They did not do enough to promote discussion of controversial issues or to educate the public. The social movements of the times along with severe social conflicts also lend greater urgency to the need for democratic practices to spread throughout society.
The idea of public access influenced and was influenced by ideas of participatory democracy that arose with the new left. Democracy required extensive citizen participation both to involve all in political deliberation and also to strengthen community and existential commitment. New technologies also allowed individuals to easily create programming. PEG channels then were not simply a forum for individual expression but a creation of political community.
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