On the Right: NET and Modern Conservatism

The Politics of/within Educational Television in the 1960s

Regional Report: The John Birch Society, telecast by NET in 1965, elicited strong, mixed reactions from NET’s affiliated stations and viewers of the telecast. Affiliates were split both over the content of editor Edwin Bayley’s closing highly critical comments about the John Birch Society (JBS) and of the wisdom of including such editorials in public affairs telecasts. They also provided differing feedback on how WGBH journalist Jim Fleming conducted himself in his interview with Robert Welch, founder of the JBS, which constituted the final 40 minutes or so of the program.5

While NET did receive letters from viewers that praised how the program gave voice to conservative views, by and large viewer mail tended toward the critical. Earl Patrick of Pompton Plains, New Jersey, contrasted an NET program on Harlem with the Regional Report episode, asking for a comparison between the crime rate of "your friends in Harlem" and that of members of the JBS, and suggesting "If you are anxious to shed tears for someone, I suggest you shed them for the very decent people who shoulder their responsibilities, support their families, maintain clean houses, clean children, and clean communities, pay taxes to support those who will not meet their obligations." Rosemary Cooper of Elmhurst, New York referred to the program as "treasonous" and ended her letter by hoping that "someday soon you will change your left wing ideology and join with the patriots." A. Marie Hannon of Chicago telegraphed her disapproval of the program in her letter’s salutation, "HATE MONGERS."6

The responses not only underline disapproval of this particular show but signal how NET was perceived by some to favor liberal or left perspectives. The Nixon White House famously would attack public television for an alleged liberal political bias in the late 1960s and 1970s and would try to defund it as a result. Yet the view that noncommercial television programmed to the left took hold in the 1960s in the years before the passage of the Public Broadcasting Act of 1967.7 It was not just Richard Nixon, with his well-established antipathy for the press, who saw in public television a mouthpiece for liberal and left perspectives.

Such an accusation would not have been foreseeable, or perhaps, imaginable when NET formed in the early 1950s. In 1952, the Ford Foundation established the Educational Television and Radio Center (ETRC) to circulate programming to educational television stations. In April 1952, the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) had reserved 242 television channels for noncommercial, educational purposes. Ford had provided the primary financial support to the Joint Committee on Educational Television (JCET), which for the previous two years had led the fight to secure television channels for educational purposes. Over the next decade, the JCET would continue to advocate in Washington for educational television and would work with local communities to apply for broadcast licenses and establish broadcast stations, while the ETRC would provide programming to stations in this emerging sector.

The sector that developed over the next two decades was heterogeneous. Educational television stations differed in their communities of service (local, statewide, regional) and loci of control (state educational television commissions, universities, school systems, state boards of education, and nonprofit organizations). They also varied in how they saw their missions as noncommercial, educational stations. Some prioritized instructional television, seeking to use their stations to ameliorate educational inequalities in the schools; others saw the promise of educational television in adult education, and the use a domestic technology to enlighten and elucidate; still others sought to use noncommercial television to offer high quality programming that took chances that commercial television stations would not. While some stations saw in educational television an opportunity to provoke and challenge, to raise questions about the status quo, others believed it an instrument to promote patriotism, confidence in existing institutions, traditional understandings of American mores, and an American exceptionalism.8

The ETRC was originally helmed by Harry Newburn, president of the University of Oregon. Located in Ann Arbor, Michigan, the ETRC circulated programming produced by outside entities (local stations, independent producers, university production centers, commercial TV sources). Newburn stressed the educational, and devalued the television, of educational television and the programming circulated during his tenure was widely regarded as substantively dull, technically naïve, and aesthetically unsophisticated.9

John White, who had been vice president of Western Reserve University and general manager of WQED in Pittsburgh, took over in 1958 after Newburn’s contract expired. White changed the name of the organization to the National Educational Television and Radio Center (NETRC), moved its headquarters to New York, and assimilated the work of other Ford-supported educational television groups into its remit, such as providing technical support to local stations. White prioritized improving the quality of the programming distributed to local stations, achieved in part through the NETRC’s participation with and soliciting of programming from international sources.

In 1963, Ford redirected its financial support to the Center, dedicating its funds to the production and circulation of high-quality programming. As a result, the NETRC reorganized, eliminating many of the services it had provided in the previous five years, removing support of educational radio from its mission, and reconceptualizing how it would approach its obligations to provide content to its local affiliates. White renamed the organization National Educational Television (NET).

As Carolyn Brooks has so persuasively demonstrated, White envisioned NET as a "fourth" network, one bound not by an interconnected array of geographically dispersed stations as the commercial networks were, but by a shared philosophy as to the sociopolitical role of noncommercial television.10 Especially with NET’s public affairs programming, White sought to offer an alternative to the commercial networks by covering topics and perspectives that they avoided, and provoking audiences to think critically, and perhaps differently, about the world they inhabited. In the 1960s, NET telecast programs, for example, that articulated benefits of psychedelic drugs, voiced radical perspectives on racial discrimination, found value in Castro’s leadership in Cuba, and viewed North Vietnam through a sympathetic lens.11

Overall, White aimed for noncommercial television to be an "influence" on the national stage by engaging with the exigent issues of the day in a manner that commercial networks would not. As he stated in a 1966 address to affiliates, "We must not avoid controversy. We must not fail to be strong and firm in support of free men and free discussion of divergent views."12 This view of educational television’s function, however, was not one that all local stations embraced.

As early as 1964, tensions between NET and its affiliates were evident, the latter feeling as though NET was "no longer interested" in them.13 Throughout the 1960s, stations complained about both the "liberal" orientation of the programming delivered by NET and its unresponsiveness to station demands. Stations in a range of states, frequently run by state commissions funded by state legislatures, were reluctant to air NET programs for fear of incurring the ire of their audiences as well as local political leaders. As NET sought to expand the parameters of what could be said and which perspectives could be circulated on the airwaves, a number of local stations saw in NET programming not a boon to the marketplace of ideas but a threat to the values of their own communities and to the vision of educational television that underlay their own existence. In addition to the substantive complaints about programming content, affiliates also objected to NET’s over-reliance on coastal stations as production partners, its poor communication with local stations when producing programs in their communities, and the short lead time they were given to preview programs before broadcast.14

NET’s words and actions, in addition to its programming, may have reasonably led stations to suspect that its leadership did not see affiliates as equal partners. NET had a policy that affiliates must take programs whole and could not edit them to fit the needs of their local communities. As White put it in a memo justifying this policy, "we have a responsibility not just to stations but to the American people, just as stations by their very channel grant have a responsibility to the public as well as to their institutions."15 Accordingly, White positioned NET as a servant of the public interest and uncooperative stations as impediments to the organization's ability to fulfill its civic obligations.

Station dissatisfaction arguably contributed to the demise of NET, displaced by the creation of the Public Broadcasting Service (PBS) in 1969. The following year, NET would merge with NY educational television station WNDT, renamed WNET; WNET would be an important producing station for PBS, but it would be PBS that would make determinations about what would circulate to affiliated stations. PBS had been created by the Corporation for Public Broadcasting (CPB), itself a creation of the 1967 Public Broadcasting Act. The Public Broadcasting Act was modeled on a report by the Carnegie Commission on Educational Television, A Public Action, based on two years of research and interviews with noncommercial broadcasting practitioners, which offered a blueprint to sustain noncommercial television financially (via federal financing) and a rebrand of the sector (renamed public, rather than educational, television). Importantly, the Carnegie Commission’s vision for the future of noncommercial television included a reduced role for NET. It both called for additional production centers across the nation and underlined that public television was to be a system of decentralized local stations. It implicitly rejected White’s "fourth network" vision and the centralized control he sought over the mission of the educational television sector.

The programs in this exhibit thus circulated not only in the context of the increasing visibility of conservatism on the political scene, but against the backdrop of this particular moment in the history of public television. They perhaps sought to balance out the range of shows that addressed the cultural and political transformations sought by the left and to address station complaints over what seemed like NET’s bias toward left-leaning perspectives. But they also were in keeping with NET’s commitment to addressing exigent topics, providing a platform to ideas sidelined by commercial stations, and offering programs that would provoke viewers to think and see differently.

Sources and Suggested Reading:

  • Robert K. Avery and Robert Pepper, "An Institutional History of Public Broadcasting," Journal of Communications 30.3 (1980): 126-38.

  • Robert K. Avery and Robert Pepper, The Politics of Interconnection: A History of Public Television at the National Level (Washington, DC: National Association of Educational Broadcasters, 1979).

  • Carolyn N. Brooks, "Documentary Programming and the Emergence of the National Educational Television Center as a Network, 1958-1972" (PhD diss., University of Wisconsin-Madison, 1994).

  • James Day, The Vanishing Vision: The Inside Story of Public Television (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1995).

  • Ralph Engelman, Public Radio and Television in America: A Political History (Thousand Oaks: Sage Publications, 1996).

  • James Ledbetter, Made Possible By . . .: The Death of Public Broadcasting in the United States (New York: Verso, 1998).

  • Laurie Ouellette, Viewers Like You?: How Public TV Failed the People (New York: Columbia University Press, 2002).

  • Allison Perlman, Public Interests: Media Advocacy and Struggles over U.S. Television (New Brunswick: Rutgers University Press, 2016).

  • David M. Stone, Nixon and the Politics of Public Television (New York: Garland Publishing, Inc., 1985).

  • John Witherspoon, Roselle Kovitz, Robert K. Avery, and Alan G. Stavitsky, A History of Public Broadcasting (Washington, DC: Current, 2000).

  • Donald N. Wood, "The First Fifteen Years of the ‘Fourth Network,’" Journal of Broadcasting 13.2 (1969): 131-144.

Next: Defining Conservatism

Robert Welch, founder of the John Birch Society, gave an extensive interview to WGBH journalist Jim Fleming as part of the Regional Report on the society.

Regional Report; John Birch Society

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