Education Reporting on Public Television

Education Documentaries in the NET Years, 1953-1972

The program opens with a close shot of an on-campus Students for a Democratic Society (SDS) meeting. Cut to a young man who says, “The system cannot be tolerated and must be destroyed.” Next the university president says,

The only people who concern me, who cause me any anxiety at all, are the people who I think are, in fact, determined to destroy an institution. Who, it seems to me, are prepared to say that because a hospital doesn’t save the life of everybody who comes into the hospital, we should burn the hospital down.

So begins the Diary of a Student Revolution, produced and written by Morton Silverstein and aired on NET Journal in March 1969. Film crews spent ten days at the University of Connecticut (UConn) in December 1968 as protests surrounding on-campus recruiting by military contractors Dow Chemical and Olin Mathieson threatened to disrupt the last weeks before winter break. One crew followed the UConn branch of the SDS while another monitored the president of the university, Dr. Homer D. Babbidge, Jr. In the spliced final cut, the viewer can see reactions to events on both sides of the battle simultaneously. With minimal narration, the documentary presents state police reading the riot act to SDS protestors, a meeting of the UConn student congress, an SDS planning session, and deliberations in Babbidge’s office. The viewer sees a counter-protest where one student announces to a large crowd, “We believe that the majority of students on this campus oppose the tactics of a minority” to hearty applause, while a sobbing young woman in the crowd wails, “You’re not listening. Nobody ever does anything.” In a lecture hall, sign-wielding SDS members disrupt a class, while students in the lecture hall yell for them to leave. In a closing comment, Babbidge, resignedly, says, “I think probably we’re in for a fairly long siege.” Generalizations about “campus unrest” in the 1960s melt away before the intimate portrait of one university grappling with its identity and purpose.

Next: Capturing Education Battles on Television, 1972-1980

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“A University on the Air”: Educational Television, 1953-1964
Milestones in Education, 1954-1968
Educational Programming, 1964-1968
NET after the Public Broadcasting Act, 1968-1969
NET Demoted, 1970-1972


In the years before the Corporation for Public Broadcasting (CPB) and the Public Broadcasting Service (PBS) were created, public television was dominated by NET, or National Educational Television. NET began as the Educational Television and Radio Center (ETRC), a non-profit corporation organized to execute the administrative task of sharing content produced by educational broadcasters across the country. After 1958, NET increasingly sought to make itself into a “Fourth Network,” one that could join the ranks of ABC, NBC, and CBS. NET’s leaders believed that they could eke out a niche by producing and airing public affairs content, especially documentaries. Over the course of the 1960s, NET dove into hot-button education-related issues confronting local communities, such as desegregation in urban schools and unrest on college campuses.

“A University on the Air”: Educational Television, 1953-1964

At the outset, educational television was almost entirely funded by the Ford Foundation’s Fund for Adult Education (FAE). Robert Hudson, FAE’s media consultant who became ETRC’s head of programming, described the Center as “an educational institution whose mode of expression was television.” Its purpose was “to inform, to educate, and to enrich the lives of viewers.”3 Beginning in May 1954, the Center began sending the four local stations then in operation program packages to air. This practice expanded as new local stations joined the consortium and the Center built the capacity to distribute more material. Stations readily accepted the programming because most could only afford to be on the air about forty hours a week and relied upon ETRC-sourced content.4 Since the stations had no electronic interconnection capabilities—the means of transmitting programs live through telephone wires—these programs had to be copied onto film that was then rotated from station to station through the mail.5

Public television programming in its early years could hardly be described as exciting. ETRC remained true to the “university on the air” model developed during the educational radio years.6 John White, who became the Center’s president in 1958, described the early programming as “a succession of gray professors in front of gray drapes delivering gray and dusty lectures.”7 White was determined to add some life to public television. He began by moving the Center from its original location in Ann Arbor, Michigan, to New York and changing its name to the National Educational Television and Radio Center (soon to be shortened to NET). In 1961, NET began producing “NET Prime Time” three nights a week between 7:30 and 10:00, which 90% of affiliates chose to air.8

Much of the content distributed to local stations fell under the category of “public affairs,” in accordance with directives from the Ford Foundation. Between 1958 and 1962, the number of documentaries shown on public television doubled, mimicking the news content on the three networks.9 But after 1963, the networks increasingly turned toward lighter programming like westerns and comedies, allowing NET to make documentaries an essential part of their brand.

In November 1964, the White administration released the N.E.T. Program Philosophy and Purpose, which declared these goals for their public affairs programming,

To induce people to think critically about the important national and international issues confronting our society and, having thought, to act intelligently and democratically toward the resolution of these issues.

To help develop an informed, alert, active citizenry, jealous of its freedoms and conscious of its responsibilities.10

These ambitious goals led to a collection of compelling documentaries in the latter half of the 1960s.

Milestones in Education, 1954-1968

The federal government expanded its role in public education over the course of the 1950s. After the Soviet Union launched the Sputnik satellite in 1957, American politicians feared that American education, as it stood, was insufficient to develop minds bright enough to rival those of the Russians. In 1958, Congress passed the National Defense Education Act (NDEA), which put millions of dollars toward preparing top students for careers in the sciences and foreign languages.11 Leaders in educational television welcomed the increased focus on learning since it improved educational television’s initially lukewarm status. James Day of KQED in San Francisco noted, “With the sudden realization that our curricula were dangerously deficient in science and math and that years would be required to train teachers, the new technology of television seemed a fortuitous blessing.”12

In 1954, the Supreme Court had handed down the Brown v. Board decision that struck down de jure segregation in public schools, declaring that “separate educational facilities are inherently unequal.”13 Local districts responded so slowly to this mandate, however, that little changed until the Johnson administration arrived in Washington. Large shifts in integrating public schools began with the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which permitted the Department of Justice to sue segregated school districts.14 Next, the Johnson administration passed the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA), which increased Washington’s role in setting standards for state educational agencies and public schools. This signature piece of Great Society legislation focused on “compensatory education,” providing additional resources for students at risk of low educational achievement, as President Lyndon Johnson remarked on signing the legislation, “As a son of a tenant farmer, I know that education is the only valid passport from poverty.”15 These actions, combined with the prodigious efforts of civil rights activists fighting for quality education in their localities, put pressure on school systems in both the North and South to fundamentally restructure. As Ira Katznelson and Margaret Weir have noted, “since their founding, public schools in large U.S. cities have been neighborhood and community institutions.”16 Now, local school districts were subject to the demands of their communities, the courts, and the federal government. After the Civil Rights Act, these demands for racial integration meant ending de jure segregation in the South and de facto segregation in the North.

As the decade proceeded, civil rights activists grew frustrated with the failures of desegregation. Influenced by the Black Power movement, many black parents and activists began rallying for community control of schools—decentralization, rather than integration. Most famously, in 1967, the Ocean Hill-Brownsville neighborhood in Brooklyn gained local governance over their schools. The experiment ended in 1969 after two years of strikes, demonstrations, and battles between locals, the teachers union, and the New York City bureaucracy.17 All told, the demands put on schools, teachers, and students in the 1960s were high. Through it all, educational television attempted to keep pace.

Educational Programming, 1964-1968

Following its new Program Philosophy and Purpose, NET began airing a number of documentary series, including, Local Issue, Regional Report, America’s Crises, and At Issue. Several episodes from each addressed educational topics. Local Issue, a thirty-minute news report, asked local stations to zoom-in to a local controversy that might be relevant to the country at large. A House Divided (1964) from member station KUED examined the battle in Utah between the teacher’s union and the state government for increased teacher pay. An Amish Schoolhouse (1965) from WMSB dealt with the controversy in Camden, Michigan, of whether a schoolhouse for Amish children should be required to employ a certified teacher from outside the community. The Subject of Sex (1967) from KRMA focused on the debates around the introduction of a sex education curriculum in Jefferson County, Colorado. Regional Report united in a one hour-long episode the individual stories of diverse localities dealing with similar problems such as School Integration (1965) and School Prayers (1967).18

America’s Crises, a series of one-hour programs, dove deep into fundamental problems facing the nation. For example, across four episodes of the series, NET attempted to document “the state of education…today—from the plight of the culturally deprived child to the growing controversy surrounding university education.”19 Despite the menacing title of the series, some episodes, like “Child of the Future”, represented a giddy excitement with progress visible in a number of NET's offerings. For example, a number of programs from this period documented alternative schools for the blind, deaf, and those with developmental condition like autism.20

At Issue sought to comprehensively explore topical issues little seen on network television, but lacking the thematic links between episodes common to the America's Crises series.21 Episode #20, for instance, called “The Battle for School Integration” (1964), captured the growing protests concerning the integration of de facto segregated Northern schools. The program, hosted by journalist and sociologist Charles Silberman, author of Crises in Black and White (1964) and later the popular critique Crisis in the Classroom: The Remaking of American Education (1970), featured commentators from both sides of the issue.

At Issue was far from the only NET series to cover issues of minority education and desegregation. NET believed that the commercial networks were limited in their ability to cover controversial issues such as civil rights by the persistent need for advertisers and good ratings. The networks did cover the civil rights movement; indeed the presence of television cameras was critical to the strategy of many protests, but the leaders of NET believed they did so in insufficient depth.22 NET, by contrast, had the free air time and independence to assess the “depth and sweep of the racial revolution.”23 Providing this coverage was crucial, NET’s leaders believed, to fulfilling its mission to educate for a democratic society.

Local Issue covered the topic in Reading, Writing, and Race (1964) from WNDT (later WNET) in New York, which presented interviews with members of opposing factions in the city's school desegregation battle in New York City. Integration: Two Towns in Texas (1968) from KUHT in Houston shows how two adjacent towns attempted to comply with federal mandates.

In an attempt to create greater continuity in programming, NET established NET Journal, which absorbed previous series such as America’s Crises and At Issue. The producers of NET Journal were given “unprecedented freedom in topic selection and approach” to create a documentary series for national distribution.24 Director of Public Affairs Programs Donald Dixon told his producers, “You can say almost anything you want to say, so long as you can back it up.”25 As a result, NET Journal produced fascinating documentaries on many controversial issues, including race. Head Start in Mississippi (1966) documented a Johnson administration War on Poverty program to create local nursery schools in poor communities and train local residents to run them. In 1967, NET Journal aired The Way It Is, produced by Harold Mayer, an independent filmmaker. Filmed at Junior High School 57, referred to as a “ghetto school” in Brooklyn’s Bedford Stuyvesant neighborhood, the documentary depicted chaos in the classroom and the helplessness of members of New York University’s Clinic for Learning to bring order and learning to the school. These documentaries, like many NET Journals programs, used cinéma vérité techniques of relatively uninterrupted observation, little or no narration, and intimate views captured by a small team of filmmakers using unobtrusive recording equipment.

Some of the larger stations, including WGBH in Boston and KQED in San Francisco, provided content for national distribution and supplemented NET’s content with its own local programming. WGBH, in particular, devoted significant airtime to issues affecting the Boston area. WGBH had (and has) one of the best production units in the country, a large, highly-educated audience, and a reputation for progressive politics.26 In 1965, WGBH aired a lengthy series called Education and Race Relations, which featured panel discussions of academic experts on the topic. Also in 1965, WGBH aired Kids, Crayons, and VWs, a program about students bused from Roxbury to Beacon Hill. The Coleman Report showed a 1967 panel discussion on the Equality of Educational Opportunity Report, commissioned by the U.S. Department of Education, which studied differences in educational attainment across groups of students. For NET’s City Makers series, WGBH featured Rhody McCoy, the administrator of New York City’s Ocean Hill-Brownsville school district.

Many local stations, however, did not appreciate the controversy thrust upon them or NET’s desire to act as a network. Affiliate meetings often degenerated into “free-for-alls,” with NET ignoring the wishes of the member stations they were purportedly serving. Increasingly, many affiliates chose not to air NET’s more daring programming. Titles such as Inside North Vietnam (1968), Fidel (1969), and Banks and the Poor (1970), an exposé on discriminatory loan policies, caused particularly strong reactions. NET, however, saw tackling controversial issues as both an essential part of its mission and a strategy to build its brand. Its Philosophy and Purpose stated, “Often N.E.T. must seek to stimulate controversy where none has existed because of lack of knowledge or lack of concern. That is part of the overall purpose: to challenge Americans to accept the obligations of citizenship.”27 The White administration also courted the press, believing that journalistic favor “signaled the growing acceptance of NET as a full-fledged network, equivalent in program quality and significance to their commercial colleagues.”28 The plan of using controversy to build a brand succeeded for a while, and most of the “significant” press NET received between 1966 and 1968 was positive.29 Local stations, especially in conservative areas of the country, however, did not necessarily appreciate the controversy thrust upon them or NET’s desire to act as a network. Affiliate meetings often degenerated into “free-for-alls,” with NET repeatedly ignoring the wishes of the member stations they were purportedly supposed to be serving.30 Increasingly, many affiliates chose not to air NET’s more daring programming.

NET after the Public Broadcasting Act, 1968-1969

After Congress passed the Public Broadcasting Act in 1967, administrators at NET hoped that their organization would continue to be the central nexus for production, scheduling, and distribution.NET had already alienated many of its new bosses in Congress and at affiliated stations across the country with controversial material. Their blasé response to station complaints had only been made possible by the financial backing of the Ford Foundation, which directed NET to ignore “all the factionalism in the system” and proceed with their mission.”31 Even with this override power suddenly gone, NET continued to air controversial documentaries, including films on integration, poor school quality, and the growing unrest on university campuses.

To showcase its commitment to “hard-hitting” documentaries and other forms of informed and at times controversial news, public affairs, and cultural programming, the Ford Foundation started Public Broadcast Laboratory (PBL) in late 1967 as a live broadcast on Sunday nights lasting two hours or longer.32 Joining the ongoing NET Journal, PBL tackled issues of integration and community control. In Hear Us, O Lord (1968), cameras followed a white family in South Holland, Illinois, grappling with the question of whether to allow their children to be bused to a school in an adjacent black town. The film made heavy use of the cinéma vérité technique, thrusting the viewer into the anxious dinner-time conversation about what integration will mean for their family. In Generation of Pawns: The Urban School Crisis (1969), PBL followed turmoil over decentralization and community control in New York City, including footage from a thirty-hour marathon session of the New York Board of Education as they attempted to bring calm to a strike and protest-ridden city.

PBL also was the series to first air a documentary by Frederick Wiseman on public television. Before 1969, NET regularly commissioned independent work, and in 1968 Wiseman’s High School was aired for the first time. In the documentary, Wiseman entered a middle-class high school in Philadelphia, revealing the boredom and dreariness of the environment. Wiseman’s style is characterized by long stretches of direct observational coverage of interactions and occurrences within institutions with no narration or commentary. After High School, Wiseman went on to produce dozens of films devoted to America’s institutions, most of which aired on public television. In 1994, Wiseman followed up this film with High School II about Central Park East Secondary School, a successful alternative school in East Harlem.33

Perhaps the most exciting NET documentaries from this period, though, are those covering student unrest in 1968 and 1969. Far from the old “chalk and talk” lectures, these films bring the viewer directly into the conflicts between student radicals, administrators, and the mass of students caught between the two opposing groups. While college protests began in 1964 with the Berkeley Free Speech Movement, focusing on internal university policies, later 60s uprisings addressed universities' involvement in local community and national issues. University after university suffered student strikes, occupations, and other disruptive actions of dissent. After the shootings at Kent State University in May 1970, more than one-third of college campuses nationwide experienced protests.34

According to Donald Dixon, whereas student groups like SDS frequently refused to allow the commercial networks to film their activities, they trusted NET producers. “In fact,” according to historian Carolyn Brooks, “NET was the only network organization offered unrestricted access to the strategy meetings of these groups, giving NET an edge in its coverage of the student movement.”35 With this privilege, NET took its cameras to universities across the country. In The Frustrated Campus (1968), PBL filmed an extended confrontation between student protestors and the faculty and administration of the University of Illinois. NET Journal produced Diary of a Student Revolution (Featured Program) in 1969, spending ten days filming the protests surrounding on-campus recruiting at the University of Connecticut. To Calm a Troubled Campus (1969), also an episode of NET Journal, shows the University of Pennsylvania dealing with protests about the college’s relationship with the war effort and Penn’s intrusion into adjacent minority neighborhoods. PBL combined two documentaries filmed at Stanford University under the title University in Society: Do the Ties Bind? (1969). The first, Reform Before Revolution, depicts the administration, while the second, Fathers and Sons, follows student radicals.

Once a month starting in mid-1968, NET Journal became Black Journal. “On those nights,” according to James Day, “one could almost hear the collective sucking in of breath along the network as the more timorous among the affiliates waited to see what provocations the show’s black producers would thrust upon the stations’ predominately white audiences.”36 Episode #12 of Black Journal reported on black student movements at Duke and Cornell universities, and the predominantly black campuses of Saint Augustine College and Shaw University, both in North Carolina. Color Us Black! Part One and Part Two, broadcast in May 1968 as an NET Journal episode before Black Journal began, showed the conflict between militant black students at Howard University in Washington, D.C., and what they considered to be the “bourgeois” administration.

WGBH, in broadcasts for the local Boston community, also followed student unrest. An episode of its series Say Brother called “Black Power on University Campuses” (1968) follows the student takeover at Ford Hall at Brandeis University. In Harvard: Where Do We Go from Here? (1969), the station provided a forum where representatives of various factions could debate the protests in Cambridge.

NET Demoted, 1970-1972

In 1969, the Corporation for Public Broadcasting created PBS to replace NET as the organization in charge of interconnection, effective January 1, 1970. CPB made clear that PBS’s responsibilities would also include selecting programs for national distribution and scheduling content. Local stations could reject or delay a program scheduled by PBS. Although PBS was therefore a “gatekeeper” for NET’s programs between 1970 and 1972, NET continued to push the envelope, particularly with content on the Vietnam War. When they hit resistance, NET took their case to the press, forcing resistant stations to show NET content or be charged with censorship in the next day’s news. Although PBS and CPB squabbled over various powers, they both “consistently allied against NET.”37 Over the 1970-71 season, NET launched a series of “advocacy” documentaries that seemed to be “willful counter-attacks” against this alliance.38 Historian Carolyn Brooks explained their tactics:

Despite the fact that throughout the 1969-1972 period NET appeared to be engaged in ritual suicide, their actions reflected a perverse logic. NET’s staff felt a moral imperative, left over from their network days, to produce the type of controversial advocacy journalism that made the conservative elements within their system uncomfortable.39

This strategy could not last long, especially with Congress working on a bill to fund CPB for the next two years. The 1971-1972 season contained fewer documentaries, instead featuring two new series: The Great American Dream Machine and Realities. While the satirical Dream Machine was meant to be more crowd-pleasing, Realities, like its predecessor, NET Journal, aired hard-hitting long-form documentaries. The first hour-long episode of Realities, titled the three r’s…and sex education, discussed the question of whether schools should teach sex education.

At a 1971 meeting of the PBS stations, “an overwhelming majority” of station managers endorsed the “PBS board’s discretionary authority” to handle “problem programming.”40 In May 1972, NET was entirely removed as the leader of educational television with the completion of a merger of NET and the local New York City station, WNDT, into the newly formed WNET.

While NET did not succeed in convincing all the local stations of the wisdom of its philosophy, it did succeed in taking educational television from dusty “chalk and talk” lectures to fascinating cinéma vérité perspectives into the most pressing issues of the day.

A student protestor interrupts a lecture at University of Connecticut.

NET Journal; Diary of a Student Revolution (1969)

The National Educational Television (NET) Collection consists of more than 10,000 television programs from non-commercial TV stations and producers from 1952-1972 on public affairs, social issues, arts, culture, the humanities, science, and education. The collection includes public affairs documentaries and discussions covering the black freedom struggle, the Vietnam War, the Cuban Missile Crisis, and issues such as poverty, student activism, radicalism, privacy, the environment, the elderly, and welfare.

Logo for National Educational Television

Salt Lake City teacher on strike in A House Divided, an episode of Local Issue from 1964 that looked at 1953 a special session of the state legislature called in 1953 to appropriate additional funds for the schools. As program host and commentator Neal Maxwell, Dean of Students at the University of Utah, talked with people on both sides of the stormy controversy, viewers were brought up to date on the crisis.

Local Issue; A House Divided (1964)

Students in Boston protest de facto segregation in The Battle for School Integration, a program that examined the spreading civil rights boycotts of northern schools. It surveyed the positive and negative effectiveness of the boycotts, what these boycotts did to the political and asocial structure of a city, and probed whether this method for promoting school integration was a valid use of the boycott.

At Issue; The Battle for School Integration (1964)

Boredom and distraction at Junior High School 57 in The Way It Is, a 1966 documentary study of what was referred to as the "ghetto school."

NET Journal; The Way It Is (1966)

The Lang Family discusses over dinner in Hear Us, O Lord, a Public Broadcast Laboratory report on the response of an all-white suburb in South Holland, Illinois to a federal school desegregation order."

Public Broadcast Laboratory; Hear Us, O Lord (1968)

Stanford administrators meet in Reform Before Revolution, the first part of a Public Broadcast Laboratory episode titled "University in Society: Do the Ties Bind?.""

Public Broadcast Laboratory; University in Society; Do the Ties Bind? (1969)

Banner reading Malcolm X University in "Black Power on University Campuses," a 1969 episode of WGBH's Say Brother which examines the student takeover of Ford Hall at Brandeis University."

Say Brother; Black Power on University Campuses (1968)

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