August 02, 2005
When WILL-TV first signed on the air 50 years ago, it became the first educational TV broadcaster in central Illinois. If the local commercial media moguls had their way, it wouldn't have happened at all. The University of Illinois had to take the fight to the Illinois legislature to muster the political force to finally prevail. Some Americans remain conflicted about the notion of public broadcasting. You can see it reflected in the comments left by some on this blog. To me the most interesting objection is the one that says government funding of TV and radio programming leads to political control of TV and radio content. Another objection, raised by those who opposed WILL-TV going on the air 50 years ago, says public funding gives us an unfair advantage over commercial broadcasters. I love debating this stuff, and while I have my viewpoint I will always try to remain open to other views. To the first objection (government funding leads to political control) I'd say maybe but not inevitably, and I think we (WILL) have proven ourselves able to maintain control of our own editorial process, thank you very much. And can anyone argue with a straight face that there's no political control over the editorial process at Fox News? It may not come from the government, but instead reflects the politics of its owner and his billionaire frame of reference. Public funding may indeed give public broadcasting operations like WILL an advantage over commercial broadcasters. On the other hand, WGN last year cancelled its decades-long commitment to agricultural programming not because it wasn't profitable, but because it wasn't obscenely profitable. Several other radio stations in this market consistently gather up a large profit for their conglomerate owners, who simply add it to the piles of cash coming in from their hundreds of other broadcasting investments. WILL has more news reporters on staff than all these profitable local stations combined. They could fund a local news staff if they wanted to, but it would cut into their profit margins, and thus might impact their share prices...which is what their business really is. The reality is we're in a different business altogether, and that's education. We don't work as hard as we do (I can tell ya stories) to reap profits for absentee corporate giants, we do it as a public service to our communities. One could argue that publicly-funded schools are unfair competition to private schools, or that public libraries put commercial bookstores at a competitive disadvantage. If the sole measure of value is private profit, that might be true. But the founders of this thing we salute to spoke of other values, like the public good and the commonweal. We share this nation, this community, this planet. We have to figure out ways to make the best of that, and I like to think that's what public broadcasting is for. So here's a salute to WILL-TV's golden anniversary, with a nice Flash piece created by our friends at the University of Illinois Office of Public Affairs. I hope we're still debating 50 years from now.
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