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A "chance for better television": PBS and the politics of ideals, 1967-1973

Laurie Jean Ouellette, University of Massachusetts Amherst


This study is an interpretive cultural history of the Public Broadcasting System (PBS), with a focus on its cultural policy goals during the "golden age" of U.S. public television, from the passage of the 1967 Public Broadcasting Act until 1973, when the service was restructured and politically blunted by the Nixon Administration. Drawing from a poststructural approach to media historiography, and from cultural theory, the study focuses on the key cultural priorities ascribed to PBS: Quality, innovation, pluralism, enlightenment, democracy and problem-solving. While these prioritiese were presented in the terminology of the "public interest," the study argues that they are more productively understood as idealized rationalizations constrained by capitalist contradictions, and by hierarchies of culture, knowledge, and power. The study shows how the conception and implementation of a "second chance for television" was socially constituted, shaped by a nexus of social, economic and ideological forces, and expreseed within and across policy, institutional and cultural contexts. Revisiting institutional, policy and popular discourses as well as early PBS programming the study traces the multiple contradictions that positioned PBS as simultaneously superior, edifying, diverse and democratic, and traces its relationship with its core audience, the professional-managerial class (PMC). The main thesis is that the liberal idealiasm of the 1960s, the mythologies upholding the American class structure and the residual discourse of the mass culture debate intersected with the social and political uprisings of the late 1960, producing an inherently contradictory agenda for PBS. The push for television reform gained currency with assertions of cultural hierarchy and class superiority, as well as with calls for the reinvigoration of pluralism, citizenship and equality of opportunity. PBS was developed during a public service-oriented context and debuted nationally during an era of activism and civil disobedience. It was partially receptive to the social and political movements of the late 1960s and early 1970s, and partly concerned with serving minority and disadvantaged Americans, but it was also called upon to function as a "governmental apparatus" that could channel disobedience and dissent into official procedures and established power hierarchies. This contradictory potential was what rendered PBS threatening to certain regional constituencies, and to powerful conservatives like Nixon, who drew from political, geographical and class tensions to frame public television as a bastion of East Coast liberal elitism in an attempt to curb its political influence. By examining the early ideals and tensions that shaped the social construction of PBS, my study contributes to American television history, cultural studies, media studies and cultural policy studies.

Subject Area

Mass media|American studies|American history

Recommended Citation

Ouellette, Laurie Jean, "A "chance for better television": PBS and the politics of ideals, 1967-1973" (1998). Doctoral Dissertations Available from Proquest. AAI9909201.