What PBS’s Treatment of Two Movies About The Kochs Says About Which Money Counts In Public Television

In this week’s New Yorker, Jane Mayer, who has covered the industrialists Charles and David Koch extensively, chronicles the fate of two documentaries produced for PBS, Alex Gibney’s Park Avenue, which explored the lives of both wealthy residents of a single building on one end of the street and poorer New Yorkers at the other, and Citizen Koch, which examined the consequences of the Citizens United decision. Both movies ran into trouble for the same reason: fear of offending David Koch, who has been a major public television donor, and was until recently on the board of New York public television affiliate WNET. While Park Avenue eventually made it to air on PBS, albeit with a recut introduction and a discussion afterwards that excluded Gibney, Citizen Koch, which was initially supposed to be part of the Independent Lens series, ended up off the lineup. Whether or not David Koch was involved, Mayer’s story would still be interesting as an illustration of what happens when two different philanthropic models bump up against each other.

On one side are the foundations. Gibney’s documentary, Mayer reported, “had been produced independently, in part with support from the Gates Foundation.” And both Park Avenue and Citizen Koch were projects of the Independent Television Service, “the small arm of public television that funds and distributes independent films…ITVS, which is based in San Francisco and was founded some twenty years ago by independent filmmakers, prides itself on its resistance to outside pressure. Its mandate is to showcase opinionated filmmakers who ‘take creative risks, advance issues and represent points of view not usually seen on public or commercial television.'” These foundations represent a mission rather than a personal interest, and that mission is to create space and provide support for a range of ideas, rather than to advance particular arguments or worldviews. It’s a critically important role to fill, but it also means that those organizations have some disadvantages when they come up against the other funding model at stake here, in this case, the support of private donors.

As Mayer explains, in addition to his donations to Lincoln Center—where the David H. Koch Theater, home of the New York City Ballet, bears his name—” In the nineteen-eighties, he began expanding his charitable contributions to the media, donating twenty-three million dollars to public television over the years. In 1997, he began serving as a trustee of Boston’s public-broadcasting operation, WGBH, and in 2006 he joined the board of New York’s public-television outlet, WNET.” Unlike ITVS, for example, which is designed specifically to produce content for public television, there are a lot of places David Koch can spend his money. And unlike ITVS, which has an ongoing mission of making sure that new points of view make it onto public television, a setup that means it’s going to have to expend political capital on behalf of its filmmakers on a regular basis, private donors like Koch are more likely to concentrate their leverage on a few issues, or a few pieces of content. If Koch can make a “seven-figure donation,” which Mayer reported he had planned to give to WNET before he resigned from the board, contingent on two hours of programming, while ITVS has to fight for many films—PBS has already aired 15 movies through ITVS’ Independent Lens program in 2013—ITVS is understandably going to be at a disadvantage, as is the Gates Foundation, which may be all too happy to fund a single film, but doesn’t necessarily want to be in the postion to cover a multi-million dollar hole.

Disputes like this one highlight the extent to which making PBS reliant on private charity calls into question the meaning of “public” television. A state of affairs in which television content is determined by the government is obviously undesirable and subjects programming to a partisan agenda in a way that would serve members of both parties ill by turns, and the public poorly at all times, given how timid the content choices would likely be. But a “public” television regime that’s established to give extremely wealthy people another way to buy programming power other than by purchasing affiliate stations is “public” only in a business sense, rather than serving a broadly-defined public interest.

PBS president Paula Kerger offered a potential definition of that public interest at the Television Critics Association press tour in January, when she explained that:

As governor of Virginia, Thomas Jefferson proposed that we establish state funded libraries so that people could freely access new ideas and information. Until then, books were mostly sheltered in private collections and shared only among the wealthy or the privileged. This access to ideas was at the heart of our founders’ vision of democracy, a country founded by the people and for the people, where every citizen had the opportunity to be informed and have a voice in the future of our country. Nearly 200 years later, our public broadcasting system continues to carry out the spirit of our founders’ vision, using our nation’s airwaves to educate, engage, and inspire all Americans. The value of our mission was certainly called into question over the last few months, and once again the American people spoke out to highlight the importance of our work.

Open access to information is an important issue, and it’s critical to remember that simply archiving that information isn’t enough: we need means to distribute that information to people who would like to use it, or don’t necessarily even know it’s out there to be accessed at all. Low-cost, low-reliability solutions like Wikipedia have been able to rely on small donors. The challenge for a higher-cost, higher-quality operation like PBS is finding a sustainable funding mechanism or mix of mechanisms that are all truly committed to that mission.