Moyers to Public TV: Reinvent Yourself!

These are some of my favorite excerpts from an inspiring speech by one of public television’s long-term heroes, Bill Moyers. He delivered the speech in November, 2010 at a gathering of public television programming executives…

“The core problem is that we still don’t have an expansive national vision of what we’re about, where we want to go and what we want to become. Until we are able to say clearly and comprehensively what it is we really want to do, how much it will cost, and how we intend to get there, we can’t blame Congress, the White House or even the foundations for not supporting us more fully.

…There’s a huge vacuum between the [public television] system, nationally and locally, and the big foundations and no one has yet been inspired or capable enough to link the two at the level of a consensus national plan.

There are always people who remain afraid of change or an unknown process, fearful of where it might lead.  But by contrast, the British and Canadians go through periodic charter reviews that invoke a national conversation; there’s a culture of discussion and planning for public media in those nations that help them survive even the worst assaults from detractors or vested interests. This could be a reason that public support for public media in nations like the U.K. exceeds $80 per capita, while we’re still limping along on $1.49 per capita.

…In the meantime, I’m here to tell you that even within the fiscal crisis public television currently faces, we have an opportunity to serve the public — to renew our bond to our communities.

You may not have money for in-depth documentaries or other high-end productions but you have cameras, microphones, studios and the trust of the community. You can be the ombudsman for the public within your reach, provide the venue for forums, teach-ins, town meetings, and debates over the issues that matter to people where they live, telecast in an atmosphere of openness and clarity without the mean and mindless rhetoric or cant that are so triumphant today. Civic engagement is the lifeblood of democracy and the bedrock of its legitimacy. No media can nurture, foster, and empower it the way we can.

…Meanwhile, let me offer just a few other ideas for you to consider:  Take a whole evening of primetime and give it to a forum for the fight in your neighborhoods over charter schools. Do the same for other distressed public institutions — your libraries, for example.

Or how about one week inviting as many social workers as you can get into your studio and asking them to share what they see every day — how people are coping each day with these worst hard times?  Do a series of workshops on Occupy Wall Street, pro and con.  Out there in Iowa, find the lady carrying the placard I saw last weekend on television that read: “I couldn’t afford to buy a politician so I bought this sign.” Bring her into the studio with her local member of Congress — have them talk frankly to each other about their different perceptions of money in politics. Do an evening of primetime on the fight going on right now in your state over redistricting — gerrymandering — the outcome will influence your state’s position and power for the next 10 years. Get folks aware and involved. If you don’t, who will? Certainly not the commercial stations in your market, that’s for sure.

…since David H. Koch of Koch Industries is on the board of both WGBH and WNET, I’d ask him to round up his billionaire buddies — and in a nonpartisan spirit reach out to civic-minded progressive billionaires like George Soros — and together create an independent, fully endowed, self-governing production center (free of any partisan strings or influence) for American drama that would bring our epic history and culture to the screen just like we’ve brought over the Brits’ Downton Abbey, make room for Jefferson’s Monticello! Now, there’s an Upstairs Downstairs story the public would make a pledge to see.

…What we need is a makeover of our own — a rebirth, yes, of vision, imagination, and creativity, but above all a structure and scheme for the 2lst century, one that uses the resources that the digital platform provides to realize the goals of our founders: diversity, public access, civic discourse, experimentation, a welcoming place for independent spirits.

The whole speech–including his idea for public television’s equivalent of a constitutional convention– can be found here:

http://www.current.org/pb/pb1122moyers-remarks.html

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