Friday, April 11, 2008

PBS's Historic Gannett Connection--Part 1

(The following (slightly updated) article originally appeared in the May 8, 1991 issue of the Lower East Side alternative newsweekly, Downtown).

“Public television’s programming has become subject to external interests, especially the interests of the corporations, foundations and government agencies that fund much of the national schedule…”

The Report of the Carnegie Commission on the Future of Public Broadcasting in 1979

“…On public television, Jim Lehrer and I have been trying an innovative approach to televised news. The partnership with Gannett will let us build on that experience.”

Former PBS NewsHour Anchor Robert MacNeil in September 1981

In September 1981, the Public Broadcasting Service’s evening news anchormen, Robert MacNeil and Jim Lehrer, formed a partnership with the Gannett Company to produce television news, specials, documentaries and cable programs.

Fifty percent of the partnership, MacNeil-Lehrer Productions, was to be owned by the Gannett Company, 25 percent by MacNeil and 25 percent by Lehrer. According to MacNeil, under his and Lehrer’s agreement with the Gannett Company, Gannett would “fund program ideas we three collectively agree should be produced.”

The Gannett Company’s chairman of the board and president in 1981, Al Neuharth, characterized Gannett’s decision to form a commercial partnership with the publicly-funded PBS news anchormen as “a marvelous opportunity to add a significant dimension to our development of electronic news and information capability,” according to the Sept. 12, 1981 issue of the New York Times. At the same time, MacNeil explained one of his reasons for then becoming a partner with one of the biggest commercial mass media conglomerates in the world: “Since we didn’t take a vow of poverty and chastity when we joined public television, it would be nice if we could also make some money.”

Yet in 1969, former PBS evening news anchor MacNeil had complained in a WRVR-FM radio discussion that “Television is in the hands of people who want to use it to sell things. It’s a market place.” And in his 1982 memoir, The Right Place At The Right Time, the Canadian-born and bred MacNeil would later claim that he and Lehrer “have turned down a number of attractive job offers in commercial television,” “the pleasure of working together on what we want to do outweighs the higher salaries we have been offered outside” and “freedom from frustration and tension is worth a lot of money.”

Although PBS’ Channel 13 often pleaded poverty in the early 1990s during its annual WBAI-imitation television marathons to help finance the MacNeil/Lehrer NewsHour, neither Gannett nor the MacNeil/Lehrer Newshour was then in special need of money. The Gannett Company’s gross annual income exceeded $3 billion and its net income per year approached $400 million in the early 1990s. And in its Aug. 4, 1988 issue, the New York Times noted that the MacNeil/Lehrer NewsHour also received a “financial commitment of $57 million through corporate support of AT&T, Pepsico and John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation” in the late 1980s.

(Downtown 5/8/91)

Next: PBS’s Historic Gannett Connection—Part 2