See It Later

Due to Circumstances Beyond Our Control

by Fred W. Friendly
Random House, 325 pp., $6.95

Fred Friendly
Fred Friendly; drawing by David Levine

On February 28, 1967 the President addressed the 90th Congress on matters of Health and Education, two subjects close to the Great Socialite’s heart. Sandwiched between a plea for the expansion of the Teachers’ Corps and a request for additional funds for biomedical research was the statement, “I am convinced that a vital and self-sufficient non-commercial television system will not only instruct, but inspire and uplift our people.” The fact that the President is an owner not only of KTBC, Austin’s one commercial television station, but of Capital Cable, a program-carrier, made all the more resonant his plea for non-commercial television.

He recommended that the Congress make law the Public Television Act of 1967, calling for (1) an increase in Federal funds for television and radio construction to $10.5 million in fiscal 1968. (2) “The creation of a corporation for public television authorized to provide support to non-commercial television and radio.” (3) “Provide $9 million in fiscal 1968 as initial funding for the company.” Further, “non-commercial television and radio in America, even though supported by Federal funds, must be absolutely free from any Federal Government interference over programming.” Also, “the strength of public television should lie in its diversity. Every region and every community should be challenged to contribute its best.” Finally, “one of the corporation’s first tasks should be to study the practicality and the economic advantages of using communication satellites to establish an educational television and radio network.” With these words, the President set in motion what might yet become the most useful action of a most bloody reign, and though he dealt somewhat gingerly with the key issues (freedom from federal interference, regional diversity, satellite versus land-line interconnection), he gave the Congress (known to those it fascinates as the Nitwit Ninetieth), a chance to do something unusual and in the public interest.

On April 11, 1967 Senator John O. Pastore, Chairman of the Senate Commerce Committee’s Subcommittee on Communication, began hearings on Senate Bill 1160 which would make palpable the President’s dream to inspire and uplift. The hearings were well-conducted. A wide variety of interests, some candid, some not, were heard. The Senators who asked the questions (and sometimes answered them) were unusually dedicated and, all in all, the Upper House could be observed at its judicious best, particularly when the Bill finally came to a vote on May 17 and was passed. The Bill then went to the Lower House, the chamber most susceptible to special interests. On September 22, after a stormy time in committee (at one point the entire Republican membership voted against setting up any public television corporation), the House of Representatives passed the Bill, suitably weakened. Since then, the two Houses have worked out a joint Bill which the President signed on November 7.

MEANWHILE, the first nationwide attempt at conventionally interconnected non-commercial television was made November 5 by the Public Broadcasting…


This is exclusive content for subscribers only.
Try two months of unlimited access to The New York Review for just $1 a month.

View Offer

Continue reading this article, and thousands more from our complete 55+ year archive, for the low introductory rate of just $1 a month.

If you are already a subscriber, please be sure you are logged in to your nybooks.com account.