NATIONAL EDUCATIONAL TELEVISION CENTER

The National Educational Television Center (NET) played the dominant role in building the structure on which the Public Broadcasting Service (PBS) rests. Funded primarily by Ford Foundation grants, NET was established in 1952 to assist in the creation and maintenance of an educational television service complementary to the entertainment-centered services available through commercial stations. NET initially was designed to function simply as an "exchange center," most of whose programming would be produced at the grassroots level by member stations. This strategy failed to attract a substantial audience because programming produced by the affiliates tended to be overly academic and of poor quality.

By 1958, NET's programming had acquired a well-deserved reputation as dull, plodding, and pedantic. NET officials recognized that if it was to survive and move beyond its "university of the air" status, NET needed strong leadership and a new program philosophy. They hired the station manager of WQED-Pittsburgh, John F. White, to take over the presidency of NET. An extremely ambitious proponent of the educational television movement, White believed that the system would grow and thrive only if NET provided strong national leadership. Consequently, White saw his task as that of transforming NET into a centralized network comparable to the three commercial networks. First, he moved NET headquarters from Ann Arbor, Michigan to New York City, where it could be associated more closely with its commercial counterparts. Next, he declared his organization to be the "Fourth Network," and attempted to develop program strategies aimed at making this claim a reality. No longer relying primarily on material produced by affiliated stations, NET officials now sought high quality programming obtained from a variety of sources including the British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC) and other international television organizations.

In 1964, the Ford Foundation decided to substantially increase their support of NET through a $6 million yearly grant. They believed that only a well-financed, centralized program service would bring national attention to noncommercial television and expand audiences for each local station. The terms of the grant allowed NET to produce and distribute a five-hour, weekly package divided into the broad categories of cultural and public affairs programming. The freedom provided by this funding generated a period of creative risk-taking between 1964 and 1968. Their cultural programming included adult drama such as NET Playhouse as well as children's shows like Mister Rogers' Neighborhood. But it was through public affairs programming that NET hoped to emphasize its unique status as the "alternative network." Cognizant that the intense ratings war between the three commercial networks had led to a decline in public affairs programming, NET strove to gain a reputation for filling the vacuum left in this area after 1963. NET producers and directors including Alvin Perlmutter, Jack Willis and Morton Silverstein began to film hard-hitting documentaries rarely found on commercial television. Offered under the series title NET Journal, programs like The Poor Pay More, Black Like Me, Appalachia: Rich Land, Poor People, and Inside North Vietnam explored controversial issues and often took editorial stands. Although NET Journal received positive responses from media critics, many of NET's affiliates, particularly those in the South, grew to resent what they perceived as its "East Coast Liberalism."

Despite the fact that John White and his staff believed that NET had been making progress in increasing the national audience for noncommercial television, the Ford Foundation did not share this conviction and began to re-evaluate their level of commitment. Between 1953 and 1966, they had invested over $130 million in NET, its affiliated stations and related endeavors. In spite of this substantial contribution, there was a constant need for additional funding. As Ford looked for ways to withdraw its support, educational broadcasters began to look to the government for financial assistance. Government involvement in this issue led to the passage of the Public Broadcasting Act of 1967, the subsequent creation of the Corporation for Public Broadcasting (CPB), and the eventual demise of NET.

Having been at the center of the educational television movement for 15 years, NET believed it would continue as the distributor of the national network schedule. The CPB initially supported NET's role by allowing NET to serve as the "public television network" between 1967 and 1969. But, in 1969, the CPB announced its decision to create a whole new entity, the Public Broadcasting Service, to take over network operations. The CPB's decision lay not only in its awareness that NET had alienated a majority of the affiliated stations, but also in its belief that a hopeless conflict of interest would have resulted if NET continued to serve as a principal production center while at the same time exercising control over program distribution. With the creation of PBS in 1969, NET's position became tenuous. NET continued to produce and schedule programming, now aired on PBS, including the well-received BBC productions, The Forsyte Saga and Civilization. But NET's refusal to end its commitment to the production of hard-hitting controversial documentaries such as Who Invited US? and Banks and the Poor led to public clashes between NET and PBS over program content. PBS wanted to curb NET's controversial role in the system and create a new image for public television, particularly since NET documentaries inflamed the Nixon Administration and imperiled funding. In order to neutralize NET, the CPB and Ford Foundation threatened to cut NET's program grants unless NET merged with New York's public television outlet, WNDT. Lacking allies, NET acquiesced to the proposed alliance in late 1970 and its role as a network was lost. The final result was WNET-Channel 13.

The legacy that NET left behind included the development of a national system of public television stations and a history of innovative programming. As a testament to this legacy, two children's shows that made their debut on NET, Sesame Street and Mister Rogers' Neighborhood, continue today as PBS icons.

-Carolyn N. Brooks

FURTHER READING

Barnouw, Erik. Tube of Plenty. New York: Oxford University Press, 1975; 2nd Revised Edition 1990.

Blakely, Robert J. To Serve the Public Interest: Educational Broadcasting in the United States. Syracuse, New York: Syracuse University Press, 1979.

Brooks, Carolyn N. Documentary Programming and the Emergence of the National Educational Television Center as a Network, 1958-1972. (Ph.D. dissertation, University of Wisconsin, Madison, 1994.)

Brown, Les. Television: The Business Behind the Box. New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1971.

Gibson, George H. Public Broadcasting: The Role of the Federal Government, 1912-1976. (Praeger Special Studies in U.S. Economic, Social and Political Issues). New York: Praeger, 1977.

Koenig, Allen E., and Ruane B. Hill, editors. The Farther Vision: Educational Television Today. Madison, Wisconsin: The University of Wisconsin Press, 1967.

Macy, John W., Jr. To Irrigate a Wasteland. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1974.

Pepper, Robert M. The Formation of the Public Broadcasting Service. New York: Arno, 1979.

Powell, John Walker. Channels of Learning. Washington, D.C.: Public Affairs Press, 1962.

Stone, David M. Nixon and the Politics of Public Television. New York: Garland, 1985.

Watson, Mary Ann. The Expanding Vista: American Television in the Kennedy Years. New York: Oxford University Press, 1990.

Wood, Donald Neal. The First Decade of the "Fourth Network": An Historical, Descriptive Analysis of the National Educational Television and Radio Center. (Ph.D. Dissertation, University of Michigan, 1963).

 

See also Children's Television Workshop; Educational Television