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.
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
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."
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.
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
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.
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1975; 2nd Revised Edition 1990.
Robert J. To Serve the Public Interest: Educational Broadcasting
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Carolyn N. Documentary Programming and the Emergence of the National
Educational Television Center as a Network, 1958-1972. (Ph.D.
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of California Press, 1974.
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Television Workshop; Educational