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Air Waves “are in the Public Domain”: Public Television Advocacy in the 1950s

Although educational radio stations flourished in the early 1920s—more than 200 existed prior to the introduction of network radio in 1926—most faltered shortly thereafter. One reason was the alignment of the Federal Radio Commission (FRC), created by legislation declaring that the airwaves belonged to the public, with commercial interests. When the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) replaced the FRC in 1934, educational, religious, and labor groups promoted an amendment requiring the allocation of one-fourth of all broadcast licenses to nonprofit organizations. The amendment failed to pass, and by 1937, only 38 educational radio stations remained in operation. In 1948, as sales of televisions skyrocketed, Freida B. Hennock, the first female FCC commissioner, began a campaign to assign channel frequencies for nonprofit, educational use. Advocates backing Hennock documented the high number of acts or threats of violence shown to children every week on commercial television broadcasts. Consequently, when the FCC in 1952 added UHF (ultra high frequency) channels to the existing VHF (very high frequency) channels, they reserved 10 percent for use by nonprofit educational organizations. In the following testimony to a 1955 Congressional subcommittee, Hennock advocated oversight of commercial television by governmental and civic bodies and championed educational television. The testimony from the general manager of a new Pittsburgh educational station, William Wood, follows. Wood emphasized the lack of violence in his ‘poverty stricken’ stationís programming and included excerpts from fan mail praising an acclaimed childrenís show, The Children’s Corner, a program co-produced by Fred Rogers, who later created, Mr. Rogers' Neighborhood. Until 1967, however, when the Federal government established the Corporation for Public Broadcasting to appropriate funds for public television, non-commercial stations struggled to survive.


STATEMENT OF HON. FRIEDA B. HENNOCK, MEMBER OF THE FEDERAL COMMUNICATIONS COMMISSION . . .

As I state on the first page, I know of no field where there is more important work to be done by the Senate than in juvenile delinquency, and the attention this committee is giving to this critical problem is most timely. Nowhere can this committee be more effective in stemming the excessive, concentrated and exaggerated portrayal of crime and violence than in radio and television. For the air waves over which broadcasters send their signals are in the public domain. The broadcasters acquire no vested interest in the air waves, and are issued licenses of no more than 3 years' duration.

The FCC requires broadcasters to operate in the public interest, and it must take programming into full account in issuing and renewing their licenses.

Here I want to say, Mr. Chairman, that in 1938 the Senate Interstate Commerce Committee was opposed to superpower, large AM broadcasting stations.

Senator Wheeler was then the chairman. By the mere passage of the resolution of that committee, which the FCC has ever since honored, the FCC never has gone in for superpower AM stations—just the mere passage of a resolution of that committee.

Now, this is the public domain, and I am going on from here as to what your committee can do as far as we are concerned, the FCC and the broadcasters and the public.

Broadcasters who apply for station licenses and for license renewals are required to report in detail the percentage of time devoted to different types of programs such as entertainment, religion, news, education, discussion—I did not list them all—and those that are sustaining and commercial, and so forth; that is when they apply for a license.

Now, the objective is to insure balanced programming responsive to the needs, interests, and tastes of the communities served by the licensees.

In addition to the foregoing, the FCC should have a brand-new requirement which we do not now have, but which is clearly indicated as a result of the hearings you have had here, and that is, I think, we should require the broadcasters to tell the number of acts and threats of crime and violence on all their programs throughout the broadcast day.

Moreover, the FCC should pursue a rigorous policy of refusing renewal of the licenses of offending stations which disregard their public-service responsibilities by continuing to victimize immature audiences with a concentrated and profuse deluge of crime, brutality, sadism, and outright murder.

The programming standards set out in the code of the National Association of Radio and Television Broadcasters are excellent, but they have little effect on programming as the code is voluntary and the NARTB is not in a position to enforce it effectively. . . . < p>In addition, I urge the following steps:

1. Women’s organizations and all other civic, educational, welfare, and religious groups should supplement the activities of established monitoring organizations in viewing and listening to TV and radio programs. All such groups should press the stations, the networks, the program sponsors and the FCC itself to bring to a halt the broadcast of pernicious programs which are making a significant contribution to the rise of juvenile delinquency.

2. These public-service groups should study the reports of the FCC licensees. . . .

3. A National Radio and TV Children’s Week should be proclaimed during which there should be an evaluation of all radio and television programs in terms of their suitability for children.

4. An alert and articulate public should, as of right, present positive and constructive suggestions to licensees and sponsors as to its radio and TV program preferences for adults and children alike. . . .

The public should no longer take its radio and TV programing for granted, or continue to accept passively anything the networks and broadcasters choose to offer.

5. Since radio and TV operate in the public domain, the FCC should set up proper programing standards for both as soon as possible, and insure their implementation by rigorous enforcement. . . .

And last, of course, you expected me to say something about educational television, I am sure.

We have 252 channels, television channels, reserved for educational television affording an unprecedented opportunity for guiding the young and enriching the lives of all. Such noncommercial stations should be built immediately. They could arouse and stimulate interest in the arts, music, history, literature and science, to an extent heretofore unknown. Moreover, these stations can be built at a most reasonable cost and operated very economically. . . .

I do not think they are going to be competitive, because those who want to listen, to tune in and watch Milton Berle or I Love Lucy are going to watch those programs.

But if you can still get a small percentage of, let us say, of 100,000 people watching a great Shakespearean program or watching Dr. Baxter teach college Shakespeare—I was out in Los Angeles when, I understood, he had the second highest rating on a Saturday morning on a Columbia Broadcasting station.

If we can expose that many people to Shakespeare, and the more of those programs we have, the better off we are. We may not always get the largest audience; even the smallest audiences are worth while. We do not want to compete with them; we just want to get on the air and spread culture and education free of charge to as many people as possible. . . . STATEMENT OF WILLIAM A. WOOD, GENERAL MANAGER, METROPOLITAN PITTSBURGH EDUCATIONAL TELEVISION STATION WQED . . .

I might insert here, so far as educational television is concerned, by May there will be 12 stations on the air, with a potential audience of 25 million viewers; 12 more are building, and 100 more than that are in the planning stage.

Let me begin by saying that at WQED we are telecasters with problems as various and persistent as those of other television broadcasters who have appeared before this committee, although they are not in all cases the same problems.

There are two fundamental differences between commercial and educational TV stations: (1) We are not supported by the sale of air time for advertising purposes, and (2) attracting the largest audience is not an overriding objective with us. . . .

The basic theory which is behind this movement for ETV stations goes like this: So far television is primarily a recreation medium—a spectator medium. Sports, drama, variety, popular music, quiz games. Television can be used a lot more than it has been to date. It is as though since the invention of printing, printing was confined to the light and recreational and seldom used to record serious material, the Bible, the classics. Man’s knowledge in a thousand fields of learning.

Television does not have to stop where it is now any more than printing need be confined to only the subject matter which will draw maximum readership. Television can go into any field—the only limitations are the technical limitations of the medium itself. . . .

As with its sister educational stations, WQED is nonprofit, non-commercial, and dedicated to the use of television for educational purposes. WQED is supported financially by foundation grants, funds from the public schools, and contributions from the general public in the southwestern Pennsylvania community.

WQED seeks to serve its community in somewhat the same way the community is served by its schools, its universities, its art galleries, its libraries, its symphony orchestra, its legitimate theater. We attempt to offer some of the same opportunities such institutions offer but by the use of electronics to bring these things right to the family fireside. We are not a substitute for these other institutions but we serve sometimes where they are inaccessible and also we provide stimuli designed to further the community’s use of these other institutions. In this way I suppose educational television is selling something, as commercial television does. It is selling educational and cultural resources instead of commercial products. . . .

Here is 1 day’s output at WQED—as an example. This is the program scheduled for yesterday, April 6. Two inschool shows—one to stimulate interest in the wonders of nature (4th grade), a second documenting the story of workers in industry (7th grade and 8th grade), dressmaking for homemakers, the saga of America’s westward expansion, how America’s military sea transport works, a visit—on film—to the old churches of Virginia. The Children’s Corner, featuring a children’s Easter story and instruction in dancing. How glass bottles are made—a program in the basic fundamentals of music appreciation, the mechanics involved in the rebuilding of a DC-6 airplane. High school for adults, “heat” as a section in basic physics. How newspaper comic strips are created, for a teen-age audience. Flower arranging, the Paris ballet performance of the Swan Song, a film of Charles Laughton reading from Dickens, and a panel show on current issues featuring undergraduates from the University of Pittsburgh. That is 1 day’s program. . . .

The University of Pittsburgh survey says nearly 50 percent of the set owners turn some time to WQED. The bulk of these look at us an hour or so per day. Our high-school programs, English, history, physics, get 8 percent of the audience. Our serious music programs, 6 percent. Our home do-it-yourself program received over 1,000 fan letters last week and claims 10 percent of the viewers. . . .

The WQED program which should be of great interest to this committee, if I have correctly judged your interests by previous testimony, is a daily hour-long offering at 4:30 every afternoon on channel 13 known as the Children’s Corner.

This program has not missed a day since WQED began broadcasting 1 year ago this last Tuesday. It is a continuing experience for children featuring a spritely young lady named Josie Carey in the center of a highly varied land of fantasy and fact—adroitly presented instruction and fun; song and story. Its audience ranges in age from 2 to 12 years. It counts an extraordinary number of adult viewers and its rating in the Pittsburgh area is 30 percent of the available television audience.

On the Children’s Corner there has never been an act of violence of any kind. There are no cowboys, Indians, or space men. Adult conflict has no place there. The audience is there, though. The show receives 4,000 letters a week.

Learning is dispensed throughout this hour of programing, even though it is not for learning that the kids tune it in. They learn numbers, how to tell time, some words and phrases in French, simple nursery songs, creativeness through art contests, poetry, zoology with live creatures, home hobbies and crafts, children’s stories, instruments of the orchestra and even a little juggling and prestidigitation. I have with me excerpts from Children’s Corner fan mail which testifies to its power as a teaching program. . . .

The show, frankly, just grew, and items were added to it; that where interest was indicated, and it seems from what our audience says, that though there are different ages involved in different segments of the program, that all of the age groups look through the whole hour.

Those who are looking for something for 10-year-olds will sit through the telling time, which is for the 4-year-olds, in order to get to their part of the program.

It was not set up for any particular age. In fact, we have some reason to think that you cannot be certain when you start what age will be attracted by a particular children’s program. . . .

WQED is just 1 year old as a television broadcaster. We are poverty stricken, but our year has convinced us that there is a place for community educational TV. This movement is going to succeed because it fills a need and the community recognizes that it fills a need. ETV is a very definite step toward the realization of television’s broad potential which includes entertainment but which includes a great deal more, too. . . .

EXHIBIT NO. 4, EXCERPTS FROM MAIL RECEIVED BY CHILDREN’S CORNER FROM VIEWERS

Prince Charming’s dance lessons do so much to overcome youngsters shyness and self consciousness. Dancing becomes a pleasure all of a sudden. Imagination you use is actually contagious for me too.

Would like a copy of your list of French words and translations. There is another little girl in our neighborhood who came from France and we have fun talking in French.

Folks on your program are now a part of our family life. My 4 1/2-year-old daughter has become very interested in learning how to tell time. Along with your help this project is very successful. Also, it would do your heart good to tiptoe into her room when she is singing one of the songs you teach the children.

If more children’s programs were like yours we would have less juvenile delinquency today.

Most grateful for your good program. Son’s interest in counting and telling time has been stimulating to all of us.

I am one of those grownups who certainly would never miss the Children’s Corner. It’s a must every day.

I think your program is just wonderful. I suppose you allow kids 47 years old to watch, for I enjoy it as much as I would as if I was 7.

I am 39 and have 5 children—oldest 17, youngest 7—and I enjoy your program immensely.

Your program is entertaining and educational and also extremely relaxing to my youngsters nerves in comparison to other children’s programs. Believe it or not, I relax too. Wish you were on longer.

When an adult feels the charm you radiate to children, you really have something. As new owners of a TV set, we have enjoyed your particular contribution to better programs for the younger folk and the young at heart.

Features on your show are outstanding. Both my son Robby, 3 1/2, and I have become real fans. It is certainly network caliber. We, of course, are very Pittsburgh-minded and feel it to be very exciting having such a fine show on our excellent educational channel.

I think your program proves that TV for children can be interestingly handled without talking down to the children.

Mother has to write for me because I am too young but I am old enough to know that your show is very good for children.

My children simply sit spellbound during your program. I must admit that I also enjoy your imaginative little characters. Keep up the good work.

When my young daughter started to speak the French phrases as they sounded to her, I suddenly realized just how very much a child learns from what he or she sees or hears on TV. It is nice to know that there is one program that teaches along the right lines and does it in such a nice manner.

Your program is just delightful. I wouldn’t have believed it was possible to present so many educational facts and fancies with such warmth and appeal for the children, and wonder of wonders in this day and age—mother does too.

The mother and father of the tame tigers mentioned appreciate very much the entertainment and education you folks at WQED are giving our children in just the proper dosage to make them eager for more. Tame tiger father manages to infiltrate the tame tiger ranks in front of the TV set when the Animal Alphabet and King Friday holds sway and Tame Tiger Cathy is in charge of summoning mother when Pat Hamilton is on.

I feel that the level of your program is higher than most TV entertainment designed for children and yet holds the attention of boys and girls. I am not alone in this conviction, as it is shared by my wife and four neighborhood families, all of whom are college grads or college level and parents of sub-school-age children. This letter is written by one who is not easily prompted to such dissertations.

My thanks to you and all who work with you for the bewitching fantasy and educational instruction presented on the Children’s Corner. It is a delight to have the world of fun and make-believe so expertly portrayed to our children. It is sorely needed in this workaday factual life.

I taught kindergarten and the primary grades and I think your program is tops. Thank you for bringing such a variety of ideas to the children in this area.

You are teaching languages as if they were games and I hope to have the children writing them too. Thank you, too, for the disguised lessons in manners and morals which are truly absorbing.

At our home we have three grandsons. Each evening your program is a must. The pleasure we get out of watching their reaction to your program does us a lot of good.

Source: Congress, Senate, Committee of the Judiciary, Juvenile Delinquency (Television Programs), 84th Congress, 1st Session, April 6 and 7, 1955 (Washington: Government Printing Office, 1955).

See Also:"The 'Right' To Sell" vs. "The Sanctuary of Christian Homes": Proposed Legislation to Limit Liquor Advertising
"The Shadow of Incipient Censorship": The Creation of the Television Code of 1952