We know D.C. Get our free newsletter to stay in the know.

In 1952, postwar idealism led the federal government to reserve television channels nationwide for nonprofit broadcasting; ever since, policy makers and public broadcasters have debated what the function of public television should be. Today, with the Public Broadcasting Service (PBS) on the brink of losing government sponsorship, viewers who think cultural affairs deserve government funding are disappointed by PBS’s unwillingness to support principled, controversial programming, and anti-funding privatizers are rankled by PBS’s supposed elitist tendencies and liberal bias. Missing from the current conflict is a historical context in which to view public TV’s failure to live up to its mission—and to assess what that mission was supposed to be.

In The Vanishing Vision: The Inside Story of Public Television, James Day provides the needed history lesson in a comprehensive, highly critical account of the origins of the American public-television system. Day believes strongly in nonprofit broadcasting, but excuses none of public television’s failures. He writes that broadcasters using public airwaves should serve the public interest by providing high-quality programming, which he claims they once did. Day believes, furthermore, that commercial broadcasting inevitably produces inferior programming as a result of marketplace pressure to reach the widest possible audience.

While Day makes an impassioned case for the necessity of nonprofit broadcasting, The Vanishing Vision‘s title is somewhat misleading, because Day demonstrates resoundingly that public television has never had a vision to lose. The author himself, though, has a vision—one that began during his childhood. “Radio, without pictures, but with words and music that stirred the imagination and respected the intellect, opened a door onto a wider and richer world for me as it must have for millions of others,” he asserts, reflecting on how radio shows of the 1930s prepared him for a broadcasting career.

As one of the founders of San Francisco’s KQED in 1954, Day was involved in public television virtually from its inception, and his stories of the station’s early days trump all other romantic tales of primitive TV. KQED’s first studio was housed in a former phone-company truck garage; the bathrooms, which opened directly on the production studio, featured “Don’t flush during broadcasts” signs. Funding, which in the ’50s came from private philanthropies and the sine qua non of public TV, the pledge drive, was so haphazard that KQED held annual televised auctions featuring such items as unlaundered lavender bedsheets slept on by Kim Novak and donated by a local hotel. (The sheets brought $250 from a man who cut them up and turned them into neckties.)

From the precariousness of ’50s broadcasting, Day moves into depressingly familiar territory: the local-vs.-national struggle over control of programming, and the funders-vs.-programmers struggle over content. PBS did not come into existence until 1969, but its predecessor, National Educational Television (NET), provided programming for affiliate stations in the ’50s and ’60s (Day became NET’s last president in ’69). NET was accused by the stations of having the same East Coast, liberal bias PBS is accused of having today, although it was less accountable to the affiliates and could more freely ignore their complaints.

Similarly, the federal government did not start funding public broadcasting until 1967, but the Ford Foundation, public television’s largest single source of income before that time, constantly interfered in programming decisions. The organizations involved and the specific points of controversy have changed over the decades, but the central areas of contention have not.

Day’s chronological account at first seems disappointingly removed from the policy discussion that his book’s title suggests. But he proves to have a sly organizational strategy: By giving a straightforward history, he illustrates the institutional problems—most notably a perennial lack of national leadership—that have kept public television a marginal force in American culture, and have made it susceptible to pressure from corporate underwriters and the government. By letting the system’s checkered past speak for itself, Day approaches his real goal: his prescription for a vital public television system.

Day’s plan to strengthen public TV is neither terribly specific nor especially radical, but it does address the American system’s main institutional failings. First, Day recommends that no more resources be wasted on researching the problem: “So what is to be done? Certainly not another study. These exercises in self-reform, conducted with the regularity of a tribal rite, have done little to advance the cause of a strong and viable public system.” Then he advocates a strong national institution, comparable to the BBC, which he frequently cites as an example of public broadcasting setting a national standard of quality. He endorses universal access to public television; stations whose coverage areas overlap (like WETA and MPT) as the foundation for a two-network system, like BBC-1 and BBC-2; comprehensive programming that is not limited to “alternative” audiences forsaken by commercial broadcasters; and a national approach to scheduling so that programs can be promoted simultaneously all over the country.

Day’s outline of a strong public-TV enterprise implies that it would depend on federal funding—yet he skirts the neoconservative question of whether the government should be involved in funding culture at all. He also avoids asking the corollary question of whether PBS might conceivably locate funding sufficient to operate on a national scale from another source. Instead of concentrating on hypotheticals, he fixes on the serial crises that comprise public television’s history.

The affiliates, he says, have always battled for decentralized authority, while their major benefactors—from the Ford Foundation to the national organization—have always supported a central authority that can produce high-quality programming and channel funding efficiently. During the pre-1967 period when funding did not come from the government, Day writes, public television was a loose federation of local stations and only produced a few hours of national programming each week. But when the federal government began providing funding, programming power shifted to the national organization, PBS. Now, the local stations and the federal government are united in fighting the concentration of control in PBS’s hands. Day’s recognition of the cyclic nature of public television’s primary conflict casts the current crisis in a new light: Perhaps, rather than facing its Götterdämmerung, public television may simply be going through the decentralizing phase in its historical cycle.

The details of that cycle comprise the bulk of Vision—Day’s innumerable tales of resources squandered on infighting, bureaucratic management, and self-defense (particularly during the Nixon administration) eventually become exhausting. But the author’s conclusions are strangely optimistic. While he acknowledges PBS’s grave state of affairs, he surprisingly predicts that rapidly changing technology will make public television both more necessary and more popular. He fears that myriad specialized channels will put “[a]t risk…some part of the social glue that binds us into a cohesive society,” and that “[v]iewers, grazing through hundreds of channels, may be hard pressed to find one to nourish the mind and spirit—unless, of course, the medium least affected by the competitive pressures of the marketplace, the public medium, is there to fill the void.” Day makes an enthusiastic case that public TV can fill that void. And if it has survived past assaults, it’ll probably last for the foreseeable future.