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Comments of

Nicholas Johnson


The Proposed Creation of a Public Broadcasting System for Georgia

March 24, 1998

 General Comments

Disclaimer.  The materials contained herein represent the opinions of the author and editors and should not be construed to be the view of the American Bar Association (ABA) or the Central and East European Law Initiative.  The views expressed herein have not been approved by the House of Delegates or the Board of Governors of the ABA and accordingly, should not be construed as representing the policy of the ABA.

Related Papers.  The reader is encouraged to consult another paper specially prepared by Nicholas Johnson for this purpose, "Georgia's Media Future:  A Personal View of Options and Opportunities."  It is available, in English, from the ABA/CEELI office in Tbilisi, Georgia (or Washington, D.C., USA).  It is also available, online, from Nicholas Johnson's Web page:

The paper specifically addresses some proposals regarding the creation of public broadcasting in Georgia.

U.S. Law Orientation/Bias.  As a U.S.-trained lawyer/law professor, a former Commissioner of the U.S. Federal Communications Commission (F.C.C.), and the one-time host of a Public Broadcasting System weekly program in the U.S., it is unavoidable that I bring the perspective, or bias, of the legal and public broadcasting system most familiar to me.

Translation. These comments were drafted in English and then translated into Georgian.  Because I cannot read Georgian I cannot know if there may be an inaccuracy in translation; if there is a word, or concept, in English that has no direct Georgian equivalent; or if there is a cultural, historical or legal context for a Georgian word that gives it meaning and purpose unknown to me.

State Broadcasting.  I am taking, on faith and as a given, that Georgia wishes to abolish its system of state broadcasting and create a "public broadcasting" system -- and that it should do so. At the same time, I should make clear that my own personal knowledge of the state broadcasting system is so limited as to make such a policy recommendation impossible from me.

I visited briefly with the top executives of state broadcasting (but no personnel beyond that), watched very little of the programming (and that without the availability of an interpreter to tell me, in English, what was being said), interviewed only a couple of Georgian citizens regarding their feelings about state television, and had access to no accurate ratings information.

I heard assertions from a number of sources (those who wished to abolish state broadcasting) that (a) the organization has far more employees than it needs, (b) some are paid but never show up for work, (c) there is corruption, (d) the programming is not very good, and (e) the state broadcasting culture is so strongly identified as an instrument of propaganda for the government (both by the audience and by the employees) that the institution is unsuited for a democratic state that seeks to promote the diversity of free speech and a market economy.

Although this paper appears to be premised on the assumption that assertions of this kind are true, I simply want to make clear that I do not consider myself adequately informed, with direct empirical data, to make them myself.

 Public Broadcasting in Georgia

1. Mission.  Why does Georgia want a "public broadcasting" system?  (Of course, there is the preliminary question of what we even mean by "public broadcasting."  But we will postpone that for the moment.)  Addressing mission, or purpose, is an essential first step.  There is, potentially, a lot of money at stake.  There are, often, a number of available options for reaching any particular goal.  The option chosen can make a lot of difference both in the costs, and benefits.  Here are some examples.

2. Public Broadcasting: A Definition.  There is no single, approved definition of "public broadcasting."  If a book-length definition is desired I would suggest the Carnegie Commission Report on the Future of Public Broadcasting -- the preliminary blueprint for what became the U.S. Public Broadcasting Act of 1967.  (A Public Trust: The Report of the Carnegie Commission on the Future of Public Broadcasting (New York: Bantam, 1979); Carnegie Commission on Educational Television, Public Television: A Program for Action (New York: Bantam, 1967).)

 For a short definition I've always enjoyed that of the American writer, E.B. White:

Quoted in Public Television: A Program for Action, above, at p. 13.

That is, central features, from my perspective, involve (a) adequate funding, (b) standards of excellence, (c) total separation from the standards and incentives of commercial television, (d) independence from the dominating influence of any single institution in society, whether government, corporations, religious bodies, unions, or others -- in short a representation of the diversity in the society, and (e) an institution that exercises the restraint to give creative freedom to those artists whose works it shows.

3. Financing.  After mission, financing is probably the next most important issue in creating a public broadcasting system for Georgia.  The probable best approach, based on my conversations with Georgians, is to have support from general tax revenues.  There are, of course, many other options.  Examples would include: (a) a separately-collected household tax based on the number of TV sets and radios, (b) a public appeal for voluntary contributions to public broadcasting, (c) a separate tax on TV and radio receivers at the point of purchase, and (d) commercial advertising (or "underwriting").  Given the distaste for taxes, the difficulty in collections, and the history and expectation of "free" broadcasting, (a), (b) and (c) do not appear promising.  And the problem with (d), of course, is that, to the extent public, or "non-commercial," broadcasting exists to provide an alternative to what commercial broadcasting offers, the more it depends on commercial advertisers the less rationale there is for public broadcasting at all.

4. Independence.  If "public broadcasting" is to be funded by the state how and why will it differ from what Georgia now has in the form of "state broadcasting"?  The answer lies in the independence of public broadcasting from state control.  Genuine independence cannot merely be declared.  It requires (a) a real commitment from the President and Parliament to the principle, (b) that is evidenced by the self-restraint they impose on themselves in practice, along with (c) funding mechanisms, and (d) organizational structures that serve to reenforce that commitment and self-restraint.

The United States Congress recognized its need to restrain itself in the natural desire to control public broadcasting's programming.  It did this with long-term funding commitments, and an organizational structure that imposed many layers between it and the ultimate producers of programs.  The Georgia Parliament might find these kinds of approaches useful.

Of course, no system of organizational insulation will work without some commitment on the part of the politicians to the contribution that a truly independent public broadcasting system can make.  But, with that commitment, there are organizational and funding mechanisms that can help.

Depending on what the current budget practices are, the Parliament might choose to provide public broadcasting funding for a period two or three times normal -- say, five years.

It might wish to follow the American model of a public "Corporation for Public Broadcasting" that, in turn, provides money to individual public broadcasting stations as well as an organization made up of a consortium of such stations (not unlike our "Public Broadcasting System," or "PBS").

The CPB board members could be appointed for staggered terms, terms that would exceed in length the term of the President or Member of Parliament, with a proviso that they could not be removed (except for some extreme dereliction of duty).  See, in this connection, my paper, "Comments of Nicholas Johnson on The Law of Georgia on Broadcasting Proposed Law of the Parliament of Georgia," March 23, 1998, especially comment on Art. 3 (4).

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