Scholar comes from Right to diagnose public TV

By Steve Behrens

A scholar working with the right-wing Heritage Foundation is looking into ways to improve public TV, privatizing it if necessary.

Laurence Jarvik, a new Ph.D. from the University of California at Los Angeles, made his Washington debut as a media critic Oct. 7 [1991] in remarks quoted in a Washington Times article attacking public TV in general and the Independent Television Service (ITVS) in particular.

Jarvik is the newest recruit in a conservative offensive to remake or destroy public TV. Also active: Pat Robertson’s Christian Coalition, David Horowitz’s Committee on Media Integrity and such right-wing legislators as Sen. Jesse Helms (R-N.C.).

In Congress, Helms repeatedly has been rumored to be preparing a bill that would prohibit “patently offensive” programming that employs CPB funds, similar to his bill on the National Endowment for the Arts, which was endorsed by both houses of Congress before being defeated in a conference committee Oct. 16. And Robertson’s group has distributed videocassettes containing excerpts of the PBS-distributed gay point-of-view program “Tongues Untied” to every member of Congress, urging votes against the endowment.

These are skirmishes in “what some leaders on the Right call a cultural war,” says Dan Mayer, director of the Artsave project at the liberal group, People for the American Way.

In an unsigned article for the forthcoming fall edition of Horowitz’s newsletter Comint, Jarvik zooms in on ITVS, which he portrays as a CPB-supported pork barrel deal for independent producers — and an inefficient pork barrel deal at that.

“They got $24 million over three years,” Jarvik told a reporter for the right-wing Washington Times, “and three years later, not a single hour of television has been produced.”

The accusation is one of “a host of willful inaccuracies” in Jarvik’s remarks in the newspaper and the Comint article, according to John Schott, executive director of ITVS. Schott replies that ITVS was not “authorized, funded or staffed to make any grants” for public TV productions until June of this year, when ITVS and CPB signed a funding contract after months of negotiations.

Free-market believer

The Heritage Foundation, where Jarvik will work as a Bradley resident scholar for six months, contributed to the early Reagan Administration line that public TV should no longer receive taxpayer funding.

Jarvik says he’s “interested in the free-market rather than socialist models of television broadcasting.”

“Obviously,” he says, “commercial shows are better than anything on PBS because there’s an incentive there for people to do a good job.”

Jarvik’s study for Heritage will look at ways public TV could be restructured for “more cost-effective and higher quality” programs.

He’d like to analyze the cost of PBS programs per thousand viewers. Compared to Bill Moyers’ producers, “Brian Lamb [the head of C-SPAN] is able to do it for a lot less.”

Public broadcasting’s structural flaw is that it seeks to avoid commercial success, Jarvik says. Public broadcasters think “it’s a bad thing” that Ken Burns made some money with The Civil War, he contends. “You’ve got a noncommercial system that defines itself in the negative. Nothing fails like success at PBS. … PBS says, ‘we don’t believe in ratings, we don’t believe in using star appeal — a lot of negative [objectives] — but when you come to figure out the positives, it’s hard to figure out what they are.”

Shunning success

He began to have doubts about public TV while preparing a dissertation for his doctorate in film and television for the University of California at Los Angeles. “I went in liberal and came out different,” he says.

Jarvik was stunned to discover that some public broadcasters in the 1970s had objected to the appearance of the miniseries Upstairs, Downstairs as part of Masterpiece Theatre.

“If you don’t want to air Upstairs, Downstairs, that was a moment of truth for me,” Jarvik says. “The people in the PBS bureaucracy just didn’t want success.”

In his analysis, top public broadcasters shun people with program ideas because successful new ideas would leave them with a smaller slice of the pie for themselves, while in Hollywood, “all doors were open — they might make some money off you.”

ITVS “pork barrel”

Jarvik finds many of his complaints about public TV have turned up in ITVS, which his Comint article describes as a “mini-CPB” with “interminable delays,” unaccountable peer-review panels and a ruling “old-boy inner circle.”

His leading point is that, while Congress mandated the establishment of ITVS in 1988 and set-aside $24 million for 1989-91, it has funded no productions so far.

ITVS’ Schott says Jarvik is seeking “to explain any possibility of misunderstanding.”

“It is important to recognize that ITVS was not empowered until early this last summer,” says Schott. “It was not until then that we could hire a full-time staff and begin all the mechanisms needed to invite proposals.”

He says ITVS has held its first selection panels and will announce its first grants and additional initiatives before Christmas. “Despite his desire to paint things otherwise, we are moving forward quite rapidly.”

“We are still counting the errors in his [Comint] article,” says Schott. It is not riddled — it is nothing but a fabric of errors.”

  • Jarvik argues that ITVS plans to produce magazine-format series in-house, mimicking the lines of authority that some vocal independent producers had criticized at Frontline, with its role for a strong executive producer. Schott says ITVS staff will only offer assistance on request of indies and will not be executive producers. Indies themselves may be hired to coordinate series, Schott says, but the freelance producers themselves will always retain the copyright and editorial and financial control of their programs.
  • Jarvik asserts that only one member of the ITVS board is “truly independent — that is, not a staff producer, a line producer or a producer-for-hire.” Schott replies that the charge is “complete nonsense,” and says that the 11-person board has five indies, plus the former head of the Association of Independent Video and Filmmakers, Larry Sapadin.

In response to Jarvik’s complaints of being “stonewalled” by ITVS and other public broadcasting groups, Schott says he responded “very quickly” to Jarvik’s questions. PBS spokesman Robb Deigh says the network provided the same public and accessible information that it would make available on any scholar’s request.

How it’s done on the Coast

The latest critic of public TV worked in filmmaking and television before completing his doctorate at UCLA. He says he produced a Holocaust documentary, “Who Shall Live and Who Shall Die,” shown on public TV stations in New York and Los Angeles in the early 1980s, and he later served as a production assistant in Hollywood.

In Hollywood, the producers of TV movies waste no time in getting programs on the air. “They turn around from script to delivery to airdate in six weeks,” he says.

Even if ITVS got its first production money in June — a point Jarvik is not ready to concede — “by August they could have delivered a Hollywood-style movie of the week.”

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