Q&A with Peter S. McGhee, WGBH national programs chief

‘What we try to do . . . is say something new’

Interview by Karen Everhart and Steve Behrens

“The best of American television can be traced to this one man,” said NovaExecutive Producer Paula Apsell, referring to her boss and the latest winner of CPB’s annual Ralph Lowell Award — Peter S. McGhee, who retires this month as v.p. of national production at WGBH, Boston.Current Q&A

McGhee accepted the medal at the PBS Annual Meeting in June as recognition “of my work, and of your work, of all our work,” he said in acceptance remarks. He has overseen and in many cases launched some of public TV’s most ambitious documentaries as well as enduringly popular entertainments — no less than a third of the PBS schedule.He worked in public TV nearly four decades, since four years after earning his master’s degree in journalism at Columbia University. McGhee joined National Educational Television, New York City, in 1964 and moved to WGBH in 1969, becoming manager of its national production effort in 1975. Since then he has helped build on the earlier successes of Nova and Masterpiece Theatre while launching Frontline, American Experience, Antiques Roadshow and numerous landmark limited series.

McGhee gave this interview in his office on vice presidents’ row at WGBH. Along the walls were things he’s been given: an azure-painted chunk of the Berlin Wall in a frame and a large photo of McGhee in his youth, displaying a striped bass he caught. This is an edited transcript.

Current: In your Lowell Award acceptance speech you said commercial broadcasting, because it chases the largest possible audiences, has the effect of embalming fluid on the public — and that’s even worse than being a vast wasteland!

McGhee: I don’t think it’s an idle wasteland. I think it’s an active evil in society. Now, those are strong words, but I think it is a destructive entertainment.

It’s a combination of the mesmerizing quality and the mindless entertainment. It displaces the possibility that people will do other things that might be more valuable to them and their families—like talking to one another, or raising their children, or any number of things, even becoming active in civic life.

Obviously, there are exceptions. There is good in commercial television and in cable, but on the whole I think the net value of commercial television and cable is negative.

If I didn’t work in television and just watched it, I would still have that opinion.

Nevertheless, commercial TV is the norm in this country, so public TV has always had to justify its existence. Now its opponents say that it’s not different enough to bother pledging or sending tax money to CPB, and some insiders worry that they’re right. Is public TV distinctive enough to make the case for support?

From my perspective, what public television programs can do, what they should do and what we try to do here—is to say something new. To not simply regurgitate what is already known. In our history programs and science programs, we try to actually advance understanding beyond where it was up to that point. That sounds grandiose, but in fact that is what we try to do.

That’s why the National Endowment for the Humanities and the National Science Foundation give money to us. When NEH gives us a grant, among the conditions we have to meet is that we’re actually advancing scholarship.

And your ongoing series sometimes revisit topics two years later or five years later, when new information turns up in research or in the news.

I think it is a distinguishing feature of public television that it does that. Distinguishing it from the History Channel or Discovery, which essentially take things that are already known and re-hash them as entertainment.

Whether it’s history or current affairs, we’re trying to go beyond what is known. It may be very modest in a biography of Lyndon Johnson or Einstein—but we try to advance understanding of that figure.

I don’t know any other way to do it but to ask, “What are the interesting, important issues?,” try to be educated about what they are, and try to find people who can excavate in those areas in an original, interesting way, so that the program contributes to the viewers’ understanding.

That’s where I think the case for public television rests. We are the only users of the spectrum that at bottom don’t make decisions based upon bottom-line considerations.

We have a kind of immunity that no commercial enterprise has. We may have our own vulnerabilities but are immune from the imperatives of the commercial world. By which I don’t mean that we don’t have to make income meet expenses, but we’re not subject to the threats of stock- or bond-holders.

Are there ways that public TV should try to further distinguish itself?

The highest and best purpose of public television is to be a gadfly to society. It would be best if public television could be a more constant annoyance to a relatively complacent and self-satisfied country.

Now, the conundrum is how could such an endeavor be funded by that same country.

Is the distinction of public TV visible enough to the average viewer?

I don’t know anybody who watches both who can’t tell the difference between public television and commercial television.

The vice chairman of PBS said recently at a board meeting that the public is confused about commercialism on public TV because when they watch the History Channel, they see “PBS-quality shows” that are interrupted by ads. And this makes them think that PBS is becoming more commercial. And this vice chairman of PBS was a media guy — Alberto Ibarguen, publisher of the Miami Herald.

Yes, he’s a media guy. I don’t imagine that he watches the History Channel. If you watch what we do and you watch what they do, you won’t be confused about which is public television.

How much does it blur or damage PBS’s identity when its programs go on to other channels, as Sesame Street and This Old House reruns have done?

I can see that in the best of all possible worlds public television would hold on to them, and the producers wouldn’t have to fund their new productions from the re-licensing of their old productions. But you get this effect where public television is not able to keep up with the cost of producing new programs. The producers become co-funders.

To support programs for public television, WGBH pumps in something like $10 million from overseas distribution of old programs, home video sales and from commercial activities that we engender. A good chunk of it has been the licensing of This Old House on cable and in commercial syndication.

That $10 million is not coming from public television. If the system could pay for its appetites, then Sesame Workshop, for example, wouldn’t be forced to find other means of going on producing.

I’m not saying that it’s great that This Old House can now be seen on other channels, but the things that it has enabled us to do in the way of new programming make it a net benefit for the system.

How often do you have to weigh those kinds of decisions—of licensing a library to someone else to develop income for new programs?

This Old House is a bit of an exception. It is the most popular program after Antiques Roadshow, and it has never had any system money in it. So as a producer we have been free to treat it that way. We are not free to sell broadcast licenses outside public television for programs that the system has shared in the costs of producing. We sell them abroad or on video, but we don’t distribute them on cable or elsewhere. The income we do get from them generally is shared with PBS.

Divided over ratings

Public TV people have been talking a lot about the value of ratings. When you look back and assess a program, what are the factors that you look at, and where does ratings information stand among those factors?

I can’t think of any program whose ratings changed my view of the program itself. Most recently, there was Frontline’s “Shattered Dreams.” I think that was maybe the most important program that’s been done on the Middle East in the last 10 years. I was very disheartened to see the ratings for it.

Even if you knew the ratings wouldn’t be great, you’d produce that program again?

I would do it again, and I think it should be repeated on a weekly basis. I’m disappointed that more people didn’t see it—precisely because it was such a good program. But the ratings didn’t tell me that we’d done something wrong with that program.

You told us in April that you think public TV is in “great trouble,” under “enormous challenge,” suffering from confusion and irresolution and compromise of purpose.

Clearly, the system is troubled if not perplexed by the decline in ratings. It’s of different minds about the value of the audience it has or doesn’t have, and about audience demographics. As a system it has a kind of schizophrenic division between the programmers and the general managers, in regard to PBS.

The general managers seem more supportive of PBS and President Pat Mitchell and the programmers apparently are disaffected. You could say that there’s one group that’s looking strategically on behalf of their institutions and there’s another group looking more narrowly at who’s gathered in front of the screen. I don’t mean to take sides in that. I’m just saying the system isn’t united

The leadership at PBS has to negotiate direction with its membership. It has to negotiate carriage of programs. There are so many ways it seems to be prevented from developing the leverage that a network would have to act in unison.

Auctions: lost option

Is public TV focused well enough to have any substantial positive effect in this country?

It labors under huge disadvantages. Some of them are structural, but most are financial. A well and securely financed public television system could be more courageous, a more powerful voice as an alternative to commercial television. It could be greater than it is, but we’re marginally funded as a whole. We get additional funding through labyrinthine processes. It makes us extremely responsible, but it’s unnecessarily limiting.

Newton Minow and Larry Grossman have proposed to use some FCC proceeds from spectrum auctions to support noncommercial media production.

Like two spurned lovers, Minow and Grossman have taken an idea that might have benefited public television and bent it into such a broad disbursal that public television might only accidentally benefit from it. It may not happen anyway.

Here are two guys who had history enough of public television to appreciate it. But for some reason—and maybe they think it’s just politically expedient—they have taken this notion of spectrum auctions, and turned it not to support public television as a vigorous, secure alternative voice, but across all those colleges and libraries and universities.

Maybe with broader support something will happen. They seem to have given up on the institution of public broadcasting having that much support.

That’s their argument: It’s not politically feasible to direct that kind of support to public television. That just tells me that you have to work harder at it.

The cost of ‘localism’

Assuming that Congress isn’t going to come around to the idea of permanent adequate funding, is there any way to get from here to a better-funded system by changing its costs or its structure?

I’ve been in national programming for essentially all my career in television, so I don’t understand, from the point of view of a practitioner, the value of local programming. It consumes a large portion of the [funding] pie that public television has. It doesn’t attract a proportionate share of the audience or regard from that audience. The audience, not surprisingly, seems to be more aware of the national programming, which tends to be more highly produced. For that reason, it’s not surprising that national programming may have more influence than local, which is produced on a shoestring. This is not an original thought—

The Boston Consulting Group, for one, said something like this in a report in 1991 [earlier article].

That was a particularly unpopular idea for a system that rests on the “bedrock of localism” as Clay Whitehead phrased it—or was it Spiro Agnew or Richard Nixon? How could one expect a system that draws from that base of local institutions to punish them? Who would vote to put themselves out of office?

People who talk about localism say there’s some value in having decisions made all over the country. It naturally results in a diversity of opinion about what should be on the air, and in programs chosen to be appropriate for the viewing area. Is there a real advantage to this diffusion of power? Or is it theoretical?

McGhee talking in his office

Public TV could have more coherent impact if it scheduled and promoted programs uniformly, McGhee argues.

Much is made of the value of local ownership. Public television is to be distinguished amongst all the alternatives in being locally owned and operated community stations. That’s true. But one of the great advantages of being centrally directed is that you can create a kind of coherent impact, and I think that’s also true. How does public television find a way to have it both ways?

How do they create a coherent impact?

When they function as a network. They promote themselves uniformly. They create expectations that they fulfill. And they do it pretty much across the board. It’s harder for public television to do that, but isn’t it desirable?

Is it really such a good thing for public television that a local operator can decide that his audience isn’t interested in public affairs, so he runs Frontline at 11 o’clock, so that he can air Victory at Sea at 10? Or from 9 to 11?

Victory at Sea, which was made 50 years ago?

Whatever. I actually saw Victory at Sea as part of my Navy indoctrination, and I have some affection for it.

There’s a lot of talk in public TV about aiming for a younger and larger audience. Is that an attainable goal with programs that meet the quality standards public TV should be aiming for?

Younger is sometimes defined as 20s to 30s, and sometimes it’s 55 to 60. The audience self-selects for what we do in the main, because of who they are and what they care about. Maybe that’s true of every offering on television. I don’t think there’s a lot of evidence that we can find a different audience by being less true to ourselves.

How about expanding the younger end of your audience? Is that something you’re going to try to do?

I won’t argue that it is or isn’t valuable to do. But I don’t think we know how to do programming that is naturally interesting to a 20-something audience.

How about a 40-something audience?

I don’t think we know how to adjust the fuel mixture or whatever it takes to bring that skew down.

A modest rebellion

We reported on a recent coincidence when PBS planned to rerun Evolution and a lot of stations planned to use the same time period on May 14 for a documentary they bought from the British—

—on Mohammed Ali [earlier article]. It wasn’t a coincidence. It was a modest, active rebellion against PBS by programmers. As it happened Evolution was caught in the cross-hairs. It could have been something else.

The station programmers weren’t targeting that program?

They felt they had told PBS that repeating it in May wasn’t a great idea, and their advice wasn’t heeded. Their feeling that they aren’t heeded as often as they should be—maybe Evolution was the straw that broke the camel’s back or maybe it was just there at the right time for the crystalizing of the “let’s show them” attitude.

I think they showed them. I don’t think the programmers did it in full awareness of the stakes where we were concerned. That’s not their fault and it may be our fault.

Quite possibly the programmers were right. This wasn’t an ideal time to run Evolution from a programmer’s point of view—even if it was an ideal time from some other perspectives—and that had become the struggle. What perspective is going to govern what comes across on the screen?

WGBH was hoping to coordinate this rerun with educational outreach.

That was what made its non-carriage so costly. There was $300,000 to $400,000 invested in outreach and promotion. All the teachers had been alerted. We had the blithe assumption that because PBS had designated it for common carriage it would be carried, and we had gone ahead and created the expectation that it would happen.

There was a fairly concerted effort to reduce the damage by alerting the stations. Many changed their plans based on our pleading.

Did you also hear whether Paul Allen, the funder of Evolution, was disappointed? Was he expecting and hoping for a whole additional audience for the program?

Certainly so, but we didn’t hear from Paul Allen. In this case, Richard Hutton, who had been the executive producer of Evolution, had since its broadcast gone to work for Paul Allen in charge of all his media. So Richard was on both sides of this question. On behalf of himself as the producer and Paul Allen, his now-employer, he urged a spring airing, which we urged upon PBS as well, to take advantage of the school year. It was set for May.

Overall, the Evolution project—the series, its website, outreach and teaching materials—cost more than $15 million. That was all invested not as a commercial enterprise but as educational evangelism. With the same interest that a commercial investor might have had, they wanted to see a return on investment in terms of use and impact. This is all understandable.

If it had been rescheduled for September, and maybe if we had known that the programmers had the strong feelings that they did, we would have accommodated it. What made this difficult was the fact that it came as a surprise after it was too late to retreat, and it was embarrassing for a lot of people, and painful.

Getting to the truth

David Fanning implied an analogy between program-making and cabinet-making, and you reportedly like cabinet-making enough that you plan to take a course in it when you retire. Is this comparison too neat?

I’ve always enjoyed working in wood, and one of the things that’s satisfying about it is that something tangible results from it. I’ve spent 30-odd years on the production of intangibles—

The tapes assembled on your shelves here look pretty tangible.

These are products of collaboration, and the clumsy wooden objects that I’ll make will at least be me collaborating with my hands.

How long have you been woodworking?

I like woodworking, but I haven’t done a lot of it. I have a bit of a workshop in the country, but I haven’t much used it in the past 15 years.

I had a friend who went through this course, and I’ve seen what others have done who’ve started from a position of no greater expertise than my own. I’ve been encouraged to think I might get to the same place in a couple of years.

You don’t hold the tools of television in your job—instead you appoint others to lead productions. What do you look for in people that you give this much responsibility?

There are a lot of things, but my disposition comes out of having been trained as a journalist and having gone to a Great Books school.

I was a producer myself, and I learned how easy it was and is to cheat. You can make anything appear to be true through the craft. You can make “yes” into “no.” You’re under great temptation to exaggerate or modify or make things more exciting than they are.

If your job is to look for the truth in some basic way, and you have as your vehicle a medium in which you could be so easily tempted to go off track, you’d better find people who care so much about getting to the truth that they can resist those siren songs. And that’s a particular person — who cares more about that than they do about glory or financial reward — who really thinks the most significant use of this power is to get at something truthful and important.

I want somebody who’s really committed to that purpose—who genuinely thinks that’s what we’re in it for—not that this is a means to some other end.

Do you often hire producers other than executive producers?

Although by and large I’m removed from production, and my job is not to spend money but to develop programs that can attract money, sometimes an idea and a person is just too appealing and too tempting to resist. This support is modest in financial terms and it’s usually fairly early, when modest support means a lot.

As in the case of The Farmer’s Wife?

David Sutherland had done two or three films before that. You could say I had him under my wing in some way. My hope is that my enthusiasms will be sufficiently contagious that, at some point down the road, Frontline or American Experience will come along and shoulder the real financial load, which was the case with Jeannie Jordan’s Troublesome Creek or The Farmer’s Wife.

We’ve been told that you give people great latitude to make programs, sink or swim. Does the sink or swim option—if that characterizes the mandate you give them—does that motivate them to take full responsibility?

I wouldn’t have put it that way. It’s true that I place my trust in them, and I ask them to place their trust in me. To come to me when they think I should know something, but otherwise to do what they think they should do. If they have a problem, I want to know about it if they think I can help them.

How often do you have to intervene when they bring something to you, or you hear otherwise there are problems, to steer the project a little bit?

In a sense it is quite collaborative. If they have a problem and they come to me, it becomes our problem and we try to work it through. It might be a problem with a person, or with PBS or with program length. It starts out as an hour and now it’s 90 minutes and it needs to be longer and we’re out of funding.

That happened with Ric Burns’s New York. The time and money ran out before the series was done.

You’ve got to understand that every program at the beginning is just a theory. And at the beginning you are embarking on what is an original voyage of discovery. You imagine as Columbus imagined that it’s going to take you somewhere, but it may take you somewhere else, and you may run out of bananas before you reach the other side.

New York is a case in point. There had been no written history that attempted to do what Ric attempted to do in that series. He set out from one shore to another without knowing the width of the ocean between. It was a brilliant series. The final four-hour addition was certainly as good if not greater than the first 10 hours. And there’s an eighth episode planned because, after 9/11 there’s an opportunity to discover what that event has meant to New York.

And that’s going to be presented and eventually packaged in the series?

Yes. PBS and American Experience have committed funds to it, but we’re still short. We still have to raise the money.

But I don’t want to lose the question about producers having troubles. If anything is any good, there are enormous risks associated with the kind of original program-making that we do or we ought to do. As problems arise, we try to solve them. Not all the risks you take pay off, but I would say we have a pretty good record.

When we’re carried past the point where we imagine and we’re not done, or the thing isn’t done well, because we’ve built up a critical mass as a producer—we have a capacity to make sure that we don’t put out something that isn’t right. That may mean we invest our own money—more than we anticipated—to make it right. That is I think the great strength of this institution, and the importance of institutions like this—that an individual producer can never have. The capacity to make things right when things start out wrong.

What you describe isn’t manufacturing at all. It’s very different from producers who schedule their work, buy some limited archival footage, who know how many cuts they have to make and how many hours they can spend in editing.

I wouldn’t denigrate them. If you have a contract from the History Channel for $150,000 for a 60-minute film, you know you’re going to shoot five days. You know you’re going to have three minutes of animation or that you’re going edit for six weeks, and you know you’re going to mix on the 17th of February. You know it all. It is a Procrustean bed in which you goddamn better well lie if you want a contract for another one.

You reportedly called WGBH “a Darwinian jungle.”

’GBH is not a jungle—Darwinian or any other kind. I used the term to describe the realm of the producer in public television.

Darwin becomes a metaphor for the larger enterprise in which we and other producers are joined. No one is entitled to funding or a place in the schedule by dint of who they are. Everyone has to struggle to make something and make something good. It is a system that is at once painful because people die, and in some ways invigorating, because the fitter things survive.

I used the Darwin metaphor before Evolution came along. Then I developed a more sophisticated understanding so that I don’t use it anymore.

Things were different in the early days of public television. Fred Friendly of the Ford Foundation had a vision for public television that said, “Los Angeles will be the entertainment capital. New York will be the financial capital. Washington will be the political capital. On these three legs the stool of public television will rest.” In his architecture, there wasn’t a place for Boston.

I think Boston benefited from that. Right from the get-go it was thrown into the swim. It didn’t have an entitlement. It could only get what it got for itself. That was true of Boston before I came here. I came here around the time of the creation of CPB and the Ford Foundation’s evanescence from general support.

A lot of WGBH’s greatest growth has happened since you’ve been here, but I imagine some things that enabled it to make its way were planted by the nature of the institution, by individuals. Would you talk about why this institution has been stable and had such high standards for so long?

Boston was not disabled by the sense it was entitled to something. And it was set in a community that is alive with ideas and intellectual ambition.

The WGBH that I came to might have had 150 people in it. I came to help start The Advocates, but I remember going to what was described as “all staff meeting.” It was called to discuss ideas that people had for programs. This was under Michael Rice. It was in such a dramatic contrast to the environment that I had come from. I came from National Educational Television (NET) in New York.

How were ideas proposed back at NET?

There it was much more about territory — people looking over their shoulders and jockeying for position. It was a completely different culture. It wasn’t a culture of ideas; it was a culture of position and power.

It wasn’t about the same thing. Here it was all about ideas for programs, and it didn’t matter whose ideas they were—it was whether they were good ideas.

That’s been at the heart of ’GBH from its founding, and I wish I could say that I have preserved it. I certainly believe in it, and I think [WGBH President Henry Becton] believes in it. That an idea that’s good is good, no matter whose it is.

As a boss of producers who was once a producer himself, McGhee says he undersands what producers need and don’t need, “where they had to be trusted and what a boss couldn’t know.” Above: McGhee introduces a 1974 documentary he produced at WGBH.

David Fanning says that you told him, “I always wanted to be the boss I never had.” Could you elaborate?

Because I was a producer, I understood what producers need and what they didn’t need. I understood, for example, where they had to be trusted and what a boss couldn’t know. When I became the boss of producers, I felt I was in a better position to be their champion than the people I had worked for.

So you couldn’t know what producers knew, because they were deep in the voyage?

You can’t be where they are, and you can’t think you know as much as they do, so you better be able to trust what they tell you about where they are. And you better be able to know that they’re going after it.

This kind of producing is extremely difficult—and maybe this is something else I understood from having been a producer. To do this kind of work, you have to become obsessed by it, and it occupies your whole existence for six months, nine months. Then, in an instant, it gets fired out into the gloaming. You’re the horse and the program is the jockey, and you’re going at breakneck speed. The horse hits a stone wall; the jockey goes flying into space. You’ve been going full-tilt for six months. It’s been your whole life, and then it’s over. A week later—two weeks later—somehow you have to pick yourself up and get on the track again.

It sounds like postpartum depression.

Exactly. Some people take longer than others to recover from it, and some people never fully recover, so each time they go through it, they’re diminished. And at a certain point they just can’t get back up on that horse again.

The best of them are like Ric. A project occupies his whole life, and somehow at the end he has the interest, the vitality, to go on with something else.

In fact, what many producers do is they begin to develop the next thing before the last is done, so they’re not left in the chasm of despair.

Your colleagues noted that you never put your name on programs as executive-in-charge. Why?

My own feeling about credits is, if you’ve made the investment of time that are made by people who work on programs, and you see how fast the credits roll by and how many others have to be credited, it is grotesque to insert yourself as if you had something significant to do with the program, when you haven’t. There isn’t enough credit to start with.

Your job involves getting programs off the ground, which is a pretty big contribution.

I know the part I play, and I feel well rewarded for that. But I don’t have my fingerprints on each particular program. Other people’s fingerprints are all over it.

You mentioned your early assignment, producing The Advocates. Could you describe the program?

It was a courtroom-formatted public affairs debate program. It was built around the proposition that there are questions before one or another level of government, about which arguments could be made pro and con. What we could do in the program was to model those arguments, and to test them.

Two advocates would present witnesses and cross-examine each other’s witnesses around what was called a decidable question—for instance, “Should the United States withdraw from Vietnam?” In five years we did hundreds of questions. They were always practical questions that were before some level of government— a state government, Congress, the President or a Cabinet officer.

What did you take away from that experience?

It was a sort of graduate school in a whole range of public affairs issues. One thing that I took away from it was the appreciation that what made the questions that the government was confronted with difficult was that there were good arguments on both sides.

So it was an opportunity to deal with the issues of truth that you were talking about earlier.

Yes. And it wasn’t just for me. There were a whole bunch of us working on The Advocates who continued at ’GBH and are now in fairly senior programming positions. Elizabeth Deane has done many of the presidential series for American Experience; Peter Cooke, he’s doing Antiques Roadshow; Austin Hoyt, another senior producer of programs for American Experience.

Judy Crichton told us that when American Experience set out to do its biography of Nixon, you prescribed a certain mental exercise for the producers. It was telling them they had to deal with why so many Americans liked Nixon. Is that a typical example of ways you set parameters?

That’s an expression of the same idea. If you look at “Nixon,” you’ll see that we have done some justice to his complexity. If we haven’t made him quite into the tragic hero, there is something tragic about him.

If all our ambition was to see Nixon in the conventional liberal stereotype, or as a heroic victim, we would merely have been offering something familiar to people who either believed it entirely or wouldn’t listen to it. In displaying the complexity of Nixon, I hope we gave pause to people on the left and the right.

Risks — artistic and other

Maybe because there are never wacky camera angles on programs that come out of Boston, some might claim that ’GBH is not a risk-taker. But back in 1980, for instance, the series World re-enacted the punishment of a Saudi woman in “Death of a Princess.” She committed adultery?

Yes, and I believe at the behest of her uncle she was shot and her lover was beheaded.

We told it as the story of a journalist trying to get at that story. At its heart was the culture that supported this punishment and particularly Saudi male power.

It was co-produced with a British producer, Anthony Thomas; I think for Central Television.

What happened when the Saudis learned about the program?

It ran in Britain two or three weeks before it ran in the United States. When it ran in Britain, the Saudis broke off diplomatic relations with Britain. PBS’s plan to broadcast it became known to the U.S. government, and the State Department applied pressure to PBS not to run the program.

Mobil Oil Co., which was underwriting Masterpiece Theatre, viewed the program with displeasure and took out an ad in the New York Times condemning public television for what it regarded as an outrageous offense to an important American interest.

This was of course, right around the time that the oil crisis was in full swing, as I recall, so there was a lot of apprehension. We broadcast it anyway.

Did Mobil executives get over it as quickly as they were inflamed?

I suppose so. You could take the view that Mobil went public so that the Saudis would know that they had done the right thing. They were themselves sophisticated enough to realize that however bad it might be to broadcast it, it would be worse to have it pulled as a result of pressure — that’s just wild speculation.

We may have worried that Mobil would do something in retaliation, but in fact they never did anything that I’m aware of. We were prepared to accept whatever consequences came from broadcasting it. Even to the extent that I believe we booked transponder time to distribute it ourselves in the event that PBS turned timorous.

One effect of the efforts by the State Department, the Saudis and Mobil was to make the controversy a national story. So when it was broadcast, it got a huge audience—four or five times the size it would have gotten if nobody had said anything.

What made the show worthy of that risk to you?

What was the risk?

Being compromised by government interference.

No, the risk was that public television would in some way be punished for publishing the truth.

If we had yielded to the pressure and not told the story when it was true, what would be the place of public television? What would remain for it to do? It would be an after-school service.

There was no possibility of losing in this situation. Either we would broadcast and confirm the value of public television, or we would learn early on that public television wasn’t a place you wanted to be.

That’s certainly different from the artistic risk-taking that producers like to talk about. It must have qualified as risky to undertake Vietnam: A Television History, the 13-hour series that ’GBH did when the wounds of the war were so raw. It aired in 1983. How much resistance did you encounter to entering this minefield of a topic?

The risk was in the idea. The prevailing opinion was that Americans didn’t want to hear about it. You could say the risk we took was that we would raise this money and expend this effort and nobody would care. That was the risk.

It turned out that people actually were interested in the topic and were ready to think about it and talk about it.

As for financial risk-taking, does ’GBH have formal rules about how much of a production’s budget must be nailed down before you start to work? Have those rules changed over the years?

We tend not to be a big financial risk-taker. We tend to know how we’re going to cover our risks. We may not want to go at risk, but we know if we do, and we’re caught out, then we know how we’re going to make good.

If we raise 80 or 90 percent of the budget, and we think we have a real prospect of raising the balance, and that if we delay it may become more costly or we may lose opportunities we now have to do it, we’ll say that we guarantee it. We have a reserve from which we can earmark 10 percent, 20 percent, sometimes more, of a budget, so that we can commit to production earlier. We still try to raise the money to close the gap, but if we can’t, we’ll draw upon that reserve.

In that sense, we don’t enter into production until we know where 100 percent of the funding could come from.

We just heard from your colleague Lance Ozier that two-thirds of WGBH’s corporate underwriting is up in the air; contracts have expired. What do you expect to happen to your production slate as a result of the downturn in the economy?

Every year, series come up for renewals and underwriters drop out.

So it’s just a period of uncertainty?

Yes. As far as I’m aware, there’s no great peril to our ongoing series.

There is one exception to this, which is ironic: We lost eBay as an underwriter for Antiques Roadshow. That’s a $2 million gap. The way the funding was sequenced, eBay has dropped out of the year that is currently in production. We will reduce our deliverables to the minimum — I think 16 episodes instead of 24. We’ll carry eight over to next year, and produce eight more next year, unless we get additional funding.

I say it’s ironic because the program with the most severe funding issues is the one that PBS has no money in, and it’s not interested in putting money in. Why should it be difficult to get funding for Antiques Roadshow? I don’t have an answer to that, but apparently it is.

Is the recession affecting the limited series you’ve got under way now?

The lifecycle of a program from idea to broadcast is usually five to seven years. It’s a little hard to locate the effect of today’s economy on processes like that. Obviously in the long run, a prolonged recession and business downturn has an effect on a whole battery of things that support public television—from viewer generosity to foundation portfolios to corporation advertising budgets.

McGhee and his successor, John Willis (left), speak to WGBH staff, August 2002. (Photo: WGBH.)

Willis: straight answers

How did you get to know your successor, John Willis, and what did you see in him and his work that led you to think of him to fill this job here?

I got to know him as co-production partner at [Britain’s] Channel Four. We did some Novas, some American Experiences, and he came in on New York.

Over and above that, British television is a strange conglomerate of things. The BBC is filled with intrigue and ITV is ever-changing. Among everybody over there, John was the guy you could go to get a straight answer. If he was interested in something, he would tell you, and if he wasn’t, he wasn’t. He was smart about programming.

As he moved away from Channel Four he continued to be somebody that we would go to—to try to engage him in a project, or to get a reading on the landscape. He’s somebody we’ve known and respected enormously for a long time.

When he resigned from his last position and said he was “bored,” we knew what that meant. One of our executive producers suggested that he be considered, since it was known that I would be leaving. I talked to Henry, and I was going to England anyway, so I talked to him to see if he had any interest. And it proceeded from there, over three or four months.

The BBC was after him, Discovery was after him, so I think it’s just terrific that he came here. That he chose to do this rather than the other things he might have done—some of which might have paid vastly greater sums of money—suggests that he was the right person.

As a British TV executive, he participated in the production of Trainspotting, Four Weddings and a Funeral and other acclaimed films. Is there something that he could do for American drama on PBS?

I don’t think John can change the rather dire economics of drama production for public television.

We’ve been through this with American Playhouse. It started out close to commissioning films, and wound up as a minor partner in films made for theatrical distribution, which would later come to public television.

Low-budget features are $3 million to $4 million. That ends up being $2.5 million per hour. That kind of money isn’t around for public television. If public television could amass $500,000 an hour, it still would have a 20 percent stake in those films—a minority ability to influence what they are. People who contemplate selling tickets in theaters would determine what they are. It’s not clear that public television would be doing anything more than, in effect, licensing films that appear in theaters.

Is there anything about American public television that’s going to be an adjustment for him, coming out of the British system?

In Britain the money often starts in the hands of broadcasters and they decide what to spend it on. Here you start with ideas and see if you can aggregate money for them. That’s the fundamental difference.

What will be your most important messages to Willis as he starts the job?

I don’t know that he needs important messages from me. I’ve tried to brief him on the people and what I think their virtues are. And what we have in the works. I think he’ll do fine.

ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT