Future obituary?

Public television, 50, dies of apprehensive innocuity

Commentary by Christopher Lukas

In its early days, WNET produced a nightly public affairs show, 51st State, that Lukas calls “gutsy, inventive, controversial — and why not? New York could take it!” Pictured: Host Patrick Watson with audience. (Photo: WNET.)

Whenever public broadcasting is threatened by hostile politicians, the conventional wisdom is to circle the wagons and fire back. As a member of the public television community for almost 50 years, I would rather see today’s challenge as an opportunity to reassess public television’s goals and achievements. Perhaps we should do this every few years to make sure we haven’t gone astray in our aims and practices.

In many ways I think NPR has surpassed its original goals and promises, but public television is another matter.

We have accomplished many things. We have reached a larger audience than anyone originally imagined; created lots of polished programs, and some rough-edged ones; caused controversy and laughter (the good kind); made children smile.

But in at least two arenas, public television has sadly fallen down on the job.

  • Almost all of us involved at the beginning wanted it to defy convention — to be daring, difficult and an alternative to commercial TV. We wanted it to do things that commercial broadcasters would later emulate. And it did, for a while.
  •  In addition, we expected to see a decentralized system with hundreds of stations that would pay attention to the needs of local audiences — with primetime programming that addressed those needs.

In these regards, as we approach WNET’s 50th anniversary next year, and PBS’s in 2020, something is very wrong.
I would hate to lose valuable national shows such as Frontline, POV and some of the programs on Nova and American Experience.

On the other hand, the stations could use some juicing up. They go with too many tired formats and recycled old ideas. This Old House is indeed old. And the Antiques Roadshow may have run its course.

Jack Gould, the TV critic for the New York Times, saw the trend decades ago, when he wrote: “Public television will fail dismally if it walks the chalk-line of apprehensive innocuity. Its job is to disturb the complacency of the set owner, to make him wonder whether his inherited precepts are still valid in a changing world, to make him excited and even angry.”

The system has aimed at substituting high-definition pictures for high-definition ideas, blandness and familiarity for guts and the imagination to break new ground. In fact, we get more “far out” opinions on commercial and cable TV than on public TV, no matter how much the conservatives complain about a “liberal” PBS.

More important, there are almost no programs on most of the big stations’ schedules that serve local needs.Most air the samenational programs, in the same time slots, across the country. PBS and commercial underwriters fought very hard for them to do just that.

In short, local members are paying for hours of programming aimed at national audiences but little or none aimed at themselves. They see precious few, if any, programs of dissent, and seldom hear from the disenfranchised people of the social fringe, who sometimes turn out to have been prescient.

Without the localism and other qualities, these program lineups are fungible channels. If you travel to other metro areas, you can wake up in a hotel room, turn on the TV and not know what city you’re in, were it not for a station’s “bug” in the corner of your screen.

But that’s what our audience wants! goes the defense.

I suppose if you offer your dinner guests chocolate ice cream, and don’t tell them you also have strawberry, they’ll take the chocolate and not ask for anything else. Suppose, however, you offered chocolate, strawberry, Nutella, pistachio …

It wasn’t “Eat your spinach”

That’s not the way it was in the first decade of public television (quaintly called “educational TV”). During the first decade of WNET’s operation (then called WNDT) and those of other big city stations, programmers produced for the local communities.

WNDT gave viewers programs such as:

  • Soul!, a live, weekly program for the local black community;
  • Free Time, a thrice-weekly, 90-minute program that featured various New York artists, cultural antiheroes, and politicos, hosted by a raft of unknowns;
  • Here & Now, a weekly 90-minute documentary series that probed the alleys and avenues of the city.
  • The 51st State, a weeknightly news program unlike any ever seen elsewhere. Gutsy, inventive, controversial — and why not? New York could take it!

Oh, oh baby: At its peak, Soul! did 39 live shows a year for New York. Above: Ashford & Simpson, 1972.

These shows were offered every week, some every night.

The idea was to let New Yorkers of all stripes and persuasions see their community on the screen; to let them see how other New Yorkers lived, what their opinions were, what their cultures were like.

And don’t for a minute think these were “good-for-you, swallow-your-medicine” shows. These were feisty, daring, way-out concepts. We have the testimony of critics and audiences from the time. “Watch up,” their voices shouted, “this is exciting stuff.”

Of course, when Congress created PBS and when NET merged with WNDT, things began to change.

We all know the drill: To get underwriters and meet corporate needs, we gave away our distinctiveness. Credits began to look like commercials; shows weren’t nearly as daring; a national core schedule dictated what stations had to air, and when. Local gave way to national because corporations wanted large audiences for their bucks.

The minute you start producing shows for a national audience, you lose some of the zest and particularity of programming. You have to worry about sensibilities in locales you don’t know anything about. You learn that bland is better.

  • When Soul! was local — running 39 live shows in its first year — it programmed for New York’s black community. It was tough, local in content. It got huge audiences. When it went national, the 13 funded programs a year were pre-taped, with no references to New York’s particular audience, and we took care not to offend any of the Southern stations. It was blander, less valuable.
  • A documentary on Frontline on American schools and their problems is always valuable, but no substitute for New York producers keeping an eye (and cameras) on New York schools and their problems, week after month after year.
  • In July 1970, when New York state made abortion legal, WNDT ran a two-hour special to inform New Yorkers of their rights and responsibilities. A national special wouldn’t have worked.
  • When a newspaper strike hit San Francisco in 1968, San Francisco’s KQED created a newspaper of the air for their local audiences. It started a whole new kind of local news program for the station.

As glitzier and more expensive and high-def have become synonymous with better, and perennial has replaced experimental, local programming has disappeared, little by little.

I can hear what the defenders of the status quo will say:

But where would we get the money to do local programs?

By now, any 16-year-old can tell us the answer: Equipment has gotten so easy to buy and to handle that any competent reporter/director/cameraman can make his or her own shows very inexpensively. Stations don’t have to have the biggest and newest studios. If they owned cheaper real estate, it would take very little money to make producer-centered local programming.

Maybe we could find ways to distribute the PBS schedule over the Internet. Instead of renting satellite transponders, we’d make more local programs in prime time — a local documentary, local investigative pieces, local humor. Institutions, neighborhoods, the heart of our big cities.

I don’t mean to dump all national programs or to stop getting funding from corporations, or to propose many drastic changes all at once. But with a little goodwill and more ingenuity, inexpensive programs that capture the needs of local viewers and neighborhoods could be added in primetime.

Maybe we could even woo some new viewers: younger, lively, forward-looking folks. And maybe foundations and corporations will take a second look at public television stations and realize they can support local programming. A good mix, like what we hear on public radio, where national programs alternate with locally produced ones. A mix that attracts larger and larger audiences every year. And ones that subscribe, mind you.

We’ll lose audiences.

Yes, some aficionados of national shows may get upset. But the system really needs to ask itself: How many British period dramas or mysteries do we need? How many stalking tigers, Novas about earthquakes, secrets of ancient civilizations and the dead, and how many look-alike, sound-alike symphony performances?

No station’s going to take the chance of dumping national programs from PBS and going back to square one.

Well, hold on. KCET has done just that. On Jan. 1, the Los Angeles station dissolved its relationship with PBS and began getting programs elsewhere. Of course, if it goes back to buying more cooking shows and retreads, seeking high-def images instead of high-def concepts, and pumping good viewer dollars into tired national programs, then the experiment will be a waste.

But if they take this opportunity to go back to roots, to experiment, to be daring, to serve local audiences, to engage exciting ideas and concepts, then maybe we’ll really have something to celebrate in 2012. Maybe the restless Tunisians and Egyptians can show us how to change the system before more people give up on it.

Christopher (Kit) Lukas was a producer and program executive at WNDT/ WNET from 1963 to 1971 and chair of the Department of Communications at the City College of New York for six years. He continues to make docs and is writing a book on public TV.

EARLIER STORIES

In San Francisco, KQED’s golden years began in the 1950s with James Day and Jonathan Rice at the helm, writes David Stewart. Day later managed WNET.

In Denver, ragtime pianist Max Morathshows public TV how to have fun.

Many notable programs from public TV’s early days are still inaccessible to the public, video preservationists say.

Jack Willis, who produced The 51st State, in New York, later tried a nightly show again when he managed Twin Cities Public Television.

RELATED LINKS

WNET made more than 300 episodes of The 51st State, a notable local production headed by Jack Willis, between 1972 and 1976, but the station could find and archive only 57 of them. WNET Archivist Daisy Pommer describes the nightly news program.

New Yorkers Nick Ashford and Valerie Simpson were among many major soul acts who performed on WNET’s Soul! The station has posted many excerpts online, including this one from Oct. 11, 1972. Almost 40 years later they turn up on a Tavis Smiley program in 2009.

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