Says a progressive producer tired of knocking at PBS’s door:
Take down the walls and let some light in!

Few independent producers with his level of experience have tried as tirelessly as Danny Schechter to gain PBS carriage for programs. PBS delivered its latest rejection slip for "Counting on Democracy," which ran into competition from another followup on the Florida election debacle [separate story]. Schechter is executive producer of Globalvision and edits Mediachannel.org on the Web. His latest book is Media Wars: News at a Time of Terror.

Originally published in Current, Nov. 18, 2002
By Danny Schechter

It was a cloudy day outside a factory in a dreary suburb of Boston. The year was l978, and Paul Solman, who went on to distinguish himself as a top business decoder on PBS’s NewsHour, was helping me learn how to do TV stand-ups for an upcoming tryout for a reporting job at WGBH.

TV news reporters are masters at using what they call "face time." Smooth, focused, eyes locked on the camera—they make it seem effortless. But I found it hard to look relaxed. I stumbled, sputtered and felt clumsy. Paul was patient. Thirty-five takes later, I got it right—and got the job, my first in TV. That was nearly a quarter of a century ago.

I had wanted a job in public television because I thought that would be the only TV outlet that would give a chance to an outspoken radio newscaster and news dissector without the prettiest hair on the air. I liked the show’s substance and thought I could contribute.

Since then, WGBH’s Ten O’Clock News, admired by so many, went the way of most news programs on public television. And I "graduated" into commercial TV, CNN and later ABC News. After years in those trenches, I recognized even more clearly the importance of an independent public broadcaster. From inside the network machine, the grass looked so much greener in an environment that was set up to serve the public interest, not the corporate bottom line.

Soon, I was off into that shaky world of independent production with a new company called Globalvision that wanted to make programming on issues of importance. My partner, Rory O’Connor, another network refugee, and I thought PBS would be more welcoming to our values and desire to report on a changing world. We turned to PBS as our first and only choice.

How naive this all sounds now. Our learning curve was a quick one when PBS turned down our South Africa Now series that went on to win an Emmy and help promote democracy in the land of apartheid. The series aired 156 weeks on public TV stations without help from PBS. I should have expected PBS to hang back. Earlier, a PBS executive had dissed Bruce Springsteen and rejected another award-winner, "The Making of Sun City," a nonprofit documentary about artists doing what the news wasn’t —focusing attention on the indignity of South Africa’s system of racism. Later, PBS would run "The Making of Raiders of the Lost Ark," provided by the company that made the Hollywood hit. I began to see PBS not as a gutsy programmer that would carry programming that the netwoks wouldn’t, but an institution that gets along by going along. I found myself in an unbrave new world.

This experience would repeat itself when PBS dodged our human rights series, Rights & Wrongs with Charlayne Hunter Gault, which aired for four years on public TV stations. PBS’s program chief told us that "human rights was an insufficient organizing principle for a TV series"—unlike cooking! After hitting her head on the glass ceiling at PBS’s NewsHour, Charlayne, like Judy Woodruff, left PBS for CNN.

Along the way, our programs were baited and questioned for bias as if apartheid and human rights abuses were right-left issues. While we felt that our only ism was "journalism," Republicans falsely accused PBS of being left-wing and station executives backed away from our shows for fear of arousing a hornets’ nest of right-wing attacks. David Horowitz, a leftist turned rightist, led the change against our South Africa Now series, boasting in his publication that getting KCET in Los Angeles to drop the show was his "defining moment." Horowitz’s false charges against our series put a cloud over our reputation, leading many programmers to fear that Horowitz or his friends would target them next. Some worried that our shows would be seen as "not corporate-friendly," as one station executive in Texas told us. Media journalists who love heat more than light pumped the "controversy" as if that was the story—not the content of our programming, which filled a big hole in the TV schedule.

This summer we learned from Current (earlier article) that while Horowitz was self-righteously bashing us in a high-minded manner and lobbying conservative Congressmen to zero-out public TV’s federal funding, he was secretly seeking money from PBS to produce ideologically corrective programming. And while we were turned down repeatedly for funding, distribution and support, he and a partner received over a million dollars, according to his own account, from CPB and PBS. PBS’s president, Ervin Duggan, was publicly denouncing the right and the left as if he was in the middle, but he wasn’t. He was running scared and apparently paying off the loudest voices. This came out only because Horowitz is now suing his partner, claiming he wuz robbed.

Now, PBS has turned down our new film "Counting on Democracy," about the Florida electoral scandal of 2000, preferring to offer a blander, comedy-based show on the subject. I’m happy that some major-market PBS stations are carrying our film, but they are doing so in a variety of time slots with no chance at national promotion. That was possible only because ITVS provided completion funding in the form of a licensing fee and is distributing our hard-hitting show about voting rights.

I am tired of whining about this type of treatment. I have come to expect it. Forget my mainstream credentials, awards, experience, five books, 250 TV shows. I feel as if I have been stereotyped as a loony lefty by some in the system. Me and my ilk quickly became personas non grata—"those people!" Racial minorities have claims on the institutional conscience, but political minorities are consigned to the margins. And when you back or challenge PBS decisions, it is even worse. In public television trouble-makers can be considered worse than terrorists.

I believe that we are not the only losers. Public TV and its viewers also lose. They need a new and more robust image. Many of the same shows have been on for decades. Viewers need more airtime for hard-hitting programming of every stripe, more living (as opposed to dead) personalities, and more timely journalism. Series like Frontline are fine, but the system gives so little airtime and money for gutsier independent work. Series like P.O.V. have opted for Hollywood-style storytelling with the emphasis on characters and a narrative arc, not political analysis and controversy. These same qualities are abandoned by the networks and news channels, which increasingly offer tabloidish fare and talk shows that look like wrestling matches.

So what is PBS doing? Cloning commercial formats. Getting slicker, not better. From what I have been told, the more PBS moves to the mushy center, the more its ratings drop. Ask young people what PBS stands for, and they will respond with blank faces. Too many of the viewers are under five and over 50. Rather than maintaining strength in news and public affairs, PBS is letting C-SPAN win away part of its core audience with dull fare.

We tried to get American Masters and American Experience to consider a film on America’s national treasure and leading economist John Kenneth Galbraith, whose voice needs to heard as the economy goes into the toilet. No, they prefer to do coffee table shows on Lucille Ball. Rejected! During the Gulf War we offered a real-time investigation about how the media were being managed—facts that all came out afterwards. No, PBS was doing The Civil War. Rejected! We did a pilot for a series with Nobel Laureate Eli Wiesel. Too intellectual. Rejected! We produced the first film on China’s Falun Gong Movement. The Society for Professional Journalists honored it with a prize for investigative reporting. It played on some stations but not through PBS. Rejected! We produced "We Are Family," which got audiences at Sundance on their feet as 200 artists responded to 9/11 with a call for tolerance. Rejected! It goes on and on like that scene in The Shawshank Redemption where inmates line up to apply for parole even though they know their jailers have already decided not to grant it. Rejected!

PBS is a land of niches and bailiwicks, a Japanese-style employment system topped with execs who seem to have cushy jobs for life if they play it safe. They are thus very risk-averse and barely accountable to the public in whose name they are paid. Why alienate part of the public when you are raising money from them? Why upset corporations when you depend on them for underwriting? Show Bob Dylan during pledge, but avoid any series with his values in primetime. Some stations spend their time checkmating national programmers in a world of bureaucratic one-upsmanship. A prominent PBS personality once told me, "If you think the war in Bosnia is bad, imagine what would happen if we armed the PBS stations?"

That’s a double joke, because few in the system believe in what they doing enough stand up for it, much less die for it. Media concentration in America has been on the rise. Public broadcasting has been demeaned. Where are the voices for more democratic media? What does PBS have to say about the dumbing down of media and the loosening of news values and standards? Why can’t there be more media criticism and public involvement from viewers? It’s great to see that Bill Moyers has a weekly series, but not all stations carry it. Where is the focus on the public interest and the advocacy of concerned citizens?

Why are many of the best and most talented program-makers—folks like Al Perlmutter, Spike Lee, Barbara Kopple, Michael Moore—on the outside, not on the inside? Where is the internal debate that vitalizes institutions and gets the blood circulating, not coagulating? There are so many bright people in public TV, so many talented, competent and caring professionals trapped in staid institutions.

Come on, PBS! It is a new century. Our country is in deep shit. We are going to war. The media for the most part has become a problem, not a solution. Relevant, diverse programming is needed more than ever. And you need a new attitude as well as new voices. Embrace your critics. Take down the walls and let some light in. Let’s debate and embrace controversy on all sides rather than tone it down and tune it out.

Let’s realize that catchy slogan: "If PBS won’t do it, who will?" If not now, when?

Schechter

Instead of building a reputation for robustness, PBS programming is getting slicker on the surface, mushier inside, Schechter says.

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To Current's home page
Earlier commentary: In 1995, Schechter proposed that PBS create a citizen's channel.
Related story: Schechter's Florida election film went up against another documentary on the subject with PBS baking.
Outside link: Globalvision's site and Schechter's Media Channel.

Web page posted Nov. 25, 2002
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