When timidity paralyzes PBS
Some choices are best made locally
“Man is the only animal that blushes . . . or needs to.”
Originally published in Current, Nov. 17, 2003
Commentary by Alan Foster
That time-honored line by Mark Twain is one that’s been on my mind lately. Recent personal experience — and a 36-year-old TV program — underscore one of the many dilemmas we face as public broadcasters and have given me cause to do a bit of blushing.
One of those dilemmas is how public television can broadcast original, cutting-edge programs when those programs sometimes cause discomfort in certain markets. Our system does not often lend itself to one-size-fits-all programming, so how do we, as a system, manage the stations’ innate individuality?
Because of this it’s difficult for PBS to take the lead in acquiring the best — and sometimes most controversial — content available or to take the risks that best define our cultural and civic roles.
I disagree with critics who say the public television system is unworkable and our programming tedious. Many of us have been around public television a long time and we’ve seen how great it can be. When public television has the guts to be out there on the cutting edge and do what’s not only good-and-useful but also what’s difficult-but-right, we are the best.
That said, we’ve become timid and afraid of risking negative reaction, particularly at the national level, where pressures arise from stations as well as politicians. So we allow our content to drift toward the safety of the mainstream.
It’s a form of paralysis and we need to shake it off. I contend it is timidity, not economics, that is the root cause of our tenuous footing with viewers today.
Let me tell you why I’ve been thinking about this lately.
Thirty-six years ago, on the evening of March 6, 1967, CBS televised an unusual, live, 90-minute one-man show that was then in its second run on Broadway: Mark Twain Tonight! — conceived, compiled and performed by actor Hal Holbrook. It was the progenitor of many one-man shows about historical figures.
On that evening in 1967, 30 million viewers tuned in to watch this performance. That was nearly a 20 rating!
Critics across the land were unanimous in their praise for Mark Twain Tonight! The Chicago Tribune called it the best 90 minutes ever on television. The Atlanta Constitution said it was “. . . as stimulating and captivating as anything ever done on television.”
Mark Twain Tonight! has not been broadcast since that night 36 years ago. In the late 1990s, Holbrook — he’s been performing the theatrical version for 50 years and he owns the TV program outright — consented to a home video version. At the same time, Holbrook’s agent approached PBS about acquiring the digitally remastered program for a national PBS broadcast. A PBS vice president screened the program and was amazed at what he saw. It was some of the most gripping television one can imagine. It stirred emotions. It made him laugh out loud. It was simply stunning and, on all levels, a fascinating television experience. Then, as now, Twain’s humor and social commentary possessed an uncanny relevance to current events, even though all the material had been written in the 1870s.
It was one of those discoveries that programming execs hope for—precisely what public television aspires to broadcast.
But instead of reviving Mark Twain Tonight! on PBS, that programming executive — in consultation with colleagues on the fifth floor of Braddock Place in Alexandria, Va. — declined the offer. The program was deemed too risky and too controversial to go out under PBS auspices. That programming vice president subsequently unequivocally turned down Holbrook’s offer. PBS viewers would not have the opportunity to see this historic, vital capsule of culture and its biting-yet-funny social commentary. It is a sad and embarrassing example of one of our system’s weakness.
I am particularly red-faced since that PBS vice president who turned
it down was me. I chose safety and flap-avoidance rather than doing the right
thing, a great thing.
Since then, PBS considered Mark Twain Tonight! a second time and rejected it again for the same reason.
What could literary legend Mark Twain have said 130 years ago that would
cause PBS programmers of two different regimes to reject an acclaimed performance
of his wit and wisdom by one of America’s most respected actors?
Well, about 35 minutes into the one-man show, after the first intermission, Twain/ Holbrook includes a passage of Huckleberry Finn. In this five minutes of the program, “Twain” acts out the parts of young Huck, his drunk father Pap and old Jim, a slave.
It’s a very powerful piece from a book considered among the finest in American literature and it addresses our great national disgrace, racism. The problem is that Pap uses the word “nigger” three times. I can attest that programming executives at the network level find the implications of broadcasting this word, in any context, terrifying.
Let me add here that I watched this very same program again five months ago and found the Huckleberry Finn excerpt not the least bit alarming, shocking or offensive. I’m confident few of you reading this would, either. Of course, it felt different when I was sitting in a fifth-floor office at Braddock Place.
In fact, the passage forms one of the more powerful commentaries on the evils of racism ever found in literature, on stage or on television. In context, the use of the “N” word is right on target and Holbrook uses it for premeditated impact. Every reasonable person, of any race, would have the same reaction if he or she saw this on TV. The three occasions of that heinous word have little to do with the overall experience other than to contribute to Twain’s very moving and profound treatise on racism.
Toni Morrison, the Nobel Prize-winning African-American author and scholar, in her introduction of the Oxford edition of Huckleberry Finn, says, “The brilliance of Huckleberry Finn is that it is the argument it raises.”
When I turned down Mark Twain Tonight! while at PBS, it was an echo of an incident 36 years earlier, which had a starkly different outcome. The afternoon before it was to be broadcast live, CBS censors told producer David Susskind that there were “a few things that need to be cut out.” Hal Holbrook describes that last-minute conversation: “The material about war (they wanted me) to cut or change. And (they wanted me) to eliminate the word “nigger” from Huckleberry Finn.”
It should be remembered that Twain’s opinions on war and racism hit squarely on issues that were hot buttons in 1967. Vietnam was at its deadliest for young American soldiers and the divisions in public opinion about the war were profound. Though the civil rights movement was well under way and progress had been made, race relations were still a source of palpable tension across the land. It was only two years after Selma and a year before Martin Luther King Jr. would be assassinated.
Holbrook refused the censors’ orders to remove the word, explaining: “I can’t ... that’s the whole point. That’s the dagger that you stick in the audience’s heart. That’s the thing you hit them over the head with to wake them up.” He told Susskind: “Let’s get something straight here right now. Go back and tell them there is no show.”
Holbrook’s principled stand prevailed, and the show went out to the na-tion that night without change. The incident showed the courage of both the artist and the CBS executives. And there was no subsequent backlash from critics or viewers.
The censor’s concerns—as I now realize about my own—were unfounded. Though the language is normally socially unacceptable, using it in an important socio-historical context made it a non-event.
My point is not about Americans’ sensitivity over the “N” word, but about how public television can deal with important issues that are necessarily touchy ones.
Can we be cutting edge and powerful in our determination to push the envelope, even a little, in the pursuit of excellence? Will PBS and public television ever again be fully recognized as the outstanding oasis of quality and courage in the desert of debasing dreck that is the rest of the TV spectrum? Once upon a time we would dare to put Steambath on the air, or see the broadcast of Tales of the City as well worth doing, or defend Death of a Princess. None of those earlier programming decisions would seem likely today, and we are the poorer for it.
Don’t we miss the days when we would take the risk of something new and sometimes daring in the name of the pursuit of quality and creative risk? Of course, funds are scarce, but it doesn’t cost any more money to be edgy than it does to be safe. Does political correctness threaten to make us irrelevant as a social and cultural force? Doesn’t public television’s reason for existence demand a stiffer backbone than that?
I have total understanding and great empathy for my former colleagues and successors in the PBS programming department. Their jobs are often unreasonably difficult and unrewarding. They rarely make a decision without second-guessing what station, political force or funder might be offended.
On that point, Holbrook comments, “Once you start doing that, you’re
in trouble. If I’d have been doing that kind of worrying, I wouldn’t
be doing Mark Twain anymore.”
The programmers at Braddock Place know the extreme consequences of a flap. When they go into flap-management mode, little else gets done.
The small and overworked staffs there and at stations are taken hostage by the flap. After only a couple of these flaps, programmers are conditioned to think conservatively. This conditioning is not conducive to creativity.
Yet even as many of us bemoan public TV’s predictable timidity, we are, in practice, somewhat relieved that we’re not making any waves. That relief has bred a self-destructive complacency and a disconnect with our raison d’etre. When Now with Bill Moyers creates the slightest tremor of political controversy, we are hard-pressed to find the means to counter the critics. It doesn’t matter that the lack of firm ground on which to stand and defend our programming is due to system structure, system culture or habit. It is what it is: weakness.
It’s what Mark Twain would call a “silent lie.”
“Of course (in Mark Twain Tonight!), the Huckleberry number is the one that really smacks you in the face about racism,” Holbrook says, “but Twain’s major point is about the silent lie. That is, if you remain silent in the face of an injustice, it is as Twain says ‘timid and shabby.’”
Len Press, retired executive director of Kentucky Educational Television, wrote in a letter to Current (Sept. 4), “Public television might as well stay relevant as long as it can stay alive . . . If public broadcasting is destined to fade away through mission erosion, let it rather flame out with honor, on Moyers’ sword. At least then its passing may be noticed.”
Let’s be clear: This weakness is not exclusive to the PBS programming executives of the moment, or to station executives. It is a default decision that we make collectively and passively. Exceptions are possible but require extra courage. Exciting programming occasionally will cause some of our stations trouble. You all have your own examples of problematic programs and it’s arguably a decision best made locally. But choosing “safe” is not necessarily the best choice.
Let’s go back to Mark Twain, Hal Holbrook and me. These days I help run a company that provides consultation to producers and the distribution of programming for public TV stations. This past summer, we syndicated Mark Twain Tonight! Many stations took the opportunity to put the program in their schedule this fall and winter; some put it in December pledge. Some aren’t sure what to make of it, I guess. But public TV viewers in many markets will now in fact get to experience Mark Twain Tonight! I’m also gratified that I have had the chance to make up for the “timid and shabby” decision I made at PBS.
My conclusion from this is that local scheduling of acquisitions is a partial, structural way to minimize the effects of timidity. Stations X and Y can choose programs that will work for their audiences, even if they would not be suitable for station Z and therefore unlikely to be put on the PBS network feed.
If you want a sequel to Tales of the City, hypothetically, or you want to schedule APT’s Muhammad Ali: Through the Eyes of the World, or your market will embrace the BBC’s Ballykissangel or my company’s Red Green Show, then you can do it via acquisitions. It’s one of the clearest examples of why localism is the marrow of public television and control of your local broadcast schedule should never be abrogated. If this reality of local prerogative equates to a “failed business plan,” as some routinely describe public TV’s setup, then there is no business plan that can work for us as a national service.
PBS periodically asks for control over more air time, and consultants’ studies periodically suggest that local stations are wasting funds on programming that PBS could use to revitalize our collective content. PBS may indeed need those resources, but many station managers and programmers don’t want to surrender their air time and money and doubt that the promised “revitalization” will succeed. While local control is not guaranteed to continue, it remains the single biggest point of tension in the system. To paraphrase Toni Morrison, perhaps the brilliance of localism is that it is the argument that it raises.
If stations give up more of their flexibility to choose acquisitions, they lose a crucial option for providing public service.
There’s something extremely sad yet instructive about our endemic
problems when truly remarkable television like Mark Twain Tonight! doesn’t
get on the air easily to thrill our viewers and remind them why they value
their PBS stations. We should be taking any opportunity to escape our programming
lethargy and once again establish public TV in the public mind as the place
on the dial where you see the best television, television that often surprises.
Fortunately, a big subgroup of PBS stations was able to aggregate funds to
acquire this particular great program for their viewers.
In the end, the scheduling of any particular program is less important than whether public TV stations still can present programs that will challenge or surprise viewers.
When it comes to innovative programs with impact, it may be that sometimes the best answer is to do that programming at the local level or in concert with other like-minded managers and markets.
Hal Holbrook knows an epigram that fits the situation: “Mark Twain says, ‘Whenever you find yourself on the side of the majority, it is time to pause and reflect.’”
Alan Foster, a former programming
executive for PBS, is president of Executive Program Services, a program distributor
and consultant for public television, based in Alexandria, Va.
Web page posted Dec. 8, 2003
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