10 Columbus Circle
The one heresy that public television cannot tolerate is the emergence of a strong individual or group with the resources to generate imaginative and popular programming, free of the extraordinarily dense filtering system of the sum of the stations.
Richard O. Moore
Jack White's hope that his quest for a half-billion dollars might get a sympathetic hearing at the Ford Foundation may have rested on a long-standing friendship with the man who was then the Foundation's president. The two men met in the late forties, when Dr. Henry T. Heald was the president of Illinois Tech and White was on his staff as a dean of students. Sometime later, Heald left Illinois Tech for the presidency of New York University, and then in 1956 he moved uptown to the Ford Foundation. When White arrived in New York City three years later, their friendship was renewed. Heald encouraged White to buy a home near his own in the exclusive suburb of Tuxedo Park, a measure of the closeness of their relationship.
Whether the Ford Foundation president actually studied his friend's half-billion-dollar proposal is moot. We do know that it was passed on to the program officer at Ford responsible for its NET grant, an irascible and blunt Midwesterner named James Armsey. Like White, Armsey had a long-standing relationship with Heald from the days when all three were together at Illinois Tech. But unlike White, Armsey had moved with Heald to New York University and then to the Foundation. In 1961, with the dissolution of the Fund for Adult Education and the departure of Scott
Fletcher, Armsey was given responsibility for the grants to public television, which at that time constituted Ford's single largest benefaction. He seemed an odd choice for the post. A man of print, both as a journalist and an avid reader, Armsey had a mild disdain for the ephemeral nature of television. But like Scott Fletcher who preceded him and Fred Friendly who followed him, Armsey used Ford's money to leverage a personal vision of the medium that would leave public television a much-changed institution.
White's dream of a half-billion-dollar golden handshake to mark the parting of the banker and its principal client was just that. The Foundation had other ideas—and far, far fewer dollars in mind—when it announced that Armsey would conduct a year-long study of the future of public television to determine what role, if any, the Foundation had in that future. Over the next twelve months, the corpus of public broadcasting was poked and probed in search of answers. Foundation officers conducted lengthy interviews with the NET staff. Armsey recruited an outside expert to screen and evaluate NET's entire program output. And opinions and assessments of public television's performance were solicited from a broad spectrum of prominent citizens, including Walter Lippmann and Edward R. Murrow. The investigation rubbed against sensitive nerves, particularly when the Ford study implied a subtle criticism of White and his key staff. A bad situation was made more awkward by a face-off between Armsey and White—one the investigator, the other the investigated. Each seemed to be vying for the approval of their mentor, Henry Heald. Some of us who viewed their struggle with detached amusement were led to view it as a classic case of sibling rivalry.
Tensions between Armsey and NET reached a peak during the closing days of the study. Armsey had invited the system's station managers to a three-day session and pointedly excluded NET. The announced purpose of the meeting was to probe the stations' assessment of NET's performance. Armsey prefaced the meeting with his own and the Foundation's feelings that NET should pay more attention to the quality of its productions and spend less time caring for the movement's other needs. The stations responded with predictable dissonance. Some shared Ford's feeling that NET
should minimize its leadership role and strongly urged that the role be given to the NAEB, an organization over which stations had complete control. Others were unwilling even to leave NET with its programming role unless stations were given a dominant voice in program policy. But if Armsey welcomed their criticism of NET, he certainly could not have taken satisfaction from a tiny minority that seized the occasion to oppose the Ford Foundation's self-imposed role as the system's supermanager. When word of Armsey's generally hostile tone toward NET filtered back to the networks headquarters at 10 Columbus Circle, the staff felt consternation and bitterness. The prevalent feeling was one of having been betrayed by one's own sponsors.
In the summer of 1963, Armsey sent a two-page memorandum to NET entitled "Instructions for Preparation of Grant Application Letter." It said, in effect, "if you want our money, here are the terms." The procedure was routine, but the terms were not. The memorandum called for NET to trim its scope radically and to focus sharply on a "clear and unequivocal commitment to the single purpose of providing a high-quality informational and cultural program service." Ford's proposed method of achieving improved program quality was artful: more money for fewer programs. NET would be limited to no more than "5 hours of new program material each week" (it had been ten), on the assumption that more money spent on fewer programs would produce higher quality. Further, "at least 50 per cent of the program service and at least 50 per cent of the program expenditures" were to be devoted to programs about public affairs and international issues. The emphasis on public affairs was a reflection of Armsey's (and, one assumes, Ford's) view of the Fourth Network as a major media outlet for airing vital issues of national and international concern.
The more-money-for-fewer-programs decree came with the corollary demand that NET relinquish its role as the movement's leadership organization—that it give up its activities in radio and instructional television and cease to represent public television's interests in Washington. The network was, in short, to dedicate itself to the "single purpose" of program production and distri-
bution. The new order forced a change in NET's relations with its stations, including the elimination of the affiliation fee. Stations were to receive NET's programs at no cost. Ford planned the elimination of the fee as a way of encouraging stations to form their own organization to represent their collective interests in Washington. The memorandum's other terms were more annoying than substantive: no more than 15 percent of the grant could be used for administrative expense; no more than 5 percent for program promotion. Erasing all doubt about who was calling the tune, Ford requested NET to submit "a plan and time schedule for the reorganization of NETRC to effectuate the reorientation and purpose and program," including a scheme of the new organizational structure, a list of job assignments, and a record of each person's salary.
White and the NET board, swallowing hard and having no other choice, accepted Ford's stiff terms. Three weeks after Armsey's instructional memo, a letter requesting the $6 million, jointly signed by White and NET board chairman Dr. George Stoddard (by now the chancellor of New York University), was sent to Heald. Their letter promised the requisite five hours of new programs weekly, and "with roughly fifty percent" devoted to public affairs and "a limited amount" to be spent for publicity and promotion. Heald's quick response was terse and to the point: "roughly" and "a limited amount" weren't precise enough; he insisted on "no less than" 50 percent for public affairs, and "no more than 5 percent" for promotion. Stoddard's reply thanked him for his "helpful letter" and pledged compliance.
In October 1963, the following year's grant was jointly announced by the Ford Foundation and NET. The Foundation's press release referred to the grant and its conditions as a "major new phase" in public broadcasting. NET, in its release, tried bravely to put a positive spin on the new game plan by hailing the changes as the start of "a new era." But behind the hyperbole of the press releases was a painfully achieved result. In some quarters, most especially at 10 Columbus Circle, it was received with mixed emotions. On the up side was the money. There was to be more of it, much more: NET would receive $6 million for the first year,
with successive annual reviews that held out the promise of more to come. But the grant came with spine-stiffening conditions. In addition to the limitations on its programming, NET was directed to close its Washington office and to stop all outside fund-raising except for the support of specific program projects. The Foundation clearly intended to focus the network's energies and attention on a single target: programming.
The 1964 Ford grant put public television in a whole new ball game: new rules, new players, and a realignment of the power structure. As soon as the affiliation fee was dropped, the stations lost no time in forming their own organization, ETS (Educational Television Stations), to represent their interests in Washington, originally as a division of the NAEB but later as an independent entity with its own board of elected station managers. (Although it has since undergone transmutations and name changes, it continues, as APTS—the Association of America's Public Television Stations—to be the principal guardian of station interests and their Washington lobbyist.)
NET's loss of its role as the movement's undisputed leader was offset in considerable measure by the strengthening of its programming role. Not only was NET free to concentrate on programming, it was also free for the first time to enter into program production. The freedom to produce was more than a policy shift, it was a distinct departure from Ford's earlier policy as it had been formulated by Scott Fletcher. The new policy made it possible to use centralized production as the Foundation's means of upgrading program quality, and was accepted reluctantly by the stations only as a quid pro quo for gaining control of their collective destiny through ETS. The change in Ford policy was not, however, to be the final chapter in the system's historic opposition to centralized control. There were more changes yet to come.
White tackled NET's new programming challenges with renewed energy and enthusiasm, confidently promising to deliver a "strong national cultural and public affairs program service" that would be better than anything the medium had yet seen. His first step was to restructure the organization to meet the new demands. Gone was the clumsy and ineffective system of program associates;
in its place, White recruited two experienced network producers and gave them responsibility for programming—one for public affairs and one for cultural affairs. The critical public-affairs post, with its responsibility for one-half of the NET schedule, was handed to the young and energetic producer of ABC's Howard K. Smith news show, William Kobin. His counterpart on the cultural side was Don Kellerman. The two men, who had known each other at CBS, where Kellerman had produced Lamp unto My Feet and Look Up and Live , arrived on the job facing immediate production deadlines, and neither had much help. Kobin was limited to two producers, Paul Kaufman and Alvin Perlmutter, both of whom were on staff when he arrived and were fully occupied with their own program series. (Perlmutter's weekly At Issue was NET's first sustained public-affairs series.) Kellerman likewise had just two producers, Curtis Davis and Brice Howard, both program associates under the old regime. White's charge to his new program chiefs was succinct: turn the place into a real production center as quickly as you know how. On the day in December 1964 that the two men reported for work, White's goal seemed an impossible dream. But Kobin and Kellerman set to work recruiting talent and building production teams. Their success in attracting such talented professionals to public television as Jac Venza, James Karayn, David Prowitt, Jack Sameth, Jerome Toobin, and Eleanor Bunin was to have a profound influence on its future. One thing, however, remained the same: NET was still prohibited by its original charter from owning production equipment, so rather than building its own production house, the network rented studio facilities as needed, more often than not from one of its station affiliates.
Kellerman's stay with NET lasted less than a year. He resigned, reportedly after a tiff with White, and was replaced by Curtis Davis. Just prior to Kellerman's departure, Kobin was named to the new post of vice president of programming, and given overall responsibility for NET's program schedule. The public-affairs post was filled by Don Dixon, a tough-minded reporter with experience both as a foreign correspondent in Asia and a producer of network news. The three men—Kobin, Dixon, and Davis—would be re-
sponsible for public television's national programming for the remaining six years of NET's independent existence.
Change came slowly at first. New production teams were feeling their way, testing ideas, devising formats. A few series, already in NET's schedule, provided a base on which to build. One of them, Intertel , was a cooperative series involving public broadcasters in Britain, Canada, Australia, and the United States (for a time, NET and the Westinghouse Broadcasting Company shared the U.S. representation) to which each partner contributed one documentary each season. International Magazine , another import, was wholly produced by NET, demonstrating the network's enterprise as well as its limitations. Each month, an NET producer flew to London, culled from European television the stories for that month's edition, and shot the host's introductions (the show's original host, New Statesman editor John Freeman, was later replaced with NBC's London correspondent Robert MacNeil). The producer then flew back to the United States with the edited film under his arm and readied it for duplication, after which it was "bicycled" out to the stations. A far cry from today's instant delivery by satellite, this crude method of distribution meant that all material was dated by the time it was seen.
Of the shows already in the NET schedule, none caused more controversy, complaints, and incipient ulcers than News in Perspective . Its center stage was occupied, almost in the military sense, by Lester Markel, Sunday editor of the New York Times . Markel's despotism and curmudgeonly ways were legendary around the newspaper's editorial offices. Once each month, he hosted his editorial colleagues Max Frankel and Tom Wicker for an on-camera analysis of the month's major events. Under Markel's rules, bullying and badgering were fair game—and he did both—putting at risk everyone working on the show. On the evening the executive producer collapsed and was rushed to the hospital, it was assumed—wrongly, as it turned out—that he was the victim of the heart attack everyone thought was inevitable. Markel had that effect on those who worked with him. The producer recovered, but the show did not. Markel's combative performance drew increasingly negative comments from station programmers. When, at an an-
nual meeting of NET's stations, a group of local managers walked in wearing large Lester Must Go! lapel badges, NET bowed to pressure and replaced Markel with the soft-spoken and courtly Clifton Daniel. But that incident did not end Markel's ties to NET. Unable to face down and fire the highly assertive Markel, White kept him on the payroll as a consultant on public-affairs programming.
Timely airing of topical shows like News in Perspective was impossible under NET's "bicycle" distribution System. The show took twenty-one days to make the rounds of all the stations. Later, by mailing more copies, the time was shaved to eight days. It was an expensive route to a generally unsatisfactory result. NET once made one hundred copies of a single special program memorializing the anniversary of President Kennedy's assassination in order to have it aired on every station on the anniversary date. But it still wasn't "live" television. That would require leased telephone lines (later, satellites) at a cost well beyond NET's reach. Many in the system saw no need for interconnection, and some even feared it. They remained loyal to the original concept of the Center as a "library" service in which NET supplied a broad selection of timeless programs and stations were free to select those that best suited their interests and air them whenever they wished. NET's view was quite different. It saw itself as a network, the American equivalent of the great public networks of Canada, Western Europe, and Japan, whose simultaneous release of programs stitched a nation together. In this model, interconnection was essential.
But even on a shoestring budget, NET could not afford to ignore the newer technologies that were changing the medium. In 1965, the network leased the Early Bird satellite to link classrooms in Britain and Massachusetts for a modest experiment in student exchange that was more remarkable for being done at all than for being done well. Two years later, NET joined public broadcasters in twelve countries on five continents for a more significant experiment—the first live, worldwide satellite show. Our World was a melange of multicultural oddities: the BBC's contribution, for example, was a filmed rehearsal session with the Beatles. The show was more notable for its technological virtuosity than for its content, notwithstanding the Denver Post 's judgment that the broad-
cast was "as distinguished an achievement as man's conquest of space." President Johnson's 1967 State of the Union address provided the occasion for NET's first interconnected live broadcast. It was remembered, however, more for its format than its content. NET, introducing a new treatment of presidential address, followed Johnson's speech with two hours of comment and analysis from a panel of scholars and opinion leaders chaired by James Reston of the New York Times . The National Observer called it "a brilliant success," and the Television Academy honored it with an Emmy. But it rankled Vice President Agnew. In his 1969 Des Moines, Iowa, speech denouncing the press in general, he spoke for many politicians in excoriating the innovative format as "instant analysis."
The airing of the State of the Union address and its follow-up discussion were the work of NET's Washington news bureau. The bureau was set up after the Ford Foundation forced the closing of NET's earlier Washington office, and was put in the hands of Jim Karayn. Armed with years of news experience and a small budget, Karayn was charged with originating a regular schedule of special events from the capital. Convinced that public television needed an identifiable on-screen image of the sort the networks achieve with their news anchors (and that PBS has achieved in more recent years with Robert MacNeil and Jim Lehrer), Karayn recruited Paul Niven, an ex-CBS correspondent, to host NET's Washington-based shows. Until Niven's untimely death in a fire, his keen intelligence brought a strong presence to such NET series as The President's Men and Men of the Senate . Niven had also hosted NET's first show in color, one of the earliest extended interviews with President Nixon.
Once NET began to make its own shows, it was never far from controversy. These were the 1960s, the decade of the nation's turmoil, dissension, and disillusion, and an altogether awkward time for temporizing on the sensitive issues that engulfed the national spirit. In the South, the civil rights struggle pushed relentlessly forward: sit-ins, arrests, the March on Selma, and the murder of three civil rights workers in Mississippi. In the North, Malcolm X was felled in Harlem by an assassin's bullet. Six days of rioting
in Watts left thirty-four dead and over one thousand injured. It was the decade of "the long hot summer." And if that were not enough, disillusionment over America's role in Southeast Asia was growing into despair with the mounting casualty figures.
White made no bones about NET's proposed posture in this milieu. Broadcasters, he told the affiliates, are supposed to be leaders, not followers. "It takes courage to depart from the safe and sterile, to buck strong pockets of opinion . . . if we don't have that courage, we don't belong in this business." The NET staff would be pressed to meet the challenge. On the day in November 1963 that Bill Kobin took charge of NET public affairs, events conspired to test his mettle: it was the week when a young president had been murdered in Dealy Plaza and a national mood of youthful idealism had been numbed by shock and outrage. By that time, the struggle for black equality was fixed in the national consciousness: the wave of sit-ins that began at a Woolworth's lunch counter in Greensboro, North Carolina, had fanned out through the South; James Meredith, backed by three thousand U.S. troops, had integrated "Ole Miss"; and Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., had electrified thousands with a speech in which powerful images gave deeper meaning to the familiar words "all men are created equal." Kobin had a clear vision of the part the public-television network was to play. These events could not be ignored; they must be made comprehensible.
Not yet staffed with his own producers, Kobin relied on the stations to lay the foundations for NET's campaign of information. KQED / San Francisco's small film unit, organized and led by Dick Moore, addressed the civil rights issue with three documentaries produced in 1964 under contract to NET before the network had its own production staff: James Baldwin's controversial film tour of San Francisco, Take This Hammer ; a film portrait of the spiritual leader of the Black Muslim movement, Elijah Muhammad, The Messenger from Violet Drive ; and later in the year, Louisiana Diary , a film that documented the tortuous efforts to register black voters in that state's Iberville Parish. By 1966, NET was able to put its own production teams in the field, and its voice was beginning to be heard on the subject of civil rights. Jack Willis's Lay My Burden
Down looked at Alabama's rural blacks one year after the Selma-to-Montgomery march and found them no less hungry, no better educated, and no more politically powerful. Alabama's Educational Television Network declined to air the award-winning documentary, explaining that it had "insufficient educational value." Independent producer Bill Jersey's A Time for Burning captured the dramatic but futile efforts of a Lutheran minister in Omaha to integrate his all-white congregation with a nearby congregation of blacks in what the New York Times critic called "the most accomplished and sensitive hour of television this season." Another KQED-produced film, Losing Just the Same , took a sad and searching look at the problems of an urban black family in Oakland.
The following summer, when riots erupted in Newark, killing twenty-seven people and injuring fifteen hundred, NET's cameras probed for the roots of the violence in a ninety-minute special that offered angry blacks the chance to vent their frustrations and air their grievances in a televised confrontation with the community's white leaders. The discussion was followed with an analysis by a panel of experts. A number of other specials sought to give perspective and meaning to the exploding events in the civil rights struggle: Where Is Prejudice?, Who Does the Negro Think He Is? , and a nine-part series, History of the Negro People , hosted by Ossie Davis. The following spring, when an assassin's bullet took the life of Dr. King, NET gathered together leaders of the black and white communities for a penetrating look in Civil Rights: What's Next?
In late 1967, NET introduced Black Journal , the first regularly scheduled black-produced series for a black audience on the American networks. The monthly show was a modest triumph for the cause of black access, yet few if any of NET's shows stirred the wrath of the affiliates with greater frequency and fervor. The protests began early, even before the show aired. Kobin looks back on the meeting where the plans were first shared with stations as one of the worst moments in his years at NET; the intensity of the stations' opposition was totally unexpected. Nor did it stop there. Predictably, perhaps inevitably, a black show for black audiences produced in the eye of a civil rights storm was bound to have moments of rage and bitterness, occasional name-calling, and fre-
quent recourse to the crude language of the street. Black Journal had them all, assaulting the sensibilities of the disingenuous who felt that "the problem" would go away if only television didn't keep harping on it, or if the blacks would only take "a more conciliatory attitude" toward whites. A small number of affiliates refused to air the show, fearing that it would contaminate their community with "a problem" it didn't have. Most did carry it, a few fearing the reaction of a denied black audience more than the outrage of an offended white audience. But many who did air it pleaded with NET to "tone down the program." NET stood by its conviction that it was a black show, produced for a predominantly black audience, and was better judged by those for whom it was intended. It did not go unnoticed that those who minded the gates at the local stations were, without exception, white.
Initially, Black Journal was not precisely what it was advertised to be, a black show produced entirely by blacks. Although its staff was black, NET had assigned a highly experienced white producer, Al Perlmutter, to oversee the show as its executive producer. The Black Journal crew, objecting not so much to Perlmutter as to the principle, revolted. Perlmutter dropped out and William Greaves, an experienced black filmmaker, was brought in to replace him. Greaves produced and hosted the series for two years. When he left to return to independent film production, Tony Brown, a young man from Detroit, took over as both producer and host. In the two decades since, Brown has made the show his own (Tony Brown's Journal ), guided it through countless financial crises including a period of commercial-station syndication, and, with remarkable steadfastness, has kept it in front of the cameras for a record run.
The fight for equal justice at home was matched by another issue that challenged the courage and imagination of the public medium. A war in the steamy klongs and forests of Vietnam was dragging on with mounting American casualties as more and more voices were being raised in opposition. The disaffected demanded to be heard. In the aftermath of President Johnson's order initiating saturation bombing in Vietnam, NET offered to cover, live, a "teach-in"—a passive form of protest customarily involving mar-
athon talk sessions with celebrity speakers—from the nation's capital. The affiliates would have none of it; even the handful of stations willing to carry the teach-in refused to give the show the prompt exposure it needed. NET settled for a documentary about the teach-in. The situation was symptomatic of a larger problem: in its efforts to be timely, the network often moved out ahead of its affiliates and their audiences, raising questions before anyone wanted the questions raised. NET's teach-in proposal preceded by more than a year the march on the Pentagon, the Tet offensive, and Walter Cronkite's return from Vietnam with the solemn declaration that we were losing the war. The stations, and perhaps the country, were not yet ready for the question.
Public television could hardly ignore events in Vietnam and yet, with the fighting half a world away and no program budget to bridge the distance, NET was compelled to seek other sources for its coverage. Canadian television proved to be one of the best; its correspondents, not bound by the restrictions affecting the war's participants, had free access to both sides. Offering a Canadian perspective on an American war should have been an advantage to public television's viewers, particularly when our own government was engaged in a massive cover-up of America's deepening involvement. Unfortunately, as Mills of the Gods demonstrated, it proved to be a problem and a provocation. The Canadian-produced documentary contained a scene in which a U.S. Air Force pilot, singing and laughing with the excited delight of a small boy with new toys, rained death and destruction on the Vietnam villages below. Affiliates and viewers, reacting with an anger that transcended simple rejection of an "outsider's" view, charged NET with airing a show that lacked "balance."
Balance became an even more heated issue with the 1968 documentary Inside North Vietnam . The situation began harmlessly enough. A former BBC producer, Felix Greene, had struck a deal with CBS News. In return for the first option on his film, CBS agreed to pay Greene's expenses to North Vietnam where, as a British subject, he would have access to an area closed to Americans. When he brought his completed documentary to CBS, however, the network rejected all but a few shots of captured American
pilots and released to Greene rights to the rest of the film. Greene took his documentary to NET and screened it for Kobin and Dixon. Neither man had any doubts about the controversy the film was likely to arouse, particularly over the question of whether Greene had been influenced by North Vietnamese authorities. Greene gave NET assurances that he had been given free access to everything except military installations and that he had met with no interference from the authorities. The film, however, was clearly sympathetic to a people with whom we were at war, portraying them as courageous and enterprising, bravely defending themselves against an industrial giant whose mechanized warfare was callously indifferent to humane concerns. Greene's camera recorded images of hospitals that the North Vietnamese claimed had been bombed by American planes, civilians torn apart by anti-personnel bombs of a sort that our government denied using, and bridges that were routinely bombed by day and resolutely restored by night. Through it all, the North Vietnamese went about their daily routines with a determination that belied the picture painted by our government of a demoralized enemy about to surrender.
Green pared the eighty-five-minute film to an hour, and NET added an hour of follow-up discussion focusing on America's Vietnam policy. Political scientist Robert Scalapino supported the Administrations policy; news correspondent David Schoenbrun opposed it. By giving the show "balance," the follow-up discussion was intended to blunt the anticipated audience reaction. But the audience had no opportunity to react before the flak began to fly. The loudest salvo came from the halls of Congress. Learning that NET was planning to release Inside North Vietnam , thirty-three members of the House of Representatives and eleven senators shot off a letter to NET president Jack White in which they protested in the strongest and most uncompromising language the scheduled airing of the show. None of the protesting legislators had seen the film, nor were they aware of the planned follow-up discussion. But that did not deter them from condemning the film as "nothing more or less than communist propaganda." NET found itself under intense pressure; a letter from forty-four members of Congress was not easily brushed aside, not even in the comparatively free-
wheeling days before Congress gained leverage on the public medium through federal funding. But White, in a rare assertion of public television's independence, resisted the pressures and stood his ground. Viewers, he argued, should be free to make their own judgments and not have them made for them by their surrogates in Washington. Unfortunately, viewers of 18 of NET's 133 affiliates had the option removed when the stations refused to air the show.
The Greene affair had an instructive postscript. White's response to the letter from the legislators had included an offer to bring the show to Washington for a private screening for the members of Congress (not, however, before the show aired nationally). His offer was accepted, and Inside North Vietnam was screened in a closed session for the House Committee on Foreign Affairs. According to White, the film was applauded approvingly by the committee members. The events surrounding the airing of Inside North Vietnam can be seen as a crucial episode in the development of public television, a moment when courageous leadership put principle above expediency. Paradoxically, Greene's documentary was neither public television's best nor most important program in that or any other year, making the protection of the principle, if more difficult, all the more essential. NET clearly believed that without the power and courage to protect its freedom, public television loses much of its meaning and most of its purpose.
Greene's documentary aired within the framework of a weekly anthology of documentaries bearing the generic title NET Journal . The network had its own staff of documentarians, each with a small support staff, an independent budget, and time to research and develop ideas for one or more shows a year. The staff output was augmented by documentaries from independent producers and foreign sources. NET's documentarians left few sacred cows unexamined. Jack Willis attacked the wretched conditions of poor whites (Appalachia: Rich Land, Poor People ), the quality of New York City's parochial schools (Every Seventh Child ), and the paradox of rising food prices and diminishing farm income (Hard Times in the Country ). Morton Silverstein's unblinking look at the precarious situation of the poor (The Poor Pay More and Justice and the Poor )
climaxed in 1972 with the explosive Banks and the Poor , which set off tremors in banking circles that can be felt to this day. Other filmmaker-producers, including Harry McCarthy, Bob Fresco, Arthur Ziegert, Dick McCutchen, Al Levin, and Bill Jersey, tackled the issues that shaped the decade the 1960s: drugs, the invasion of privacy, student rebellion, welfare, draft evasion, and the failures of education. A monthly consumer show, Dollars and Sense (later Your Dollar's Worth ), generated its own controversy with comparative assessments of brand-name products and automobile safety standards and an occasional exposé of scams and scandals in the travel and TV repair businesses. NET built up its legal staff during this time, citing "the controversial nature of much recent programming."
Given the advantages of independent funding and governance, NET didn't shrink from controversy, but neither did it deliberately court it for its own sake. Most of its public-affairs offerings were free of controversy, and many were not successful. Those that fell short of both the station's expectations and the network's own standards were aired anyway; with a budget of less than $4 million and with 260 hours annually to fill with public-affairs programming, NET had no other option. And yet, according to Variety , NET's public-affairs programming, including its documentaries, surpassed the combined output of the three commercial networks in quantity and, more significantly, in content.
The Ford Foundation's 1964 decree mandating that half of every programming dollar go to public affairs left the other fifty cents to cover not only the arts—music, drama, dance, and the graphic arts—but also science and children's programming, the shows most in demand by the stations. Producing more with less proved to be an art in itself, a task that first fell to Don Kellerman as director of cultural programs. In his brief time with NET, Kellerman successfully negotiated a contract with the American Federation of Television and Radio Artists that opened the way for NET to employ the union's professional acting talent. The arrangement led to the network's earliest drama production, Christopher Fry's A Sleep of Prisoners , followed by American Place Theater's performance of Robert Lowell's The Old Glory: Benito Cereno and The
Play of Daniel . The latter was filmed in The Cloisters, the Metropolitan Museum's medieval enclave in upper Manhattan, by another newcomer to NET, Jerome Toobin. Another medieval enclave, this time in Holland, was the setting for Kellerman's major triumph, Carmina Burana , a dance special performed by the Nederlands Dans Theater and produced by a newcomer to NET, Jac Venza. The young stage designer was destined to rise to greater heights in later years as the impresario of PBS's Great Performances . Carmina Burana had another distinction: it was the first American public-television program to be awarded the coveted Prix Italia.
NET's cultural offerings were hardly fare for the masses. Rather, they held rigidly to NET's announced policy of helping to "cultivate American taste and appreciation, to examine contemporary culture, and to give exposure to new or neglected ideas, techniques and talents." The stations, however, wanted more conventional fare and challenged at every opportunity the wisdom of NET's policy of paying more attention to culture than to audience taste. If they hoped that Kellerman's departure would mean a change, they misjudged his successor. Curtis Davis, who was to remain in the cultural post for the next half-dozen years, pursued many of the same policies and in the process put down a foundation on which public television's record of cultural achievement was subsequently built. A soft-spoken man with a gift for talking in complete, deliberately crafted sentences, Davis brought to his new post a background particularly well suited to the cultural task. He was a composer and had been a producer with Louis de Rochemont Films before he joined the NET staff as one of its early program associates.
As a seasoned veteran of NET programming, it was entirely in character for Davis to shoot for the moon by building on Kellerman's modest beginnings. In drama, he undertook not an occasional performance but the production of a weekly series, and not just for the season but for the whole year. NET Playhouse was possible to produce on a weekly basis only by juxtaposing original productions with acquisitions and by adding a few summer repeats for a fifty-two-week season. And even that was possible only because Davis had reached an agreement with Britain's Granada TV,
and later with the BBC, to acquire at affordable prices their high-budget dramatic productions. His triumph was applauded by most stations; a few holdouts, however, complained that "pure performance" without an academic to analyze them was a sellout to "mass entertainment."
NET Playhouse was launched in the 1966–67 season with Arthur Miller's adaption of Ibsen's Enemy of the People , followed by Tennessee Williams's Ten Blocks on the Camino Real , Ronald Ribman's Fifth Horseman , Maxwell Anderson's Star Wagon , the American Conservatory Theater's performance of Shaw's Misalliance , and four one-act plays by the La Mama Experimental Theater. Against formidable odds, Davis sustained the series for five seasons. When NET Playhouse died with the dissolution of the NET organization, New York's Channel 13 kept original drama alive for a brief time with New York Playhouse . But when New York Playhouse died, more than a decade would slip by before American Playhouse returned regular drama to the PBS schedule.
Public television's explosive growth during this period should have been a boon to NET. Instead, it was a problem. With the network's outmoded and inefficient distribution system—duplicating and mailing programs to stations—every station that was added to the system (and there were 115 by the mid-1960s) increased NET's distribution costs and reduced by a corresponding amount the dollars available for programming. With production costs rising and the Ford grant fixed at $6 million, Davis was forced to seek new and inexpensive ways of filling his allotted hours. Co-productions were a partial answer. Another alternative was to adapt simple, inexpensive formats and join them together to form a series. The Creative Person , a series of individual programs profiling a wide range of creative artists from Joan Baez to Nadia Boulanger, and from Antoni Gaudí to George Grosz, cost an average of $7,000 per half-hour over a forty-four-week season. The shows' budgets were ridiculously low even for those years. Slightly more ambitious and twice as long running, Arts U.S.A. presented "a panoramic view of U.S. cultural life in the two decades after World War II." The twice-weekly shows were sometimes didactic, always wide-ranging, highly authoritative, and mercifully inexpensive.
It was under Davis's hand that public television's durable collaboration with New York's Lincoln Center for the Performing Arts began. Much of the credit, however, must go to William Schuman, Lincoln Center's first director, whose presence on the NET board facilitated this celebrated artistic collaboration. The two institutions first joined in 1965 to present Lincoln Center: Stage 5 , in which Anna Sokolow and Marc Bucci were challenged to choreograph a ballet and compose an opera, respectively, on the theme of a commissioned twenty-minute drama by Frank Gilroy. The high-risk gamble worked, earning Lincoln Center: Stage 5 the 1965 Prix Italia.
Davis was not satisfied to use the medium simply to bring new audiences to existing art, important as that is. He was almost alone in believing public television had a corollary obligation to create new art, to be a patron of those who make art as well as of those who perform it. His conviction was never more convincingly demonstrated than with the NET Opera Theater project, which was bold, elitist, and uneven, but did create new art. In the late 1940s, when NBC-TV could still put the public interest ahead of profits, the network had invited the Czech-born conductor Peter Herman Adler to form the NBC Opera Company and to produce occasional operas for the small screen. Adler's approach was a modest form of chamber opera that was small and well suited to the limitations of the television screen. The NBC Opera Company survived for ten years, achieving its greatest success in 1949 with Gian Carlo Menotti's opera Amahl and the Night Visitors . In 1965, Curt Davis, in a modest effort to fill the void created by the disappearance of the NBC Opera Company, commissioned a production of Luigi Nono's opera, Intolleranza . (It may have been new art, but it went unappreciated by NET's affiliates, who were quick to make the obvious puns on Nono's name.) Davis followed his first commission a year later with the world premiere of Jack Beeson's Lizzie Borden , which brought director Kirk Browning, a ten-year veteran of Adler's NBC Opera Company, to the NET Opera project. Two years later, Adler himself joined, first as a consultant and later as the opera project's director.
Adler's presence helped NET forge a deal with Canada's CBC
and Britain's BBC in which each partner produced and exchanged, for a modest fee, two original operas a year, thus providing each of the public networks with a season of six original operas. NET's contributions included productions of Thomas Pasatieri's The Trial of Mary Lincoln , Hans Werner Henze's Rachel La Cubana , Leos Janácek's From the House of the Dead , and Tchaikovsky's Queen of Spades . The Opera Project, which ended in the early 1970s with the dissolution of NET itself, might well have bowed out in a final shower of tuneful glory had NET's final commission, Duke Ellington's Queenie Pie , reached the air. Unfortunately, the opera, although completed just before Ellington's death, became so hopelessly entangled in his estate that it was never produced or broadcast. As a result, the Opera Project's finale was the Henze opera, which contained, confessed Davis, "not a scrap of appealing melody."
Station programmers, predictably put off by Curt Davis's "advanced" tastes in music, called for more musical shows with old-fashioned, whistleable tunes. But their strongest demand was not for music but for more science programs. Science, they felt, was poorly served on the tube despite the commercial networks' popular National Geographic series, which later moved to PBS and became its highest-rated show. NET responded with Spectrum , a weekly series that NET's science editor, David Prowitt, assembled from original productions and acquisitions. Spectrum 's efforts to blanket the broad range of the sciences were no match for the spate of science and nature programs that were to take over and dominate the PBS schedule in later years.
The latter half of the 1960s was a critical period in the development of America's public television. Under White's putative leadership and with Ford's money, the medium came alive, gained a measure of acceptance as something other than more school after school, and reached out for new audiences. Its programming frequently reached White's goal of significance , owing in large measure to the network's programming triumvirate of Bill Kobin, Don Dixon, and Curtis Davis. Behind the scenes, however, were NET's funders, who carefully tailored the vision of public television to fit
their own goals for the medium. In laying down conditions for the 1964 grant, Jim Armsey had not only pulled the system up by its bootstraps but also reshaped its basic structure. By freeing net to produce its own programming, he had further centralized national production, all the while reducing the stations' control over NET's programming by abolishing the affiliation fee. And yet he had pushed the stations in the direction of greater autonomy from NET's influence in matters other than programming by encouraging them to form their own national lobbying organization.
Insofar as it was Jim Armsey's own vision, it was completely in character for him to provide the coda to it. The occasion he chose was a meeting of the entire net staff. One year had passed since the sweeping changes wrought by the 1964 grant, and Armsey wanted to explain the conditions for a second year's grant. Policy explanations, however, turned out to be only an overture to the main act. In a blistering and detailed critique of NET's programming ("a poor imitation of commercial programming" lacking in any visible overall programming philosophy), Armsey charged that NET's involvement with the international consortium that produced Intertel was of doubtful legality, and further, that the marketing of net programs abroad violated a Ford policy of using its money to serve only American television. In a final outburst, he expressed strong opposition to the practice of corporate underwriting ("to me underwriting reads 'sponsor'; we may have to exclude it"). Armsey then introduced Professor Charles Siepmann, the man he had hired to screen NET's entire output for the grant year. Siepmann offered his own litany of criticism, noting that of the 195 shows he had screened, he had failed to find any "grand design" around which to build a coherent and meaningful program structure.
Armsey closed the day-long session with a sweeping jeremiad on the public medium: it had no future without substantial funding; and those few stations with anything to commend them were in hopeless financial condition, while the stable ones, those with school or university ties, were operated with few exceptions by a bunch of second-raters who would like to be running commercial stations if only they had the ability. Only his parting words could
lift the spirits of his stunned audience: Armsey did not expect to be handling the Foundation's public-television projects beyond the current grant.
Jack White, excluded from the meeting and angry at its outcome, shot off a sixteen-page memorandum to his chairman detailing NET's "major problems" with the Foundation, foremost of which was "Foundation interference (covert if not overt) in net management affairs, and the negative attitude of Mr. Armsey toward [educational television] in general and net in particular." White's memo precipitated a meeting with Heald and Armsey in which White and the head of his board aired their grievances. It is unlikely that their meeting affected subsequent events; Heald had already decided to shift Armsey to full-time responsibility for the other project he was handling, the Ford Foundation's huge ($350 million) project to upgrade the quality of America's colleges and universities.
Armsey's departure occasioned few regrets at 10 Columbus Circle. His distinctive style—assertive, didactic, and blunt-spoken—ruffled feathers. And yet few would deny that he left the medium a different and palpably better institution than he found it. In addition to compelling a new and higher standard of program quality, he engineered the grant that first equipped net and its affiliated stations with the new technology of videotape. With adequate funds to buy the professional skills needed for first-rate programming and the technical means to record consistently sharp images, public television moved into a new age of programming. More important, the changes helped to define a role for national programming in a system that was sadly uncertain of its own directions. At the same time, Armsey's policies left the system without cohesive leadership. By removing net from a leadership role and encouraging the formation of a new station-based organization, he set the pattern that has since been followed of fragmenting public television's functions into competing entities, each with a bundle of territorial imperatives to protect and each with substantial overhead costs to be met out of already strained resources.
As it turned out, the Foundation's insistence that NET empha-
size public affairs by devoting half of its program time and money to that area anticipated a shift in the Ford's own priorities. In January 1966, Henry Heald, forced to resign under pressure from the Foundation's trustees, was replaced by McGeorge Bundy, the former national-security adviser in President Johnson's White House. Bundy brought not only a well-honed intelligence, a quick wit, and a rapier-sharp tongue to the Foundation, but also a shift in emphasis from education to national affairs. But the most significant contribution of his presidency to public television was the man he chose to advise him on the Foundation's commitments to the public media. Fred W. Friendly was a neophyte in the philanthropic world, but highly experienced in the world of television, having been Edward R. Murrow's producer and partner in the CBS award-winning documentary series See It Now, and later the president of CBS News. His resignation from CBS News, precipitated by the network's refusal to preempt a rerun of I Love Lucy to carry the Senate hearings on the Vietnam War, freed Friendly to turn his awesome energies and lively imagination to the underfunded noncommercial medium. His appointment, however, sent a shudder through the system: Ford's money and Friendly's style—he was known to some at CBS as "the brilliant monster"—were an awesome, and to some a fearsome, combination. One thing was certain: however he chose to play the game, public television was in for a lively time.