Dreams from a Machine
Public Television . . . will seek vitality in well-established forms and in modern experiment. Its attitude will be neither fearful nor vulgar. It will be, in short, a civilized voice in a civilized community.
Carnegie Commission on Educational Television
Steeped in the self-pride of finding myself president of National Educational Television, the third to hold that post in fifteen years (or the fourth if you count the interim presidency of Scott Fletcher), I dismissed the possibility that I might very well be the last. NET had been the tentpole of the public system since its creation. I was blithely unaware that NET was being used as a bargaining chip in political games being played out in Washington. Years later it would be revealed (through files released by the Freedom of Information Act) that at the time I was preparing to take office, the Corporation for Public Broadcasting was preparing to jettison NET to win points with the Nixon White House. The system's new leadership had concluded that with public television, now dependent on government subsidy, its interests on Capitol Hill would be best served by purging itself of what Congress and the stations had come to view as a "rogue" outfit—rogue because it was independent and thus outside the control of the stations, and because its programs were perceived by some as "dangerously liberal." That NET was based in New York seemed to confirm that judgment. The consensus of
negatives was supported by the fears of those stations who felt that NET's programming put their respective subsidies from state legislatures at risk. And so NET was marked for dissolution. For years it had served not only as a program producer and distributor, but as the system's principal (and virtually only) national organization, articulating public television's mission, lobbying its cause, and setting its trends. By the time of my arrival, however, the leadership role had shifted to the Corporation for Public Broadcasting and its presidentially appointed board of directors. Shortly, NET's program distribution function would be placed with another newly created agency in Washington, the Public Broadcasting Service. NET's once exclusive role as the producer of national programming had, of course, already been parceled out to the stations by the decision of the Corporation's president. What was happening to the once dominant NET organization was not so much a wipeout as a frame-by-frame fadeout.
These changes, however, did not take place at once. In the fall of 1969, NET was still the sole supplier of national programming, responsible for providing stations with five hours each week. The 1970–71 season was the first for which I bore any responsibility, and I was determined to make it an outstanding one. Fortunately, I had been given three advantages: Ford's support grant had been boosted from $6 million to $9 million, an affirmation of Friendly's confidence in NET's new leadership; we had gained several highly talented producers from the dissolution of PBL ; and we had acquired our biggest audience-building series to date with the twenty-six episodes of the BBC's very popular The Forsytle Saga .
Using a dynamic that had served us well at KQED, I convened an informal two-day rap session with the eighty or so talented members of NET's production staff. I had no agenda. My purpose was not directive but exploratory: I was curious to see how those who shaped public television's national programming interpreted its mission. What I learned was both revealing and disturbing. Most of the producers made an arbitrary distinction between the programs public television ought to be doing and the programs they watched and enjoyed during their off-duty hours. Clearly, they were not programming for themselves but for a public-
television audience that existed only in their imaginations. I was reminded of an informal meeting with David Attenborough during the time he was programming chief of the BBC. After a quick after-hours gin-and-tonic, Attenborough excused himself, explaining that he had to get home so as not to miss that evening's shows on the BBC. I expressed surprise, noting that rarely have I known American television executives to spend evenings at home watching the tube; programs are for "them," the great undifferentiated mass with whom they generally do not identify. For the BBC, Attenborough responded, Them is Us and whatever was on the BBC that night was probably the most interesting thing happening in London. I urged my NET colleagues to emulate the BBC in this respect, not to heed the fictional voice of "ought," but to listen to their own voices and to create the kinds of programs they, as viewers, would be eager to watch at home.
After an intense year of planning, marked by a burst of creative energy, the staff produced a 1970–71 program schedule that reflected a clear and definite rethinking of our mission. The 1970–71 programs were first shown to the station executives at their annual spring meeting in New York and received an unprecedented standing ovation. The brightest slot in the schedule was filled with an innovative and high-risk venture called The Great American Dream Machine . The producers had planned it originally as an entire evening devoted to a single program, appropriately entitled Wednesday Evening . Budgeting realities converted the concept to a ninety-minute weekly magazine. Al Perlmutter and Jack Willis were named co-executive producers; the partnership was a virtual guarantee that The Great American Dream Machine would not be a conventional show. Early in the planning stages, Jack Willis suffered a serious injury in a surfing accident that left him paralyzed from the neck down and with the almost certain prospect that he would never be able to walk again. Planning sessions were convened around his hospital bed during the summer months and were continued through the period of his long, slow recovery as a dramatic sidebar to the show itself. (Willis and his wife Mary have told the story of his successful fight to walk again in both a book and a made-for-TV movie.)
The original plan called for a rotating weekly host, which would provide an opportunity to test new talent for the star-starved public medium without signing the also-rans to long runs. But producer Sheila Nevins had a better idea: do without a live host and weave the various segments of the magazine together with graphics—pictures, drawings, and animation. It was unconventional, but it proved to be one of the elements that made The Great American Dream Machine a television original. Once production of the series began, Perlmutter and Willis put together a first-rate team of experienced professionals—some from NET's production staff, some specially recruited to fit the peculiar requirements of the show—and installed them in unconventional quarters in the ballroom of New York's Empire Hotel.
In the early version of the series, each show opened with a brief comedic hit of mime: two stark white faces, much like the classic masks of Comedy and Tragedy, mouthed the sounds of a full symphony orchestra. Behind the chalk-white faces were two comedians, Ken Shapiro and a little-known actor named Chevy Chase. Following their mime, Eleanor Bunin's distinctive animated graphics introduced the show's title with a nondescript machine, topped by the head of an American eagle, which huffed and puffed and turned the wondrous national dreams of everlasting peace, equality, and affluence into reality. The show itself was best described by one enthusiastic critic as "a whacky, wishful, wonderful, wise conglomeration of extravagant creations that brings dazzling mental stimulation to the screen." Its eclectic contents ran the gamut from the satirically ludicrous to the culturally sublime: stripper Blaze Starr staging a charity benefit; the television premiere of Leonard Bernstein's Mass ; a portrait of Jane Fonda produced entirely by women; comedian David Steinberg's sardonic look at California's car culture from the front seat of his convertible at a drive-in church service; and a salute to Pablo Casals on his ninety-fifth birthday. Some shows were built around a single theme: the black experience, home, love games, and death.
Some of the major talents in the humor business produced Dream Machine 's trenchant satire. When CBS refused to run Andy Rooney's "Essay on War," Perlmutter snapped it up, aired it, and
offered Rooney a regular on-camera spot. His "Opinion" pieces brought to the show a sharp eye and a sharper tongue, as Rooney took on the Vietnam War, America's volunteer army (more non-coms than privates), gasoline prices, and sex. He found himself in good company: Alan Arkin, Linda Lavin, Stan Freberg, Jack Gilford, Richard Castellano, and the team of Joseph Bologna and Renee Taylor. One weekly segment featured Studs Terkel, live from Chicago's Tap Room, discussing life's verities over a stein of beer with a widely disparate group of "friends." With its range of talent, The Great American Dream Machine did not need a single star who stood above the rest. But the one performer most often identified with the series was a "lovable endomorph" named Marshal Efron. The self-styled "idiot savant," a thirty-three-year-old actor from the satirical review The Premise , unraveled in his "abrasive and smartest kid in the class manner" the mysteries of making a lemon cream pie without lemon or cream ("exactly as Morton's makes theirs!"), the arcane scale for grading olives ("the smallest size is called 'giant'"), or the wonders of the Maytag Trashmaster ("turns twenty pounds of trash into twenty pounds of trash!").
The press greeted the January 1971 debut of The Great American Dream Machine with generous praise: "comes close to being what television is all about" (Washington Post ) and "almost too good to be true and too true to be bad" (San Francisco Chronicle ). The cheering was not unanimous—one critic found the show "precociously amateur and light years away from professional realization" —but the naysayers were greatly outnumbered by those who found The Great American Dream Machine a fresh (some even thought too fresh!) image on the bland landscape of American television. NET's stations, for the most part, welcomed the show, embracing its novelty even as they shuddered at its brashness. They were particularly grateful for the fact that it brought new and younger viewers to the tube. In the land of localism, however, there are always exceptions. KTCA/St. Paul's viewers were denied access to the show because, said its manager, its airing would interfere with local programming. And while WTTW/Chicago's manager aired the show, he took pains to expurgate those parts that could offend his audience's sensitivities. Chicago's four
television critics were particularly outraged over his removal of a satirical skit about an unmarried couple in bed discussing their fading affair. To mute the criticism, the manager agreed to air the piece and put its suitability to a vote of his viewers. Some 2,700 Chicago area viewers responded, voting 4-1 to support the station's decision. Critic Ron Powers, however, called it a "sad mandate . . . a blow to intelligence."
Popular and distinguished as it was, The Great American Dream Machine nevertheless created a financial dilemma. Its $100,000-an-hour budget, very high by the day's standards, consumed so much of NET's Ford grant that little was left for other programming. The clamor to meet those program responsibilities made it more and more difficult to justify NET's large investment in the one show. Efforts were made to stretch scarce dollars by cutting the second season's show to an hour and using more repeat material. But by the end of the second season, cutbacks in public television's federal funding made another season for the program little more than a wistful hope. With the last show of the 1971–72 season, The Great American Dream Machine slipped into the public-television archives, its demise met with the generous praise and piety customarily reserved for the recently departed.
Leo Seligsohn of Newsday found irony in "the untimely dismantling of 'Dream Machine.'" Its very quality—"irreverent, funny, provocative, controversial"—was cited as the unspoken cause of its demise ("With a record like that it obviously was only a matter of time before it would be cancelled"). The usual conspiracy theorists echoed Seligsohn's cynicism by refusing to believe that Dream Machine had succumbed to the natural causes of financial anemia, preferring to think that it had fallen victim to political foul play, with the trail of suspicion leading, needless to say, to the door of the Oval Office. Almost any suspicion was credible, of course, in the larcenous days of White House break-ins and wire-taps, but no evidence exists to suggest that the White House had any more contempt for The Great American Dream Machine than it did for NET's other programs, and there is certainly no evidence that the Administration made any effort to kill the show. The Administration's contempt was for public television itself.
The Great American Dream Machine , following in the wake of bloody riots, assassinations, and an unpopular war abroad, reflected a moment in history when the American Dream seemed to be a tarnished ideal. This accounts in part for the way that the show was received. NET's other public-affairs offerings fared less well. Affiliates and some critics challenged the right of NET's social and political documentaries to express a point of view. Some were quick to cast NET into the role of "anti-establishment." It could be argued, however, that its weekly documentaries, especially when they veered from the well-rutted road of broad consensus, contributed to the marketplace of ideas and thus to democracy itself.
A sampling of NET's schedule for 1970, the last year of its independent existence and the final period of relative calm before the Nixon Administration laid the axe to public television's public-affairs programs, offers evidence of the range and robustness of its documentary output. Frederick Wiseman's Hospital was an unblinking portrait of an East Harlem hospital emergency room on a busy Saturday night; it raised dustdevils of controversy and produced the year's silliest negotiation: how many cries of "oh shit" by the despairing victim of a drug overdose would be permitted to remain in the final version of the film. Bob Fresco's Trial: The City and the County of Denver vs. Lauren R. Watson provided national television with its first actual courtroom trial. Jack Willis's Hard Times in the Country examined the question of why consumers were paying more for farm products while farmers were earning less. Dick McCutchen's The Three R's . . . and Sex Education stepped carefully around the minefield of sex education in our public schools. The Long Walk gave the Navajo nation a chance to speak out candidly about the effects of government policy on the Native American. And a jailhouse interview with Black Panther leader Bobby Seale raised questions many wish had never been asked.
Every fourth week NET Journal became Black Journal , and on those nights one could almost hear the collective sucking in of breath along the network as the more timorous among the affiliates waited to see what provocations the show's black producers would thrust upon the stations' predominantly white audiences.
The affiliates' sensitivity to audience reaction was such that this first national show for a black minority would have sent apprehensive shudders through the system had it done nothing more than recite the alphabet. It did more, of course, exploring issues rarely aired on national television and giving a voice to black concerns, occasionally touching raw nerves with predictable consequences. "Justice?" in which black spokespersons, including the controversial Angela Davis, charged the criminal justice system with being weighted in favor of whites, reaped a bountiful harvest of protest letters from white viewers. So, too, did a special two-part panel called "A Black Paper on White Racism."
When affiliates felt displeasure with the more provocative of its programs, they complained directly to NET, even though many felt that the network was less than responsive to their complaints. The situation changed dramatically after 1970 with PBS's appearance on the scene. Stations now had their own organization, one over which they had complete control, to intervene on their behalf with the producers of the programs they disliked. But the stations' desire to use PBS as a shield against what they called "problem programs" had limits. The stations were unwilling to go so far as to cede to PBS any real editorial power, for fear of turning the "distribution system" into a "network." No one wanted that. For a time, the stations fought to gain their own editorial control over PBS programming by demanding the right to delete at will those portions of the programs they found unacceptable. It was a right that PBS did not have the power to give; program producers were bound by contracts with the artists guaranteeing that shows would be aired without alteration. Reluctant to give increased power to PBS and having failed to gain it themselves, the stations accepted a compromise agreement. For one moment, they were content to cast PBS in the role of a toothless tiger. PBS, mediating between conflicting forces, would coordinate them rather than command them. The matter was barely resolved before it was overrun by an event—not surprisingly, a NET documentary—that brought stations to the realization that the tiger might need teeth.
In October 1970, PBS had just started its first full season at the helm of the quasi-network when it found itself holding a live gre-
nade in the form of an hour-long documentary produced by Morton Silverstein, one of NET's most experienced documentarians. With stylistic production techniques that heightened the drama but offended PBS, Banks and the Poor challenged the advertised claim of New York's largest banks that they "paid special attention to the needs of the disadvantaged." Both banks and savings and loan associations were charged with perpetuating slum conditions by bankrolling "slumlords," practicing discriminatory loan policies against the poor, and otherwise conducting business in ways that denied either banks or thrifts the right to call themselves friends of the poor. The real bombshell came in the documentary's closing minutes. Having been told by the head of the New York State Bar that Congress had done little to correct the bankers' discriminatory practices because so many members of both houses had bank connections, Silverstein did the unforgivable. With the "Battle Hymn of the Republic" booming in the background, he scrolled down the screen—over an image of the nation's august Capitol building—the names of almost one hundred Senators and members of the House with "bank connections." The irony was intentional.
PBS previewed the show and knew instantly that it had a "problem program" on it hands. It was provocation enough that most member stations had bankers on their boards. But the situation was made more complex by the fact that Life , already on the newsstands, contained a favorable review of the show. (Mort Silverstein's "considerable achievement," wrote John Leonard, "is to have brilliantly dramatized the invisible.") Stations now faced the choice of explaining to local bankers why they had aired the show or to local audiences why they hadn't. PBS president Hartford Gunn handed the problem to his newly elected board, only two members of which—Gunn and myself—had actually seen the show. Nevertheless, the entire board, over my single objection, voted to reject it as "journalistically unsound."
However, in rejecting Banks and the Poor , the board had overlooked a rule that the stations themselves had instituted. Fearing the force of a NET-like centralized authority, they had deliberately limited PBS's editorial control. In short, PBS lacked authority to
reject programs. I persuaded a reluctant board that it had no choice but to accept the program for distribution. Banks and the Poor was delivered to PBS stations on November 9, 1970, accompanied by a PBS disclaimer: "If any station receives inquiries regarding the content . . . or requests for an opportunity to respond," they should be sent directly to the producer and not to PBS. The New York Times commented that "public broadcasting should stop having the jitters. . . . Banks and the Poor was a job well worth the doing. . . . For the layman the program was a fine and laudable example of pinpointing crucial economic practices that require wide discussion." Jitters were not calmed in Texas, however, where several stations, fearing the reaction of the financial community, previewed the program for the state's banker's association—then discreetly "postponed" airing it.
Persuading PBS to distribute Banks and the Poor was a Pyrrhic victory; pressures were building for changes in the rules. On the one hand, Gunn was not satisfied with a passive role for PBS. On the other, stations wanted protection from having to publicly justify decisions not to air programs that stirred controversy. The solution was obvious and inevitable: invest PBS with the gatekeeper's power to keep "problem programs" out of the distribution pipeline. Gunn, in calling for steps "to assure PTV the highest quality of journalism and professionalism," was clearly determined to codify standards of journalistic practice for public television. And Banks and the Poor was to be his weapon. The call for standards acquired an air of urgency after Congress called CBS president Frank Stanton to Washington to account for his network's 1971 documentary The Selling of the Pentagon . Urged on by the defense establishment, a committee of the House grilled Stanton on the network's standards of broadcast journalism and very nearly slapped a contempt citation on him when he refused to supply the committee with outtakes from the show. The warning signs were all too evident.
The signals were not lost on Gunn. "We cannot afford to be irresponsible," he told his board. He not only called for uniform standards for all producers, but also wanted them in writing so that he would have a document to wave in front of a Congressional
committee should he be called to account for the programs that PBS distributed. The first tentative stab at producing standards proved to be a fiasco. The paper, rewritten by the PBS staff from a draft by the board's most politically conservative member, demanded nothing less than absolute accuracy. Producers were required to warrant that all "facts are correct, up-to-date, and substantial . . . [and that] secondary sources have not been relied upon." The demand for absolute accuracy was buttressed with a quote from Walter Lippmann—whose name, unfortunately, was misspelled (perhaps as a consequence of relying on secondary sources). The draft was tabled. Gunn turned next to a panel of professional journalists led by Elie Abel, then dean of Columbia's Graduate School of Journalism. Instead of commandments to be rigidly observed, the panel produced a statement of journalistic guidelines. PBS adopted them without dissent in the spring of 1971.
The new standards were barely in the books when another crisis erupted, once more involving NET and again calling into question acceptable standards of journalistic practice. The eye of the storm was a twelve-minute segment of The Great American Dream Machine produced by Paul Jacobs, an investigative journalist with a long record of leftist attacks on establishment institutions. Jacobs had videotaped interviews with three former college students, each of whom claimed that he had been encouraged, and even aided, by FBI agents and local police to commit illegal acts on college campuses in order to justify a crackdown on campus radicals. Four days before the show was to air, Gunn and PBS general manager Gerald Slater flew to New York to ask NET to voluntarily withdraw the segment from the show. Their assertion that Jacobs's charges "lacked documentation" was not entirely off the mark since the FBI, by refusing to appear on the show, had left us with no "documentation" except the statements of the three self-confessed undercover agents. Satisfied that NET's legal department had checked on the validity of the charges, I turned down the PBS request to withdraw the piece. I did, however, ask our producers to incorporate into the piece portions of a late-arriving letter from J. Edgar Hoover in which the FBI chief declared that "on the basis
of information available to this Bureau, each of the charges is totally and absolutely false in each and every particular." His denial was not surprising; the oddly qualifying phrase "on the basis of information available" was. Hoover's letter ended with an ominous threat: "We have referred this matter to the Department of Justice."
We assumed that the revised version, rushed to PBS on the day before the show's scheduled airing, met most if not all of their objections. We were wrong. Hours before it was to air, PBS pulled the segment from the show, explaining that they had no time to "check out" the revised version. The hole in the Dream Machine was plugged with filler. The press had a field day. "Once again," cried the (Philadelphia) Evening Bulletin , "censorship on public TV brings into focus the disturbing aspect of its financial support by the federal government." The Memphis Press-Scimitar saw it as a lesson "in how public TV has lost its courage since National Educational Television lost its power." Though a few thought that PBS knuckled under to FBI pressure, no evidence was ever produced to prove that pressure had been applied.
What the press saw as censorship the PBS stations saw as an exercise of prudent editorial judgment. From the stations' perspective, Gunn had acted wisely and well, sparing them and the system the obvious embarrassment of having to defend an indefensible piece of muckraking journalism. The battle over the FBI segment miraculously dissolved stations' earlier reluctance to arm PBS with the power to make editorial judgments. Less than a week after the incident, the PBS board resolved that in the future final authority to make "go, no go" decisions would reside with the PBS staff when the effort to achieve consensus with the producing stations is not successful. The board action thus permanently altered the manner in which PBS discharges its program-distribution responsibilities.
Written rules, however skillfully crafted, do not change personal sensibilities. Differences over the standards most appropriate to the public medium continued long after the rules were written and are still being argued today. But in the early 1970s, standards of taste had not yet been affected (some would say lib-
erated) by the permissiveness of today's movies, television, and cable. And so a program like the television adaptation of Ronald Ribman's Ceremony of Innocence , which was highly praised by critics, could draw fire from the stations for its earthy language. Or a brief moment of semi-nudity in Craig Gilbert's powerful documentary portrait of Irish author-painter Christy Brown could provoke heated protests from stations and outright rejection by the Louisville station. Timorous station executives sometimes had the sanction of local government. A Tennessee board of education, labelling NET's shows "highly inflammatory and of questionable educational value," ordered its stations to censor them more strictly. In 1970, irate citizens leveled charges of racism against the Alabama state network for refusing to carry Black Journal and other series aimed at black audiences. The FCC, however, ruled that the state was free to drop the black shows as "a matter of taste and judgment." (Four years later the FCC reversed itself; its threat to remove the state's licenses for discriminating against blacks brought about the needed reform.)
By the close of 1971, provocative programming was dying, knocked out of the box by a White House that was bent on removing the government-funded medium from the production of public-affairs programs. Increased control over national programming by the more cautious local stations also contributed unintentionally to the smothering of controversy. By that time, NET had been stripped of its documentary unit and was no longer an independent production house but an integral part of the New York public station. Nevertheless, it attempted to keep robust journalism alive with a show called This Week . The show's failure to light up the night sky was not the fault of the host, a young newspaper publisher named Bill Moyers, but of the conventional anchor-man-behind-the-desk format and of the producers for not recognizing or making the best use of his unique talents. It was Moyers' first regular series for television, and he was not at all comfortable with the medium. "I am just not cut out to be a television performer," he said to me at the end of the first season, in what must have been the grossest misjudgment of his career. He was persuaded to return the following year in a new and more
suitable format, Bill Moyers' Journal , which soon gave the lie to his modest disclaimer and set him on the path to becoming one of television's brightest and most effective performers.
With 1972's decline in bold-spirited shows, VD Blues qualified as the aberration of the year. From its opening moments—a funky rock band strolling the Sausalito waterfront while belting out the lyrics to "Don't Give a Dose to the One You Love Most"—Don Fouser's candid and forthright look at venereal disease turned the conventions of television upside down. He planned to target teenagers, who formed the center of a resurgent epidemic of venereal disease, and yet resisted the blandishments of public TV. Fouser's strategy was to bring outrageous humor and irreverence to the discussion of a topic normally treated only in hushed tones. Its message was simple and direct: VD is detectable and curable. NET liked the idea and format and agreed to let Fouser produce it. More surprisingly, the 3M Corporation courageously agreed to underwrite the show's production costs. But that was before they saw the script. (How they saw the script remains a mystery; corporate underwriters are ostensibly barred from becoming involved in program content.) While reading the script, the eyes of the 3M executives fell on a mildly funny sketch by Jules Feiffer in which a woman patient, infected by VD and forced by her doctor to reveal her sexual liaisons, names the doctor as her sole contact. A call came immediately from 3M's offices in St. Paul to tell me that the sketch had to be deleted. The PR people were apparently concerned lest 3M's name be associated with a program that implied that doctors committed indiscretions with their patients. (And doctors, I later learned, are big 3M customers.) Reluctant to allow an underwriter to have a voice in the producer's plans, I politely declined. They just as politely declined to have 3M's name on the show.
Once the show was completed, VD Blues was previewed for station programmers on a closed-circuit system a week prior to its scheduled airing. We were surprised to learn that 3M executives, accompanied by several doctors and a public-health official, were present for the preview in the St. Paul station. We were even more surprised when they called me to ask if the 3M name could be
restored to the show. It could. Fearful, however, that "a great many reasonable viewers would feel that this program openly condones promiscuity," 3M requested that the show open and close with an announcement that NET was "solely responsible for the content and method of presentation."
VD Blues aired on October 9, 1972. Only two stations refused it: one in Jackson, Mississippi, and one in Little Rock, Arkansas. Most not only ran it but mounted local follow-up shows with experts responding to viewers' inquiries. The New York station's follow-up show, hosted by Geraldo Rivera, had to be extended from one to three-and-a-half hours to accommodate more than 15,000 telephone calls. Other cities experienced similar results. The VD Blues story had an O. Henry-style finish: 3M was presented later in the year with the American Medical Association's 1972 Journalism Award for its courage in underwriting such a high-risk show. The story of the award, wrote Variety 's Bill Greeley, was "one of those marvelous ironies which only a gimp of a medium [like] public television could supply."
By the time VD Blues aired, public television was well along the road to what PBS president Hartford Gunn called a cohesive but decentralized system. The national schedule was no longer the sole province of NET; important programs were beginning to come from other sources, mostly the big-city stations. WGBH/Boston supplied the hugely popular French Chef , Evening at Pops , and the durable Masterpiece Theater . KCET/Los Angeles, having brought Lewis Freedman, PBL 's cultural chief, to the West Coast to produce Hollywood Television Theater , supplied a series of distinguished American-produced dramas, one of which ("Andersonville Trials") was honored with the public medium's first Emmy. In the early burst of decentralized national production, series for national distribution also came from WTTW/Chicago (Bob Cromie's Book Beat ), KQED/San Francisco (World Press ) and South Carolina ETV (William Buckley's Firing Line ).
While the decentralization of national production opened avenues of opportunity for producers outside New York and resulted in a more diversified national schedule, it did not cause New York to be replaced as the principal source of national programming.
In the early months of 1971, an idea for a television series was germinated in the New York offices of NET that would result two years later in the most discussed, argued over, and written about series public television had yet produced. Nor has the argument over the series entirely subsided; An American Family can still provoke discussion twenty years later. The show grew out of an earlier desire by the staff to develop a series dealing with the radically changed attitudes of the young toward marriage, religion, sex, and drugs. Our first thought was a series of conventional documentaries, each treating one of the topics. But one of our producers, Craig Gilbert, thought he had a better idea. His boss, Curt Davis, brought him to my office to argue passionately for what they both believed was a superior way to deal with the cultural shift.
Gilbert, a huge bear of a man, hulking, rumpled, and with a generous growth of beard, had won an Emmy a year earlier for his documentary The Triumph of Christy Brown . He had started nothing substantive since. A broken marriage and the trauma of divorce had left him with self-doubts and a long list of unanswered questions about life in general and about relationships between men and women in particular. He was on the verge of quitting NET when Davis, unwilling to lose one of his best producers, handed him a challenge he couldn't refuse: give me a plan for a show you always wanted to do but for whatever reason couldn't. Gilbert thought about it during a weekend in which he "drank a lot and wallowed in self pity" over his failed marriage. Somewhere, buried in the troubling question of why men and women have such a tough time maintaining relationships, was the germ of an idea for a show. He grabbed a pencil and began making notes. The result was the outline for An American Family .
Gilbert had a nervous habit of lighting a cigarette, taking a few puffs, stubbing it out, and lighting another. He stubbed his way through the better part of a pack while describing his "better idea": eight one-hour shows—they later turned out to be twelve—culled from intensive and intimate film coverage of a single family over the space of a year. Not necessarily a typical family, but a family whose experiences would reflect the changes that the times were wreaking on all of us. Perhaps, he reasoned, the answers he
sought in his own life might be found in the lives of others. The risk was high. But the notion of treating the issue of changing values in a more dramatic, less didactic, less ordinary context than the conventional documentary form was more than tempting, it was irresistible. We decided to move ahead. The funds originally scheduled for documentaries were switched to the new project over the aggrieved cries of the documentary unit. A search was begun to find a family willing to share its life with a film crew—and several million strangers.
For two months Gilbert moved from coast to coast in a fruitless search for the right family. He started by talking with family therapists, believing that a family already in therapy might better be able to withstand the consequences of protracted television exposure. He varied his approaches, but none produced a family willing to be the subject. Despairing, he went on a blind date with a Santa Barbara newspaper reporter, shared his problem over drinks, and was led by her to the William C. Loud family of that California city: Pat and Bill and their five children, Lance, Kevin, Grant, Delilah, and Michele. Pat and Bill Loud were doubtful and hesitant at first, but during several all-night talk sessions Gilbert was able to dispel, or at least to minimize, their reservations. Filming began several nights later, on June 1, 1972. The opening sequence, a party in the Loud home to celebrate Grant's election to the student-body presidency of his high school, turned into a consolation party. Grant was defeated. And so our drama began.
Ten days later, Gilbert wrote to tell me of his satisfaction with the family:
As for the series, I am excited about its possibilities beyond any other project I have ever been involved with. At the same time, I must admit that it has triggered a series of anxieties that I guess I'll just have to live with for the next year. Before we started, I realized that the choice of the family was crucial and that all dreams or nightmares would flow from that choice. So far, we have been incredibly lucky. The family appears to be giving us precisely what we want.
If Gilbert thought that he had found in the Louds of Santa Barbara a stable, down-home American family—"normal" in the
positive sense of that term—he learned in short order that the Louds refused to fit the mold. Upper middle class, living close to the core of the American Dream, with a ranch-style house, swimming pool, two cars, and many of the other amenities of the Southern California "good life," the Louds were not quite the contented, integrated family unit that Gilbert had seen on his first visit. By early summer, several weeks into the shooting, hairline fissures began to appear in the marriage. And by the time the final sequence was filmed seven months later, the picture of happy domesticity had fallen into disarray. The Loud's separation and divorce did, of course, add an unexpected element of drama—particularly the scene in which Pat confronted Bill with news of her decision to divorce him—but it resulted in a grossly unbalanced series budget. Where one film crew had been budgeted for, two were now needed to follow Pat and Bill as they went their separate ways.
The principal filmmakers were the man-and-wife team of Alan and Susan Raymond. Independent filmmakers in their own right (The Police Tapes, Bad Boys ), the Raymonds had also worked with Gilbert on his award-winning documentary The Triumph of Christy Brown . During the time An American Family was in production, they, together with Gilbert's assistant, Susan Lester, were with the Louds during most of the family's waking hours, sometimes filming, sometimes simply waiting for "things to happen." Gilbert, feeling that his additional presence would lessen the "reality" of the situation, stayed away from the house during much of the actual shooting, keeping in touch with his team by telephone and occasionally meeting with the Raymonds and the family, but leaving the Raymonds to decide what and when to film. (As a consequence, Gilbert and the Raymonds have feuded for years over the "authorship" of An American Family .) Over their seven months with the Louds, the Raymonds and Susan Lester developed an easy working relationship with the family, a formidable achievement in itself, living as they were in each other's pockets for most of that time. None of the crew actually lived in the Loud home, but they came and left each day, frequently after long hours together.
Three months into the filming, Pat Loud wrote a note to those
involved in the production. "You have eminently justified the faith my family tacitly put in you. . . . Believe me, if anyone ever wants to muck around in my life again, it has got to be you." But the family's mood had turned darker by the time the shooting ended and the finished shows were aired. More than three hundred hours of film had been shot over the seven months, and this film would be edited over the next eighteen months into twelve hour-long episodes. (Gilbert had wanted additional episodes, but his new bosses—NET had by then been absorbed into Channel 13—took account of a budget that had soared from its original $600,000 to $1.6 million and drew the line at twelve.) In late December 1972, after completion of the first two episodes, I flew to Los Angeles and joined the Loud family—Pat, her mother, and four of the children—for the press preview. Although the family had seen some of the rushes as they were being shot, this was the first time the Louds saw a completed episode. The family's reaction was generally positive. Pat thought the two episodes were true to the facts of their life, although she did have a reservation about the opening titles. An American Family was spelled out in great blocks of granite that slowly developed hairline cracks and crumbled. "That fries me," Pat Loud told Gilbert. "It should be taken out." It wasn't. Gilbert was solidly wed to the visual metaphor for the fragility of the American family.
The first episode of An American Family aired nationally on January 11, 1973, to a highly favorable critical reception: "a remarkable document" (Newsweek ); "extraordinarily interesting to watch" (Time ); "what maybe the most extraordinary series ever made for the medium (Washington Evening Star and Daily News ); "unquestionably the most ambitious [project] ever attempted by public television, it may well be the most significant" (Los Angeles Times ). On the whole, the show fared far better than its subjects did. Critics tore into the family. Jim Caines (Village Voice ) wrote that "the Louds have neither wit nor warmth . . . they are zombified." Stephanie Harrington (New York Times ) felt that it was the Loud's "crucial failures to reach out to each other across empty spaces that make this affluent middle-class family such a fragile composition of fragments."
The Louds reacted with shock and anger. With their self-image under savage attack, the Louds struck back. The counterattack was directed not at the critics and their unkind words but at the producers and their unkept promises. "We weren't deceived, but we were misled," Bill Loud told a reporter. "If they had five happy shots and five sad or tragic or bizarre shots, they picked four negative shots for every one of the other." The producers, he charged, "had a preconceived, liberal, leftist view that the American way of life is wrong, that family life is wrong, that our values are wrong." Pat Loud went on television to tell her side of the story. In a confrontation with a nervous, chain-smoking Craig Gilbert on Dick Cavett's late night ABC show on the evening of February 20, 1973, she accused the producer of deliberate distortion to make his point. Her most virulent anger, however, was directed at WNET and the publicity and advertising campaign that was used to introduce the series when it first aired. Particularly galling was an article by writer Fredelle Maynard, which appeared in Channel 13's own monthly magazine.
Flying, partying, quarrelling, just talking, the Louds reveal a peculiarly American faith in simple solutions, instant cure. Unhappy? Take a trip. Lonely? Give a party, set your hair. Pat's instinct in a crisis is to reach for a drink.
Maynard's article would have hurt had it appeared anywhere. But showing up as it did in the producing station's own publication was too much. Pat Loud was truly "fried." And unforgiving.
In the aftermath of the series, Pat wrote a book, Bill remarried, and the children pursued their own careers. Their lives were changed forever; a whole chunk of their existence had been thrust beneath the microscope and dissected, their common experience mediated by the unblinking eye of the camera, their privacy made public property. Few families could withstand the pressures of public exhibition and hope to emerge unscathed. The Louds were not, as some critics would have it, an aberration, a clutch of California flakes worshipping at the altar of consumerism and frantically pursuing The Good Life as practiced by the self-absorbed sun worshippers of the Pacific slopes. While not the American family,
the Louds of Santa Barbara were certainly an American family, and not much different from hundreds of thousands of upwardly mobile suburban strivers like themselves. "With innumerable variations," wrote John O'Connor, "the Louds are all around us."
In some measure, An American Family mirrored the society of its time, or more accurately, that part of society whose established values had eroded under the assault of materialistic goals—the part for whom the pursuit of a "high standard of living" was and is the essence of the American Dream. Margaret Mead offhandedly burdened the series with far too much cultural weight by saying that the series was "as important for our time as were the invention of drama and the novel for earlier generations." Nevertheless, An American Family was an undeniably dramatic and novel experiment, wholly in keeping with public television's mandate to break the mold of conventional television and search out exciting new forms. In the twenty years since its first release, the series continues to have a half-life. Alan and Susan Raymond produced a tenth-anniversary show for cable, updating the lives of the Louds, and in 1988 New York's Museum of Broadcasting held a retrospective seminar with Craig Gilbert, the Raymonds, and the two youngest Loud children. But the afterlife that was most hoped for by serious scholars has disappeared. The almost three hundred hours of film that did not find their way into the final version had been squirrelled away at WNET as a resource for future anthropologists, a trove of family lore for those who might wish to study the society of the seventies. With television's characteristic disdain for preserving its past, the administration at WNET happened upon the trove and had it destroyed.
So much for cultural history.