Two into One Equals Thirteen
If newness be its vice, then boldness be its virtue.
Edward R. Murrow
The 1970 merger of NET and New York's WNDT / 13 was a marriage of convenience. Neither partner desired it, but neither had a choice in the matter. Both institutions were financial wards of the Ford Foundation, and the Foundation, for its own reasons, wanted them made one.
NET was a result of the Foundation's benign intervention in public television's birth and early development; Ford's Fund for Adult Education created it and Ford money sustained it through all of its twenty years. Despite its autonomy in the public system, NET necessarily danced to Ford's tune. Channel 13, ten years younger than NET, was equally vulnerable to Ford's master planning. By the late 1960s, the station's efforts to gain visibility in a market dominated by six other well-established VHF channels had exhausted its resources, leaving it a wan and undernourished institution. Ironically, each of the two institutions, situated cheek-by-jowl on New York's Columbus Circle, had what the other needed: NET had programming money and no studios; WNDT had studios and too little programming money. The station's financial burdens might have been eased had NET been willing to lease WNDT's studios for its major productions. But NET's producers, reluctant to entrust their productions to WNDT's "incompetent" studio crews, took them out of town.
Fierce rivalry for the attention of the fickle New York press, the largesse of the Ford Foundation, and the loyalty of New York's viewers shaped the attitudes of their respective staffs. For ten years they glared at each across West 58th Street, the narrow canyon that separated them. Meanwhile, the Foundation, banker to both institutions, had little patience with their "competitive and sometimes combative" relationship, especially since Ford dollars fueled it. Bundy and Friendly saw in a merger of the rivals the means of wiping out wasteful competition—and something more. Both men were embarrassed by Channel 13's performance. Measured by any standard, WNDT "has remained among the weakest and most ineffective of the public broadcasting stations in the major cities." Friendly felt that his efforts to wheedle millions for the public medium from the Ford board were undermined by Channel 13's lackluster performance. For most Ford trustees, the New York channel provided their only first-hand knowledge of public television. Friendly believed that a marriage of NET's production skills with Channel 13's audience reach could make the flagship station the showpiece of the public medium.
John Macy and the Corporation for Public Broadcasting had even stronger reasons for pushing the merger. The Corporation's plan for restructuring the system made no provision for a freestanding production house; instead responsibility for national program production was assigned to the PBS member stations. Folding NET into a station removed an anomaly, a production center without a station base. The move not only neatened the system's organizational chart but also helped to solve CPB's identity crisis. Before CPB and PBS came on the scene, the public-television system was generally referred to as "NET," much as it is referred to today as "PBS." (Interestingly, both terms refer to only one element in the system, not the system itself.) To establish the identity of the new entities. CPB needed to bury the long-established NET image. Merger with a local station was the answer. (The purpose in changing the station's name from WNDT to WNET after the merger was to retain the market value of NET's established reputation abroad. It did nothing to blunt the Corporation's design; a
whole generation has grown up not knowing that NET once stood for more than a shortened version of the station's name.)
Years of feuding between Channel 13 and its network neighbor tended to obscure the fact that WNDT's very existence was due in large part to NET's need to have its programs seen in the New York area. In 1959, when NET moved its base from Ann Arbor to Manhattan, New York City was one of the few population centers (and the largest) in the nation without a public-television station. Establishing a national presence is virtually impossible without visibility in the nation's media center—home of the nation's leading daily newspaper, its major commercial networks, and most of its periodicals. If public television was to be more than a provincial phenomenon, it had to be seen in New York. NET's interest in establishing an outlet for its programs in New York, obsessive as it was, brooked no compromise with its goal of seeking on outlet that would be on a parity with other New York stations. Acquiring a VHF channel was an essential part of this plan. Unfortunately, none were available. All seven of New York's VHF channels, the maximum number that technical considerations will allow, were already in private hands by 1948 when the FCC put a "freeze" on the issuance of new licenses. Later, in 1952, when the FCC issued its list of reserved channels, the nation's largest city was compelled to take what was left, a largely unreceivable and therefore unusable UHF channel. For a time in the mid-fifties, a group calling itself META—the Metropolitan Educational Television Association—tried to rally support to activate the UHF channel. But the prospects for its success in competition against seven established commercial channels were not promising. META soon dropped its activation plans and turned to producing occasional programs for NET.
And then, in 1961, the break came, suddenly and unexpectedly. One of the area's seven VHF channels—licensed to WNTA/Channel 13 Newark, New Jersey—was quietly put on the market by its owners, National Telefilm Associates. The station was losing money. White, alerted to WNTA's availability by a professional station broker hired for just that purpose, hastily pulled together a
steering committee of prominent New Yorkers, taking care to include a handful of corporate heavyweights: New York Life's retired chairman Devereux Josephs; National City Bank's retired chairman Howard Sheperd; John D. Rockefeller 3d, philanthropist and chairman of Lincoln Center for the Performing Arts; and Arthur A. Houghton, Jr., president of Steuben Glass. Educators were represented by the chancellor of New York University, George D. Stoddard, and by White himself. The group incorporated itself as ETMA, Educational Television for the Metropolitan Area, and elected Sheperd as their chair.
ETMA had clout but lacked cash. With no more money in hand than a $2 million pledge from the Ford Foundation, the group bid $4 million for the New Jersey channel. Their bid was rejected. The seller had a better offer, a bid of $8 million from a buyer who proposed to keep the channel in commercial hands. At that level ETMA stood little chance of staying in the bidding game. It was a dark moment for public television. Then, with the campy theatrics of a cavalry rescue, a young Chicago attorney named Newton Minow entered the scene to save the day. Minow, recently appointed by President Kennedy to head the FCC, wanted desperately to see a public channel in New York but knew that the Commission had no choice but to grant the channel to the highest bidder. The opportunity for an educational channel in New York would be lost. But Minow also knew that the winning bidder, unwilling to see money tied up indefinitely, needed speedy FCC approval. Cagily, Minow persuaded his FCC colleagues to announce the Commission's intent to hold hearings on the desirability of securing noncommercial outlets in New York and Los Angeles, thereby postponing action on the winning bid until the hearings were completed. The process could take a year or more. The high bidder read the message and withdrew, and the way was cleared for the sale of the channel to the public group.
One problem remained, however, and it was a big one. Channel 13 was New Jersey's only VHF channel. Governor Robert Meyner was not about to let a band of marauding New Yorkers, however high-minded, steal it away and carry it across the Hudson. Like the state's other elected officials, he had personal reasons for
keeping a VHF channel in the state. Without it, New Jersey politicians would be forced to campaign on the VHF stations in neighboring New York state and Pennsylvania and pay a premium price for reaching, in addition to their electorate, audiences in those states. Months of legal maneuvering finally produced an accord in which Meyner dropped opposition to the transfer in return for the station's pledge to devote a portion of its scheduled programming specifically to the New Jersey audience. Legend has it that Norman Cousins's friendly games of tennis with Governor Meyner played an important part in the successful negotiations.
On December 22, 1961, the deed was done. ETMA paid the channel's former owners $6.45 million, of which the largest single portion ($3.825 million) came from Ford. Seven smaller foundations gave an additional $1.375 million. The balance of $1.25 million came in contributions from New York's commercial television channels, all hoping to boost their profits by removing the New Jersey channel from commercial competition. In effect, the public was forced to buy back "the public's airwaves" in order to return them to public ownership. The situation, without precedent, gives persuasive evidence of the lopsidedness of the nation's communications policies, placing as it does private interests above the public interest.
Nine months after the transfer, on September 16, 1962, the station returned to the air as WNDT (New Dimensions in Television), this time as a public outlet with a public board, and with a new corporate name, the Educational Broadcasting Corporation. WNDT's first president, Dr. Samuel B. Gould, was the former president of the University of California's Santa Barbara campus. WNDT's vice president and general manager was Richard Heffner, whom White had brought from CBS to help with the details of the transfer. White, having played a key role in both the transfer of the channel and the organization of a local public corporation to operate it, assumed WNDT would become a subsidiary of NET. The Ford Foundation, however, thought otherwise. Having given its full support to NET's efforts to win the channel and having put up a substantial part of the purchase price, the Foundation promptly
vetoed plans to merge the channel with NET. Instead, it insisted that NET step aside and that White resign from the station board.
Two years later, events intervened to bring an end to their separation, at least for a time. Both Gould and Heffner had left the station, and their posts, combined into the single post of president and general manager, had been filled with a young CBS vice president, John W. Kiermaier. The station, however, was teetering on the edge of bankruptcy, the victim of its own inability to raise enough money to balance the books. Fearing the fallout of a failed station in New York, NET's other affiliates urged White to organize a rescue effort. WNDT's board welcomed the help and invited four NET directors, including White, to return to the Channel 13 board. The station's management was placed in the hands of a joint NET-WNDT board committee. Although WNDT's financial crisis prompted renewed talk of a merger, Ford again vetoed the proposal. The Foundation felt the station's board could end the financial crisis by devoting more effort to fund-raising. If after a year the board had still failed, the merger would be reconsidered.
The board succeeded, and the station was returned to a sound financial footing. Talk of merger was temporarily muted, but NET's lust for a linkage with the station would not die. Two years after the rescue effort, NET proposed a modified plan for a merger, including interlocking boards, consolidation of several overlapping departments, and cancellation of the $1.8 million the station still owed NET for its rescue effort. But not even the network's offer of a dowry, $1 million a year for five years for programming and operations, could persuade Channel 13 to surrender its independence.
White's vision of a "a strong and vital flagship station" in the New York metropolitan area haunted him throughout his tenure at NET. As late as 1968, only weeks away from resigning the presidency, White complained that WNDT, "as presently constituted," was "ineffective," its programming "staid, even dull," its fundraising efforts "inadequate," and its service to the New York community "far below what it should be." His solution, to make the channel a subsidiary of NET, was the only way WNDT "could be-
come more exciting, vigorous and relevant to its own community."
By 1969, however, new players had come into the game, the rules had been rewritten, and talk of a merger bore a whole new meaning. The Corporation for Public Broadcasting, barely out of the chrysalis, also had merger on its mind, but its design for merger, far from embodying White's vision of a flagship station for the network, would end forever NET's hopes of hegemony over the New York scene.
The process that ultimately joined the two essentially rival organizations played out as an absurdist drama of political intrigue. The details are less important than what they represent: the public medium's readiness to sacrifice programming strength for parochial political advantage.
Merger talks between NET and WNDT were begun with their respective chairmen, Norman Cousins of NET and Ethan Allen Hitchcock of Channel 13. The two negotiators could hardly have been more mismatched. Norman Cousins was the idealistic editor, a dealer in cosmic concepts, a seeker after humanitarian solutions to global problems. Ethan Allen Hitchcock was the pragmatic corporate lawyer—uncompromising, a tiger on tiny details, and with a lawyerly skill at carving out a line of argument and defending it against the most formidable assaults of logic and reason. The two men talked past each other. Both boards, sensing an impasse, did what boards usually do to resolve unresolvable problems: they formed a committee and commissioned a study. Former Cornell president James Perkins, drafted to undertake the study, returned with a three-page memorandum whose essence was a recommendation that national program production be assigned to "at least four powerful, well-financed leadership stations." One of the four, to be called PB-NY, would be a merged NET/WNDT. Everett Case, NET's former chairman and a member of the study committee, reacted with a wittily scathing memo likening the Perkins proposal to an "Oz-like fantasy" in which PB-NY was to be the voice of the Munchkins, PB-S (south) the voice of the Quadlings, PB-W
(west) the voice of the Winkies, and PB-MW (midwest) the voice of the Gillikins. The Perkins proposal was tabled.
Desperate to move the merger process forward, the NET board turned to Peter G. Peterson, one of its members and its most experienced power broker, and asked him to try to work out a solution with Hitchcock. The strategy paid off. Peterson (at the time chairman of Bell & Howell and later Nixon's Secretary of Commerce) and Hitchcock met, argued, exchanged countless drafts of tentative agreements, and, in a struggle of Herculean proportions, hammered out an agreement. Peterson said later that the agreement resulted from "some of the toughest negotiations I've ever experienced."
The composition of the merged boards proved to be the sticking point. NET favored combining the two boards. Hitchcock was opposed, not only because the combined board would be unwieldy, but also because he saw no need to include those NET directors from outside the New York area. The WNDT chairman clearly held the trump card; as the licensee of the television channel, the station had the more irreplaceable asset. Hitchcock's arbitrariness, however, in deciding single-handedly who was to stay and who was to leave, angered members of the NET board. In a last-ditch effort to preserve its self-esteem Peterson proposed a compromise. All eighteen members of the NET board would be invited to serve, but he, Peterson, would guarantee that the requisite number of invitees would "gracefully decline the generous offer." Hitchcock turned it down. The haggling over the board composition continued almost to the day the merger was publicly announced in August 1970. With patience growing thin and time running out, Hitchcock agreed to accept ten of NET's eighteen board members. Seven were deemed acceptable because they were New Yorkers (despite the fact that one, Burke Marshall, was from Yale). Another, William Schuman, declined to serve because his wife, Frances, was already on the Channel 13 board. The three out-of-towners acceptable to Hitchcock were Nobel Laureate Glenn T. Seaborg of Berkeley, University of Chicago historian John Hope Franklin, and Roger Revelle, director of Harvard University's Population Research Center. The compromise did not sit
well with those dropped from consideration, especially the only two women on the NET board. Carolyn Charles, a San Francisco civic leader and trustee of Stanford University, and Patricia Roberts Harris, dean of the Howard Law School, suspected that they were rejected for reasons other than Hitchcock's explanation—that both women also sat on the boards of their respective local public stations—particularly since both had offered to resign from those boards.
Of the NET directors who survived the merged, Norman Cousins presented a special case. Although he was a ten-year veteran of the NET board and had just become chairman when the merger discussions began, he was passed over for chair of the merged corporation. Instead, in the behind-the-scenes planning at the Ford Foundation the decision was taken to balance the scales between the rival organizations by giving the chair position to WNDT and the presidency to NET. Although Cousins was invited to serve on the Channel 13 board, his leadership position was lost almost before he had the opportunity to exercise it. Bundy and Friendly, sensitive to the awkwardness of Cousins's position and perhaps feeling some responsibility for having put him into it, were eager to cushion the blow to his pride and at the same time make productive use of his energy and dedication to the public medium. Their solution did honor to public television's favorite means of solving its problems: create another organization.
In the course of the merger negotiations, the Foundation had written to Peterson promising "to recommend [to the Foundation trusteesl favorable action" on a proposal to create a new body to advise on national programming. With no hint of artifice, the letter stated that Ford was "particularly pleased that Mr. Hitchcock has not only expressed enthusiasm for the concept of such a group, but has also suggested that Norman Cousins be appointed its first chairman." In fact, Hitchcock had given his consent grudgingly. This became all too apparent when he and Cousins sat down to discuss specifics. Cousins envisioned a "board" of "creative and disciplined minds" focused "exclusively and intensively" on national programming—in effect, an heir to the functions of the dismissed NET board. Hitchcock, on the other hand,
saw an advisory "council" with a much more limited function that would act as an adjunct to his own local station board. A flurry of testy "if-you-agree-with-this-sign-below" letters flew between their offices before the differences were ironed out and the National Programming Council was born.
Cousins immediately opened an office near the United Nations on Manhattan's East Side, hired an executive secretary, and dipped into his bulging Rolodex for the names of the "creative and disciplined minds" to serve the Council. His selection was as eclectic as it was distinguished, including among others the head of a major advertising agency, a prominent industrialist, a college president, and the youthful leader of an environmental movement. Unfortunately, the Council's collective expertise was wasted. Hitchcock, having grudgingly agreed to its formation to please Ford, virtually ignored its existence. He was convinced his own Channel 13 board could provide whatever counsel on national programming was needed. And so, at the end of the two-year Ford grant, the National Programming Council quietly disappeared. It had served its primary function of cushioning Cousins's ego during the transition. Its dissolution, however, cast aside a group of potential and powerful allies as though dedicated friends in high places were superfluous to the cause of public television.
As the "surviving president" of the combined corporations, I had ample cause to welcome the outcome of the NET-WNDT merger, yet my feelings were mixed. The months of negotiation had left a bitter aftertaste, particularly because of the way human resources had been scuttled to achieve a result. And while the pairing of a chairman from one organization and a president from the other had a desirable symmetry, I was fully aware that the symmetry bore the seeds of future discontents. However, with the merger behind us, there was little time for dwelling on the past and its regrets. New challenges lay ahead that had to be met, not the least of which was the task of mobilizing the resources of the combined organizations to put the New York station in the vanguard of the public system, and at the same time to make it count among its constituents in the New York metropolitan area.
Channel 13's local programming, once a matter of pride to the station's staff, had changed after the 1964 brush with bankruptcy. To rescue the station from the financial brink, WNDT president Jack Kiermaier had been forced to use draconian measures. Locally produced programming had virtually vanished from the schedule. By 1970, only two regular local shows remained, Mitchell Krause's nightly Newsfront and New Jersey Speaks , a pallid response to the requirement that Channel 13 serve the state to which it is licensed. No regular programs were specifically targeted for the 8 million people of the metropolitan area. (Ellis Haizlip's Soul , a variety hour featuring popular black entertainers, had by this time moved from the local to the national schedule of PBS.) The station had paid a price for its lack of local programming. While audiences for most local stations were growing, Channel 13's was not. "When Hitchcock talks about WNDT'S growing audience," quipped Variety 's Bill Greeley, "he means they're growing older." He called the station's local programming "listless," adding that its "poverty of programming and production ingenuity is an eyesore on the VHF band." The New York Times 's Jack Gould was no kinder. Channel 13, he observed, "does not appear to have had a new idea of its own in years."
Our eagerness to see Channel 13 brought to life again was exceeded only by Fred Friendly's impatience to see the result. He and the Foundation had banked, literally and figuratively, on the outcome; as part of the merger agreement, the Foundation had granted $2 million specifically for WNET's local programming. Friendly saw no reason why changes could not be made instantly—as they were at CBS. He exploded when I told him the results might be apparent on the screen for at least a year: "We can't wait a year!" (But he did, and, with characteristic generosity, said later that the wait had been worth it.) I proceeded by my own method, the only one I knew. I sought out the best people, tried to give them a sense of direction, and then let them make it happen. The key element in the plan was the search for the person to take command of the station and its local service to the immediate community. My hopes were focused on finding a New Yorker, with or without television experience, but someone who had a New
Yorker's sense of the city's people and its streets and who had the wit and imagination to make the public's channel pulse with the rhythms of the diverse and lively area we served. We were led by the enthusiastic recommendations of several prominent businessmen to a young vice president at Harper & Row. John Jay Iselin, they said, was bright and articulate. What's more, he was available.
As a young man, Iselin, the scion of a wealthy South Carolina textile family and a direct descendant of the nation's first chief justice, had passed up textiles and torts—he had an Oxford law degree and a Harvard doctorate—to try his hand at reporting, first on the Congressional Quarterly , and later with Newsweek , where he rose swiftly to the post of national-affairs editor. Book publishing followed. Iselin impressed us with his almost boyish enthusiasm for new challenges. Satisfied that he also had the requisite energy anti imagination, and was—to borrow one of his own favorite metaphors—dialed into New York, we appointed him general manager of Channel 13. He immediately placed Jack Willis, The Great American Dream Machine 's co-executive producer, in charge of public-affairs programming, and Robert Kotlowitz, the recently resigned managing editor of Harper's , in charge of cultural programming. With a team in place, and Ford's $2 million in hand, the way was open to turn our collective vision into visual reality.
The new team benefited from an early start that Christopher (Kit) Lucas had made before he was replaced as program director by Jack Willis. Lucas had been storing up program ideas all through the long dry spell in WNDT's local programming. The minute the merger was fact, he and producer Fern McBride leapt into action by creating an unconventional and free-spirited local series they called Free Time . Their original concept was an open studio—anyone with the desire to be seen and heard would be welcome to drop in—but that gave way to the more practical concept of a thrice-weekly, late-night (10:30 p.m. to midnight) live show with a minimum of structure and a maximum of provocation. Abbie Hoffman "moderated" a panel on the press; the consuls general of India and Pakistan debated the war in Bangladesh; and Tom Hayden and Jane Fonda aired their unpopular views on
the Vietnam War. The show's tissue-thin budget produced lots of talk: open-ended discussions by Bronx street gangs, New York cabbies, black film producers, women writers, domestic help, telephone operators, and other denizens of a world rarely glimpsed on the tube. Journalism's avatar of free speech, Nat Hentoff, found Free Time a fascinating expression of the power of the First Amendment: "They are not capons in make-up, they are distinct individuals with points of view, even heretical ones."
On one memorable evening, Free Time featured the spiritually inspired films of Yoko Ono, including a film consisting only of the movements of a fly on the nipple of a woman's breast. The attention to the film was broken, however, when her husband John Lennon put in a surprise appearance, set up a ladder, and invited the studio audience to join him in "flying" off the top rung. One hapless "bird" sustained a broken arm. The spirit of Free Time was a holdover from the turbulent sixties, provoking more than its fair share of controversy and attracting—but surmounting—Fairness Doctrine complaints from the right-wing organization Accuracy in Media. Although it was honored with a local Emmy, the show's off-beat character left the local TV critics puzzled (but not without a tolerant good humor toward the show). The staid New York Times noted that "in the generally bland area of television, occasional excursions into the rough and ready are downright necessary." Variety agreed: "Stirring things up is a commendable aim. . . . WNET may become known as the conscience of television here [in New York]."
Iselin's team built on this foundation. By exhuming a seldom-used mobile unit, the station moved out of its studios and into the community, providing a front-row seat at such highly publicized events as the Knapp Commission hearings on police corruption, which the Christian Science Monitor praised as "drama of a kind rare in television." Encouraged, we moved into hearings on proposed hikes in commuter rail fares and United Nations Security Council debates. Budget-bare "live" coverage of the Spassky-Fischer championship chess match in Iceland was achieved simply by using minute-by-minute wire reports from Reykjavík to simulate the match in our New York studio. In the fall of 1971, we added
Up Against New York , a show that explored with a sometimes serious, sometimes satiric eye the strategies for surviving the vexatious of urban living—mass transit, divorce, air pollution, housing, and sex education. A year after the merger, WNET had begun to project an image as quintessentially New York as Zabar's and the St. Patrick's Day parade.
At the time the brouhaha broke over PBS's removal of Paul Jacobs's FBI segment from The Great American Dream Machine , the WNET staff was readying a local program called Behind the Lines , a weekly review of the performance of New York's media. Although the series was not due to debut until three weeks later, producer Carey Winfrey advanced the date of the premiere to take advantage of the major media story in his own backyard. He readied a full airing of the PBS dispute in a show that included a screening of Jacobs's disputed report followed by a panel discussion with a group of experts. Behind the Lines had been planned as a local show, but PBS president Hartford Gunn wisely arranged for this special edition to be aired on all PBS stations; he hoped it would mute criticism of the network's decision to cut the Jacobs piece from the Dream Machine . The opening special gave an auspicious start to a local series that would later go national when Iselin succumbed to the irresistible force that tempts so many producers of successful local shows to seek the greater glory of national exposure. In going network, Behind the Lines lost some of its local specificity—it no longer produced shows about the outrageous picture on tonight's New York Post or the bad taste of a local news show, for example—that gave the original show its bite. Before ambition lofted Behind the Lines out of the ranks of local programs and into national distribution, Variety wrote what we longed to hear, that its "production zing and values, the elements of audacity and imagination, are in living-color contrast to the drab and dreary output of the cold coffee pot that WNET was just a few months ago."
Behind the Lines, Up Against New York , and Free Time —as well as a more conventional How Do Your Children Grow? —did light a flame under the pot of local programming and created a visible difference in the image of the New York channel. But it was an
audacious venture into local journalism called The 51st State that set the programming pot to boiling. No one doubted that nightly news would be part of our revitalized local schedule; formidable forces were pushing us in that direction, including the expectations aroused by my earlier association with KQED'S Newsroom . Those expectations were fed further by the palpable presence in the wings of Fred Friendly. The patron saint and proselytizer of the newsroom format was waiting impatiently to see how the $2 million Ford grant might be transformed into a local news show. Before the merger, Channel 13 had aired a nightly news program with Mitchell Krause. Although it was well done, the conventional format, I felt, added little to what the other channels were doing. After its cancellation, work was begun on the new show with the certainty that it had to be different.
The 51st State was nothing if not different: it was purposely provocative, unpredictable, irreverent, and probing. Like its title, appropriated from Norman Mailer's pledge in his 1968 mayoral campaign to see the metropolitan area made into the nation's fifty-first state, it was narrowly focused on the people of New York and their immediate environs. In style, it borrowed heavily from The Great American Dream Machine , which was not surprising since the executive producer for The 51st State , Jack Willis, had been one of the earlier show's creators. In concept, The 51st State was seen by Willis as "news from the bottom up," a voice for the disenfranchised, the people in the streets who rarely made it into the evening newscasts. Willis believed that a community station had an opportunity if not the obligation to seek out and tell their story.
Willis reached across the border into Canada for his anchor: the writer, reporter, interviewer, and gentleman farmer Patrick Watson. Six years earlier, Watson had hosted the CBC'S This Hour Has Seven Days , a roughly similar and equally controversial show that briefly lighted the Canadian skies only to be extinguished by parliamentary and public bickering. Despite his casual dress—he customarily appeared on camera in Levi's and a baggy gray turtle-neck—Watson brought a quality of urbanity and distinction to the show, qualities too often lacking in local news anchors. Willis and Watson surrounded themselves with first-rate reporters and sea-
soned journalists such as Selwyn Raab, Robert Sam Anson, John Parsons, Richard Kotuk, Hal Levenson, and Gary Gilson. To allow time for their stories, The 51st State was, in its first season, an open-ended show, its length determined each night by the demands of the news and not by the tyranny of the clock. Continuity and context were important; stories were followed up, not dropped and forgotten.
The 51st State 's idiosyncratic approach to news was bound to draw fire, particularly for its perceived lack of objectivity. "We're supposed to be impartial conduits of the news," complained Ted Kavanau, news director of commercial station WNEW, "but they give journalism a bad name."ABC Evening News producer Av Westin was even blunter, charging The 51st State 's producers with "perverting their obligation to cover the news truthfully." Willis saw it differently, calling the issue of objectivity "a false issue," arguing that the real question was whether it was good or bad journalism. "Are you going out and getting the facts?" he asked his reporters. He thought they were. His argument that a community station has an obligation to treat news differently ("we're basically for the underdog, the person who's not being serviced by the city . . . so in one way and another we're always attacking institutions") was a position not shared by most stations in the system—not even with the added assurance that "we try to rely on our experience as journalists to be as fair as we possibly can."
Willis's views were shared by his editor and anchor, Patrick Watson. Interviewed on a commercial news show, Watson dismissed balance within the body of a program as "an old-fashioned concept that went out of broadcasting—where I live, anyway—a long time ago. You do the best program you can to deal with what you're dealing with at that moment . . . you don't balance out the astronauts with the Flat Earth Society." Watson's views touched off a small firestorm, not with the Flat Earth Society, but with Washington. Outraged over Watson's reported views on "balance," Representative Robert Michel called on Congress to exercise stricter oversight to "get this whole program [of federal support for public television] under control," Predictably, Michel's outburst rattled the Corporation for Public Broadcasting's
sensitive antennae, prompting an immediate query from John Macy: "I would like to know from you," he wrote, "whether [Watson's] view represents the philosophy at [WNET]. If it does," he warned, "I believe we must reconsider CPB granting of funds to [WNET]."
The controversy over balance was sharpened on May 11, 1972, the day the Nixon Administration announced that U.S. forces had mined North Vietnam's Haiphong harbor. The 51st State preempted the station's entire evening schedule for a marathon "War Watch," a loosely organized show of news and comments whose purpose was to be on the air when the first ship struck the first mine (none did). With a clear purpose of dramatizing the escalation of the unpopular Southeast Asian war, the show presented thirty or more spokespersons. But of those invited to appear and defend the Administration's actions, only one accepted: Senator Robert Dole. Charges of political bias swirled around the heads of the producers the moment the show was off the air. Patrick Watson leaped to the program's defense by arguing that it reflected and articulated "that body of opinion in the country that's concerned and frightened over what's going on in Vietnam." The Administration's views, he pointed out, were available in abundance on other news shows. "It seems silly to try to balance all possibilities in a given program. . . . It's probably impossible. . . . Your credibility as an observer is a lot more reliable."
The controversy over balance in The 51st State was significant but diversionary. The main event was the show itself. Night after night, investigative reporters, not waiting as most local shows do for leads in the morning papers or wire service daybooks, ferreted out their own leads. There were stories of squatters evicted from federal housing in Brooklyn's Brownsville section; of a Vietnam veteran brutally beaten by a cop; and of a drug pusher, known to his neighbors and the police, escaping punishment through the good offices of a lenient judge. The reporters' beats went beyond Manhattan and into the entire metropolitan region—Park Slope, the South Bronx, Williamsburg, Newark, and Co-op City. One reporter from The 51st State , posing as a drug addict, broke the story of a drug rehabilitation clinic illegally administering methadone
without subjecting patients to a medical examination. Tony Batten's inquiry into youth gangs in the South Bronx was praised as "one of the year's most effective examples of local TV journalism." Another producer and reporter, Richard Kotuk, showed "a more sophisticated understanding of school decentralization than anyone else in TV journalism." Across the Hudson, where he seemed in constant trouble with the law, Ron Porambo, an aggressive, contentious reporter, uncovered serious financial irregularities in the administration of Newark mayor Kenneth Gibson. Observed one critic, The 51st State "has provided by far the best electronic coverage of the criminal justice system in New York," citing particularly Hal Levenson's report on the grand-jury system.
The season's biggest headlines, however, came from the show's most experienced investigative reporter. Selwyn Raab had been tracking the fate of a young black man, George Whitmore, Jr., who had been convicted earlier of attempted rape and imprisoned. Raab, convinced that the young man was innocent, doggedly pursued leads over the years, always believing that new evidence could be found to win Whitmore's freedom. The effort paid off. Raab uncovered evidence that Whitmore was miles away when the rape occurred. His investigation resulted in freeing Whitmore after "a Dickensian legal nightmare in which police, courts, and prisons had entangled his life for nine long years."
For whatever reason, whether it was the show's energy, its brashness, or simply the novelty of a news show that didn't look, sound, or feel like other news shows, The 51st State succeeded. For a time it attracted larger audiences than two of the three competing ten o'clock news programs on the commercial channels. And while it drew fire from some critics, many more sang its praises. Columbia Graduate School of Journalism's Marvin Barrett called The 51st State "the liveliest, if not the most professional, operation in town." Nat Hentoff was even more expansive. "This provocatively unpredictable nightly news show," he wrote, "is beginning to present a formidable challenge to print journalists while leaving the other local television news operations a light year behind. The question now is how those of us reporters without a camera are
going to keep up with this really new journalism." He need not have worried. The 51st State was not destined to herald a new era in television reporting, but it turned out to be an aberrant blip on the unwavering line of establishment journalism. It made a loud noise, but for only a brief time.
After its first season, the rambunctious, free-wheeling show that was the original The 51st State began to slide into more conventional patterns, as often happens in the capricious world of television. When it returned for its second season, the show was trimmed to a half-hour, was no longer open-ended, and was shown at the earlier time of 7:30 P.M. Even with a repeat airing at the old 10 P.M. hour, the show lost audience. Other factors worked against its continued success as well. Management, concerned with wooing corporate money for national programming, grew increasingly critical of the show's disregard for the toes it stepped on. An investigative piece on Newark was critical of the Prudential Life Insurance Company at the very time that the company was being solicited for an underwriting grant. The conflict set in motion a classic clash of principles common in public television: Willis was dedicated to giving voice to the disenfranchised, whatever the cost in dollars; Iselin was determined to keep the news show from interfering with the more serious work of fund-raising, whatever the cost in principle. Their disagreements grew daily. After Iselin began to inject himself into the show's editing process, the showdown was inevitable. It came in January 1973, at a breakfast meeting. "You don't like the way I run the staff and take news from the bottom up," said Willis. "That's right," Iselin responded. Willis resigned. Later, Iselin offered an explanation: "When I learned enough about broadcast journalism to realize Jack Willis was not a journalist but an evangelist, I decked the show."
Patrick Watson left the show several weeks later. Though publicly citing "personal reasons"—he commuted weekly from his farm in Ontario by flying his own plane and was wearying of the travel—he told me privately that his resignation was hastened by Iselin's "improper interference" with the show. Jack Willis and Patrick Watson had given the The 51st State its energy, its direction, defined its limits, and set its irreverent tone. With their
departure. The show lost much of the style and the brash courage that had accounted for its panache and, for many, its popularity. Willis later went on to become president of the Twin Cities public television stations, and Watson to chair the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation.
Rumors that The 51st State would not return in the fall of 1973 prompted the formation of a citizens' protest group. Its sentiments were voiced by Jack Newfield in the Village Voice : "This will be a worse city to live in," he wrote, "if The 51st State goes off the air." The show did return for yet another season. But it returned to a television environment that was no longer hospitable to bold and innovative programming. The creeping forces of caution were at work, both inside and outside the station. Inside, Chairman Hitchcock exercised his oversight with a strong hand and an eye cautiously wary of any programming that failed to fit the weltanschauung of the corporate world he knew best. Nor was Iselin free from responsibility. Late in the spring of 1973, forty irate members of his production staff (many of them from The 51st State ), who were outraged at what they termed Iselin's "coercive distrust" of the staff, delivered a petition to his Upper East Side townhouse. The message: "We are chilled."
The chill, however, was not limited to Channel 13. Nor was it entirely of Channel 13's making. Colder blasts were blowing off the Potomac. The Nixon White House, crippled by a paranoia that saw the press as its "enemy," was preparing to do battle with the media. It was generally understood that the president viewed the public system as an excrescence on the federal payroll, didn't much care for its "left-leaning ideology," and was prepared to watch it struggle for air while he kept his foot on the oxygen hose. By 1973, the signals were unmistakable: aides in the Nixon White House were laying out battle lines for the Administration's first assault on the public medium. Some in public television's Washington headquarters believed that the president could be "brought around." No price was too high if it kept the federal funds coming. In this environment, The 51st State and shows like it became a test of public television's ability to maintain some measure of independence and integrity. But this was not the case
for those who thought that peace was possible; they saw boldness and controversy only as an "embarrassment to our friends in Washington." Chairman Hitchcock instructed me to "cooperate more fully" with PBS and the Corporation. Unfortunately, both CPB and PBS had grown gun-shy from peering down the barrels of the White House artillery. Furthermore, PBS lacked the political clout needed to counter a hostile federal bureaucracy, and the Corporation for Public Broadcasting was about to be co-opted and made part of the very forces it was created to protect against.
In time the rules of the game would change. But not before the destructive force in the White House wreaked its havoc on the vulnerable institution of public television, leaving in its wake scars that are visible to this day.