Great Noise. Big Wind. Much Dust. No Rain
There are two ways to operate in a democracy. The safe way is to . . . act only when there is agreement by everyone in advance. The other is to . . . find the mainstream . . . and then act on what you decide is best for all. This way has its risks . . . If you push the stations into something they don't want, they'll get rid of you. But this is the course I intend to take.
Lawrence K. Grossman
The damaging effects of the Nixon years on the public media were not swept away by the blast of the chopper blades as the presidential helicopter lifted off the White House lawn for the last time. Richard Nixon left a legacy, summed up by one journalist as "a system torn by disputes . . . a system relying on local stations to produce programs rather than national production centers . . . weakened public affairs programming . . . and an atmosphere where experimentation and innovation were discouraged."
The more devastating consequences of those years, however, would surface later. In the months immediately following Nixon's resignation, an unusual calm settled over the system. The peace pact signed by Killian and Rogers kept a lid on their rivalries for the moment. A more effective restraint, however, was the political pressure to maintain an image of crosstown amity while the Public Television Finance Act of 1975 made its way through Congress. With PBS "saved," the man who saved it could now turn his attention to its internal affairs. Ralph Rogers did just that. Rumors had begun to circulate in early 1975 of growing differences between Rogers and his chief executive officer, Hartford Gunn. According to press reports, the two men had had "a serious falling out" over Gunn's tendency to "ponder the long-range problems . . . and
leave daily decisions to a group of middle managers who generally made mediocre decisions."
Their differences could come as no surprise to any who knew both men: one was a self-made industrialist whose actions were swift and decisive; the other, a Harvard Business School graduate who acted only after careful planning. Impatient as Rogers may have been with his deliberate style, Gunn's predilection for "pondering long-range problems" nevertheless played an important part in building PBS—and in guiding the development of many other aspects of public television. Gunn's vision for the public medium was a force in shaping it almost from the day in 1957 when an intramural dispute catapulted him into the general manager's chair at WGBH. In the dozen years during which he led the Boston station, Gunn moved it into the front ranks of public television, positioning it as one of the nation's top two public stations. In the course of those years, Gunn created the first interconnected regional network (Eastern Educational Television Network) and goaded NET into adopting higher technical standards, including a major shift into color television. Later, at PBS, he led the planning for the satellite distribution system that is in place today. Gunn was a "systems man," a master planner, somewhat less interested in programs than in perfecting the process that produced them. Nonetheless, he was not Rogers's kind of chief executive.
Rogers knew what he wanted and proposed to get it by creating the position of executive vice president with full responsibility for PBS's day-to-day operations. The board accepted the plan, appointed a search committee, and produced its favored candidate, Robert Wilson, the well-respected general manager of KERA/Dallas. Wilson had been Rogers's assistant at Texas Industries before Rogers brought him to the Dallas station to resurrect the moribund channel. Not surprisingly, the PBS station membership viewed the possibility of a Rogers-Wilson team as a Texas-style take-over—notwithstanding the fact that both men were actually from New England. As opposition mounted, Wilson withdrew his name, resigned from KERA, and left public television for a new career in public relations.
Rogers, disappointed at the outcome but still resolved to
strengthen the PBS management, returned to the board with a revised plan. He proposed to shift Gunn into the newly created post of vice chairman with responsibility for long-range planning and systems development, and then to begin the search for a chief executive to fit the Rogers mold. The search for the new chief executive, however, proved tougher than anticipated. For six months, through the spring and summer of 1975, the search committee advertised for candidates and interviewed likely prospects, but came up empty-handed. Candidates who might otherwise have leapt at the opportunity balked at having to report to two boards—the lay board and the board of professional managers. And because PBS didn't produce, fund, or acquire programming, but simply scheduled what the stations acquired or produced, the post had little or no appeal for program executives with an itch to create or a desire to exercise authority. The PBS president could only play ringmaster—suggesting, persuading, cajoling, or coordinating—and in the long run could do no more than the member stations would permit him to do. It was not the post to attract an activist. Thus, it came as something of a surprise when, in the closing weeks of 1975, the board announced that Lawrence K. Grossman had accepted the PBS presidency.
No small part of the surprise was the fact that Larry Grossman represented everything the stations feared: New York, networks, advertising, and strong, assertive leadership. For some, his selection was nothing less than apostasy. But if the stations thought they could block it, they failed to reckon with Rogers's obduracy. The PBS chairman brushed aside the stations' complaints and saw his man—"a genius because he's advocating things I've been saying for years" —installed in the PBS presidency. Grossman, however, disappointed the hardliners by failing to live up to the stereotype of the Man in the Gray Flannel Suit (even though the advertising trade was in his blood). After graduation from Columbia College and Harvard Law School, he began his broadcasting career in the advertising department of CBS, later moving on to NBC's advertising department as a network vice president. Four years later he left the networks to start up his own advertising and public-relations business. Grossman saw advertising as something
more than a marketing tool for products and services; for him it was an opportunity to use the traditional sales techniques of selling toothpaste "for significant social purposes."
The new chief executive was no stranger to public television. Prior to his arrival at PBS, Grossman had for several years consulted with it and the Ford Foundation on techniques to improve the image and fund-raising potential of the public medium, leaving him with few illusions about the nature of his new tasks and the difficulties that would bar their easy accomplishment. The three tasks with the highest priority, he told a reporter, were "programming, programming and programming." But that was more easily said than done. Unlike its commercial counterparts, PBS had a severely limited power to effect change. In the first place, it was hampered by the limits on its programming role, prohibited as it was from either creating or acquiring programs on its own. Other, equally formidable forces lurked in the shadows to hinder whatever changes Grossman might seek: the resistance of his own membership, the rivalry of the Corporation, and the interventions of Congress. He had only one weapon to achieve his ends: the force of persuasion.
One of the toughest problems Grossman faced was the parochialism of his own membership. Although Grossman succeeded in winning over many of the doubters in the stations with his unthreatening manner—a soft-spoken and unhurried self-confidence coupled with an off-handed, shirt-sleeves informality—below the surface of their acceptance lurked a fear of his "network mentality" and the worrisome thought that he secretly planned to turn PBS into something resembling the commercial networks he once served. Their fears were fed by the message of his initial speech. "A distribution system," he told them, using the term favored by PBS to distinguish its service from the lockstep programming of the networks, was "more suitable to the grocery trade than television." And yet despite their fears, he was able later to put his rhetoric in high gear and persuade them to accept a proposal that in some ways moved PBS a bit closer to the networks. The proposal aimed to overcome the random scheduling that placed PBS shows into a helter-skelter, nonuniform pattern across the country, mak-
ing it virtually impossible to promote the shows nationally. As an advertising man, Grossman was sensitive to the value of program promotion for building audiences, but national promotion was impossible when a show seen in one locality on a particular day and time might be seen elsewhere three days or a week later and at a different hour. The stations were persuaded to accept a "core schedule" and to pledge to run certain key programs, if not at the same hour, at least on the same evening of the week. (NET had made a similar arrangement a decade earlier, and for the same purpose.)
The benefits were immediately apparent: national advertising, made possible by more uniform scheduling, brought new viewers to the medium and resulted in a substantially larger audience for PBS. The principal beneficiaries were the stations. But although most gave full credit for the gains to Grossman's creative leadership, some stations grudgingly accepted the positive results of audience growth and then, in the same breath, condemned Grossman for "centralizing" the system. For these curmudgeonly few, the sanctity of local autonomy superseded the public interest they were created to serve. Grossman made war on what he called their "false dichotomy" by asking stations to "lay aside this divisive, destructive and just plain dumb idea that quality local public television programming is somehow incompatible with quality nationwide programming."
Grossman followed his successful pitch for a "core schedule" with a corollary proposal to have stations dedicate one entire evening's schedule each week to public-affairs programs. Friday was the night chosen. Into it went such regulars as Wall Street Week and Washington Week in Review , together with a new entry, the MacNeil/Lehrer Report , a nightly half-hour of in-depth analysis on one of the day's major news stories. These changes, however, were more cosmetic than substantive; most involved only matters of scheduling. The main body of PBS programming was beyond Grossman's reach—thanks in large measure to a devilishly ingenious device that had been introduced by his predecessor to prevent the Corporation from seizing control of the system's programming. Hartford Gunn's innovation, called the Station Program Coop-
erative, was deceptively simple in concept but fiendishly complex in execution. By persuading Congress to mandate that some part (ultimately half) of its federal appropriation for public broadcasting go directly to local stations as Community Service Grants, the Corporation's control over programming was minimized. At the same time, stations gained discretionary dollars to invest in the production of national programming. The decision of which national programs would be produced with the stations' dollars was decided by referendum. Each station programmer gave a thumbs-up or thumbs-down to the programs proposed in any given year and agreed to provide their station's share of the production costs for those shows chosen by the majority. The plan was disarmingly democratic, reason enough for its broad appeal to members of Congress.
As a device for piecing together a national schedule, however, the SPC had crippling drawbacks. Stations rarely voted to take risks on new or untried series, preferring to stick with the proven winners. Wall Street Week and Sesame Street were among the perennial favorites. Regardless of their quality, with the same old shows returning year after year, the PBS schedule lost much of its freshness. Grossman tried to break the pattern by persuading the stations to accept a plan in which PBS would "take a leadership role in deciding what [the] programs should be, when they should be played, how they should be promoted and selected." But the stratagem of a "recommended buy" faltered and was abandoned after only two seasons. Stations were loath to accept "centralized" decision-making.
Grossman's frustrations in effecting change were not confined to his own PBS family of scattered stations. He had problems as well inside the Washington beltway; the network's crosstown nemesis had fanned the coals of institutional rivalry into full flame again. The Corporation for Public Broadcasting had held itself in check while Congress considered the 1975 funding bill, but once the bill was enacted, and long-range funding for five years was thought to be secured (it was later rescinded), the battle over turf and tax dollars resumed. The feud was fed by the Corporation's rankling practice of skimming off 10 percent of each year's federal
appropriation to cover its own upkeep. No one complained when appropriations were small. But with the 1976 appropriation topping $130 million, the Corporation pocketed a whopping $13 million. WP's insistence on staying with the 10 percent triggered outrage among the station managers, who feared that the Corporation, with its one hundred or more employees, was fast becoming a bloated bureaucracy. (It was wryly observed that the Ford Foundation had managed to dole out far more money to public broadcasting with a staff of only six.)
More problematic than money in the system's internecine rivalries was the thorny issue of program control—the question of who would decide which programs were to be produced. Although the introduction of the Station Program Cooperative shifted much of the control over program selection from the Corporation to the stations, it did not eliminate the Corporation as a player. By 1976, and company had returned to the programming game with a plan to put the Corporation's funds into "high risk, innovative" programs. Their aim was to provide the national schedule with programs of the sort that the SPC was likely to bypass in its consensus-oriented selection process. The Corporation's largesse, however, was limited to injections of "risk capital" that was available to launch new projects but not to sustain them beyond their first two years. The Corporation reasoned, wrongly as it turned out, that if the shows succeeded then other funders would keep them going.
The Corporation's reentry into the programming process meant that PBS had to settle for a program schedule that was a pastiche of independent and unrelated program choices. Part was controlled by the Corporation, which chose which "innovative" ideas to fund, another part was controlled by industrial corporations, which chose which shows to underwrite, and the final and largest part (40 percent) was controlled by the stations through the laboriously arrived at "democratic" decisions of the SPC. With so many organizations involved, trouble was no less predictable than tomorrow's sunrise.
The frustrations bred by the system's tangle of waste and duplication peaked near the close of Grossman's first year, when he
declared that public television "can no longer have two operating organizations on the national level." The system, he said, is "a bureaucratic nightmare," a "three-legged race in which the partners hobble each other," and in which "we spend so much time quarrelling that we can't do the work we should be doing." Of the many quarrels over programming, the bitterest erupted over the Corporation's unilateral decision to invest $1.2 million of its federal funds offshore in a gigantic BBC project to produce all thirty-six of Shakespeare's plays for television. The Corporation saw the BBC proposal as a prestigious project with rich rewards for future students. PBS, starved for production funds, saw it only as a gross misuse of federal dollars; the money, it said, should have gone into an American production with an American cast. PBS also challenged the investment of federal dollars, supposedly earmarked for "high risk" projects, in a series that was both prestigious and "safe" and thus might easily have attracted corporate dollars.
Grossman's frustrations were further fanned by the Corporation's insistence on limiting the funding of innovative new series to two seasons. Controversy broke out when it refused to fund a third season of Visions . A rule is a rule, said the Corporation. "A dumb rule," said Grossman; "every time we start something, it goes off the air." Visions was a series of American television plays, at times controversial, which provided a unique service and won the plaudits of critics. But it was a series that by its very nature was unfundable from other sources.
From PBS's perspective, the Corporation's actions began to appear unnecessarily provocative, as though the Corporation was deliberately scuttling the delicately balanced partnership that had been so carefully worked out. When, for example, the Corporation announced plans to establish a $1 million "revolving fund" for documentary production, it pointedly excluded PBS from any voice in the selection of the programs to be funded. "The same guys who wanted to kill off news and public affairs," muttered a frustrated PBS executive, "now want to select it." The final blow came with the Corporation's decision not to continue its annual
subsidy to the Station Program Cooperative, which was then struggling into its third tentative year.
By the close of 1976, PBS and its stations had reached the limits of their patience; the time had arrived for a "high noon" shootout. The chosen occasion was a December meeting of the joint Corporation-PBS Partnership Review Committee. The chosen instrument, known later as the "Kansas City Resolution," was a clear message to the Corporation: get out of programming once and for all. Each side leveled charges against the other. PBS backed its charges of wasteful duplication at the Corporation with specific facts and figures. Loomis, however, brushed them aside, explaining that "democracies are always messy bureaucratically compared to dictatorships." The confrontation was headline material for the media tabloids: two large and important organizations on a collision course. But Ralph Rogers and Robert Benjamin (who had replaced James Killian as chairman of the Corporation) were determined to dampen the ardor for a scrap lest the Congress be drawn into the quarrel and resolve the dispute on its own terms. They met beforehand, quietly worked out an agreement, and in the next day's meeting—from which Grossman and Loomis were excluded—each side pledged to rededicate itself "to the fulfillment of the spirit of the 1973 partnership agreement." The "shootout," said a disappointed PBS executive, had proved to be no more than "rhetoric and irresolution," an assessment that was borne out a month later when the specifics of the agreement were still shrouded in a mist of ambiguity. The Corporation agreed to allow PBS staffers "to participate" in the decisions on the CPB-funded documentaries, promised to "work jointly" with PBS in planning new programming, agreed to "explore the possibilities of further assistance" to Visions , and said it would "welcome" a corporate underwriter to take over its commitment to the BBC series of Shakespeare plays. Variety 's Bill Greeley tallied up the outcome in what he called "the language of the five civilized tribes" of Oklahoma: "'Great noise. Big Wind. Much dust. No rain.'"
The year 1978 should have been a banner one for public broadcasting. All the portents were positive. Viewership was up and with
it the medium's income from public subscription had risen; Congressional funding appeared to be assured by 1975's five-year funding bill; and, with the previous year's inauguration of Jimmy Carter, public broadcasting had a sympathetic ear in the White House for the first time in eight years. Hopes for an even better year were raised by President Carter's request to Congress for a five-year appropriation for the public media. The total of more than a billion dollars was to build what he termed "a truly national system." The prospects for fulfilling public broadcasting's mission had never looked brighter.
Unfortunately, success, even on so modest a scale, has a curiously destabilizing effect on the volatile rival factions of public television. Money means power, and more money means more power. The heady prospect can lead public television's competing forces into apportioning the spoils with the focused self-interest of arbitrageurs. Carter's billion-dollar funding proposal provided a perfect opportunity for discord. The leadership at PBS—Larry Grossman and both the outgoing and incoming chairmen, Ralph Rogers and former FCC chairman Newton Minow—backed the president's bill. But most of their member stations, angered at the president's plan to "devote more resources to high-quality national programming," rallied to oppose the bill. With 25 percent of the funds earmarked for national production, local stations feared a loss of hegemony over national programming. Mounting the well-worn ramparts of localism, they denounced the Carter proposal as "an attempt to erode public broadcasting's freedom" and a first step toward "government control and domination."
They need not have worried. Not, at least, about the Administration's bill. Carter's legislative proposal faced even tougher opposition in Congress. Several key legislators, far from being concerned about the constraints the proposal placed on the system, felt that the bill didn't go far enough in correcting the system's deficiencies. One Congressional aide noted caustically that "you don't reward a group which has been doing its job poorly, by giving it more money and five years to do it in." Rep. Lionel Van Deerlin, chairman of the House Subcommittee on Communications, together with his counterpart in the Senate, Ernest Hollings,
submitted their own legislative proposal that authorized a modest increase in funds but carried some tough conditions clearly aimed at straightening out the system and lowering the decibel level of its internal bickering. Public broadcasters would be required to give more than lip service to equal employment opportunity, to tighten their financial management and accounting practices, and to allow independent producers increased access to station air time. Responsibility for policing these provisions was handed to the Corporation, raising fears that Congress was forcing the Corporation into the role of a government regulatory agency.
Whatever else may be said of its intentions, the 95th Congress was in a mood to take the public-broadcasting system out to the woodshed for a hiding. In the spring of 1978 the House held hearings on the several pending public-broadcasting bills. Corporation and PBS officials tramped up to the hill to testify, only to discover to their astonishment and dismay that for the first time in memory public television found itself on the defensive. The legislators confronted the system's witnesses with a battery of sharply worded questions. They were asked to explain, among other things, the underutilized facilities at local stations, the huge overhead charges levied by some of the system's producing stations, and the generally sloppy financial-accounting practices that were too common throughout the system. Public broadcasters had come to expect this kind of treatment from its naysayers but not from their traditional "friends."
While most of the puzzled witnesses could only mumble "Why us?", one longtime supporter of public broadcasting leapt to its defense. Responding to an invitation from the chairman to share his views with the subcommittee, Fred Friendly fired off a seven-page letter to Rep. Lionel Van Deerlin detailing point-by-point his objections to the pending legislation. "After ten years of a perilous and vulnerable existence," he wrote, "public broadcasting now needs independence from well-intentioned regulation as much as it does long-term financing." In his reply, Van Deerlin challenged Friendly's assertion that public broadcasting might inadvertently be fettered by such "public policy criteria" as open meetings, EEO standards, community advisory boards, and uniform
accounting principles. "My view," wrote Van Deerlin, "is the lack of such criteria has been responsible for many of the current problems of public broadcasting. The record shows that the waste of human and financial resources in the systems has been outrageous; even to the extent that certain members of our committee have all but given up hope for improvement. While I do not share that hopelessness, I am convinced that some legislative direction is now required." The chairman's snappish response reflected all too accurately Washington's prevailing posture toward the public medium.
Congressional disaffection, or at best its impatience with public television, was apparent in the spate of rules that found their way into the Public Telecommunications Financing Act of 1978: open meetings, community advisory boards, and a call for improvement in its minority hiring practices. Even the good news—more money for public broadcasting—came with a bitter pill: the monies were no longer the exclusive claim of the public television and radio community but were now available to a wider, ill-defined world of "public telecommunications." The bitterest blow, though, was the regressive nature of the funding itself. What had been won in 1975—"long-range funding" in the form of five-year authorizations—was rescinded only three years later. From now on, said Congress, authorizations will be limited to three years, and appropriations to two. The message from the hill was clear: Congress had lost confidence in the system's forward planning, if not its future. The Congressional flip-flop on the five-year authorization forced the unwelcome conclusion that public broadcasting's federal funding was in a precarious position.
The spirit of reform that in 1978 moved Congress to saddle the system with new rules was apparently infectious. Three major efforts to reform and reorder the public broadcasting system were undertaken that year. One was embedded in Rep. Van Deerlin's broader legislative proposal to update the basic statutes governing all U.S. communications. Another was embodied in the work of a second Carnegie Commission, convened to update and correct the errors and oversights contained in the original Carnegie Com-
mission Report of 1967. Both attempts at reform failed. We shall have reason to look at them again later. The third was an internal effort by PBS to reform itself, motivated in part by a mild dissatisfaction with Larry Grossman's leadership. Characteristically, the reform movement produced not one but three separate and competing plans for restructuring PBS. Two of the three—one from PBS's vice chairman Hartford Gunn, and the other from an ad hoc group of station managers—would decentralize PBS still further. Both would eliminate the post of the single chief executive, Grossman's position, and would then subdivide PBS into three autonomous divisions, each with its own program service, its own board, and its own chief executive. Grossman, not to be outdone, or done out, countered with his own plan. His would retain the single chief executive but reduce his authority over programming. Surprisingly, the stations ignored the recommendation of their own board and voted to retain the single chief executive. They did, however, embrace Gunn's plan to subdivide the one program service into three, each with a different objective and each with its own program director. The most positive result of the reorganization was the thinning of the PBS board from an unwieldy fifty members to a slimmer thirty-five and the jettisoning of its role of lobbyist and long-range planner to a newly created organization, the National Association of Public Television Stations.
Despite the effort to eliminate his position, Grossman emerged from the reorganization of PBS with his power and influence strengthened. But even as his leadership inside the PBS organization was strengthened, the leadership position of PBS itself was coming under increasing challenge from its old rival, the Corporation for Public Broadcasting. The man who in the past had given PBS so many problems, Henry Loomis, resigned the presidency of the Corporation in the fall of 1978—under pressure, so he told reporters, from President Carter's appointees on the Corporation hoard. He was succeeded by the sixty-two-year-old president of the University of Michigan, Robben W. Fleming. A former labor lawyer and arbitrator, Fleming brought to the leadership of the Corporation a "rare brand of intellectual integrity" that allowed him to be both "an idealist and tough-minded pragmatist." Both
qualities were evident in his plan to reorganize the Corporation, a controversial design intended to distance it from the unwanted governmental influence that it had experienced under Loomis. The key element of the Fleming plan would remove the politically appointed board from direct involvement in programming. He told those most directly affected—the board of the Corporation itself—"A board cannot and should not try to run the day-to-day affairs of an institution." He may have lacked broadcasting experience, but he clearly understood the ways of nonprofit institutions and the tricky business of their governance.
To further isolate programming from the pressures of politics, Fleming proposed to divide the Corporation staff into two discrete units. One, a "management unit," would be given responsibility for the business, planning, and research functions, including the distribution of funds to the stations. The other, a "program fund," a separate and independent unit with its own director, its own advisory board, and its own budget of $30 million, would deal exclusively with the sensitive area of programming. What appeared to be an audacious break with convention was more probably, in Fleming's view, a practical accommodation to political reality. Fleming knew that both Congress and the second Carnegie Commission were bent on eliminating the CPB with its taint of political influence. Fleming's proposal offered a less drastic way of achieving the same end. Barely noticed, however, was the way a programming role for the Corporation was institutionalized with the creation of the Program Fund. Prior to the Nixon Administration's attempt to use the Corporation to control what was aired on public television, the Corporation had almost no part in programming.
With only minor changes, Fleming's plan went into effect January 1, 1980. A select committee sorted through 250 applicants to find a head for the new Program Fund. Their choice of Lewis Freedman gave a clear signal to PBS and to all concerned that the Corporation's Program Fund would be more than a quasi-foundation doling out money to needy supplicants. Freedman was one of the medium's most experienced and talented producers. His career as an innovative program executive stretched back to
television's earliest days with shows like Play of the Week and Camera Three . He had come to public television first as WNDT/New York's programming chief, and later as director of cultural programs for Friendly's experimental Public Broadcast Laboratory. With the demise of PBL , Freedman had moved to the West Coast and KCET/Los Angeles to launch his award-winning Hollywood Television Theater . Only two months into his new post at the Program Fund, Freedman handed the board a five-year blueprint. It called for more programming in American drama, history, government, art, and health. Clearly, he intended to leave his mark on the medium. Few would question that he did just that in the two-and-a-half years he presided over the Program Fund.
In the early months, however, Freedman and the Program Fund were handed the onerous task of implementing a provision of the 1978 funding bill that required the Corporation to devote "a substantial amount" of its federal funds to independent producers—video and film producers unattached to any established production organization. The burgeoning movement of "independents" had grown out of technological advances that produced light-weight and affordable film and video gear. The easy accessibility of equipment encouraged hundreds of individual video- and film-makers blessed with a good eye, a good idea, and a compelling desire to communicate to enter the market. Commercial networks, with rare exceptions, refuse to air documentaries that they have not themselves produced, leaving the public medium as virtually the sole broadcast outlet for independent work. But that relationship, too, has had its problems. Despite public television's need for the output of independent producers, many station programmers perceive them as a threat, not only because dollars paid to them might otherwise have gone to support the institution's own staff and overhead, but also because the personal style of independent producers' work has been known to challenge public television's rules of journalistic "balance."
During the hearings on the 1978 funding bill, the independents, working through their own Association of Independent Video and Filmmakers, succeeded in winning the concession that required the Corporation to dedicate "a substantial amount" of
its funds to independent production. But the 1978 provision did not go into effect until two years later. It fell to Freedman to make it work. At the time, the system already supported several established channels to fund independent production. The most notable among them was WNET's TV Lab, an experimental project started several years earlier by David Loxton. Although the TV Lab was very much in need of the Corporation's funds to carry on its work, Freedman chose to keep the funds in his own hands and to use them to create the Program Fund's own outlet for independent work. Short pieces of thirty minutes or less, solicited from independents and juried by a peer panel, were assembled into an anthology under the generic title of Matters of Life and Death . In a manner characteristic of the fragmented system's bizarre way of doing business, however, PBS rejected the series for airing. Too many of the individual pieces, it said, failed to meet the network's standards. Matters of Life and Death ultimately found a means of national distribution by way of a supplemental satellite feed. Few stations, however, bothered to air it.
The following year, Freedman replaced the failed series with another anthology of independent work. Crisis to Crisis consisted of one-hour shows, primarily to accommodate the long-form documentary. But in the curious way that public television has of repeating its mistakes—in this case isolating production from distribution—the second series fared little better than the first. Although Crisis to Crisis , unlike the first series, managed to make it into the PBS schedule, it aired in an out-of-prime-time hour that virtually guaranteed obscurity. Freedman's lasting contribution to the public medium would come later.
Fears that the Corporation's reentry into programming might threaten public television with a return of undue governmental influence were thoroughly dispelled by a single show aired in the spring of 1980. The show was Death of a Princess . While few critics would go as far as Richard Goldstein of the Village Voice —for whom it was "public televisions finest hour" —none would deny that the controversial program about a Saudi princess put to the test PBS'S independence and integrity and subjected the system to
the heaviest political and public pressure since the days of Richard Nixon. Against all expectations, public television held its ground. Credit for its steadfastness belonged in large measure to PBS president Larry Grossman, who was, said one observer, "about as frazzled as a glass of ice tea."
Death of a Princess was an example of the genre known as "docudrama," neither a conventional true-to-the-facts documentary nor a wholly fictional drama, but a combination of both. The plot line, ostensibly based on fact, told the tale of an ill-fated nineteen-year-old princess of the Saudi Arabian royal family who, after rejecting her family's arranged marriage, fell in love with a classmate while attending college in Beirut. She entered into an adulterous relationship with him and made no effort to deny her act. Both were made to suffer the penalty for adultery prescribed by Islamic law: public execution, she by a firing squad, he by beheading.Death of a Princess was a collaborative effort between British Independent Television and WGBH/Boston and was written and produced by two expatriate South Africans, one an American, the other British. David Fanning, who cowrote the docudrama, was also the executive producer of PBS's World , the WGBH-produced series in which the controversial show aired on American television. It was Fanning's friend and collaborator, Anthony Thomas, a reporter and producer for England's Associated Television, who first heard the story of the 1977 execution of the princess and determined to ferret out the details for a conventional documentary. But those with first-hand knowledge of the royal drama were unwilling to appear on camera, so he opted to use a dramatic format. Actors, using fictional names, spoke the actual words spoken to him in the interviews. The dramatic plot would he constructed on his own frustrating, Rashomon-like search for the truth.
Under normal circumstances, the program might have aired without incident, received mixed reviews, and been forgotten. But in the world of television, nothing raises a program, however commonplace, to the heights of celebrity faster than the shrill cries of would-be censors, which virtually guarantee the show an audience many times larger than what the show might otherwise attract or
even deserve. Such was the fate of Death of a Princess . The protests began with its airing in Britain a full month before its American airing. The British broadcast triggered a major diplomatic crisis in which King Khalid's planned state visit to London was cancelled, the British ambassador was expelled, and Britain's economic ties to the Arab state were thrown into jeopardy. In the eyes of the Saudis, Death of a Princess defamed the royal family and gave an untrue and wholly negative picture of Saudi culture. They were particularly outraged at a scene in which legions of royal princesses, bored with the drabness of their court lives, are shown cruising in their chauffeured limousines along an infamous stretch of desert road in search of anonymous sexual liaisons. Although the British were the first to feel the Saudi wrath, they were not alone. Dutch and Australian broadcasters faced similar Saudi threats, but they aired the show anyway. Only in Sweden, where a group of conservative business leaders bought up and withheld the broadcast rights, did the Saudis succeed in keeping the show off the air.
In the weeks before PBS was due to broadcast the show, the story of the brouhaha in Britain played prominently in the American press. It was an early warning of trouble to come. David Ives, president of WGBH Boston, the coproduction's American partner, said "I knew we were in for it." But after assuring themselves of the show's accuracy, Ives and the PBS executives decided to stand their ground and braced themselves for the inevitable assault. The onslaught began with a letter from the Saudi ambassador in Washington to the U.S. State Department, protesting the planned PBS airing of the show on grounds that it showed "a completely false picture of the life, religion, customs and traditions of Saudi Arabia." He tactfully explained that he did not wish to infringe upon America's rights of free speech, but "we feel that you and other responsible officials of your government would want to know of our concerns." Acting Secretary of State Warren Christopher forwarded the Saudi ambassador's letter to PBS president Larry Grossman. In addition to underscoring the obvious—that the Saudi government was "deeply offended"—Christopher's cover letter stated that while the U.S. government "cannot and will not at-
tempt to exercise any power of censorship, we ask that appropriate consideration be given to the sensitive religious and cultural issues involved." Grossman interpreted the letter to be a veiled request to dump the show and rejected it. He reminded the State Department that public television believes "that a free society requires open and candid discussion of issues so that an informed public may make rational judgments."
The Saudi protest ignited a chain reaction. Senator Charles Percy of Illinois carried the matter into the Oval Office with an assurance to Jimmy Carter that "if the President made a determination that the showing of the program would not be in the national interest," Congress would probably back him. The worst fears of those opposed to federal subsidy of the media were confirmed when Rep. Clement Zablocki, the chairman of the powerful House Foreign Affairs Committee, threatened to block public television's forward funding. "If [public television] is going to show substandard films," he told the press, "why should we waste the taxpayer's money?"
But the single act that stiffened PBS's will to resist was the placing of newspaper ads in a half-dozen American papers denouncing the film as "a fairy tale." They were placed there by Mobil Oil, a partner in Aramco—the Arabian-American oil venture—and public television's largest program underwriter. (Its investment in one show, Masterpiece Theater , added up to $3 million that year.) The Mobil ads called on PBS to review its decision and to "exercise judgment in light of what is the best interest of the United States." Mobil's opposition left PBS no choice: either air the show as planned or suffer the stigma of having bowed to pressure from a major funder. In the end, the sole concession to pressure was a one-hour panel discussion among Arabs and Arabic scholars, aired at the conclusion of the docudrama. Of the countries that aired the show, the United States was the only that felt a need to "explain" it to its audience. The act in itself makes a significant comment on the American perception of public television's responsibility.
Death of a Princess was broadcast on May 12, 1980. The PBS decision to air it won almost universal support from the editorial
pages of the nation's press even as it met with mixed reviews from its television critics. One critic, Tom Shales, found it ironic that a "film whose telecast has generated probably the biggest flurry of protest in public TV history . . . is exceeded in its presumptuousness only by its tediousness." A handful of PBS stations declined to go along with the PBS decision to air the show. KUHT/Houston turned it down after the Saudi protest and was taken to court by a disappointed viewer who charged the station with trampling on his First Amendment rights. His argument—that because KUHT had been licensed to a state university it was as an arm of government and therefore specifically prohibited by statute from interfering with free speech—was upheld in the lower courts but reversed on appeal. A similar suit to force the Alabama state network to air the show also was defeated. The only other state network to reject the show, South Carolina ETV, explained that the appointment of its former governor, John West, as ambassador to Saudi Arabia had made the state "more sensitive to relationships with the Saudi Arabian government."
The broadcast of Death of a Princess provoked a brief flurry that included a hike in oil prices, although whether this was in retaliation for the program by the Saudis was never proved. The tide of protest calls that swamped the stations prior to the program's airing turned, after its airing, to calls of praise. PBS, exulting briefly in the warm glow of self-righteousness, enjoyed numbers on the Nielsen charts that had not been seen since the broadcast five years earlier of a National Geographic Special, The Incredible Machine . Within days, the show that had stirred controversy on three continents was largely forgotten, relegated to the dustbin of yesterday's stale news. Its transience led some to reflect on why so ephemeral a medium can rouse such fears of long-term negative effects. Patrick Buchanan, the oracle of the conservative right, offered his own bitter benediction to the affair. "If there is to be a sequel to . . . The Death of Princess , let us pray that it is The Death of a Public Broadcasting System ."
Perhaps the most apposite epitaph for Death of Princess —if not for our times—was uttered by a disgruntled viewer in San Francisco. "What good is free speech," he asked "if there's no gasoline?"