Monumental Dreams on Shoestring Budgets
I really believe the greatest problem public broadcasting faces is itself.
Edward J. Pfister
Ronald Reagan's arrival at the White House in January 1981 was not good news for public broadcasting. The prospect of four years of an Administration that had pledged to shrink the size of government and slash federal spending promised a bleak future for the system's hard-pressed institutions. Fears were rampant among the stations that deep cuts in public television's federal support would leave the system more vulnerable than ever to inflationary pressures. Rising costs had, by the beginning of the 1980s, already left it weak. Nor were funding cuts the public system's only threat from the new Administration. Also at risk was the Corporation's independence as a nongovernmental agency. In preparing the way for the new Republican broom, Reagan's transition team had paid little heed to the independent status of the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, giving it the same once-over they had accorded the established agencies of the federal establishment. Worse, they concluded that it was an "unnecessary layer of bureaucracy," recommended that it be phased out, and voiced strong sentiments against continued federal funding.
Candidate Reagan, on the stump seeking the nation's highest office, had warned public broadcasters to look not to the federal
treasury but to alternative sources of income. Curiously, his threatening rhetoric was partially modulated by reassuring messages from his aides. Not to worry, they told public broadcasters. Even if government pulls back on its funding, "they [the public] will not let public television wither." Public broadcasters, however, did worry. The White House's Office of Management and Budget dismissed public broadcasting's contribution to society as "debatable," and recommended deep cuts in current and future funding. So despairing were the portents that PBS president Grossman was moved to declare public broadcasting an "endangered species." Alone among the Cassandra cries within the system was the optimistic voice of Dr. Michael Kelley, a Carter appointee to the Corporation board, who felt that the budget cutbacks "could well cause a creative surge in the public broadcasting industry, paring away both fat and deadwood." Most, however, felt that Kelley's optimism was as misplaced as his metaphor.
The view that public broadcasting might benefit from a little belt-tightening could not be dismissed lightly. The notion had been born in the Carter years, long before the Reagan forces invaded Washington wielding their budget-cutting axes. The Republican prophets of supply-side economics simply added new lyrics to the previous Administration's familiar cut-the-costs melody. But those lyrics helped to shape the Reagan Administration's major long-range impact on the public medium. One of the most visible results was the introduction of the much hated but now familiar noncommercial "commercials" that grace the spaces between public television's underwritten programs. Reagan, unlike Nixon, felt no compelling urge to silence the voice of public broadcasting or to take it over and make it his own. He saw it not as a threat—it was too irrelevant for that—but only as another debit to be removed from the government dole. The Reaganomic solution was to set the system adrift among the forces of the free marketplace and let its ability to survive prove its value to society.
The president's sink-or-swim policy was preceded by two failed efforts to apply new and imaginative solutions to public broadcasting's funding problems. Both initiatives had taken place in the years immediately prior to his election victory. The first was an
effort to update the ten-year-old Carnegie Commission study with a fresh look into the public medium's highly visible problems of structure and finance. Like its 1967 predecessor, the 1977 Carnegie Commission on the Future of Public Broadcasting (Carnegie II) was sponsored by the Carnegie Corporation. The foundation appointed the seventeen-member Commission, funded its work, and published the results of its deliberations eighteen months later.
The Commission found "public broadcasting's financial, organizational and creative structure fundamentally flawed," directing much of its criticism at the Corporation for its inability "to fulfill the need for effective leadership." (The Corporation, it must be remembered, was itself the creature of the earlier Carnegie Commission.) Carnegie II urged that the "flawed" system be replaced with a "fundamentally restructured and reorganized" system that, in their plan, would be erected upon two new private, non-profit entities. The first, a Public Telecommunications Trust, would supplant the Corporation as "the principal leadership, planning, and evaluation agency." Although the Trust's functions would be similar to those of the Corporation, its directors would be selected by a wholly different method to protect it from political control. In addition, it would have no role in programming. Programming would be left to the other new entity, the Program Services Endowment, which would serve as a semi-autonomous unit under the wing of the Trust. The Program Services Endowment would have "the sole mission of underwriting a broad range of television and radio productions, program services, and related research." PBS's probable fate in the proposed reshuffling was not immediately clear. It certainly received no reassurance from Carnegie II's chairman, William J. McGill, who in a later reference to the network called it "a logical monstrosity" with too many voices trying to be part of the decision-making process. And although the Commission's recommendations said that PBS hadn't been "very effective in its present form," Carnegie II chose to leave it with limited responsibility for operating the interconnection. Carnegie II's recommendations on funding were less revolutionary. The report called for substantially higher levels of federal support
from general tax revenues, which were to be partially offset by a "spectrum fee" levied on all users of the "public airwaves." The report underscored the value of politically free, locally generated revenues and proposed to link them with a matching formula to federal funds in order to stimulate local fund-raising.
In the long run, Carnegie II failed to generate the interest and enthusiasm of the original Commission study; response to the report and its recommendations was muted. Even those who praised the Commission's efforts doubted the political feasibility of its recommendations. The proposed spectrum fee would unquestionably run into stiff opposition from the group hardest hit, the commercial broadcasters, whose powerful Congressional lobby could block efforts at reform and whose attitude was signaled by Broadcasting 's sour assessment of Carnegie II: "The worst features of the existing system would be preserved, if by other names, at three times the existing expense." After a brief but futile effort to incorporate the recommendations into legislation, Carnegie II's report was shelved and forgotten.
The other reform effort, mounted at about the same time by California congressman Lionel Van Deerlin, embraced all of broadcasting, not just the public sector. Rep. Van Deerlin's proposed legislation sought nothing less than a total rewrite and updating of the creaky and overburdened Communications Act of 1934, the basic statute regulating electronic communications. His bill included sweeping changes in both the public and the private media. Like Carnegie II, it would abolish the Corporation and divide its function between two new agencies. The Public Telecommunications Programming Endowment, a private corporation whose nine directors would be appointed by the president, was to be concerned exclusively with program funding. Half of its funds would go to stations to meet direct program costs; the other half would be parceled out in individual grants to a broad range of applicants, including applicants outside public broadcasting. On the other hand, all nonprogramming funds—monies for the planning, construction, and operation of broadcasting facilities—would be doled out by an agency of government, the National Telecommunications Agency. Because the federal agency would
hold all recipients to governmentally imposed restrictions on what they could and could not do with operations funded from this source, the Van Deerlin bill fell far short of protecting public broadcasting from political and governmental interference.
Van Deerlin hoped to use the promise of widespread deregulation of the industry to court support for his rewrite bill among commercial broadcasters. His price for deregulation was to be the commercial broadcasters' acceptance of a spectrum fee levied on all broadcasting (a fee much like the one proposed by Carnegie II), a part of which would go to meet public broadcasting's needs. Unfortunately, Van Deerlin's ambition exceeded the limits of what was politically feasible (as one wry observer noted, it was the congressman's genius to include something in his sweeping bill for everyone to hate). Efforts to win over the opposition resulted in a highly modified piece of legislation. But the negotiating parties were unable to resolve their conflicting interests and the bill died an unexpected death in the summer of 1979.
When the Reagan Administration turned its attention to public television, it was far less interested in reforming the system than with getting it "off the government's back." The focus of its interest was turned upon "funding options"—the search for alternative modes of financing public television. The Van Deerlin bill had been dead less than two years when, with the Administration's urging, Congress created a Temporary Commission on Alternative Financing. The TCAF was charged with "exploring financing options to maintain, enhance and expand public broadcast services to the American people." One of the options authorized an eighteen-month experiment in which a limited number of public stations could sell and air commercial announcements. Of the nine stations that took part in the experiment, most—using varying types of commercial messages—experienced a rise in income with little or no negative reaction from their viewers. At the conclusion of the study, however, the TCAF rejected commercials as the answer to public television's needs. Their potential disadvantages—the probable end of federal funding, a predictable drop in viewer support, and the loss of concessions from unions and copyright holders—outweighed the uncertain income benefits of paid ad-
vertising. Moreover, some public stations, among them the state-owned networks, were barred by their licensing authorities from airing commercials. The TCAF concluded that the only practical solution to the funding problem was more money from more sources, but the principal source would continue to be the federal government. The Reagan stratagem to cut the system loose from the federal purse came to naught.
The TCAF study did, however, effect a major change in public television funding. Its recommendation of "broadened guidelines" for the on-air credits for public television's corporate underwriters resulted six months later in a relaxing of the FCC rules. Under the new rules, PBS shows are permitted to credit their underwriters with "specific brand or trade names" and "value-neutral" listings of product lines and services. With a light foot on the brake, however, the FCC barred the common commercial practice of making claims that certain products and services are "best" or "leading" or the showing of sleek new automobiles "in motion." To preserve the credibility of its factual programs PBS added its own restriction: corporate underwriters who might have a stake in the program's content are unacceptable. The resulting noncommercial commercials entered the system under the euphemism "enhanced underwriting."
The liberalized rules on corporate underwriting were not yet in place when public television's first nightly news show started: all during its first year, the MacNeil/Lehrer NewsHour could do little more than acknowledge AT&T's underwriting grant of ten million dollars with what amounted to a quick and courteous nod since PBS and FCC rules limited underwriting credits to the corporate name of the donor. But in September 1983, Robert MacNeil and Jim Lehrer managed, even without the advantages of the relaxed rules, to create and fund television's first prime-time, hour-long news show. It was a rare instance of public television acting first. For years, the three commercial networks have been working to expand their evening newscasts to a full hour, but their plans have always met with resistance from affiliates unwilling to yield the extra half-hour from their local time. Although PBS succeeded where the networks have so far failed, it would be a mistake to
conclude that it did so without meeting some of the same kind of resistance.
When PBS president Larry Grossman first proposed the idea of an hour-long news show, he may have done so believing his member stations would leap at the chance to be first with what he, and both Robin MacNeil and Jim Lehrer, felt was a much-needed service that only the public system could provide. The PBS stations were, at the time, airing the nightly half-hour MacNeil/Lehrer Report , a single-topic news analysis show with the eponymous anchors in New York and Washington. Grossman reasoned that more would be better. MacNeil and Lehrer agreed. But the stations, they soon learned, were not so eager. They could be just as resistant to the idea as their commercial counterparts, although for different reasons. For many, it was the money. The stations had been asked to provide approximately one-quarter of the show's $21 million budget, a considerable increase over what they were putting up for its predecessor, the half-hour MacNeil/Lehrer Report . More important, they were perfectly satisfied to remain with the half-hour show, not only because it was less costly, but because its thrust—"look at the network news then come to us for an explanation of the major story of the day"—was a much stronger rationale than a "cheap and ineffectual" attempt to imitate what the networks were already doing reasonably well. The MacNeil/Lehrer team quickly mounted an all-out campaign. Their pitch to promote the hour-long show was laced with an oblique threat to move elsewhere with the seven-year-old MacNeil/Lehrer Report if the PBS stations rejected the expanded version. In the long run, however, it was not the threat but public television's possible loss of AT&T'S $10 million underwriting grant, and its additional $2 million in promotion money, that broke the resistance to the hour-long version.
The MacNeil/Lehrer NewsHour opened to mixed notices. Professional journalists, for the most part, found the new format thoughtful and thorough, "a better program than its predecessor, not an unqualified smash, but livelier, just as responsible, and infinitely more valuable." A few, however, found it boring, slow-paced, too "talky," a bit like spinach ("good for you but a bit
boring if you indulge it too often"). The show's "balance"—it was as meticulously balanced as a bookkeeper's checkbook—was a virtue that did not go unappreciated by a system as vulnerable to charges of liberal bias as public television. Liberals, however, challenged what they claimed was only its appearance of balance, noting that the show seemed "always to side with the powerful while pretending to be 'objective and dispassionate as possible.'" Audience response to the show's first season was disappointing, with ratings that were only slightly higher than for the half-hour Report . Station programmers, aware of the show's failure to deliver larger numbers and bristling under the burden of its increased costs, were ready to deny it a second year until they were swayed by pleas to allow it more time to build an audience. Ultimately, of course, it was to find an audience and a permanent place on the PBS schedule. But the dissident voices were not immediately muted. Two years after the NewsHour 's debut, a handful of rogue stations, still fixed on a half-hour news show, made a collective effort to produce their own, ostensibly to supplant MacNeil/Lehrer . The plot failed, but it was evidence of the thin line that separates democracy from anarchy in the public system.
Six months after engineering the NewsHour debut, Larry Grossman resigned the presidency of PBS. NBC president Grant Tinker had recruited him to head that network's news division. It was, Grossman told his PBS colleagues, "the only job that I would leave here for." His success in bringing the nightly news show to the public network was a fitting coda to his seven sometimes frustrating years at the helm of PBS. The rancor and distrust that had greeted his arrival in 1976 were largely forgotten by the time of his departure in February 1984. Most stations granted him high marks for strong leadership, particularly for his willingness to speak out on issues of mutual concern. His initiatives had brought new audiences to the public medium, and he could well afford to ignore the cavils of a few unreconstructed holdouts who complained that he had used increased centralization to accomplish it. One press critic, praising Grossman for helping to make PBS "look more like network TV," may not have realized that a net-
work was precisely what most station executives and members of Congress did not want.
The committee to find Grossman's successor was headed by PBS board chairman Dallin Oakes. In addition to serving on the Utah Supreme Court, Oakes was a prominent leader in the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints. The committee's decision to fill the presidential post with a broadcaster from Utah who was also a Mormon might have raised questions. That it did not was a tribute to Bruce Christensen, who was not only the unanimous selection of the PBS board but also the favored candidate of the member stations. Christensen had managed the public stations at Brigham Young University and later at the University of Utah. The PBS stations saw him as one of their own, an insider who was quiet and circumspect in manner and an effective spokesperson for their cause. In the two years prior to coming to PBS, he had headed the National Association of Public Television Stations, and in that capacity had been public television's principal lobbyist in Washington.
Christensen's manner contrasted sharply with that of his predecessor. Christensen saw PBS not as a network but as "a local communications cooperative." His much more muted notion of leadership was best indicated by the plaque on his desk: "Where did they go? I must hasten to find them—for I am their leader." Christensen's first task was to help PBS regain the momentum it had lost with the drop in federal funding. "Dreams and aspirations. have largely been put on hold," he told his membership. "It is time to take some of those dreams off the shelf and make them reality."
By the luck of good timing, several of the system's headiest dreams had become reality before the full force of the Reagan budget-cutting axe slowed the public medium's forward momentum. In the fall of 1983, Vietnam: A Television History appeared to remind viewers that public television had not lost touch with its roots. Richard Ellison's thirteen-hour chronicle of the first war that America had ever lost was praised by Newsweek as "television at its most riveting and powerful," and by the Washington Post as "an extraordinary film record." The series was also honored by
the television industry with its top journalism awards. Fox Butterfield, who covered the war in Vietnam, called the series "meticulously researched and carefully balanced." But none of this saved the series from charges of "serious errors and distortions" by Accuracy in Media, the self-appointed media watchdog of the conservative right. AIM's attack was not of the usual shoot-and-duck variety. The group backed its charges with an hour-long documentary produced by AIM and narrated by Charlton Heston. Funding for the documentary had come from the National Endowment for the Humanities, whose director, William Bennett, had given the money without the customary consultation with his staff. AIM invited PBS to preview the completed documentary at a special screening in the Reagan White House, an obvious tactic to apply political pressure for its airing. Although PBS declined the White House invitation, it did agree to air the AIM film. The network's news and public-affairs chief, Barry Chase, eager to demonstrate public television's readiness to air challenges to its own shows, felt he had found in the AIM film a model for a television version of newspaper's op-ed page. The op-ed notion, however, died a quick death when the producer of Vietnam: A Television History refused to participate. They saw the exercise as a charade and bitterly condemned PBS for its cravenness in not standing up for its own show. The Vietnam series, they pointed out, had in every respect met PBS's own journalistic standards. The press generally sided with the producer's view. AIM, undaunted, persisted in its attacks upon the series and returned to PBS several months later with yet another documentary challenging the accuracy of the Vietnam series. This time, however, PBS turned it down.
The Vietnam affair was a reminder of the mine-strewn path that public television walks when it attempts to deal with controversy and helps to explain why the system is constantly in search of attack-proof formats for dealing with it. What may be the most innovative answer to that search was supplied in 1983 by Fred Friendly. The veteran producer of Ed Murrow's See It Now was no stranger to television's efforts to deal with issues on which opinions divided and passions ran high. His idea for a format that later would become Columbia University's Seminars on the Media and
Society was more than a means of juggling a hot issue without the danger of first degree burns. It was a rare melding of substance and entertainment. Although it seems perfectly suited to television, it was created originally for a different purpose. Before his retirement from the Ford Foundation, Friendly and his assistant Stuart Sucherman had worked together on a Foundation project to narrow the divide separating the press and the judiciary. In search of a nonthreatening framework in which to bring them closer together, they hit upon a solution that was simplicity itself: leaders from both professions were brought face-to-face around a horseshoe-shaped table, presented with a hypothetical situation, and forced to respond to the insistent questioning of a highly skilled law professor. The situation created by this technique, says Friendly, becomes "so agonizing that they can escape only by thinking."
It did not escape the notice of Friendly and Sucherman, after they had used the format in 150 private Foundation-sponsored seminars, that the technique embraced all the elements of good television: the celebrity of big-name panelists; the drama of sharp, provocative questioning; and the wit and humor of the players' spontaneous responses. "Theater of information," one critic called it. In 1981, Friendly brought the format to Columbia University, adapted it to television, and with Stuart Sucherman's assistance and a Ford Foundation grant formed The Media and Society Seminars—some of which were made into specials for PBS. The early roundtables were focused on media issues, but in 1983 Friendly used the format to breathe life into the United States Constitution. The result, The Constitution: That Delicate Balance , reached millions of adults, many of whom happened upon the thirteen-week series, stayed with it, and found to their surprise that a show could be entertaining without sacrificing its educational values. In the years since, Friendly has used the much-copied seminar format to deal with a broad and challenging range of public-policy issues, all fraught with the now-legendary agony of controversy from which the only escape is thinking.
The early 1980s saw the rise of another important innovation. Although its roots were political, the outcome resulted in a spate
of new series in the PBS prime-time schedule. The initiative for change came from Lewis Freedman. As the first director of the Corporation's Program Fund, and a highly imaginative producer of Emmy Award-winning television drama, Freedman had hoped to use the office and the power of the Corporation's funds to initiate a new era of programming. He quickly discovered the limits on the power of the Corporation to initiate programming changes. That power rested for the most part with individual producing stations. Freedman had long since learned the difficulties of working through individual stations toward a concerted goal. In the early 1970s, with the support of KCET / Los Angeles, Freedman undertook to supply PBS with a much-needed drama series. The result was Hollywood Television Theater . WNET / New York also wanted to do a major drama series for the network, and they produced Theater in America . The predictable result was competition between the two stations for limited production dollars, performance rights, and talent. Efforts to combine the two series and end the competition fell on the sword of local pride. The experience was a lesson to Freedman in the absurd wastefulness of interstation competition.
In the waning months of his tenure at the Program Fund, Freedman hit upon a stratagem to overcome the system's built-in barriers to concerted action. He called it a "consortium" (while mischievously claiming he didn't know the meaning of the word). Instead of following the conventional pattern of funding a new series by awarding the grant to a single producing station, Freedman created a working party of several producing stations, any one, or all, of which might otherwise be competitors for the same funds. One of the consortium partners was designated as the "lead" station—in effect, the producer of the series—while the others were cast in consultative roles as the consortium's board of directors. It was a Machiavellian stratagem, but it worked. And because it resulted in the addition of several new series to the PBS schedule, it may well have been the decade's most significant contribution to public television programming.
Given Freedman's obsession with seeing a sustained drama series on the public medium, specifically one drawing on the crea-
tivity of American writers, it was no surprise that American Playhouse would be the first consortium established. In fact, it resulted from a confluence of interests: Freedman had been approached by former Ford Foundation executive David M. Davis with a proposal for a drama series jointly produced with the New York and Los Angeles stations. (Davis's interest in drama began at Ford where he engineered funding for several earlier PBS drama series.) Freedman, foreseeing interstation rivalries with two stations, urged a broader participation and encouraged Davis to create the first four-station consortium with himself as executive director, Lindsay Law as executive producer, and WNET / New York as lead station. (American Playhouse separated from the station six months later to become an independent corporate entity, a decision that would figure in its freedom to shape its own destiny years later.) Each season for the next decade, Davis and Law read through thousands of scripts submitted by writers, agents, and producers; chose twenty to twenty-four that met their needs; and either funded, co-produced, or bought the finished films from independent producers. Davis and Law shrewdly stretched their limited dollars (from the Program Fund, the Station Program Cooperative, the National Endowment for the Arts, and corporate underwriters) by an occasional deal to share production costs and first performance rights with theatrical distributors. Thus, several American Playhouse productions—El Norte, Smooth Talk, Testament, The Thin Blue Line, Stand and Deliver —were seen first in theaters before they appeared in the PBS schedule.
For twelve successful years, American Playhouse was television's sole source of original, regularly scheduled American drama. According to director Gregory Nava (El Norte ), it "opened the floodgates for a lot of projects that would otherwise never happen." For New York Times critic John O'Connor, American Playhouse was "a rare and wondrous thing" in a business "obsessed with bottom lines and ridden with tired formulas." In 1994, however, PBS began to draw the curtain on original American drama. The system was falling into the thrall of the bean counters; its priorities were shifting to shows with broader appeal. PBS promised two more years of partial funding, and then no more. American Play-
house responded by spinning off a for-profit subsidiary, Playhouse Pictures, and signing a partnership with Samuel Goldwyn Company for the production of fifteen independently produced theatrical films the first year. PBS will presumably benefit by having the right to air the films after their theatrical and home video release, a waiting period that could be as long as eighteen months to three years. However parsed, the decision to cut back on American Playhouse 's support is a blow to original drama—already an endangered species, and not just in the United States—and a retreat from public television's commitment to do what others cannot or will not do.
The original success of the American Playhouse consortium encouraged Freedman to create three others: Frontline, Great Performances , and Wonderworks. Frontline filled the need for a weekly documentary series that had been absent from the PBS schedule since the late sixties when NET Journal fell victim to the NET-WNDT merger. Freedman found the needed framework for his documentary consortium at WGBH / Boston where David Fanning had demonstrated a firm grip on the nonfiction form with World , the irregularly scheduled series in which the provocative Death of a Princess had appeared. Frontline , with Fanning as the executive producer and WGBH as the lead station, entered the PBS weekly schedule in the fall of 1982. Although its startup was uneven, it has at times provided a forceful reminder of E. B. White's prescriptive injunction to the public medium to "restate and clarify the social dilemma and the political pickle."
Shortly after the formation of the Frontline consortium, Freedman encouraged WNET / New York to form a consortium for its Great Performances series, bringing the counsel of four new production partners to the station's anthology of virtuoso drama, music, and dance performances. With the money then remaining in the Program Fund budget, he set out to form a final consortium. This consortium was to produce children's programming. But a number of stations objected, arguing that in times of tight money, production funds would be wasted on children's shows because they do not attract viewer donations. (They were wrong.) However, his own board was pushing him at the same time to aim for
the vaguely defined area of "family" programming. Freedman effected a compromise by forming a consortium around WQED / Pittsburgh for the production of Wonderworks , a family-oriented series of independently produced dramas that had broad appeal for both children and adults.
Before the last of his consortia was up and running, Freedman, ground down by the frictions and frustrations of the atomized system, resigned the directorship of the Corporation's Program Fund. He was succeeded by Ron Hull. Just as Freedman had reflected the urbanity of his upbringing on Manhattan's Upper East Side, Hull exuded the openness and ebullience of his native Nebraska, where for fifteen years he had presided over the programming of that state's network of public stations. In the long run, however, their contrasting styles proved less important than the timing of the turnover. The long-feared Reagan year of reckoning arrived in 1982. Congress, under White House pressure, had rescinded $35 million of 1983's $172 million appropriation, dropping public television's federal funding to its lowest level in four years (or the lowest level in ten years if measured in constant dollars). "The sadness begins," said the Corporation's president. The budget cleaver of Reaganomics had seriously undermined public television's localism. Stations, caught in the dual squeeze of rising inflation and lowered appropriations, were forced to trim or eliminate local programming. Further, those stations most dependent on federal funds faced the prospect of being eliminated altogether. Although it was hardly unexpected—the White House, after all, had been trying since 1980 to reduce public broadcasting's federal support—it was a bitter pill nonetheless.
The cutback in federal funds was equally devastating to PBS's plans for national programming. Its hopes for a bright opening to the 1983 season faded as funding dried up. New program series, normally in the production "pipeline" for future release, were languishing for lack of production money, their costs rising daily as inflation drove their budgets up. The Brain , one of several prestigious program series that were originally scheduled to kick off the 1983 PBS season, provides a typical example of the way repeated delays in funding can boost production costs unnecessar-
ily. WNET's eight-hour science series had been budgeted at $5 million, a difficult nut to crack under the best of circumstances. When 1982's funding crisis broke, the series had been languishing on the drawing boards for almost four years while the station solicited production funds. A $200,000 grant from the National Science Foundation had lifted the project out of the idea stage into a tentative kind of reality, but it was not yet enough money to produce a single one of the eight projected episodes. The weeks of fruitless searching turned into months and resulted in the loss of the BBC as a coproduction partner. During these long months of unproductive effort, the project's costs for planning, preparing proposals, and knocking on doors ticked on like the meter of a taxi stuck in traffic.
The Brain 's first major break had come in 1981 with the announcement that Walter Annenberg, the wealthy publisher of TV Guide , was giving the Corporation $150 million over fifteen years to subsidize the production of programs for adult education. When the queue formed for the initial round of Annenberg / CPB production grants, The Brain was at the head of the line and received a $2 million grant. The first burst of elation over the blessings of Annenberg died quickly when the producers realized they were caught in public television's classic double bind: having money enough to start but not enough to finish. By 1982, and still $2 million short of its production budget, The Brain had not only made a commitment to PBS to meet a 1984 air date, it had accepted both the Annenberg and the National Science Foundation grants on the condition the money would be spent for the production of one or more of the eight shows. The staff had no other choice but to risk moving ahead in the hope that the balance of the funds could be found before production was finished. The gamble doesn't always pay off, but this time it did. The grant that closed the gap arrived only days before the first show aired.
The completed series walked away with virtually every major television award the industry offers. But its success masked the price that public television had paid for the long delays in getting it produced. The piecemeal funding and the corrosive effects of inflation over the course of its delayed production had added an
estimated half-million dollars to its costs. The Brain , whose experience is all too common, was but one of public television's many "big ticket" productions.
If the baleful effects of the 1982 rollback on public television's programming were not immediately apparent to viewers, they were certainly visible to the television critics. Tom Shales, grumbling over the thinness of the season's schedule, called 1983 "one of the dullest and dreariest years since [PBS] began." In fact, large portions of the 1983 schedule had been around for more than ten years, including such perennials as Masterpiece Theater, Nova, National Geographic Specials, Wall Street Week, Washington Week in Review , and Great Performances . The continued presence of these programs signified a commendable tendency to stick with winners, but it also lessened the opportunities for innovative and fresh programming to brighten the new season.
The 1984 season fared somewhat better. By then, PBS had two high-visibility "blockbusters," The Brain and Heritage: Civilization and the Jews , to launch the new lineup. The seeds not sown in 1982 had a significant effect in 1985, however: that season was a disaster. Because the budget cutbacks had dried up the production pipeline for the previous two years, no new projects had been launched with which to energize the 1985 season. PBS was reduced to rerunning The Brain , acquiring more shows from abroad, and serving up old shows in new dress. Heritage: Civilization and the Jews was repackaged with the addition of interviews by Bill Moyers and given a new title. And the BBC's distinguished productions of Shakespeare's plays returned, but this time they were conveniently broken down into bite-sized, hour-long segments "hosted" by Walter Matthau. The truncated version was billed in newspaper ads as a more convenient way to watch Shakespeare in these busy times. One wonders what still busier times might have produced.
Nor did the "sadness" go away at the end of 1984. The electorate had returned to the White House for a second term the man who had, with dismaying consistency, ordered cuts in the public medium's federal funding. Bruce Christensen, only six months in the PBS presidency, tried valiantly to put a happy face on the situation by reporting that President Reagan "likes public
television very much." The only difference we have with him, he said, "is in the manner of funding." But it was to prove a big difference, even to Christensen. "How," he later asked rhetorically, do you build the monumental dreams on shoestring budgets?"
Monumental dreams, of course, are built on more than fat budgets. They need the vision, the inspiration, and the daring of imaginative and courageous leadership. America's public television not only has lacked that leadership but also may not wish it. Certainly public television cannot expect to get it from the White House if past experience is any measure. The role of the president of the United States in providing public television with leadership began only in 1967; before the passage of the Public Broadcasting Act that year the system relied largely upon a small group of distinguished citizens who composed the self-perpetuating board of NET. With the passage of the Public Broadcasting Act, Congress clearly intended to place the system's leadership in the hands of the Corporation for Public Broadcasting. According to the Act, leadership is to be exercised through the Corporation's governing board, whose fifteen members (reduced to ten in 1981) are appointed for limited terms by the president (with the advice and consent of the Senate). Congress called for the board nominees to be drawn from persons "eminent in such fields as education, cultural and civic affairs, or the arts, including radio and television." President Johnson's appointees to the Corporation's original board generally met the criteria of "eminence" as defined by the American Heritage Dictionary ("towering above others, prominent"). But the process—and the quality of the board—has been in decline ever since. Successive presidents have with dismaying consistency used board appointments to pay off small political favors, thereby demeaning the appointment process and diminishing the importance and stature of the institution of public broadcasting it is designed to serve.
The appointments have, at times, been so blatantly political as to backfire on the presidents who made them. President Nixon, on his last official day in office, sent to the Senate for confirmation the name of the millionaire brewer Joseph Coors. The Senate,
sensing a possible conflict of interest, set the Coors nomination for hearing only to discover that the politically conservative Coors was building his own syndicated television news service with which to "balance" the "left-wing bias" of the network news divisions. The Senators postponed action on the Coors nomination only to find it before them once again when President Ford resubmitted his name. This time the Senate did not hesitate to act, but only because the nominee had made it easier by his own actions. While awaiting confirmation, Coors was approached by a mortician friend who asked him to intervene with the Corporation to block the scheduled showing of a PBS documentary based on Jessica Mitford's The American Way of Death . Coors shot off a letter to Corporation president Henry Loomis. "I am not yet familiar enough with the interconnection between PBS and CPB to know whether you can do anything about this," he wrote, "but it is the type of thing which I will be very interested in watching closely if I ever become confirmed on your fine board." His nomination was tabled and died.
Those who thought that a Democrat in the White House would make a difference were forced to reconcile the notion with President Carter's nomination of Irby Turner, Jr., of Belzoni, Mississippi. Whatever Turner's claim to eminence—it may have been service on the board of his state's public-television network—his appointment was stopped dead by revelations that he had served on that board during the time it was refusing to air NET's programming for black audiences. With the additional evidence that Turner had opposed school integration by providing land on which to build private schools, his opponents had all the leverage they needed to have his confirmation tabled.
President Reagan's appointments were even more politically motivated. One of his nominees was Helen Marie Taylor of Richmond, Virginia, a loyal party member active in her state's politically conservative organizations. However, when the Senate learned that she not only held memberships in racially exclusive clubs but also was involved with a foundation formed to circumvent the state's school desegregation order, her nomination was relegated to the let's-decide-this-later limbo. By delaying the nom-
ination instead of turning it down, the Senate sought to avoid a fight with the White House. But although only six months remained in the unfilled term, Reagan was determined to fill it, if not with the embattled Taylor, then with another nominee. Using the presidential power to fill government posts without Senate approval during Congressional recesses, Reagan named William Lee Hanley, Jr., to the board. Hanley, an industrialist in the brick and petroleum businesses, had coordinated the Reagan-Bush campaign in Connecticut. Several days after his appointment, Hanley showed up for his first board meeting only to be denied a seat at the table by the board majority. Recess appointments, they declared, do not apply to nongovernmental agencies. The White House, miffed at the rejection and eager to establish the president's interim power, took the Corporation to court. Before the issue could be adjudicated, however, an unexpected resignation on the board created another vacancy and Reagan promptly filled it with the Hanley nomination. This time he took care to have the nominee confirmed by the Senate.
The quality of leadership that public television has received from the Corporation has been influenced not only by presidential appointments, but also by those whom the board has itself chosen to be chair. The outcome has, at best, been mixed. Its first chair, Frank Pace, Jr., the former Secretary of the Army, was not elected in the usual manner but was appointed by President Johnson. When he resigned at the height of the Nixon effort to co-opt the board, his successor was the former congressman from Missouri, Thomas B. Curtis. Although he had been the White House's own choice, Curtis resigned in anger in May 1973—betrayed, so he thought, by the people who had put him there. The board turned to its only independent, James R. Killian, Jr., the president of MIT. But Killian remained only eighteen months, and was replaced by the board's vice chairman, Robert Benjamin, a lawyer and chairman of United Artists. Benjamin, a forceful but gentlemanly negotiator, had attempted to bring the Corporation and PBS closer together, but with very little success after two years, he too resigned "to speak up as an individual about the issues which divided the two organizations."
The choice of W. Allen Wallis to succeed Benjamin surprised most veteran board watchers. Wallis, who was the chancellor of the University of Rochester, had racked up a record of poor attendance and less-than-enthusiastic participation in the board's business prior to his election. But with the board clearly divided along ideological lines, he emerged as the only compromise candidate. His resignation eighteen months later was no less a surprise, although more by its manner than by its substance. The board had just decided to break for lunch at its 1978 midsummer meeting when Wallis, who was conducting the meeting, rose from his chair, abruptly announced his resignation from both the board and his position as presiding officer, and without apology walked out, caught a plane, and shuffled off to another appointment. He cited "personal" reasons for his resignation, but insiders were quick to point to the severe frustrations that Wallis had suffered over the Corporation's uncertain future. The chairman was particularly irked over Reagan's delays in filling board vacancies. After his departure, and left with barely half its normal complement, the board elected Lillie Herndon, former head of the National Congress of Parents and Teachers. Herndon was the first in a succession of women to occupy the CPB chair, including Sharon Percy Rockefeller; Sonia Landau, former chair of the New York State Women for Reagan-Bush campaign; and Sheila Tate, Nancy Reagan's former press secretary.
Of this number, only Sonia Landau would find herself the center of almost unrelieved controversy and the target of press attention for her occasional theatrics. The former teacher, media consultant, and party loyalist was named to the board by President Reagan shortly after his 1980 election victory. Her appointment coincided—significantly, as it turned out—with Edward J. Pfister's arrival at the Corporation to fill the presidential office vacated by the departed Robben Fleming. Pfister had been the president of KERA/Dallas and thus was the first professional broadcaster to fill the chief executive's post. His years of service with public television taught him all he needed to know about the system's divided loyalties, political intrigues, and parochial cabals. The knowledge made him all the more determined to bring "an end to the an-
tagonism and bickering" that had drained the system's energies and credibility. But even as he voiced these aims, the stage was being set for Sonia Landau to make their realization impossible, if not forever, at least for him.
Three years after she joined the board, its new Republican majority elected Landau chair. In a very close vote, she had managed to unseat the three-term incumbent, Sharon Percy Rockefeller. Rockefeller's departing words, an urgent plea "to keep CPB nonpartisan and apolitical in every way," anticipated the difficulties ahead. Landau's critics had questioned the propriety of her participation in the 1983 Reagan-Bush reelection campaign while serving as the Corporation's "nonpartisan" presiding officer. Nor was politics the only area in which she gave the impression of a conflict of interest. At the time, Landau's husband, John Corry, was the television critic for the New York Times . Among the shows he reviewed were those funded by the Corporation.
Landau had been in the chair just six months when the first crisis erupted. The board's spring meeting, held that year in San Francisco, had been an otherwise drearily routine session until late in the meeting when Landau unexpectedly launched an attack on Pfister's plan to lead a Corporation-sponsored delegation of public broadcasters to Moscow. The purpose of the mission was the possible exchange of programming with Soviet television. Landau was shocked to find "that an institution that operates on federal money is dealing with the Soviet government." The seriocomic implications that the Corporation might be guilty of trading with the enemy hung unanswered in the stunned silence. She shifted her line of attack, arguing that the Corporation's responsibility to act as a "heat shield" to protect public television from the undue influence of Congress and the White House meant also that "we shouldn't be influenced by the Kremlin." In one hold, perverse stroke the heat shield had become a sword.
The board's discussion was tense, emotional, and full of the barely contained anger of partisans divided along familiar and predictable lines. Reagan's good friend from his radio days, media consultant Harry O'Connor, supported Landau's thesis, arguing that the Corporation's money was still to be treated as government
funds. And although these dollars were not actually paying for the Moscow trip, William Hanley worried that it might "appear" otherwise to Congress and thereby jeopardize future funding. Richard Brookhiser, editor of the conservative National Review , didn't care whether the dollars were "federal" or private; his concern was their possible use to buy Soviet programs. It will be "just disastrous," he warned, if we "open the door to Soviet ideas on history." Kenneth Towery, a journalist and a former aide to Texas senator Tower, offered the mildly heretical notion that the Corporation was not, "in fact, a private corporation," to which he added the unhelpful suggestion that the buying and selling of television programs was better left to the U.S. Information Agency.
The "liberal" minority on the board was dumbstruck by what it called "the Cold War reasoning." Lillie Herndon, a fifteen-year veteran on the board and its former presiding officer, charged the Reagan majority with "rewriting the Carnegie Commission language." She reminded her colleagues that Congress established the Corporation not as a federal entity but as an independent, private corporation. We have "worked years to establish that," she said. "If the stations buy inappropriate programming, that's their responsibility. It's not our responsibility to dictate to the stations what they can buy."
Landau, however, was not to be dislodged from her opposition to the Corporation's participation. It was "fine" with her, she told the board, if the PBS people wanted to sponsor the trip (they eventually did), but, she said, "I don't think I want CPB, when I am the custodian of that federal money, to be sending a CPB party there." Her board resolution withdrawing the Corporation's sponsorship of the trip was adopted by a 6–4 vote. Because he had approved Corporation sponsorship of the trade mission, had agreed to lead the delegation, and thought it was "probably the single most important issue" that had arisen during his presidency, Ed Pfister read the board's decision as a repudiation of his leadership. Following the vote, and after what he termed his "twelve agonizing hours," Pfister decided he "could not represent that kind of thinking" and resigned the presidency of the Corporation. It happened that his decision fell on the day that he was due to address
a meeting of the chief executives of the system's stations, who were also holding their annual meeting in San Francisco. The station chiefs, stunned by news of the sudden turn of events, greeted his entrance with a standing ovation. In his address, Pfister warned them that the Corporation's decision meant "more of the obligation to safeguard independence falls squarely on their shoulders." The managers were brought to their feet once again in a wave of emotion that, said an observer, engulfed even those who never before thought themselves members of the Pfister fan club. He had become for the moment their martyr.
The search for his successor would, it was hoped, give some clue to the board's future course. But after eight months dragged by and the board named Martin Rubenstein to the post, the system was still at sea about its future course. Rubenstein, a man with no discernible ideological bent, was a professional broadcaster with twenty-three years of experience in commercial radio and television. For the previous five years, he had been the president of the Mutual Broadcasting System radio network. The board appeared to be placing its bet on experience rather than ideology. But appearances can deceive. Barely ten months after he was hired, the board's conservative majority voted in private session to sack Rubenstein for having "usurped board authority." Failure to explain the charge led to speculation that the four directors were angered because Rubenstein had, without board approval, hired a business manager to unknot the tangled mess in which he had found the Corporation's contracts. His action had reduced the authority of the Corporation's vice president and treasurer, Donald Ledwig, who had come to the Corporation from a twenty-five-year career as a naval officer. Ledwig was the favorite of the Reagan-appointed conservatives who had wanted him as Pfister's successor, not Rubenstein (but at the time they lacked the votes). It came as no surprise therefore when the board named Ledwig president of the Corporation following the Rubenstein sack in July 1988. Ledwig remained in the post for three years and after his resignation was replaced in the summer of 1992 by Richard W. Carlson, who had been the U.S. Ambassador to the Republic of Seychelles and was
a former director of the Voice of America. Carlson is the seventh to head the Corporation in its twenty-five-year history.
The uneven history of the Corporation's leadership, both of its appointed board and elected chairs, seems not to have hindered the institution's ability to handle its routine business. The competence of its leadership has, in that respect, been adequately demonstrated. The record of the past twenty-five years does, however, underscore the failure of the White House to bring to the medium's designated "leadership" organization those men and women with not only a clear vision of the role—and the vital importance—of public television in the economic, political, and cultural life of the nation, but also the strength of character and conviction to defend it against those who would seek to control it for selfish or ideological purposes.