Go for Broke
The most important dollars we spend are the gambling dollars, the dollars spent on program projects which need to be done but may not be profitable.
John F. White
Network is a word that is scorned in the world of public broadcasting. It implies centralized control and lockstep programming. The very notion of networking is heresy to those who are dedicated to the proposition that public television should be decentralized, diverse, and attuned to the needs of its local audiences—in short, that it should be the antithesis of network-controlled commercial television.
Faith in the efficacy of decentralization, widely practiced in other areas of our social policy, finds expression in the noncommercial medium in the structure of PBS, the Public Broadcasting Service. The roots of a decentralized system, however, were planted years before they produced a PBS. They stretch back to educational television's early planning councils, meetings that took place before the channel reservations were a reality and long before the first educational station was on the air. The strongest voice in those planning councils—and, thus, the principal architect of the system that emerged—was the only person at the table with access to funds to make the plans a reality. As head of the Ford Foundation's Fund for Adult Education, Scott Fletcher had funded the push for channel reservations; he had provided impetus and money to stimulate the early activations; and now, while
not the first to see the need, he was the first to create a national center for program exchange.
Most early planners knew that stations would be hard pressed to fill their schedules without help. As early as the summer of 1951, the NAEB produced a plan for program exchange, which it carried to the Fund the following spring and put on Fletcher's desk—only to discover that the energetic and enterprising Fletcher had already developed his own plan. Months earlier, Fletcher had been alerted to the NAEB plan and to the urgent need of "building an inventory of programs on film for use as the educational stations take the air" by his principal adviser, Robert Hudson. The same concerns were echoed several months later by a young businessman with a particular reason to be concerned. Raymond Wittcoff had volunteered to chair the effort to bring an educational station to St. Louis. Fearing that educational television in general, and his station in particular, would fail unless it could draw a significant part of its programming "from a strong and well-financed national cooperation network agency," Wittcoff proposed "a bold and forthright plan for the creation of a national educational television network."
Fletcher, not one to let a good idea slip by unnoticed, acted quickly. In the summer of 1952, he invited a small group of activists to New York to discuss a plan. Characteristically, he included two new recruits to the cause, both prominent educators who until then had not been actively involved in its planning: George Stoddard, president of the University of Illinois, and Harold Lasswell, professor of law and political science at Yale. According to eye-witness reports, the discussions were "brisk and penetrating." Ideas were tossed about, argued, and refined. But through it all, Fletcher insisted on two points. First, the new organization must be autonomous (thus ruling out the NAEB'S plan to put the center under its own protective wing.) The center, he said, should be a part of the mainstream of American culture, with its own board composed not of self-interested professionals but of outward-looking men and women possessing "a variety of experience, competence and command" and drawn from the broad fields of the arts, sciences, humanities, education, business, and the profes-
sions. Moreover, the members of the governing board would serve as individuals rather than as representatives of other institutions and organizations. Fletcher was equally firm on his second point: the program-exchange center would not be permitted to make its own programs or have its own production equipment. It would be expected to contract with others, primarily the local stations, for program production. Decentralizing production would accomplish two goals: ensure against the formation of a single, dominant production house and strengthen the funding of local stations by contracting with them for the production of programs.
When the meeting was over, Fletcher's arguments had prevailed. They usually did. Two days later his plan was approved by the Fund board, and he immediately formed an organizing committee. True to his principles of choosing "outsiders," he named, in addition to himself, Stoddard, and Lasswell, two new recruits to the cause, Ralph Lowell of Boston and Robert Calkins of the Brookings Institute. In the closing days of 1952, the five became the first board of the newly incorporated Educational Television and Radio Center—soon to be known simply as the Center. The board accepted a grant of $1.35 million for operations from the Fund for Adult Education and held its first meeting the following month to elect three more directors. To speed things along, Fletcher was named temporary president.
Months earlier, Fletcher had dispatched his key consultant, Robert Hudson, off to a Cape Cod retreat to work on a plan for the proposed center. Hudson emerged a week before the Center was formed with a sixteen-page paper that laid the groundwork for the Center's programming policies: rather than a library furnishing films on demand, it would offer a regular, scheduled service of programs; and it would be "mildly directive" in choosing which programs to distribute by developing its own concept of what constituted good educational programming (instead of simply responding to what stations said they wanted).
In a clear stratagem to give the Center acceptance in the academic community—and, by implication, the movement as well—the board, in the summer of 1953, chose Dr. Harry K. Newburn, president of the University of Oregon, to be its head. Fletcher's
preferred site for the Center was Chicago; it was far from the influences of New York and Hollywood and centrally located for mailing programs to stations. Newburn, however, wishing to continue the quiet academic life he had enjoyed in Oregon, persuaded the board to locate the Center in Ann Arbor, on the campus of the University of Michigan, where it would remain for the next five years.
Newburn could easily have been typecast as the high-school principal that he once was: tall, graying, with squarish features, he was sober almost to the point of dullness. Though well-regarded as an educator, he lacked broadcasting experience. That he left to others. When injuries sustained in an automobile accident delayed his departure by several months, Newburn dispatched his university assistant, Lyle Nelson, to Ann Arbor to begin the process of organizing the Center. Nelson remained with the Center for two more years, using what one colleague called "cajolery and good sense" to form an easy working relationship with the handful of stations originally affiliated with the Center. In all likelihood, Nelson's friendly humor and quick wit staved off by several years the station revolt that ultimately erupted over Newburn's leadership.
In his determination to keep the Center staff small, Newburn relied on temporary contract employees called "program associates," recruited from college teaching posts for a year's service as the Center's field representatives. During their months with the Center, they acted both as program procurers and roving ambassadors, visiting the stations, seeking out and identifying possible programs for national distribution, and arranging for their acquisition. During the five years that Newburn headed the Center, no fewer than fifteen program associates came and went. And with them, through the swinging doors, went whatever experience they had accumulated in their brief time on the job. The system was grossly inefficient.
Never in the Center's first two years did the permanent staff number more than five. At its core was Robert Hudson, the soft-spoken, philosophical Virginian who bore responsibility for the Center's programming. As Fletcher's consultant, Hudson had
played a major part in the formation of the Center, contributing ideas that gave substance to Fletcher's organization plan. His experience—as a director of education for the CBS network and later as a specialist in educational radio on the faculty at the University of Illinois—brought a unique combination of expertise to Fletcher's early planning. Newburn put that experience to good use in his own organization. The Center, as Hudson saw it, was "an educational institution whose mode of expression was television." Its purpose, he said, was "to inform, to educate, and to enrich the lives of viewers." Hudson's concept of education was nothing if not comprehensive. The walls of his Ann Arbor office were covered with huge sheets of butcher paper on which was meticulously diagrammed a synoptic scheme of all human knowledge. The Center's programming agenda would be built from this framework.
With the bravura of the beginner, the Center had unwisely committed itself to supplying its station affiliates with five hours of programming each week. Programming was collected from available educational film sources or from local station programs recorded off the air by the crude kinescope process that preceded videotape. Distribution consisted of making a limited number of copies of the acquired programs in the Center's Ann Arbor plant and mailing them out to the first "block" of stations for broadcast. After the first block had aired the programs, they were transshipped ("bicycled") to the next block, and so on until all the blocks had been served. Most stations had to wait weeks if not months before gaining access to a given show. The system was crude, slow, and subject to frustrating and costly errors, but in a day when distribution by leased AT&T lines would consume the entire center budget, it was the only way to go.
The Fund's original grant of $300,000 for 150 programs—an absurd formula by anyone's standards—produced very little airable programming; the few stations then in operation were unable to meet the minimal technical requirements. Hudson turned to college production centers for much of his early programming. A handful, such as the center at the University of Michigan, had experience turning out shows for regular distribution to commer-
cial stations. Production skills at these centers were several notches above the usual college output.
Ready or not, the Center launched the first nationwide public-television service on May 16, 1954. At the time, nationwide meant six cities—Houston, Los Angeles, Madison, East Lansing, Pittsburgh, and San Francisco. No one else had a public outlet on the air. The early shows, it is fair to say, lacked the qualities that make for riveting viewing. They included such determinedly educational fare as Geography in Conflict, Understanding Your Child, From Haydn to Hi-Fi, Frontiers of the Sea , and A Prospect of Literature .
The Center's plan to have the stations supply the bulk of the programming, unworkable in the beginning, improved as more stations joined the system. A few, mostly in the larger cities, became the Center's principal program suppliers. WQED / Pittsburgh brought the young medium the much-needed prestige of name recognition with Heritage , filmed visits with great artists and scientists. Its portrait of Martha Graham, A Dancer's World , was the first to win a national award. WTTW / Chicago contributed Community of the Condemned , a series on criminal justice with Cook County sheriff Joseph Lohman. Boston's WGBH, even then building a base as one of the system's future production centers, provided Boston Symphony concerts; an early how-to series, French on TV ; a science and public-affairs series, Of Science and Scientists ; and Constitution and Human Rights . And San Francisco's KQED produced several series with some of the area's eminent academics, including Mortimer Adler, Edward Teller, Glenn T. Seaborg, and S. I. Hayakawa.
The Center's two earliest "hits" (a relative term) came not from its own stations but as gifts from its putative rival, the commercial networks. In 1995, CBS-TV offered the Center a filmed interview that Edward R. Murrow had conducted with atomic physicist J. Robert Oppenheimer. CBS ran a severely cut thirty-minute version of the two-and-a-half hours and offered public television the longer version. Oppenheimer was highly controversial. A key figure in the development of America's atom bomb, he had fallen victim to the hysteria of McCarthyism and had suffered the loss of his federal security clearance, reportedly for his communist asso-
ciations before the war. Predictably, public television's airing of the lengthy interview stirred expressions of both praise and outrage, awakening educational television's management to the pleasures and pains of a fully aroused audience.
Dr. Frank Baxter, the self-styled "Liberace of the Library," aroused educational television's audience in a wholly different way, drawing viewers away from Dragnet and Father Knows Best with an unlikely hook entitled Shakespeare on TV . The popular series, produced and aired locally by CBS's Los Angeles Station, KNXT-TV, was given to the Center for its first national airing. The English professor from USC was rare, a scholar gifted with the power of popularization for whom television proved a natural milieu. His irrepressible enthusiasm for the Bard of Avon was instantly contagious and levitated him into the modest realm of educational television stardom. Baxter followed Shakespeare on TV with a second series, The Written Word , also produced and aired locally by KNXT-TV before airing nationally on educational TV.
In 1957, NBC-TV followed its competitor's lead, coming to the aid of educational television with a two-year cooperative project. For twenty-three weeks, NBC made its network lines available for a half-hour each day to deliver "live" to the Center's affiliates five educational series. Three of the five series—on government, music, and mathematics—were produced and paid for by the NBC. The remaining two—on geography and on literature—were left to the Center to produce and fund. For all its good intentions, the NBC project failed to make its predicted mark on the new medium. The New York Times television critic found it "longer on commendable and encouraging intentions than stimulating accomplishment." By the spring of the following year, the number of series had dwindled to three, and then, in the project's final fall semester, to only two. Live delivery was more of a gimmick than a necessity; none of the programs in the series contained timely or highly perishable content. Ironically, the one Center series which might have benefited from live release, UN Review , a summary of the week's debates in the United Nations, went out to stations by air express. None of the NBC-Center programs were seen on public television in New York City. If New Yorkers saw
them at all, they saw them at odd weekend hours on NBC's own flagship station. The nation's largest city was still without a public station.
Notwithstanding the aspirations and efforts of its planners, educational television failed in its first five years to make much of an impression on America's TV viewers. The Center, the system's major source of programs, was limited not only by a meager budget, a clumsy distribution system, and a mere handful of outlets, but also by a lack of inspired leadership, an early symptom of a weakness that would plague the public medium through much of the next thirty years. Harry Newburn's interest was less in making good television programs than in making programs with "authority." The result was engagingly understated in Hudson's 1957 report to the Ford Foundation: "Criticisms that certain programs, though they may present highly qualified personnel, are somewhat dull and unimaginative have been too close to the truth."
It was not that Newburn lacked opportunities for exercising leadership; they were literally thrust upon him. The Ford Foundation, seeing an opportunity to fill the movement's leadership vacuum, dumped a random assortment of projects and responsibilities onto the only national organization available to handle them. During Newburn's tenure in the presidency, the Center found itself with a Washington office, a radio arm, and duties that had little to do with programming: pushing new station activations, providing legal and technical assistance, upgrading the production skills of stations and serving as their national voice in Washington, and occasionally even acting as the system's banker by bailing out financially troubled stations. The Center had become the tentpole of the movement, a center in fact as well as name.
Harry Newburn, knowing little about television and not eager to learn, neither welcomed the Center's expanding role nor relished the leadership it thrust upon him. Oddly enough, his allies in this respect were the stations. They were, if anything, even less welcoming of the Center's expanded role, but for different reasons. While Newburn had no wish to be their leader, the stations had no wish for leadership, his or anyone else's, so long as it was
outside their control. And the Center was outside their control. Fletcher had deliberately designed it that way: a free-standing, independent entity, with its own self-perpetuating board composed of prominent citizens serving as individuals rather than as representatives of any particular constituency. In that respect, the Center was unique, then and now. By 1956, however, resentment over the Center's independence, coupled with what the stations perceived as Newburn's inattention to their needs—it was, more probably, his failure to understand those needs—reached a boiling point. The stations demanded and were given the opportunity to make regular representations to Newburn through a standing committee of their own chosen leaders. At an early meeting with this newly elected Affiliates Committee, Newburn agreed to a three-day "retreat" where stations could air their complaints and concerns to Newburn and his staff. There was widespread feeling that Newburn's choice of Biloxi, Mississippi, as the venue was further proof of his indifference to their needs. At the time, Mississippi was a dry state.
The Biloxi meetings were stormy, matched by weather that kept the delegates and their smoldering resentments boxed up in the musty hotel. The stations' repeated refrain of "you need us more than we need you" rubbed against Newburn's usual composure like an abrasive; he was unaccustomed to having his leadership questioned. During a break on the final day, he confessed to one of the more sympathetic delegates a desire to be free of the frustrations of the infant medium and its ungrateful stations, perhaps to return to the quieter and more familiar environment of the college campus. Two months later he resigned to accept an appointment as president of Montana State College.
Newburn's departure occasioned few regrets in the public-television ranks. While most conceded that his presence had brought the upstart medium a measure of educational respectability, many felt that he had failed to marshal forces that might have brought it higher visibility and greater significance. His departure may even have been welcomed by his own board, which was now free to pursue one of its favorite goals: relocating the Center from its midwestern base in Ann Arbor to the media capital
of metropolitan New York. When the board first proposed the move to New York, Newburn had sternly resisted it. Even his promise to the board to open a New York branch office went unfulfilled. Upon his departure, and without waiting to name his successor, the board went into immediate action, first dispatching a committee of three directors to consult with the station chiefs then meeting in Madison, Wisconsin. If the board expected a chorus of affirmation from the stations, they grossly misread the signals. The plan to move to Manhattan was met with angry rhetoric best characterized by the declaration of a midwestern station executive that he would never air another Center program if "his network" was taken out of America's heartland. Stunned by the vehemence of the outburst, the board committee called for a straw vote. Of the thirty stations then on the air, all but two expressed vigorous opposition to the move. The committee chair thanked the stations for their counsel. And then, exercising the very independence the stations most feared, he announced a date when the Center would move to Manhattan. The moment defined in bold relief the widening gulf between the Center and the stations it served—between an autonomous, centralized authority and an inchoate group whose goal was shared responsibility.
Whatever hope the stations may have had that Newburn's successor would temper the Center's independent role effectively ended when John F. White was named to the post. Although as general manager of Pittsburgh's WQED White came from their own ranks and had even represented the stations' interests to the Center as chair of the first Affiliates Committee, he gave a clear signal long before his appointment that he favored a strong Center, a sentiment he shared with most of the large-city station managers.
Jack White, like Harry Newburn, had migrated to television from the college campus—he had been a dean at Illinois Tech and a vice president at Case Western Reserve—but unlike the man he replaced, White came to the Center with experience in television-station management. The two men were a study in contrasts. Newburn, the older man, was pompously presidential, not fully at ease in the company of broadcasters, unable even to adapt himself to the chatty, informal mode of address typical of the tele-
vision milieu. White adapted with no difficulty. His genial, hearty, outgoing personality fit the broadcaster's mold. While Newburn had sought acceptance for the new medium among his academic colleagues, White sought it among his newest peers, the broadcasting hierarchy of America's three New York-based commercial networks.
White's accession to the Center's presidency marked the close of five years of agonizingly slow growth. Seven years had gone by since the FCC had reserved 250 channels, and educational television had only thirty activated stations to show for it. Worse, the impact of the new medium was virtually impossible to measure since it was still without a presence in the key cities of New York, Washington, Los Angeles (where the ill-fated KTHE had been shuttered and not yet replaced), Detroit, and Philadelphia. By contrast, the ten-year period of White's leadership was one of dynamic growth. The number of stations grew fivefold, increasing to more than 150 by the end of decade. While the Center's role in this growth was marginal, and its president more of a coach than a quarterback, White played a critical role in the single most important addition to these numbers by bringing a public station onto the air in New York City.
The Center gave White a unique position from which to practice the art of leadership. As the occasion demanded, he could be cheerleader, nanny, or scold to the Center's affiliated stations. When a station showed signs of sinking, he kept it afloat with a loan. He mounted training programs to upgrade the stations' production skills. He chided station managers for their caution, paraphrasing a favorite Robert Frost line to remind them that the yellow line runs down the middle of the road. At the same time, he tirelessly moved his colleagues to higher levels of professional performance. Public television's historic and well-publicized paucity of funds did not deter him from pushing the entire system into the new technological age of videotape recording and color. It is worth noting that his ten-year term was one of the rare periods in public television's nearly forty-year history when it could point to undivided and undisputed leadership at the national level.
White wisely capitalized on the Center's unchallenged position
at the apex of the power triangle. Under his hand what had begun as a modest mechanism for swapping programs grew into the system's principal power base, an autonomous entity filling the functional voids in a structure that had no master plan. In the absence of a plan, the stations were powerless to curb the Center's accretion of power or its tendency to declare itself the nucleus of a centralized system operating out of the Center's new Columbus Circle offices in midtown Manhattan. White's words and actions were anything but reassuring to the foes of a centralized network. Their apprehensions, first aroused by the Center's move to New York, were further fed by its decision, at White's suggestion, to add National to the Educational Television and Radio Center's corporate name. Even that might have seemed harmless enough had not White begun, unofficially at first, to shorten the NETRC acronym to NET, and then to add to the hubris by making casual reference to NET as "America's Fourth Network." Those for whom White's dreams of glory were a nightmare—a clear and present threat to the stations' hegemony and independence—shuddered.
White was sensitive to the stations' fears and took steps to court their confidence. During his first year in office, he fulfilled a pledge to visit every station. Later, he created a department to maintain constant contact with the stations' concerns and appointed the highly respected manager of Chicago's WTTW, Jim Robertson, to head it. One of Robertson's early tasks was to work with the Affiliates Committee to produce a new affiliation agreement that would require stations to pay for a service that had been free. The annual levy was modest, ranging from $7200 for the smallest station to $18,700 for the largest, well below the costs of a program service that was already heavily subsidized by the Center's annual operating grant from the Ford Foundation. Token though it was, the fee changed the relationship of the Center and the stations. Only the ungrateful would complain about a gift, but good business practice compels a complaint when the service fails to meet the buyer's expectations—thus for a modest outlay, a station bought the freedom to complain. Stations bought something else with their affiliation fee: exclusivity, the practice of guaranteeing one station in a multi-station market exclusive access to the
Center's programming. The practice, much honored in the world of commercial television, raised few problems in the ranks of public television while the stations were few in number. But as the system grew, and stations with overlapping signals were added in places like Seattle-Tacoma, Provo-Salt Lake City, and the metropolitan areas of New York and San Francisco, the second stations, denied Center programming, sent up howls of protest, adding a new category of enemies to those NET already had. Nevertheless, with the backing of its original affiliates, NET stuck to its guns. Although station exclusivity was abandoned in the late 1960s when PBS took over national program distribution, the issue of who gets what when has refused to die.
White's agenda, however, was topped not by the politics of power but by programming. The new administration was determined not only to raise the quality of its output, but also to widen its diversity and shake the chalkdust of the Newburn-era image from its skirts. White felt the key was in "significance." If, he told the stations, we "are to be this force in our communities and thus earn support, we must be willing to be bold and to face issues." He cautioned that "unless we provide an honest and completely free arena for debate; unless we take advantage of the peculiar freedom which is ours, we will never be this force." The more timorous stations were shaken by White's call for boldness. But for others, particularly for those stations most dependent on support from their audiences, and thus in need of distinctive and exciting programming, White's challenging policy was welcome.
Bob Hudson, who had plotted the original design for the Center and shepherded it through the Newburn years as its programming chief, remained with the Center as one of three newly appointed vice presidents to translate White's credo into the promised program service. With his limited resources, which included the Center's five-year $5 million Ford grant, Hudson tackled the daunting task of creating or finding quality programs. He went first to the stations. Fletcher's plan for the Center had envisioned a major production role for stations that benefited both partners: the Center would get programs, and the producing stations would earn much needed income. But it was too early in the
game; the stations were not yet ready. Stations were willing to produce programs for the Center but unwilling to accept what other stations produced because of what they felt was its poor quality. In an effort to improve program quality by developing the system's "production muscle," White invited a select number of stations to propose programs and promised that their production costs would be underwritten by the Center. But of the 186 proposals submitted, only seven merited production and made it into the Center's distribution schedule. There had to be a better way. White had an idea.
Ford's $5 million five-year grant to the Center was "terminal"; at the end of that time the money would be gone and there would be no more. The Foundation saw five years as time enough for the Center to find new funders. White could imagine five years as time enough to raise the struggling medium by its bootstraps, to make a substantial mark on the consciousness of America's television audience, and to attract new funders. But not with only $1 million a year to work with. White decided on a bold and risky strategy: go for broke. Bet the whole five-year grant on a single year—spend now, worry later. White's wager was hedged by the hunch that Ford's grant was terminal only because of Newburn's lackluster performance. He persuaded himself that when the time came to knock on Ford's door again, the Foundation would be receptive if the Center succeeded in mounting a dazzling display of the medium's potential. He said later that "it was the only dream you could have."
The brassy "go for broke" gamble may have saved the public medium. From that moment on, "quality became the touchstone of the program service." Hudson restructured his staff to include a director of programming. The rotating program associates were dropped in favor of six permanent ones, each assigned responsibility for a particular category of programming, and each charged with seeking out the best programming wherever it could be found. Stations continued to be important producers, but for the first time the Center turned outside its own constituency, and particularly to Britain, to find "significant" programming. An Age of Kings —the historical plays of Shakespeare arranged and pre-
sented in their proper chronological sequence—aired in the fall of 1961 and was the first major BBC series to hit American public television. But An Age of Kings had another distinction: it was the first noncommercial series to be underwritten by a corporate sponsor, the Humble Oil and Refining Company, initiating what would become public broadcasting's long-lasting symbiosis with the petroleum industry.
Viewers reveled in the consummate skill of the British cast. But the audience for the BBC series was, for the most part, an audience already disposed to educational television's demanding fare. NET needed to reach beyond the converted, to find a new audience whose appetites did not necessarily tend toward the acquired tastes of high culture. The answer was found in a Cripple Creek saloon, high in the Colorado Rockies, where a rollicking ragtime singer named Max Morath, colorfully dressed in turn-of-the-century derby and vest, pounded out rags on an upright barroom piano. KRMA/Denver turned the player and his piano into a television series. Ragtime Era was everything educational television was not supposed to be: upbeat, fun, and entertaining. Seated at the old-time piano, Morath played and talked, pausing between rags to share bits of historical lore. Audiences loved it. At the conclusion of the series, NET reported to its funders at the Ford Foundation that Ragtime Era "may ultimately be responsible for greater good to a greater number of average TV viewers than many NET programs of greater intrinsic educational significance."
WGBH/Boston's Prospects of Mankind was more in keeping with the educational medium's image—it had significance written all over it—but the image of Eleanor Roosevelt talking with a series of world leaders brought to the public medium a measure of prestige and importance that it sorely needed. Awards also helped but had somewhat less of an effect. Two NET shows, both the work of Nathan Kroll, won awards in international competition. Appalachian Spring was an extension of Kroll's earlier award-winning film with Martha Graham, A Dancer's World . The other, Pablo Casals Master Class , was filmed on the Berkeley campus with the famed cello virtuoso and his students, and introduced an innovative form and technique not seen before on the television screen.
By 1962, the country was finally beginning to take notice of the upstart medium. Reliable audience studies found "regular" viewers in 10 to 25 percent of the nation's television homes. These modest numbers rang no bells on the Nielsen charts, but for those engaged in the struggle to identify an audience for the public medium, it was music to eager ears. It also played well at the Foundation. Satisfied that Jack White's bold "go for broke" stroke was a success and that a decade of heavy investment in the new medium was finally paying dividends, Ford did what White hoped it would do. The Foundation gave NET a second $5.5 million grant a full two years before the original five-year grant ran out.
But success breeds it own problems, particularly when it is built out of the pockets of a single foundation. Not even the world's largest foundation—and that's what the Ford Foundation was in the 1950s—can afford to bankroll a project forever, and certainly not one in the process of rapid expansion, which was what was required as more and more local channels came on the air and demanded programming. Foundations traditionally avoid sustained support for an enterprise, preferring instead to provide "seed" money for new, often risky, projects in the expectation that once they prove themselves, long-term support will be sought elsewhere. White, knowing that NET was faced with the inevitability of a future without Ford subsidy, conceived of a plan akin to, but more audacious than, his "go for broke" gamble. Ford would be asked to make a terminal grant to NET—but really terminal this time—of an eye-popping half-billion dollars. That amount, wisely invested, could keep the network in business for years to come.
When White's proposal was dropped on the desk at Ford, the Foundation didn't blink. But neither did it write a check for a half-billion dollars. Instead, having asked itself some of the same questions, the Foundation proposed a radically different answer, one that was to have unexpected consequences as well as to affirm the old adage that he who pays the piper calls the tune. NET's part would soon be played in a modulated key.