The Trouble With Public Television

Public television offers itself as a window on high culture, but the view it affords is often narrow and timid, pretentious and solemn. How can the medium become more responsive to the creative minds it now excludes?

The forces of light are coming on strong again for public broadcasting. Throughout most of the past year the heads of Common Cause and Columbia University and Quaker Oats, Bill Moyers, and selected other light-bringers, organized as the second Carnegie Commission on the Future of Public Broadcasting, worked together to decide how Congress and the President ought to proceed on this front. The minor (if tricky) task confronting the commissioners was that of clarifying the power structure of the public broadcasting industry. The major job was to tell the policy-makers and the rest of us what can be done to improve the quality and increase the impact of public broadcasting all across the land. And the report the commissioners have just completed (its nickname is Carnegie Two) recommends a massive infusion of new government funds into the country’s nonprofit TV system.

By enthusiasts of WNET, WGBH, WETA, and scores of other public stations, that recommendation will be warmly received. Public TV fans compose only a small fraction of the total viewing population, and they’re not going to become a majority overnight, regardless of what Congress does. (A recent Corporation for Public Broadcasting poll disclosed that many viewers who avoid public TV do so because they are unfriendly to what it offers, not because they are unaware of its existence; the common complaints are that stars, serial comedy, and sports spectaculars don’t appear on the nonprofit channels, and that most public TV programs are amateurishly staged.) But the fans’ devotion is intense, compounded of gratitude for escape from hard-selling commercials and attachment to favorite performers such as Julia Child, Thalassa Cruso, Dick Cavett, and MacNeil and Lehrer. (A few seasons back, when members of the cast of Upstairs, Downstairs made themselves available at station open houses as TV fund-raisers, the parties were—decorously—mobbed.) The 2.7 million families who anted up $50 million last year to keep individual stations alive are sure to see nothing but justice in the notion that all taxpayers should join in the contributory act.

Whether the notion is in fact just, though, isn’t by any means clear. Most viewers can remember bright intervals on the nonprofit channels—a ballet evening, a jazz program, a useful report on fast-food franchising, one or another original dramatic production in the series called Visions, a half-hour interview with a novelist wherein unctuous flattery is momentarily dropped and an eccentrically interesting mind is glimpsed. And the adoption, in dramatic productions imported from England, of repertory theater conventions—this week an actor plays the prime minister, next week the same man does a butler—makes it easier for parents to explain to children the difference between being an actor and being a star.

But from none of this does it follow, I’m afraid, that these channels constitute overall a particularly invigorating or life-enhancing sector of contemporary American culture. On occasion, public TV leaves an impression of energy, excitement, or daring, but it’s far more often predictable and mild, even downright prim.

At one level this is a matter of social accent and interest. The announcer who lets fall that “Mahsterpiece Theatre is made possible by a grahnt from Mobil” and the gourmet lady who recommends a petit Chablis with the chicken supreme both speak in voices full of unearned increment, and a dozen other regulars have Grottlesex marbles in their mouths. What’s more, the attitudes nicely match the accents. Public TV seems obsessed, for instance, with Edwardian England, especially with the class system and The Help— perfect cooks and ladies’ maids. It is perpetually inviting the viewer to think how splendidly the aristocrats used to live: smashing crystal in the Russian officers’ mess, suiting up in heavy satin for St. Petersburg court gavottes; sniffing luxo snuff, sipping Madeira—Chippendale furniture, silver by Revere—while serving as Founding Fathers.

And there are comparable social dimensions in public TV’s depiction of life nowadays. In “our” world, as shown on the nonprofit channels, “people” play tennis, never bowl. Their hobbies embrace fancy food, gardens, and chess, not lathes in the cellar or twin overhead carburetors in the garage or chickens or pigs in the back yard or homely pickling operations on the kitchen stove. “People” are, furthermore, totally reverential toward the High Arts (I’ve seen poetry programs on the public channels whose solemnity is unmatched except by funeral Masses), whereas “people” condescend to the Popular Arts, concerned about grading them up. It seems to help just a little, for example, if jazz musicians assemble on shiny white, beauty-salonlike sets. (In fairness, it should be noted that the sanitized jazz settings used on public TV are but another version of the cute “African” village that turned up in ABC’s Roots and that resembled some impeccable lane in Brookline, Massachusetts.)

Do not minorities appear on public TV? They surely do, and public TV seems aware that the minorities include many fine people. (A good number of the fine people exist, in the public TV world, chiefly to sing, dance, and have their math and English improved by animated cartoon.) Is not a scrupulous political evenhandedness maintained on public TV? It surely is. One knows that for every political position, morally bankrupt or no, a respectably attired spokesperson can and should be found, lest the show of value neutrality (as on the MacNeil-Lehrer in-depth newscast) fail to go on and on. As for money, one knows that on public TV it’s a delicate subject, best approached via elegant manners—hence the fidgeting perambulations of the financial experts from set to set, led by a woman page named Ann Andrews Darlington, on Wall Street Week (made possible by the Martin Marietta Corporation).

Lots of class, in a word, in this quarter of the tube. Much embryonic snootiness. If public TV were our only means of communication we (and it) would long ago have drowned in a sea of corporate mayonnaise. From the very first, indeed, the makers of what we’ve come to know as public TV have behaved as though their prime duty was to coat the land with a film of what can best be described as distinguished philistinism, lifelessly well-meaning, tolerant, earnest, wellscrubbed—and utterly remote from what is most precious and vital in the soul of this nation.

But we’re in no sense dealing with a plot. If public TV is what it is because it’s not free to be anything else, the reason lies neither in an effort by the top five hundred corporations to sell upper-class values to a mass audience, nor in more general forces such as elitism, Anglophilia, and the like. The reason lies—to judge from the results of my inquiry into how the medium works—in the peculiar politics of public TV’s address to creativity itself.

Creativity—a hard word and an embarrassing subject. How much, if anything, is really known about fostering creativity? When writers and artists dogmatize on the matter, startling exhibitions of self-pity usually ensue. And when ordinary folk enter the game, they do so only to elevate themselves.

But painful as the subject often is, we’re not in total darkness concerning it. We know something—not everything, but something—about the circumstances under which creativity has flourished in the past. We know about the structures and practices of institutions with good records for encouraging creativity. We know that works in different genres, in different periods when creativity was at a peak, resemble each other; the creators—whether of lyric poems, chase choruses in jazz, documentary photographs, representational novels, torch songs—worked in a spirit of hopeful liveliness, and the results were debated or praised by their contemporaries (artists and audiences alike). We’re aware, further, that the merits of these works derive from a seemingly inexhaustible freshness—a deeply interfused sense that when the object was made, the act of creation was touched by love of the medium, joy in discovering new possibilities within a form.

One or two corollary principles are also obvious. The creators believed in their pivotal importance in the production of the work, believed that the structure of the forms they worked in was pliant to their will, believed that an audience existed for the work and that competence in an art didn’t necessarily entail death by hunger or exposure.

Absolute freedom was seldom in the equation, admittedly. The jazz trumpeter who learned to trim his improvisational chorus to the patterns set by a threeminute 78 rpm disc was hardly in complete control of his form. Neither was the novelist who had to adapt his story for serialization in magazines. Yet while a hundred constraints could be cited, the balance wasn’t hopelessly tipped, in the memorably creative environments, against the creator. Institutions knew that if they wanted good work, they had to pay for it, had to grant a measure of autonomy to the creative artist, had to develop a sound “selection process.”

And the truth is that time and again institutions— repeat, institutions: organizations managed by bureaucrats, occupying office space, communicating on printed letterheads—have proven that not only can they sponsor first-class work, but they can do this without sinking either themselves or their audience in Establishment hoity-toity. Three examples by way of reminder:

• The Farm Security Administration’s historical section, led in the 1930s by Roy Stryker, wants some documentary photographs of the Dust Bowl disaster. It is aware that people gifted in this art can’t eat prestige or “exposure.” It therefore pays the artists it chooses as professionals, and deals with them as individuals, even though operating in a buyers’ market. The Dust Bowl photographers who are chosen produce work that is priceless, historically and aesthetically.

• The Guggenheim Foundation awards a fellowship in poetry to Allen Ginsberg in the same decade that it awards a fellowship to a writer of totally different stamp, poet-translator Robert Fitzgerald. It does this not on whim, or out of mindless, haphazard pluralism. It is responding, instead, to advice that flows from a complex system of peer review, accepting the recommendations of advisers who are conversant with the work in question and professionally accomplished in the art of poetry. (Advisers hold their position of influence not in perpetuity, but subject to regular review by a staff that is in touch with genuine developments in taste.)

• The novelist William Faulkner submits to his Random House editors the manuscript of a tough-toread novel called The Sound and the Fury, a work ultimately admired both as a moving inquiry into the myth-ridden generations of a southern family and as a striking formal innovation. The editors don’t try to force the writer to revise the book in accordance with their own understanding of “what the public wants.” Conscious of financial risk, they proceed on the principle that a creator of real accomplishment has earned a measure of trust, and they publish the manuscript as written.

Obviously, significant talents are often neglected. No method of peer review has ever eliminated logrolling and back scratching. Selection systems have to keep reminding themselves that nobody is infallible at recognizing creativity.

Still, it equally bears repeating that we’re not helpless on this front. We know that certain procedures, emphases, modes of encouragement work better than others. And these historically effective procedures and emphases have a fundamental plausibility. None is in conflict with the most pertinent truth, which is that in our time, achievement in the arts is highly individualistic, dependent upon the artist’s ability to believe in the possibilities and significance of personal choices of subject, form, and means.

Why this refresher course on creativity? Because public broadcasting behaves as though the truths just reviewed don’t exist. The structures and arrangements of the Public Broadcasting Service (PBS), the Corporation for Public Broadcasting (CPB), and the rest are wholly oblivious to the nature of past environments of creative achievement. Public TV’s patterns and procedures are well gauged to bakery chains or fuel wholesalers or meat-packing plants, or to any established nonprofit organization bent on confirming old beliefs rather than on adding to the possibilities of life. But they are remote from the methods of organizations that have dealt successfully with artists. Putting it more bluntly, on five major organizational fronts public TV deserves indictment as nothing other than a straight-out enemy of talent. The charges against it are the following:

First, the arrangements by which individual broadcasting stations produce or buy programs are ingrown, clogged, and unimaginative. Who invents most program ideas? Public broadcasting station staffs— administrators preoccupied from day to day by station housekeeping and budgetary details. They conceive schemes for TV series that can be offered for purchase to the staffs of other stations like their own. An organization called the Station Program Cooperative functions, through rounds of voting on sample pieces produced by individual stations, as producer of a smooth-edged consensus market. (Information about the technicalities of these arrangements appears regularly in the debates and news stories carried by a lively quarterly called Televisions, published by the Washington, D.C., Community Video Center.) In this market the individual program or artist has small standing, or none; neither has the series that reflects an individual style, angle of approach, or sense of new possibilities in the medium. What has worked will work again; innovators keep out. A living culture (so goes the assumption) can be created by poll and committee.

The Guggenheim Foundation’s selection committee and Random House’s executive editors know enough not to mistake themselves for significant poets or novelists. Roy Stryker knew enough not to confuse himself with a great photographer. But the equivalents of these people in public broadcasting act as though it’s a cinch simultaneously to create and administrate.

Second, procedures by which independent talents are paid for their work are invariably unrealistic and demeaning. Now and then an independent video artist, as opposed to a station executive, manages to interest the public broadcasting bureaucracies in an idea. But those bureaucracies, both at the national level and among the larger producing stations, seem persuaded that paying individual artists over and above the cost of material (that is, paying the artist’s general living expenses) would be an inconceivable indulgence. Nearly all programs by individual producers are purchased as single items, not as series. These programs are “acquired” at a rate of payment for a completed film or videotape that averages about $200 to $250 a minute, or $ 12,000 to $15,000 an hour. Even in those rare cases where the decision-makers consent to go higher, the total never approaches full production costs— the money the artist has to spend to create the product. And the situation is even worse when an artist seeks a return on his own investment from local stations, which often pay as little as $250 for a half-hour program. If a Guggenheim fellowship to a poet were financed on the same basis, it would consist only of enough money to buy a typewriter ribbon and a ream of bond paper. This isn’t the nurture of creativity, it’s out-and-out humiliation.

Third, procedures by which individual creators are chosen for support are arbitrary and frivolous. The very few institutionally funded programs designed to help independent talents are managed with no reference to what’s known to be necessary if competitions are to be fair—and be seen to be fair. The Corporation for Public Broadcasting’s TV Activities Department last year had a budget of well over $10 million to spend on awards to independent artists, and it spent every penny. But it operated under a procedure by which no guidelines for applicants were ever published, nor any application forms, nor any deadlines, nor any information whatever about the selection process. Furthermore, rejections and approvals by the CPB department’s staff were often challenged—sometimes overturned by applicants who were in a position to

go above the heads of the presumably professional staff to members of the politically appointed CPB board.

Neither here nor elsewhere in the public TV world are provisions made for peer review of applications, for establishment of revolving panels of judges, or for any publicly observable process of evaluation of proposals. Artists are left to assume that no standards are known, that no persons capable of exemplifying or defending their sense of excellence can be found. It’s as though quality is totally mysterious: Nobody knows why this project or that is good, nobody takes responsibility for decisions about what to fund, nobody feels obligated to define and refine standards. In place of a fair competition the artist is offered a lottery—meaning, once more, demoralization.1

Sample case: A young filmmaker I know, a man with a reputation among his peers and a talent for demythologizing the film media, sought for a year to interest the Public Broadcasting Service in a series of documentaries about the television business itself. (There were to be six one-hour programs focused on the daily lives of a sit-com producer, the head of a commercial network’s operation, a daytime-soap producer, a children’s TV producer, and so on.) In time, enough enthusiasm for the project developed to make it seem plausible for him to approach the TV Activities division of CPB. He waited months for an answer to his letter, and received a one-sentence dismissal, no reasons adduced except that the series “would not be a prudent expenditure of public funds.” Perhaps that was the right decision, but in the absence of any visible procedure for selection, my friend surely deserved a fuller—and faster—answer.

Fourth, the hierarchies of program value and importance are established in the public mind, as well as among insiders, in ways that discount the significance of the individual creator. Masterpiece Theatre and its cousins are offered free to all stations by the Mobil Corporation, the underwriter. This fact, together with Mobil’s PBS ad budget and the certified Establishment-academic credentials carried by Shakespeare, Tolstoy, the Founding Fathers, and the BBC, confers highest status on corporate-financed public broadcasting projects. What station manager could avoid concluding that the best shows are Mobil shows? The idea instilled is that vigorous cultural life—serious creativity—means primarily reperforming the great works of the past, and that financing the work of individual unknowns is culturally counter-productive. Dickens and Tennyson forever, who needs anything new?

Fifth, attempts by public broadcasting stations to acquaint themselves with the views and tastes of the living American public are spiritless and cynical. It’s not inconceivable that an individual creator, assured of deep public concern with a subject, could commit himself to it unreservedly. But as matters stand, efforts by public broadcasting stations to seek out the actual feelings of their constituencies are perfunctory at best. Under a procedure known in the trade as ascertainment, a random sample of public opinion is gathered by a station hand, who calls names in the local phone directory and asks about issues important to whoever has answered. What programs, sir, should be on the air? In your opinion, sir? Sensibly, Sir hesitates. Predictably, he answers: programs on crime in the streets, rape, welfare rip-offs. In another phase of ascertainment, a station representative meets with community leaders and takes down a list of subjects of concern to them: crime in the streets, rape, welfare rip-offs. Community opinion. Processes such as these cannot induce patient thoughtfulness about current issues; the program ideas that result are not the kind to which talent is attracted.

The tally of organizational arrangements now suffocating ambition in this field could be extended. (My inquiries indicate—an added shame—that many PBS stations have favored spending their funds on enormously expensive studio equipment, a habit suggesting the frailty of station interest in reaching out into their communities for program material.) But the point is clear enough. There is virtually nothing in the arrangements of public TV that is on the side of individual creators. In the eyes of this medium, the talented independent video artist is, in truth, The Enemy.

Suppose things were different: What would public TV look like? Endless programs on fastfood franchising? Endless Frederick Wiseman documentaries?

The skeptical edge in such questions is understandable, and the only fair answer to them has to seem evasive. The fair answer is that predicting the future of a vital medium is a mug’s game. I can imagine an interviewer interrogating Sackville and Norton, authors of Gorboduc, the first blank-verse tragedy in English, which appeared in 1561, three years before the birth of Shakespeare: —Er, gentlemen, what all happen if we have a rash of scribblers writing plays in the vernacular, people without Culture or University Backgrounds, people without Latin, Greek, or titles? People who don’t know about the Unities, etc.? Gentlemen, what will happen? The last answer, probably, that the creators of Gorboduc would have made was that just ahead lay the Globe Theatre, Hamlet and King Lear, and the emergence of the greatest literary artist in the long history of the West. Yet Sackville and Norton would have been right if they had answered that way.

As for ourselves, it’s wise to bear in mind that in the late twentieth century, noncommercial film and video is a significant nascency in the arts. Nobody can be sure what the young and not-so-young will finally make of the cinematic forms that now enthrall them. But that the location of the creative energies in our midst is shifting seems undeniable. And a new episode in the democratization of the arts may well be imminent. Repeatedly in the past this democracy has kept its arts alive by returning to the people for vital idioms. From generation to generation for a century, creativity in American letters has been fueled by the vernacular—language as spoken by ordinary men and women. The same impulse in music produced a self-transforming vernacular harmony—jazz—that swiftly won its way and audience. And the same forces seem to be at work now, seeking to shape a new pictorial language, a form not at the mercy of commercial manipulation, for the fresh representation of democratic reality and possibility.

Light-bringers and, ultimately, legislators could, if they had sufficient will and imagination, speak intelligently to the emergent situation. They could encourage serious and disciplined work in the chosen new form, helping to lay out a future in which this country’s most gifted video artists would learn to trust themselves and relish their inventiveness, assured that art isn’t a lottery but a struggle on decent ground for true creation. The United States could renew its vision of itself as a society that appreciates both the capacity to see individually and the ingenuity that finds, through a labor of craft, ways of accommodating personal vision to the fraternity of millions. But precisely the opposite result will be obtained if the light-bringers and legislators continue to assert that the prime need in public broadcasting is simply more money to produce essentially the same programs now being offered.

Query: Will it really matter if this boat—this chance to transform not-for-profit TV—is missed? Yes, for this reason: Public broadcasting, for tens of millions, is the most authoritative image of intellectual and aesthetic cultivation in our society. Public TV bills itself indirectly, night after night, as a guide to the highest pleasures available to those who are educated, sophisticated, knowledgeable in the arts. When these pleasures appear synonymous with solemnity, complacency, narrowness of social frame, and political and intellectual timidity, the very idea of cultivation suffers enfeeblement.

And that idea—purposeful self-improvement—is absolutely essential to the health and vigor of our kind of society. It can be reinvigorated, and public TV is ideally situated to lead in efforts toward that end. The nonprofit channels are, in fact, potentially the most powerful instruments ever created both for showing the satisfactions of full intellectual and aesthetic responsiveness and for representing the breadth and fascination of daily life in democratic institutions. From them we could learn what members of a free society need most to know: who we are, and how, in nonexploitative, mutualistic undertakings, we can better ourselves.

But as of this hour the potentialities haven’t begun to be realized. We need new ambitions. We need a clearer, sharper understanding of the overall mission of mass communications in the nonprofit setting. Once these are in hand, we need voices speaking out boldly and persuasively to the Congress on behalf of those major structural changes that alone can assure a future for creativity in public broadcasting. But until then, says this old-time contributor to Channel X’s auctions, bargain sales, and what-have-you, not another nickel to public TV. □

  1. Checking this point with Carnegie staffers, I learned that recently enacted legislation calls for peer review of CPB’s program grants, so improvements may be imminent. I also learned that in the one recent instance wherein a station (WNET in New York) announced a peer-review procedure, literally hundreds of video artists stepped forward eagerly, starved for a chance to compete in an atmosphere of fairness.