PUBLIC-TELEVISION should offer a choice, not an echo.
Dialing our way through the channels, we should be able to recognize a public television station the instant we come upon it, and not just because nobody else would be giving air time to a woman with a voice like a warped drawer who schleps soft-shelled sea creatures from table to stove. True, public television ought to offer a haven for quaintness and minority tastes, but it should also be a showcase for excellence.It should have a look of class and taste that commercial stations and networks can't be bothered with.
You woudn't have known public TV from the other kind on Tuesday night between the hours of 8 and 11 if you lived in Washington and your public TV station was Channel 26 (WETA), because the excutives who run the station decided it was in the station's best interest to air a professional hockey game, fifth of the Stanley Cup finals, which the Commercial stations in town had turned down.
Professional hockey does not belong on public television. There are better places for it and public television has better things to do with its time - in this case, offer a fascinating documentary in the Miami trial of convicted teen-age murderer Ronny Zamora. WETA bumped that show from its scheduled day to Monday night, which happens to be the end of the first warm-weather extended weekend of the year and is bound to find fewer people convinient to television sets.
In Miami, WPBT, which produced the Zamora documentary, "TV on Trial," did the logical thing: It tape-delayed the hockey game two hours and put the documentary on at the time when the most possible people could see it. It is true that fans could have learned the outcome of the game before it started on the air under those conditions, but then a true fancares how a game is played, not just how it turns out.
"Please don't put us in the same pot with WETA," said WPBT program director John Felton from Miami.
The Stanley Cup finals atre not just your typical pro hockey games, it was alledged by some of those who supported the WETA decision, This was to be the World Series of hockey and not a slugfeat on ice, as some por hockey games are. Tuning in this gentleman's sport at 11 o'clock Tuesday, with only 21 seconds left until conclusion> one arrived to find the ice littered with gloves and bodies and most of the players paired off in pummeling couples. The arena was anarchy, the organist accompanied the brawl with the theme from "Star Wars," and even a play-by-play announcer was bemoaning the fact that this had been a "boring" game, despite other outbreaks of punching.
Later we watched as a player with most of his front teeth missing mouthed obscenities at another player from the penalty box.It certainly was a dignified and momentous competitive even, wasn't it?
The absurdities of modern life have a place on public television, but only when placed in some sort of intelligent perspectives. A program from the past of commercial television could be completely suitable for public TV because the new setting could in itself offer a fresh framework. But the hockey game was just there, supplied by a commercial outfit run by the National Hockey League itself; there wasn't the much as a stab at context.
WETA filled in the spaces where commercials would have been, not with a moment's peace but with still more begging for viewer donations. Viewers were in fact told that their money would be used partly for addtional programing like pro hockey. Maybe the management of WETA should see what it can do about luring Charlie's angels away from ABC while they're at it. The station claimed a tiny bonanza of new pledges form viewers as a result of the game; of course, Amazons wrestling in mud would have attracted a certain number of viewers and money as well.
Of all the nation's public TV stations Washington's should be a model and a showpiece. It's in this wild and whacky town that the money gets voted for the Corporation for Public Broadcasting (CPB) and national distribution to public TV stations all over the country. And yet WETA's record of local production is unimpressive, its receptiveness to independent producers notoriously cold, and its indulgence in the kinds of gimmickry one expects of commercial stations increasingly gaudy.
Currenctly the station delays its Sunday-night-at-10 program each week to present a lottery drawing for a cash prize, part of a $10,000 bribe with which the station is luring donations. Wouldn't it be nice if people could be induced to donate money pure!y out of enthusiasm for the station's alternative programing?
During fundraising marathons, and during breaks in this week's hockey games, donations were coaxed with the aid of "premiums" - gifts supplied to the station and then plugged and praised as generously as are the crock pots doled out on "The Hollywood Square." These plugs are commercials and they should be disallowed on "noncommercial" television. When watching public TV, we should be able to find shelter from the otherwise incessant importunings og the marketplace.
Public TV stations are getting into the same self-promotional rut as commercial stations. The Public Broadcasting Services (PBS) now regularly supplies stations with promos for featured shows - aired during station breaks - and producers of programs are required to produce promos as well. WETA now fades down the theme music at the conclusion of programs, no matter how pleasing a piece of music it incidentally may be, to promote the next show on the schedule. In other words, public television is begining to regards to its viewers with the same contempt the networks do - as passive criphers who must constantly be prodded on what to do, and always in an attempt to hold their attention for another half-hour ratings periods.
To be fair, public TV sits vulnerably in a goldfish bowl. If it programs vast blocks on intellectual and esoteric fare, it is accused of being elist. It it agressively goes after big audiences, it is accused of pandering. But a civil middle ground is possible, and of the two alternatives, the former is the less objectionable and the latter less in keeping with the peoper objectives of the system. It is better to risk boring some people and even alienating others, than to join in the cry of the carnival barkers of commercial television.
Public TV should be an oasis from the hurly-burly of the hustle, the pitch and the hard sell. Constantly, television implores and exhorts us to buy this, buy that, read this, read that, go to this movies, use this brand of toilet paper, give our mates expensive gifts, lavish extravagances on our children, and spare no effort at pampering ourselves. We are bombarded from every corner with messages as well. Public television shouldn't be just the place where you can get Shakespeare insteas of "Starky and Hutch." It should be the place where you are treated as if you had enough intelligence to decide things for yourself.
The very essence of plea "Now stay tuned" is anathema to the spirit of public TV. But slowly and surely, whatever dignity public TV has is being eroded by attempts to imitate, of all things, the commercial broadcasters - broadcasters whose programming this past year has consisted you'd never know it from the way they scream its praises.
Public TV is adopting a similar strategy) Keep promoting yourself often and loudly enough and pretty soon it scarely matters how far you fall short or your s own potential.
A long-range public broadcasting bill has left a House committee and will come to the floor in June. It could be on the president's desk by mid-July. It increases the amount of federal funding for public TV appreciably and extends the appropration through 1983. It is a desperately needed improvement which will by no means solve public television's financial problems.
WETA's flirtation with professional hockey can have enchanced public television's image in this town only if there are lots of congressman who are raving hockey fans; maybe that was the method in the madness, and maybe it was needed worth the trouble. But that is an outside chance. The experiment has left a nasty aftertaste; it sounded ill-advised and in the long run it will probably proves to be, after the dollars it raised have been spent.
Washington, like every major American city, deserves a public television station it can take pride in, and a sanctuary from commercial harassment. WETA these days has more the look of an embarrassment, a station too eager to compromise itself in the pursuit of increasing its audience body count.