IF ALL the time and energy spent analyzing and studying public television were channeled into making programs, none of us would ever dare leave our homes. We would be riveted to our public TV stations, where triumph would follow masterpiece night after night after night.
This, however, is not the case. Tearing oneself away from the average public television program requires about as much effort as yawning.
One of the reasons for that, and one of the worst things about public television, is that it remains stubbornly if helplessly inhospitable to bright and feisty independent producers who might be able to make it better.
"People ask me why I don't do public television," says one seasoned commercial TV producer. "They say it's because there's not enough money in it. Absolutely wrong -- ther's more money in it. I just cannot sit down and deal with moving papers and writing memos day in and day out. That to me is not what a television producer does."
"Not even commercial television is as Kafka-esque as public television," says a former public TV producer now in commercial TV and movies. "It's a horrible system, really, with no sense of continuity. They don't know what their goal is or who their constituency is. Trying to work within that system just ends up in frustration on every single level."
For the ambitious independent documentary maker with something to offer, there is one main avenue into public television: the Television Laboratory at Channel 13 (WNET) in New York. Its director, David Loxton, is achingly aware of public TV's shortcomings, and he has a number of good ideas. He also has $650,000 which the Ford Foundation and the National Endowment for the Arts have contributed to the Lab's Independent Documentary Fund.
"Everybody's frustrated with public television because they think it hasn't lived up to its mandates," Loxton says. "Well, it hasn't. There's no question it hasn't. Public television is only as good as its programs, and its programs by and large aren't good. It's ridiculous the amount of money that goes into public television right now and how little of it is reflected in quality work on the screen."
Some viewers will argue that they have their dear little favorites on public TV -- say, a quaint cooking show or one of those interminable if handsomely done British serials. But in fact public TV is strangling on the umbilical cord of its won bureaucracy, and its maladies reach the air in programming that is largely tentative, unimaginative, stiff and stiflingly polite.
Loxton wants to foster real television -- and reality television. And the TV Lab's past smashes have been stunning face-savers for public TV -- shows like the TVTV productions "Lord of the Universe" and "Gerald Ford's America"; Twyla Tharp's "Making Television Dance"; "Vietnam: Your Money or Your Life," and Alan and Susan Raymond's acclaimed video verite close-ups of urban underlife, "The Police Tapes" and "Bad Boys."
Although the Lab has been around since 1972, last year was the first for the Independent Documentary Fund. With a $500,000 grant, Loxton was able to underwrite or assist 12 projects -- out of 885 applications. This year, he hopes to fund 15; and, as of the Dec. 1 deadline, he and project coodinator Kathy Kline had been inundated with another 800 applications, some of them repeats from last year's rejects.
The first productions from last year's round of funding will get to the public airwaves in February, Loxton estimates, although how many stations will carry them, when they will be shown, and whether there will be a regular slot in the schedule for them, are still in a big muddle.
There is enough red tape in public television, ladies and gentlemen, to seal every Christmas package in the world for the next 10 years.
"I don't trust anybody in public television," Loxton says bluntly. "I don't trust anybody to do anything well. I don't trust anybody to schedule these programs well or to promote them well. There's a self-destruct mechanism built into the public television system that is unbelievable."
Fortunately for one and all, Loxton is a battler. But not all creative people are, not should they have to be. What with the Public Broadcasting Service (PBS), the Corporation for Public Broadcasting (CPB) and all the individual public TV stations involved in a great hierarchical free-for-all, the challenge to an artist's endurance can be formidable, and finally defeating.
"It's very hard to be a creative producer in public television right now," Loxton says, "because once you've got an idea, then the time it takes to go and try to raise the money for the idea, sell the idea, get it into that so-called selling market and all that, well, if you survive it, you're lucky.
"I'm not sure commercial television isn't less of a bureaucracy than public television. You get answers a lot quicker in commercial television than you do in public. Here, there is no one place or one person who can ultimately give you the final answer on anything. There are so many routes by which you can get the same project considered over and over again, you can spend a year and a half exploring all the avenues.
"If there's anything that drives the independent producer approaching public television absolutely up the wall it's that there's not a single goddamn person in the entire system who will ever say 'No.'"
So Loxton tries to make his documentary unit "a very clean simple system" where people get straight answers. And he notes that independent producers shouldn't feel especially persecuted by the unresponsive public TV system -- because it's just as hard for people working inside.
"It's as insane for me as it is for the independent," says Loxton. "The only difference is -- and a rather big one, I must admit -- that at least I'm getting paid while the process is going on. So that while I'm going through the insanity of one bureaucracy after another, the system has to pay for that stupidity and wasted time. That's not the case with the independent, who is not on salary, and that's why it's just unfair to make those people run around."
The future of strong documentaries in commercial TV is not very rosy. Most informational shows do not draw big audiences. ("60 Minutes" is the spectacular exception.) This is the area in which public television should be excelling. In fact, however, it lags sloppily behind -- largely because underwriting oil companies would rather sponsor noncontroversial tea-time dramas or the umpty-umpth production of some tattered old war horse of an 18th-century opera. But Loxton sees public television's failures extending beyond its lousy record in public affairs.
"When you think of all the American talent -- dramatic talent, choreographic talent, film talent -- that doesn't get involved in public TV, you realize we're really not good in that sense," he says. "The mainstream creative force of England easily swings into the BBC, or even into British commercial television, and creates a TV project, and then goes back to theater, or film, or whatever. That doesn't happen in American television. And if we can't do it in public TV, then commercial TV certainly won't do it. But people just don't flow in and out. We should have established by now the ability for artists to do that, to treat television seriously."
Taken as a whole, "there isn't much fun in public television now," Loxton notes. "That's the worst thing; they just ain't having fun."
Loxton's idea of a good documentary is not the public TV formula -- "eight people who sit around a table, endlessly and mindlessly repeating their standard positions on an issue so that you're more confused at the end than you were at the beginning." Instead he points with warranted pride to programs like "Bad Boys" that take familiar abstract social problems and make them stunningly immediate.
Strong, original documentaries will not come from within the public TV system as it now stands. PBS tends to air either purchased, imported, completed works already seen elsewhere, or Walter ComMitty's on tippy-toes (although the Bill Moyers series, to begin in January on PBS, holds out some hope). Loxton says categorically, "The only place where there are good documentaries to be made is by the independents."
If public TV is going to be a reality alternative to commercial television -- and it would be inexcusable for it not to be -- more independent voices must be allowed in, and the system has to be made nore responsive to them. Loxton and his Lab can't do it all; right now he has a monopoly on opportunity that even he doesn't want. To the independents, he is guru, patron saint and Daddy Warbucks.
"Actually, it's a very optimistic time in public television," Loxton says cheerfully. "We can't get any worse, so we have to get better. That's what I feel."