PUBLIC TELEVISION should be taken apart from top to bottom and put back together someplace else. The system is infested with cobwebs, do-nothings and buck passers of a low order.
These are the kinds of things the Carnegie Commission didn't say in its new report on public TV. The report is now going through the process of being discussed to death within public TV and by the debutantes and dilettantes of the Eastern Liberal artocracy.
The Carnegie Commission goes so far as to suggest a phasing out of the Corporation for Public Broadcasting (CPB) but also proposes new bureaucratic mechanisms in its place. In fact, the Public Broadcasting Service (PBS) should also be dismantled and a new and, one would hope, more efficient central public TV organization be set up anywhere but in Washington, even if that means New York.
There is no reason for public TV to be headquartered in Washington and every reason for it not to be. PBS and CPB had barely been created when they became encrusted in the kudzu vines of suffocating rigamarole that keep so many federal programs from serving the purposes for which they were created. Like other bureaucracies, the public TV establishment now exists primarily to perpetuate itself.
Some people will say they love the opera and the British serials and the squab-cooking lessons they see on public TV. Good for them. But the system should be much more. Instead it has become a granny, one of the most premature ever to turn dotty in full view of the nation.
Public television is like the Kennedy Center; it contributes little of its own but has managed to save face with fancy if often antique acquisitions from elsewhere. The Kennedy Center isn't commissioning brave new works, supporting feisty young artists-in-residence, or encouraging experimentation in any art form whatsoever. The people who run the Kennedy Center -- chiefly, that cagey old patrician Roger L. Stevens -- instead make such bids for respectability as the distribution of awards.
The fruit of that gesture was "The Kennedy Center Honors," a CBS network special that was one of the season's big prestigious ratings flops. Stevens got the movers, shakers and even a few cliffdwellers to come crawling out in black tie for another in his interminable parade of glitzy-shnitzy galas.
This kind of thinking often prevails in public television; hire public relations firms and personnel to spruce up the image, stage splashy fund-raising drives to proclaim one's importance and finance further fund-raising drives, and continue to eschew, rebuff or stubbornly resist attempts by ambitious independent producers to gain themselves a national showcase because they are too much trouble.
One hears frequent tales of Kafkaesque nightmares from those who have tried to penetrate the public television force field and been met with either blank indifference or hostility. Some excellent programs do make it to the air -- often after years of arduous form-filing and fund-haggling -- but generally speaking, you shouldn't bother trying to get on public television unless you are either British or a Muppet.
Julie Motz, whose Hudson River Film Company produced the Emmywinning documentary "Christina's World" (inspired by the famous Andrew Wyeth painting), has survived many battles and skirmishes with public TV and she says the system as it exists is hopeless and that the Carnegie Report is a farce.
"The only value of the Carnegie Report is that it openly recognizes that public television is not nearly as good as it could be," she says.
Carnegie II, as it's called, does propose a "Program Services Endowment" for facilitating more funding of projects like those producer Motz might dream up. "But that just creates another bureaucracy within a bureaucracy," she says. "The Carnegie Report doesn't deal with the basic problem, which is that bureaucracies do not tolerate the tension of making creative decisions. The only people interested in taking creative risks are the creators; they're the ones who stand or fall by what's actually on the screen. But the creative people who make good programs have not been supported by or drawn into the public TV system."
Motz is asked what she thinks of the people who run public TV. "I think they're incompetent," she says. "It seems to me they choose to be incompetent, because they are not exposing themselves to creative people. They don't look for projects and people in the right places." Instead, people have to beat doors down trying to get attention.
And those empowered to say "yes" or "no" in public TV have bizarre priorities, Motz says. At Channel 13 in New York, which Motz has dealt with, great value is put on "a kind of social cachet" that might accompany the project. And so on. "But," Motz says, "the decisions are almost never based on the simple question, 'Is this going to make an exciting television program?'"
In public TV, you meet many tweedy Eastern types who have either low regard or contempt for television and high regard for keeping their jobs. They are great believers in the safe and the tested -- just like in commercial TV, if on a more rarefied cultural plane -- and they tend to have the same accountant mentality as those who run commercial TV stations and networks.
Also -- it's a jungle in there, or a "nest of vipers," as Motz calls it.
"Everybody complains about everybody else in public TV being a bureaucracy," she says. "Channel 13 complains that CPB is too bureaucratic. But Channel 13 itself won't take risks. They like to blame the taste of corporate underwriters for what they do, but they don't really try to sell them on things they strongly believe in. If they had been doing dynamic programming when Nixon came along, there would have been a tremendous hue and cry over his attempts to harass and intimidate them. But they've never built a constituency of people willing to scream and yell to defend what's on public television."
Power struggles, paper shuffling and potted-plant watering in the office -- public TV bureaucrats are great at these things, but unfortunately such activities don't really produce zesty, original television. "There's no excitement in the system for developing any creative American talents or for doing anything unusual," Motz laments. "They talk about it. They talk about it. But they take such miniscule risks, it's ridiculous."
Instead of improving programming, public television is investing more and more time in the promotion of existing programming, beating its drum so loudly that, it is hoped, people won't realize the goods are meager. It's staggering the way public TV treats its audience with the same contempt as commercial TV does; the prevailing philosophy is that viewers cannot be trusted to desire or find good programs, so they must be bullied and prodded.
Stations like Washington's Channel 26 inserted loud and abrasive promos, commercials really, during the breaks between acts in "Julius Caesar," the opening production of the BBC "Shakespeare Plays" series. PBS interrupts the two-hour "Hollywood Musicals" purchased at an outlandish price for public TV broadcast so that stations can insert another squawking burst of promotion. They simply cut right into the middle of the movie -- more abrasively, in fact, than sponsor IBM did when some of the very same films were shown on commercial stations under IBM's syndicated, one-interruption "Movies to Remember" format.
Public television is about as public as Citizen Kane's Xanadu and about as noncommercial as the Sears catalogue.
Another discouraging thing about public television is the way it responds to criticism. When David Loxton, director of Channel 13's TV Lab, complained to the press not too long ago about impenetrable bureaucratic labyrinths of the public television establishment, that establishment, instead of responding productively to the criticisms, expressed its displeasure to Loxton and raised its eyebrows to the rafters. Nevertheless, the first of the independent documentaries Loxton's Lab funded, under the umbrella "Non-Fiction Television," airs tonight, and the project remains a pinspot of hope for public TV.
However, also on the way is "Festival '79," another alleged feast of riches that will be regularly interrupted for fund-pleading. One wonders if they even remember any more why they're raising the money.
"The reason I'm involved with television," Motz says, "is that I do believe people crave information. They settle for gossip because that's the best they can get. But if you give them information -- and it's the challenge of the artist to do it entertainingly -- that's the whole reward."
The Carnegie Commission has hardly pointed the way to redemption for public television; the commission was made up not of people known for how much they care about television or the public but for the viewpoints or constituencies they embodied or represented. The "landmark report" was put forth with the same kind of pontifical pretentiousness that comes up with public TV titles like "Master-piece Theater."
Public television is in the grip of the artsocrats. If we don't force them to let go, it will be theirs forever.