May 6, 1979, was the first day of the '80s. We moved into a New Television-though on tip-toe. Not everyone noticed it when it happened or knows about it even yet, but the day was a landmark for public TV, for the technological revolution in broadcasting and for America's rapidly expanding subculture of grass-roots video guerrillas.
The anti-nuclear demonstration held on May 6 in Washington may eventually pale in significance to the way it was covered-with a live, three-hour telecast thrown together in 10 days' time and beamed through a new loophole in public TV satellite rules to at least 20 TV stations around the country.
This was not a production of the Public Broadcasting Service (PBS) or any of its member stations-or even of the BBC. For the first time, an outside organization produced what its members call a "live documentary" which was made available to PBS stations through its newly installed satellite distribution system.
For precisely $1,199.50, the Public Interest Video group, formed just two weeks before the telecast, rented three hours on the Webstar satellite used by PBS to disseminate some of its programming to stations, and with the help of 100 video-active volunteers and six rented color cameras, put on a save-the-whale of a show.
Ironically, and bafflingly, the telecast was blacked out in the Washington area where the demonstration was actually taking place. You could see it live in San Francisco but not in Washington, because the management of the local PBS station, WETA, refused to carry it. "WETA couldn't have been less supportive or more difficult," says Victoria Costello, a senior producer of the program.
"In retrospect," WETA President Ward Chamberlin says now, "I thought they did a pretty good job. I'm kind of sorry we didn't carry it. But we couldn't find out a good deal of information about it, and we weren't confident of the journalistic quality of the material."
Because this was not an official PBS offering, Public Interest Video not only had to make all arrangements for coverage, but also had to line up stations to pick up the telecast one at a time. Fifteen aired the program live and five delayed it to a later period.
One of the first stations to say yes was KCET in Los Angeles, where senior vice president Chuck Allen is ecstatic over the program, the way its producers penetrated the infamous public TV bureaucracy, and what it all means to the future of television. This kind of parlay between home-grown video and satellite transmission probably has a lot to do with the shape of things to come.
"I felt like I was a gigantic town meeting," says Allen. "That program represented something new and fresh and valuable that had never been done before. Very seldom do we have this kind of celebration of an issue. I want a lot more of these, because what interests people is to be able to connect themselves to a point of view. I'm bored to death with the slick stuff I can't connect to - you know, those awful things that are meant to put you to sleep."
Allen is the first to admit the production was not technically perfect. Host David Prowitt, who did an admirable job of holding the broadcast together for three hours from a desk perched on the West Steps of the Capitol, spent part of the last hour holding the desk itself together with his legs. When the rented Telepromp-Ter failed for the second or third time, guest commentator Edwin Diamond just said, "Well, we lost the prompter here, that's okay," and read the rest of his remarks from a printed script.
Executive producer Kim Spencer says that at 9 a.m. the day of the broadcast it was discovered his crews were a crucial 500 feet short of cable at the Capitol. So in a spirit of communal broadcasting-some of the volunteers who worked free were network news personnel on a day off-CBS lent the novices the cable they needed. Hook-ups were still being made five minutes before air time.
"I'm really thrilled with what the folks did on the 6th," booms Allen from Los Angeles, "but I don't confuse it with perfection. Television was alive and well and not perfect, because so often, when it's perfect, it's dead. I felt alive and well and terrific myself, and I had a zillion new ideas for using this channel."
In one amazing day-amazing even to the people who brought it off-the instant coalition of video groups that put on the telecast shook some of the stubborn stodginess out of public broadcasting, a system normally as quick to change as the polar ice caps.
Some stations shunned the program for fear of problems with the FCC's Fairness Doctrine, which requires stations to give balanced treatment of controversial issues. But the telecast was not just an unquestioning witness to the rally; there were live and taped interviews with pro- as well as anti-nuclear figures, from William Rusher of the conservative National Review to Jane Fonda of all causes bright and beautiful.
If anything, the producers may have been too fair, too often deserting the podium for material prepared in advance.
Chamberlin, whose WETA was preparing its own one-hour special on the nuclear issue-hysterically titled "The Three-Mile Island Syndrome," by the way-said he was also reluctant to pick up the live telecast from the Capitol because "I never could find out who was funding the thing."
The producers say they're not sure, either, since not all of the $30,000 they need has been raised yet.
The broadcast was unwisely titled "Nuclear Power: The Public Reaction," although there is no evidence that the demonstrators represented "the" public reaction. In addition many of those involved in the telecast are young and ecologically oriented. The charge that their reportage was inherently biased is one they are ready for. They say it wasn't.
"Our director turned out to be pro-nuclear," Spencer says. "That has nothing to do with it."
Asked if any of the funding for the telecast came from anti-nuclear organizations, Costello says, "No. We could have gotten it, and we didn't take it." Asked if she would have participated in the demonstration if there had been no telecast, she says, "A lot of us would have been there anyway, but we just would have been making tapes instead of doing it live. There were 20 independent filmmakers there making documentaries and there would have been 20 videomakers too if they hadn't all been working with us."
We may never know how many people saw the program. In some cities the ratings are below measurable Nielsen levels, according to PBS audience researcher Ken Wirt. But he also says that preliminary ratings from San Francisco indicate that as many as 150,000 people in that city may have tuned in-more on a Sunday afternoon than usually watch the local public TV station in prime time.
One lame excuse for not carrying the live telecast reflects the kind of public broadcasting mentality that the young zealots of "indie" video-the "in-dependents," as they're called in the biz-are rising up to challenge.
Richard Bowman, program director at WTTW in Chicago, says his station rejected the telecast because it was too long and unfamiliar. "An hour is a watchable TV program, whereas three hours is not," Bowman says. "We'd rather they had boiled it down into a television program rather than just supply three hours of coverage."
Here we have one on the mounmental recurring failures of television - the insistence that everthing be "boiled down" into "a television program.' Lazy old PBS would be happy just using satellite to beam canned Masterpiece Theaters all over the place. The system has been unresponsive because public TV program directors unfortunately want what commercial TV wants: pre-tested, pre-packaged and predictable programming.
The independents could bring television back from the dead, and now they have the means - a ride on the "bird,' which is what the satellite is called - to bring it about. "The door," Allen proclaims proclaims optimistically, "is open."
"It's ideas that the system is short on, not money, and this is the kind of thing that makes television grow a little by doing something differently than before," Allen says.
What's next for the Public Interest Video group? First they have to pay the bills. There is also the prospect of a follow-up to the demonstration telecast although, to their relief, there have been no fairness doctrine complaints about it so far, not even from the powerful and ever-vocal nuclear lobby.
"We're sort of taken with the video SWAT team concept," says Spencer. "Of being able to cover events both social and political, as they're happening."
"We want to do more of this kind of thing, says senior producer Larry Kirkman. "Like covering the Puerto Rican presidential primary in March - it's the first one, and nobody ever covers it. And I'd love to do a show live from the next oil spill."
"Can you imagine!" says Spencer enthusiastically "Ducks - dying!" Live - via satellite. On television.
Things to come will come through the air. CAPTION: Picture, Tom Hayden, left, Jane Fonda and TV host David Prowitt; by Jack Jorgens