When people start talking about "reorganizing" public television, they're already in big trouble. How can you reorganize something that was never organized in the first place?Public TV in America, long the under-nourished Oliver Twist of broadcasting, is also in a state of chronic, crippling beureaucratic befuddlement and, worse, infested with timidity and lethargy from top to bottom.
Bill Moyers, one of the most reputable and temperate of broadcast journalists, two weeks ago found himself so fed up with the hems and haws of public TV stations carrying or not carrying "Bill Moyers' Journal" that the grumble, "There's more censorship at PBS than there ever was at CBS," where he also worked with distinction as a correspondent.
But yesterday he wanted to amend that diagnosis. "It isn't really censorship," he said from New York's Channel 13 (WNET). "It's pluralism carried to an extreme, just as authority can be carried to an extreme. The system itself is simply incoherent, and no one can decide how we are going to build a coherent one, much less a strong one."
Moyers has had a vital, substantial first season of his revived "Journal" on the Public Broadcasting Service (PSB), but he has been frustrated by the whims and quirks of local PBS stations who edit his programs without permission, delay them to Siberian time slots, or preempt them for unquenchable fund-raising drives. A system that is treating the work of a Bill Moyers like this is not a system that is working. It's not even a system; it's a soap opera, in which local stations are forever at odds, uncomfortable with, or terrified over the prospect of being cogs in a national network.
"What the stations want," says Chuck Allen, program director of KCET in Los Angeles, "is to be saved by the very organization they beat up on all the time: PBS." It's perhaps the most self-destructive love-hate relationship in broadcasting history.
Does anyone have a plan? Ah, but everyone has a plan! Today is public broadcasting's day of hearings on H.R. 3333, the House Communications Subcommittee's attempt to rewrite the Communications Act of 1934, and among its provisions is the abolition of PBS's parent - or rather, grandparent - organization, the Corporation for Public Broadcasting (CPB). But meanwhile, the CPB board of directors has itself scheduled a powwow for today tomorrow "to act on a plan to restructure the Corporation." And on Monday, more than 500 representatives from PBS stations throughout the country will begin a two-day think-fest in that citadel of high though, Los Angeles, after which the BPBS board will meet "to assess the options for restructuring public television which have been examined intensively over the last year."
New York will be a great city if they ever finish it - or so went a vintage wisecrack. Similarly, PBS may be a great public TV system if they ever stop restructuring it. But while the memos and accusations fly, while titles are changed and bucks are passed, the crerative and imaginative people who just want to make good television - and not "The Love Boat" - have to bulldoze their way in to public TV or remain on the sidelines quietly pulling their hair.
It's such a chronically unresponsive system that it has even grown numb to its own quakes and tremors. One would think that the Nixon administration's stand on public television, like its position on, say, housebreaking, would have been unanimously discredited by this time, but the public TV system is still stymied by remains of that old Nixonian "bedrock of localism" concept that hamstrings independent producers and those like Moyers who want and deserve a true national forum.
Two recent Moyers programs, for example, have caused all kinds of wacky havoc within the system, although Washington's Channel 26 (WETA) and dozens of other stations carried them without incident. One show-"How to Get a Job" - contained a few common street words and the other - Monday night's "Women Inside" - had some vulgar language and a few glimpses of women who had been ordered to undress by guards in a Dade County, Fla., jail.
At Chicago's Channel 11 (WTTW), "How to Get a Job" was postponed from its scheduled 7 p.m. time slot to a far less accessible 11:30 p.m. because a lower echelon staff member heard a naughty word spoken casually on the soundtrack. Only one word and - whammo - exile.
Just as Bill Moyers is no sensationalist, "How to Get a Job" was no sensationalism. It was a thoughtful and informative piece, by Washington independent filmmaker Wayne Ewing, on a promising new project for motivating the unemployed. It would take an utter nut to find the program offensive.
Amazingly enough, Richard Bowman, director of broadcasting at Channel 11, was still under the impression this week that his station has aired the program at its scheduled time. "Oh yes, we had no problem with that," he said. "That was one of the best things Bill has ever done - a fantastic show! A superb show!"
Partly to make amends to Moyers, and partly because the program's value to the community has now been recognized, Channel 11 will repeat "How to Get a Job" every night at 9 the week of July 2, to make it belatedly available to a wider audience.
Moyers himself might never have known about the delay of the original telecast if not for the fact that he happened to be in Chicago on the air date and was surprised to see the late time listing in a Chicago newspaper. When he called station officials, they said an "underling" had routinely dellayed the program because of the single spoken word that was deemed unacceptable.
For anyone trying to produce public affairs programs for public television, the system is a maze of obstacles, many of them set up by local stations. PBS pressured Moyers to offer alternate, edited versions of his programs for squeamish stations but he refused. "If they want to bleep something at the station, they can go ahead," Moyers said. "At least a bleep is honest. It says, 'They filmed it the way it happened and it was changed later.' But I can't submit my work to 150 editors at 150 stations to do with as they please."
Five years ago, Moyers said, during a previous run of "Bill Moyers Journal" on PBS, "One of my shows was edited 10 different ways by 10 different stations."
Those local stations who remain so loudly fearful of a Big Brother in Washington telling them what to put on the air have not always shown the greatest courage in presenting challenging or troublesome material, no matter how potentially valuable it may be.
Some PBS stations panicked, for instance, over "Paul Jacobs and the Nuclear Gang," a documentary thunderbolt that began the commendable "Non-Fiction Television" series on PBS stations in February. Certain station managers apparently felt that even though the documentary came with built-in disclaimers, it was still too tough on the possible adverse effects of nuclear energy.
The program was shown on many stations the night of Feb. 25. On Feb. 27, HEW Secretary Joseph A. Califano declared exposure to radiation to be a "serious health issue" and suggested that the incidence of leukemia cases resulting from low-level radiation exposure may be higher than thought. This was one of the points made graphically and stunningly in "Paul Jacobs and the Nuclear Gang." Three Mile Island was only a couple of weeks away.
Richard Pollock, director of Ralph Nader's Critical Mass Energy Project, later charged that some of the defecting stations had bowed to pressure from the Atomic Industrial Forum (AIF) and other pro-nuclear groups.
"We know that a whole spectrum of representatives from the nuclear industry attempted to persuade stations not to air 'Paul Jacobs,'" Pollock said.
But Carl Goldstein, AIF vice president, said yesterday that the only action taken was a letter to PBS President Lawrence Grossman that "explained why we were troubled" by the documentary. Goldstein said he attended a benefit screening held about a week prior to the telecast. The AIF did not convince any stations not to show the program, he said; "I wish we had that kind of clout."
Goldstein said he has had conversations about allegedly anti-nuclear PBS documentaries with Barry Chase, director of public affairs programming. "Usually we come along after the fact and say, 'That was a rotten show and here's why,'" said Goldstein. "We do a lot of complaining, but we have a lot to complain about."
The American Nuclear Society and the AIF were able to persuade 20 PBS stations to show a pro-nuclear film that was "quite obviously the other side of the coin" as an antidote to the "Paul Jacobs" film, Goldstein said. The film was provided free to the stations.
Goldstein also said that in his discussions with Chase he found himself in the same Lewis Carroll-Franz Kafka maze that has driven so many people dealing with public TV to the brink of madness - or to commercial TV, which is the same thing. "I have trouble following a conversation with Barry when he starts telling me how things get approved and funded," Goldstein said." "It's very Byzantine. Sometimes it sounds like democracy running rampant and at other times it sounds like a tight little dictator-ship."
It wasn't only smaller or outlying PBS stations that got the jitters over "Paul Jacobs," as one might think.
Boston's Channel 2 (WGBH), port of entry for oodles and oodles of British soap opera, shivered and shook and then relegated "Paul Jacobs" to its UHF Channel, 44, at 3 o'clock on a Sunday afternoon.
A month later, a spot was finally found for "Paul Jacobs" on Channel 2 itself. It seems Three Mile Island had established the fact that nuclear energy was a rather important issue affter all.
Peter McGee, director of public affairs at the station, later denied that the program was hidden away in the schedule out of management trepidation. "There was a scheduling conflict," he said.
WGBH, meanwhile, is finding stations not very reluctant at all to welcome its big new series of the summer, "Dancing Disco," - yes, "Dancing Disco" - which begins an eight-week run on 75 stations next month. The total production cost for this show is $136,000 and it has been, a press release trumpets, "recorded live on location at Club Max, one of Boston's hottest nightspots."
The program will include dance lessons plus a disco fashion show because "once you've perfected your style, you'll want some funky rage to hustle in." Public television stations voted the go-head for this production as part of their Station Program Cooperative last spring.
The stations also voted to continue established public TV staples like "Evening at Pops," "Sesame Street," "Masterpiece Theater," "Nova" and "World" and such shameless frivolities as "Sneak Previews," starring two giggly Chicago movie critics, and "Sneak Previews, Take 2," which PBS promises will "concentrate on ageless questions that have perplexed cinema scholars for generations - 'Can Anybody Replace Liz Taylor?' 'Are Today's Movies Really Sexier?'" and so on.
As part of an effort to establish PBS as a stronger centralized program source, executives there have been working on a fall "core" schedule that would not exactly require but at least firmly request member stations to air certain programs at certain times, just to establish a beach-head of continuity. However, as the plans stand now, there will be no regular public affairs programs in that core schedule this fall. None.
It would seem that a stronger, more assertive PBS might be one way to get more public affairs programming on public television, but there are depressing indications that PBS officials are thinking in the same terms of audience lust that obsess commercial broadcasters and make commercial broadcasting so innocuous and escapist. PBS recently issued a press release trumpeting that its Nielsen ratings for March were the highest yet, an announcement worthy of ABC.
While in San Francisco not long ago, Moyers complained to a public TV station ther about yet another preemption of "Bill Moyers Journal." The station manager explained the facts of life to Moyers. "Public affairs doesn't draw audiences the way the big cultural blockbusters do," he said, "and we're in the midst of our fund-raising right now." If this philosophy is going to dominate public television, whether on the local level or the national, they can restructure it from now till doomsday and there will still be no hope of saving it from itself. CAPTION: Picture, Bill Moyers