WE HAVE seen the future, and it is a rerun. Recently hatched plans by public television stations to buy reruns of the old CBS-TV series "The Paper Chase" have to be among the most quintessentially lame-brained schemes in the history of public television, which is littered with them.
And it will cost around a million bucks, besides.
Public TV stations as a group already rejected a proposal to purchase "Paper Chase" reruns at one of their PBS program-buying co-op sessions. But William J. McCarter, president of WTTW, the public TV station in Chicago, insisted on pursuing this folly anyway.
Now the Atlantic Richfield Company has coughed up $400,000 toward the purchase of the episodes and another $250,000 to advertise and promote the show when it returns to public TV. The total price being asked by producer 20th Century-Fox for its once-interred flop has been put at $950,000; those public TV stations wishing to participate will make up the difference in the cost.
Part of the funds to carry off this prank, then, could come from pledges and donations by those who gave money to public TV in the hopes they would see on it something different from commercial fare -- not just a nominally highbrow network discard from a TV season past.
Coincidentally, the enormously respected and lavishly awarded journalist Bill Moyers recently announced his intentions to quit his public TV public affairs program. He is returning to CBS News, where he will be part of the network's convention and election team. Moyers gave as a primary reason for quitting public TV the fact that severe budget cuts would cripple his reportage.
Although the Moyers money does not come out of the same bureaucratic kitty, it's symptomatic of the same bureaucratic mess; it's public TV failing to come up with support for an outstanding public affairs series on one hand, and then merrily rallying around an innocuous old commercial TV bomb on the other.
McCarter says that 110 stations have signed up to show 13 episodes of "Paper Chase" starting in January. If this experiment goes well, more episodes will be bought -- and then, as the most far-fetched part of the plot, a few new episodes produced, with members of the original cast returning. McCarter expects almost all public TV stations will eventually come around and join in. "The Paper Chase" originally bowed on CBS in September 1978 and hung quietly around for 22 episodes. It averaged a pitful rating of 12.5 and a miserable audience share of 20 percent.
CBS acknowledges that "thousands" of letters were received protesting the show's cancellation but that many of these were the result of organized letter-writing campaigns, not spontaneous outpourings of alarm.
Some critics took the show to their bosoms in its day, hailing it as "cerebral," perhaps because of its college setting. Many were smitten with the performance of then 75-year-old John Houseman as a saber-toothed lion of a law professor named Kingsfield. Among Houseman's fans was elderly CBS Chairman William S. Paley himself, though he later denied that he liked the program just because a geezer was the star.
It was canceled at any rate and no one but the books at 20th century-Fox would suffer if it were never heard from again.
Fox would be happy if the plan to revive the series and actually produce new episodes to supplement old ones goes through, because then the company would have enough shows in the stockpile to make syndication of the series potentially profitable. As it stands now, there are too few in the can. This makes public TV a pawn in Fox's quest to turn a loser into a moneymaker.
McCarter says the fact that the show was produced in Hollywood for mass-audience commercial TV does not make it ineligible for public TV. "I don't draw a sharp line between programs produced in one sector and those produced in another," he says. "That line I think can be blurred, or at least a case made for blurring it. Don't you think a lot of commercial stations would just love to have 'Sesame Street'?"
Oh maybe they would. But if we're going to keep blurring the line between commercial and public TV, why have public TV at all? There's enough pointless and counter-productive crossover as it is, what with Dick Cavett hopping from Kellogg's and credit card insurance commercials to his PBS talk show. Mobil funds a series of imported British mysteries and idiotically hires NBC's "Today" show buffoon Gene Shalit to host them. Bill Bixby, the humdrum actor who stars as the pre-green "Incredible Hulk" on CBS, was retained to host "Once Upon A Classic," an otherwise excellent series of dramas for children.
Perhaps the people in public TV think that commercial TV is the principal reference point for everyone who watches television and that they must exploit it or die. Better they should develop some reference points of their own, and not just buy and import them, either.
"Paper Chase" did not really defy the constraints of commercial TV production. For awhile it had a mildly esoteric baroque musical theme, but that was jettisoned soon enough in favor of something more jingley. A better series about lawyers, "Kaz," started and failed the same season on CBS, but public TV stations aren't bidding on that one, Perhaps it isn't quaint enough, or pretentious enough, or maybe its fatal flaw is the lack of a senior citizen in the cast.
"We don't look on 'Paper Chase' as an old CBS show," says McCarter. "Our interest in this is that it was just a good television program." McCarter says his station recently bought the rights to the ABC miniseries "Eleanor and Franklin" -- another overstuffed turkey -- as well. This is all in keeping with offering viewers a good mix of shows, he says.
Or is it all in keeping with a scheme to make public TV look so much like commercial TV that it will at last lure sizable numbers of regular viewers only because they can't quite telll the difference?
That million bucks going into the coffers of 20th Century-Fox (which produced another canceled show superior to "Paper Chase," NBC's "James at 15," which public TV also had no apparent interest in) could be helping to finance something new and fresh for pupblic TV, not just recycling network castoffs. If public TV wants to preserve the best of commercial television, it should buy a series with some historical as well as some esthetic value, like "The Defeners" or "East Side/West Side."
Or "Mr. Peppers," for peep's sake.
McCarter's plan to produce "three or four" new episodes of "Paper Chase" has at least been amended so that if it does come to pass, the shows will be made in Chicago -- and not Hollywood, a little town which is, shall we say, not exactly under-represented in primetime TV. But to produce new episodes of an old series that was based on a movie that was based on a book does not seem like a bold thrust of original thought.
It seems more like lazy-minded and misguided nonthink, and on a slightly colossal level at that.