Don't look for "Panorama" at noon today on Channel 5. It has been replaced by reruns of the sitcom "Alice" and VTV, a syndicated home shopping show. "Panorama" was canceled, by the management of WTTG-TV, three months after the program merrily celebrated its 20th anniversary.
The inscription on a cake wheeled onto the set for the celebration read, "20 Years and Counting." It was a short count. Host Angela Robinson wept as she signed the show off the air on Friday. "From the beginning, more than 20 years ago, this was Washington's show," she said through a stream of tears. Washington doesn't have its show any more.
Canceling "Panorama" was a supposedly sound business decision that also happens to be morally indefensible.
Like most canceled TV programs, "Panorama" got its death sentence primarily for declining ratings. But it was a victim of something else. Under recently departed chairman Mark Fowler, the renegade deregulator, the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) abolished the public service requirements to which station managements traditionally were held accountable at license renewal time.
Stations now have no official mandate to air regular, locally responsive, public affairs programs. They are free instead to turn that pesky old public service time into moneymaking time -- say, with tired off-network reruns or home shopping sprees.
"What the cancellation of 'Panorama' represents," says Andrew Jay Schwartzman, director of the Media Access Project, "is that there is not the slightest consideration given any more to dressing up the schedule with some attention to news and public affairs. Now, if a program doesn't make money, they feel no obligation to put it on. This is a direct result of the deregulation process. 'Panorama' is the victim of it."
In recent weeks, the new owners of Channel 20 (WDCA) canceled virtually all local production at that station -- even the jokey wraparounds to old horror movies, as well as the daily and serious "Eye on Washington" report. The station presumably will concentrate its air time on kung fu movies, TV evangelists and professional wrestling, all house specialties and all easy money.
The cancellations and firings were ordered by TVX, a Virginia Beach media conglomerate that took over the station as part of a group buy on April 9 and then ordered Draconian, even Tischian, cutbacks to help pay for the purchase.
Fowler always claimed his deregulatory bender would encourage diversity in programming. In fact, it's making TV stations within a city, and from one city to another, indistinguishable, like airports, or Ramada Inns, or fast-food restaurants.
Betty Endicott, general manager of WTTG, was asked if she felt guilty that a proud 20-year Washington tradition was ended on her watch.
"Not guilty," Endicott said. "Sad. But I think that what this station does best is special and local programming." She insisted WTTG would maintain a high local profile with a planned series of prime-time documentaries and special reports, to start airing in July. Five production people were laid off with "Panorama's" axing, Endicott said.
The decision to kill "Panorama" was "a station decision," said Endicott. "It was not forced by Fox, or anything like that," a reference to Rupert Murdoch's Fox Broadcasting, which acquired the station last year. Insiders say Fox did not order the program canceled and that some Fox executives thought it could be saved. But the show got little attention from station management in its waning months, and it lapsed into neglect.
Asked if "Panorama" became expendable when the FCC ended its rules encouraging local programming, Endicott said, "Absolutely not. The new plan is just as big a commitment to local programming, if not more so, because of where it's going to play, in prime time."
But a Washington broadcast veteran says the reason "Panorama" was put on the air in the first place, 20 years ago, was that station owner Metromedia wanted to impress the FCC with a strong public service commitment. "Panorama" was three hours a day then, not the one hour to which it had shrunk by the time it was obliterated.
"They put on 'Panorama' so they could play gladiator movies on Sundays and not get any complaint from the FCC," says the veteran producer. "That was the reason it went on the air. Now, that pressure from the commission isn't there anymore, and so they kill the show."
If "Panorama" was created ignobly, it flowered over its long run and became a prominent city fixture -- a forum not just for traveling authors plugging books but also for discourse on federal and capital-city issues. The program also offered a showcase for Washington area talent and big names passing through town.
Even at its feeblest, in recent years -- when little imagination seemed to go into producing it, station executives refused to promote it and its civic status declined -- the program was at least connected to the community in which it appeared. It wasn't just something pickled and bottled and then shipped in from God-knows-where.
On Capitol Hill now, a movement has begun to undo some of the horrendous damage caused by Fowler and his commission, to correct some of the factors that led to the death of "Panorama" and other shows like it in this city and others throughout the country. Two pieces of current legislation address the matter of a TV station's responsibility to its home town.
In both the House and Senate there are bills to reinstate the public affairs programming requirement that the Fowler FCC abolished in 1983. Perhaps more significantly, Rep. Al Swift (D-Wash.) has introduced the Broadcast Ownership Stability Act of 1987, a bill that would restore the antitrafficking provisions that Fowler and crew threw out in 1982.
The antitrafficking rule required the purchaser of a TV station to hold on to it for at least three years before selling it again. When the rules died, TV station prices escalated and stations were traded like bubble gum cards among high-stakes media magnates. Enormous debts are incurred in this game, and new owners, frantic to cut costs, look for low-profit items on a station's agenda that they can jettison.
Typical low-profit (or no-profit) item: local public affairs programming.
On the House floor, Swift said in February that if the present mania for trading TV stations "like pork bellies" continues, any sense of mission by a TV station to serve its community will be trampled. "There will be only an opportunity to get in, get out and try to make a fast buck," Swift said. "It won't take long for the public interest standard to disappear altogether. The process is well underway already."
Swift's bill is supported by Rep. Ed Markey (D-Mass.), chairman of the House telecommunications subcommittee. Such measures are part of a broad-based drive to return broadcasting to the broadcasters and deliver it from the investors.
Might "Panorama" have died even if the FCC hadn't abdicated its responsibilities, if the regulations had stayed as they were? No one can say for sure. "Audiences have changed here in Washington," Endicott says. "You want to put your resources where they'll do the most good. There is a better way to do it. The way Washington is changing is what we really want to address."
How serious the station is about these prime-time documentaries (and how far they will stretch the definition of the term "documentary") remains to be seen. Endicott's pies in the sky somehow don't seem as vivid as the tears on Robinson's face as she closed down "Panorama" on Friday ("Lord, I feel like Tammy Faye," she said). Robinson at least is safe for now. "She was terrific as fill-in host, but she belongs in news," Endicott says. "She's a strong reporter and a very solid anchor." She'll rejoin the station's "10 O'Clock News" operation.
Robinson's performance on the air suggests she has a very bright future in broadcasting. Perhaps local broadcasting, if there's going to be such a thing anymore.
A wildly, phenomenally profitable enterprise, WTTG is one of the richest independent stations in the nation. Experts estimate the annual production cost for "Panorama" at between $100,000 and $300,000. Endicott refused to confirm or supply any figures. But in no conceivable sense was "Panorama" a drain on the resources of that Wisconsin Avenue gold mine.
Without "Panorama" on its schedule, Channel 5 looks a little less like a concerned citizen of the nation's capital and a little more like a nonstop, cold-blooded money machine. In that sense, though, and given the changes in American broadcasting that have taken place in the '80s, Channel 5 is not the exception, but the rule.