When television began to reveal itself as an enfant terrible six or eight years ago, educators like Robert Maynard Hutchins, then Chancellor of the University of Chicago, could say with some justification that TV, if unimproved, would soon reduce the intellectual caliber of the American public to something resembling the lower forms of plant life. "Who knows," said Hutchins, "but that the strange green vegetation which scientists have seen growing on Mars may be the result of exposure to television."
While there is still a great deal of truth in Hutchins' hyperbole, the announcement that WGBH will begin operating an educational TV station on Channel Two sometime in April indicates a growing trend towards adult telecasting. WGBH is confident that many Bostonians accept the intellectually insulting fare of commercial TV only because of resignation; WGBH-FM has been able to treble metropolitan FM set ownership in the past three years.
Even a few commercial TV executives support the project. They cannot often present challenging programs themselves because advertisers demand that programs play to the mythical "mass market." Only educational television, which operates without advertising and uses unpaid talent, can afford to sacrifice some of its viewers by trying to make them think.
"The Latent Ham Bursting Forth"
Educational TV, of course, can hardly tolerate dullness, but at least it doesn't have to engage in the frenetic competition to "entertain" the public. The WGBH management feels that 'in a very real sense the program should take place not in the studio, but in the viewer's mind."
Extensive planning, naturally, lies behind the programs that WGBH-TV will present. The Museum of Fine Arts, for example, is installing a television control room, and at a cost of over $80,000 every gallery is being wired with camera cables and 9,000-watt lamps brilliant enough for color television. "The whole Museum will be a television studio, and we will be able to show all our exhibits in their native settings," explains William Dooley, the Museum's Director of Education. "It is one of the most startling innovations the Museum has accomplished since its founding."
Tuesday will be Museum day for WGBH-TV, and Museum and University scholars will describe the history, sociology and traditions which surround each masterpiece. Artists will supplement slides and motion pictures in demonstrating the techniques under study; when Chinese brush paintings are on exhibition a Chinese scholar might demonstrate the rapid stroking used in their creation. Dooley accounts for the astonishing TV enthusiasm of even the stuffiest scholars as "latent ham bursting forth."
Harvard, as one of the 11 members of the Lowell Institute Broadcasting Council, will cooperate in planning the WGBH-TV schedule. Several hundred faculty members have spoken on WGBH-FM in the past few years, and many more will soon appear on video. Professor Arthur E. Sutherland is currently organizing a weekly series to be entitled 'Life in Law." Although this program will rely mainly on lawyers, guest scholars from many fields will discuss such problems as segregation, penal reforms, and labor unions.
Many of the programs will appeal mainly to special groups, for it is plain that ballet dancing and ethical debates will not intrigue every listener. "WGBH is a station built for special publics," says its manager, Parker Wheatley. "We would begin to worry if everyone just turned his TV set to Channel Two and left it running all evening.
But when a televiewer selects a program on WGBH that interests him, he can expect it to end with a bang, not a whimper. Commercial stations must lop off programs or stretch them out to fit their advertiser's wallets; WGBH hopes to let its programs time themselves. "They'll be like Lincoln's legs," the Director of Programs declares, "long enough to reach the ground."
Educational broadcasting in Boston has not always enjoyed such flexibility. In 1946, the Lowell Institute, seven colleges and schools, the Museum of Fine Arts and the Boston Symphony formed the Lowell Institute Cooperative Broadcasting Council to provide the public with worthwhile television and radio programs. They were not entirely successful.
For the first five years the Council merely prepared programs and offered them to the commercial stations in the hope that they would be "presented in the public interest." Yet the commercial stations could hardly afford to give away their valuable early evening hours--hours most effective for educational broadcasting, but falling in the time of day when the public is highly susceptible to beer advertisements.
By 1951, the Council had raised enough money to construct an educational FM station, scattered through Symphony Hall. In this dissected state, WGBH-FM began broadcasting, supported by the talent and money contributed by each member of the Council. The rare broadcasting fervor that drove such stolid institutions as Harvard or the Symphony to contribute unrestricted funds to a fledgling radio station must have reached the staff and performers as well: WGBH-FM soon attained national recognition for several top-notch programs, including Professor G. Wallace Woodworth's "Tomorrow's Symphony."
CBS, FCC, UHF, VHF
FM radio is ideal for transmitting music, but the Council soon realized that when a radio talks it can easily become gabby. Without exhibits, or at least a speaker's face to look at, a listener soon becomes restless--especially if he is not versed in the subject under discussion. And subjects which require demonstration, such as dancing and art, often fall a trifle flat. So when the Federal Communications Commission lifted its famous TV freeze in 1951, WGBH immediately spoke for the educational channel assigned to Boston.
CBS spoke, too. The Columbia network had been "frozen out" of Boston in 1948, and it made a heart-rending plea to the FCC for a chance at the huge profits of a regular VHF channel in Boston. One of Columbia's public-spirited suggestions was to strip Providence of one of its two TV stations: another proposal would have relegated the Boston educational channel to an unusable UHF range.
When the FCC overruled the CBS suggestions, the Lowell Broadcasting Council went after construction funds with fervor, and dug up more than were really expected. The Fund for Adult Education contributed $150,000; the Filene Foundation added $450,000; and a surprisingly strong Massachusetts Citizens' Committee for Educational Television donated $140,000.
The contributions enabled WGBH to construct the largest television studio in New England. Counting the special television facilities at the Fine Arts Museum and direct cable connections to the Kresgo Auditorium and M.I.T. cage, the station's studio facilities rival the central stations of several networks.
As television grows in importance throughout the nation, educators are becoming increasingly aware of its educational potency.
As President Pusey has observed, "Television is, for good or evil, going to make more impact on human minds than any earlier means of communication. The question, therefore, is whether it will be used to good advantage or whether it is going to be just another way to feed in more inferior material for the diversion of restless minds." WGBH-TV should provide at least one effective answer