WITHIN the last few years the Public Broadcasting System (PBS) has created an audience of dedicated viewers in the United States. One of the major contributors to the growing popularity of public TV is WGBH (Channel 2) in Boston. Situated on Harvard-owned land just south of the Business School, WGBH produces "The Advocates," "ZOOM," "Evening at the Pops," "The French Chef," and distributes nationally the BBC production, "Masterpiece Theater." The station itself is a massive operation turning out not only national PBS shows but also local ones such as "The Reporters," "Catch 44" and "Louis Lyons News and Comment."
PBS has a distinctive mode of broadcasting. The shows evidence a lot of talent and the garbage (even in Julia Child's kitchen) is kept to a minimum. But good things only last so long. Someone was bound to find the airwaves tasteless, and the Nixon Administration did just that.
It all started with Vice President Agnew's eloquent orations in 1970 about those elitist Eastern radical intellectuals who distort the news. Then Clay T. Whitehead, director of the Office of Telecommunications Policy in the White House, opened up and has yet to quiet down. A recent sample: "Station managers and network officials who fail to act to correct imbalance or consistent bias from the networks--or who acquiesce by silence--can only be considered willing participants, to be held fully accountable by the broadcaster's community at license renewal time."
In June 1972 President Nixon vetoed a bill which would have provided increased funding for the Corporation for Public Broadcasting (CPB), a quasi-independent group which holds the purse strings for the distribution of funds to PBS and 233 public TV stations across the country. Rather than allow CPB to receive $65 million for fiscal 1973 and $90 million for fiscal 1974, as the Congress had willed, Nixon rejected the appropriations due to "many fundamental disagreements concerning the directions which public broadcasting has taken and should pursue in the future."
He expressed concern that CPB was becoming "the center of power and the focal point of control for the entire public broadcasting system." Only if future legislation provided for adequate emphasis on localism would Nixon sign any long-range funding, or so he stated last summer.
Some of the executive leadership of CPB resigned as a result of Nixon's vetoes. Between June and November a majority on the CPB board, by virtue of resignations and the seating of Nixon appointees, became pro-Administration. Former U.S. Congressman Thomas Curtis became CPB's new chairman and Henry Loomis '41 its new president.
Loomis was selected, at least in part, for his administrative talents. The Administration needed someone to pick up the pieces after the inefficient reign of CPB's first President John Macy. At the same time Loomis's rise was accompanied by accusations that the Administration was attempting to direct and control CPB policy decisions because of its displeasure with public affairs broadcasting.
An informed source close to CPB said, "I have a hunch, that certain public affairs programs are found a little bit offensive in the White House... We keep hearing stories that there are people in the White House who don't like public broadcasting at all. I don't believe all those stories. However, the names are always the same: Buchanan, who writes the speeches; Charles Colson (until a few weeks ago, political advisory to the President); and Peter Flanigan, the man to whom Clay Whitehead always had to answer. They truly are concerned about these 'talking-head' shows that are broadcast by PBS."
Colson, in a January interview on the "Thirty Minutes With..." production of the National Public Affairs Center for Television, said that a television network is like "a bus company or a public utility." But, he said, "The networks are constantly talking about wanting unrestricted First Amendment rights. They want the same right to say or do whatever they want, without restriction. But at the same time they really are using airways as a public trustee.
"Now you can't have it both ways," he said. "You can't have a free license given to you by the public and not have a concommitant responsibility to present to the public a fair and balanced perspective on the news."
THE CONNECTION between what the Administration says and what it budgets lead to various interpretations. The strongest view to date is that Loomis, assuredly with Nixon's consent, hopes to centralize program decision-making inside CPB and manipulate its funding powers to influence public TV programming. As small as CPB's monetary contribution is to public broadcasting, it is nonetheless vital. Many fear that Loomis, even though he supports high funding for CPB, intends to force public TV into the private sector for all of its funds.
On the one hand Loomis is steering CPB, with its obscure Administration connections, toward almost absolute public programming control while the Administration hopes to keep CPB's budget low. The complexities and implications of such developments have already upset the balance between Government and private control over public broadcasting.
WGBH is acutely affected by recent CPB decisions. On February 8 CPB announced its funding decisions for the coming season. Out of the nine program proposals submitted by WGBH, CPB agreed to partially fund "Science" and to supply half the necessary funds for "The Advocates." "ZOOM," a nationally popular children's show, was totally ignored along with the other unfinanced WGBH proposals. As Michael Rice, WGBH program director, noted at the time, CBP "cut right into the heart and guts of our current national program production, mainly "ZOOM" and "The Advocates"...both shows are funded so minimally that they are in serious jeopardy--peril might be a better word."
The cutback in Channel 2's national programming production directly damages local programming, which enjoys the benefits of WGBH's large facility and resources. Rice warns, "We will lose both ways. Every time one of our national series goes unfunded, one more way of providing programming for our community is lost...Most of the national series we offer grow out of the Boston community. In a large sense, the programs we produce are a reflection of the cultural richness and intellectual resources of this area. So in an ultimate way everything we do is a community service."
In mid-March CPB rescinded their February commitments. "The Advocates" received another $100,000, "ZOOM" gained $565,000, and a newcomer, "religious American," received enough funds to assure its production next season. Yet, in all three cases, no more than one half of the required funds were allocated by CPB. The rest of the money will have to come from private sources, principally from the Ford Foundation. Ford has yet to allot any money to WGBH, hinting that it will continue to refuse such money until the public stations are assured of programming independence from CPB.
What can result in WGBH's case is a downward spiral of activity. If the station is forced to cut back on its production of any national PBS programs, it will lose income and resources that will directly affect its local programming. Eventually, Rice contends, "We'd just disintegrate. Right now we're at a point where much of a somewhat fragile structure between public and private financing has been put together. But this peculiarly balanced economy of national and local programming could, with lack of funding, just fall apart."
The refusal to allocate funds is one method by which CPB can manipulate public broadcasting. Circulating among public TV stations is the fear that CPB will go one step further--to content censorship. Sylvia Davis, Channel 2's Public Relations Director, stated recently that "though WGBH airs more controversial programs than anyone else, we will not submit to content censorship."
The issue becomes more complex when one recalls President Nixon's veto message of last June in which he stressed the need to decentralize public broadcasting decisions. In June, the Johnson appointees on CBB still ran a low-keyed operation. But since October, when Loomis took over, there has been move toward centralization of CPB's power over public broadcasting.
Under the new CPB management, local stations like WGBH often have found themselves out in the cold, starving for funds. Loomis's leadership has upset all previous procedures of operation and assumed for itself powers previously held by PBS and the public TV stations. Senator Edward W. Brooke (R-Mass.) has even accused CPB of being "inviolation of the limitations imposed by the Public Broadcasting Act."
As Rice put it, "When Loomis came in, he precipitated a development which the Board had been wanting for a long time." Rice said that Loomis brought under CPB control "those (discretionary) functions in national programming that PBS had been exercising: 1) the primary choice of what is to be funded and 2) what is scheduled over the interconnection system which links all public TV stations, whether or not it has CPB funds in it." Under the new agreements, when it comes to supervising or trouble-shooting any problems in production, i.e. editorial bias or misreporting, CPB now has ultimate power while PBS is merely responsible for running equipment.
CPB now will fund at least the safe shows--"Sesame Street," "ZOOM" "The Electric Company," and Miste-Rogers Neighborhood." But WGBH and its companion stations across the country will have to seek massive private support for their public affairs shows, such as "The Advocates," "Firing Line," "Bill Moyers Journal," and "Washington Week in Review."
Most crucial, though, is CPB's drive to control the interconnection system and thereby control what goes over the air.
Public broadcasting, especially public affairs TV, eventually could succumb to the Administration's programming desires. While conveniently placing the burden of finance onto private sources, CPB hopes to retain programming power. By withholding funds on public affairs programs, CPB forces public TV out of public affairs and back to language correspondence courses.
WETA in Washington, D.C., recently threatened to turn down an $800,000 grant from CPB to produce a new public affairs series for national public TV next season because it fears that CPB wants "censorship" authority over the content of the 26 proposed shows. In accepting WETA's program proposal, CPB required that its own management "work closely with WETA management in the development of more detailed information regarding programs within this series." In an unprecedented move, CPB management recommended that WETA meet sufficient programming criteria before it would receive funds for actual production.
With such qualifications on their programming, WETA's response was to threaten no production at all unless CPB retracts its content control. "If the conditions become unbearable, as they apparently did for WETA," Rice commented, "WGBH itself may withhold production. The CPB board members are not our executive producers."
ONE IRONY is that Loomis, Curtis, and many other Administration officials close to public broadcasting policy don't even watch PBS. Loomis lives so far outside of Washington that, until he installs a high-powered antenna, he has to rely on cassette video-tapes of PBS shows in order to see them at home.
Loomis has let it be known that he hopes to steer public affairs programming away from "topical" areas and produce in-depth documentaries on crime, welfare, etc. Many inside and outside of the broadcasting business claim Loomis really does not understand what news is in the "topical" sense. News quickly becomes untopical and producing Loomis's lengthy documentaries would require months of lead time and enormous budgets. After recent Administration budget cuts, Loomis hardly will fund the amounts of money required for his type of public affairs shows.
Within the past two weeks, the three major TV leadership groups merged into a new PBS in order to confront CPB as one united body. The new group has proposed the creation of a "monitering committee"--representing various factions in public TV, including CPB--with power to decide disputes over "balance and objectivity" in public affairs programming. They also reiterated that CPB must not assume control of the scheduling function of PBS. On April 13, CPB will announce whether or not it will accept this compromise. WGBH's Rice contents that. "The next two weeks may be the most crucial in the life of PBS. If CPB rejects the new PBS, then public TV is in dire trouble." And the Administration will have the upper hand.
Just as the Watergate and ITT scandals have marred the Administration's credibility, the furor over the future of public TV has raised several perplexing questions. Are the CPB directives a concerted effort by the Administration to manipulate public affairs broadcasting to its own norms? Is there a master plan or are there several individuals who are separately attempting to extrapolate policy?
Fred W. Friendly, former president of CBS news, wrote recently, "What is missing is a documentary history of what the Nixon Administration has set out to do, proceeding unhindered partly because the news media has never seriously attempted to put the headlines into perspective. The press has permitted each of the White House attacks to be seen as individual sorties rather than as part of a carefully designed saturation bombardment campaign."
The whole controversy revolves around so many individual personalities and bureaucratic anomalies that oversimplified statements about First Amendments rights, executive power, and private ownership rights can be not only dangerously inaccurate but also inadequate as explanations. The CPB has provided so little reasoning for its actions that conjecture too often intercedes where fact should prevail. And we still question exactly where the White House stands and who, if anyone, is the mastermind behind the current explosion in governmental influence.
Perhaps WGBH should take Loomis up on his desire for more documentaries. The viewing public, along with 232 public TV stations, could profit from an in-depth study into why public broadcasting is becoming so politicized. The documentary might begin by examining why Senator Brooke was compelled to say on the Senate floor, "CPB is setting a very dangerous precedent. For when one hand controls the Federal funds and also controls distribution power for public television we will have in appearance and perhaps in fact a domestic Government network."