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.