PBS chief challenges special interests
Despite charges of "elitism," the Public Broadcasting Service president has made an all-out attack on "corrosive but politically convenient" quota systems. Special-interest politics are a "pervasive threat" to public television, according to PBS president Lawrence K. Grossman. In a speech scheduled to be delivered today before a PBS public information conference, Mr. Grossman, citing the political threats during the Nixon administration, says:
"Today we face the far more subtle and more pervasive political threat of special-interest politics. It arises from well-intentioned pressures to redress injustices that have been inflicted on the heretofore excluded and underserved groups within our society. . . . We see a growing tendency to dictate program quotas, mandate set-asides, and specify program percentages for each special-interest group."
Mr. Grossman points out that independent producers seek a legislated requirement that 50 percent of all PBS program funds go to them; a minority task force has called for 17 percent to be set aside for minority programming; native American organizations, Hispanic groups, Children's groups, and women's activist organizations are also seeking mandated percentages.
And he says PBS is facing a lawsuit right now on behalf of the handicapped requiring that federally funded dollars go to programs that benefit the disabled.
Mr. Grossman insists that quotas are the easy way out for government officials. "Unfortunately, bureaucratically imposed quotas, aimed at guaranteeing the selection of special- interest programs, are a politically convenient response to the requirement that public television serve diverse needs. But quotas, by definition, undermine our capacity to pick programs of excellence that will serve the needs and interests of American television viewers regardless of age, race, religion, ethnic origin, or geographic location."
Mr. Grossman calls upon PBS to fight against political expediency, describing it as "ultimately corroding and divisive gerrymandering. . . . In the end we need, more than anything else, to develop outstanding programs that not only reflect diverse interests but that will also help the different parts of our society to understand each other, co-exist . . . and work together."
Mr. Grossman believes that public television will never fulfill its essential role of "enriching the lives of its viewers unless we maintain the highest standards for all our programming."
He concludes: "If that be elitism, let's make the most of it."
In speaking to the PBS Program Fair, Mr. Grossman also reveals that PBS plans to spend "a far higher percentage of its dollars on making programs, even if it hurts. . . . In order to get more funds for production, we must rely less on foreign acquisitions of alreadymade products and reduce our emphasis on new hardware and even on building new technical plants."
Mr. Grossman refers to a recent three-state survey of attitudes toward television which concluded that there is a sharply growing feeling among viewers of both commercial and public television that they are not getting what they want from television: the mass TV audience wants programming that is both entertaining and informative. He cited a recently announced PBS proposal for a major Vietnam retrospective series, produced through WGBH/Boston, as an example of the type of multifunded programming of the future.
It would be funded eventually by the National Endowment for the Humanities, ABC News, private foundations, public TV stations, PBS, corporate underwriters, CPB, foreign TV organizations and possibly even by private TV companies.
According to Mr. Grossman's own public-relations department, latest A. C. Neilsen and Arbitron ratings reveal that domestically produced drama and science programming are the most watched shows on PBS. Among the top programs this season so far are the National Georgraphic Special, "Dive to the Edge of Creation," and WNET/NY's Science Fiction Special, "The Lathe of Heaven."
Noteworthy in support of Mr. Grossman's thesis are the ten most-watched public TV programs of all time: (1) "The Incredible Machine," (2) "Live From the Grand Ole Opry" (1979), (3) "The Scarlet Letter," (4) "The Living Bands of Namib ," (5) "The Great Whales," (6) "The Legacy of L. S. B. Leakey," (7) "Live From the Grand Ole Opry" (1978), (8) "The volga, (9) "Eisnstein's Universe," (10) "That Great American Gospel sound."
It is interesting to note that five are National Geographic specials; three features basic American music; one popularizes science, and one is a dramatization of classic American fiction.