The Inside Story of Public Television

THE OPEN MIND

Host: Richard D. Heffner
Guest: James Day
Title: “The Inside Story of Public Television”
VTR: 10/26/1995

HEFFNER: I’m Richard Heffner, your host on The Open Mind, and today what you will be treated to, or bored by, you decide, is a visit with two old geezers whose lives have so often touched upon, and much more touched, sometimes even mangled by public broadcasting. It was known as “educational television” back when I first met today’s guest in the late 1950s. I would soon take leave from CBS to help acquire commercial channel 13 here in New York, then put it back on the air as the new educational station’s first general manager and then…James Day was already celebrated as the wonderfully creative head of San Francisco’s excitingly innovative TV station, KQED. And today, as I praise Mr. Day and his new University of California Press book, “The Vanishing Vision: The Inside Story of Public Television”, I should add how grateful I’ve always been that when I was pushed out of Channel 13 he came to my rescue with a darned good job offer. I didn’t take it. And in a sense, the very title of Jim’s book “The Vanishing Vision”, indicates just why staying away from public television management might be salutary altogether. But Jim Day himself eventually came to New York to head up Channel 13 and National Educational Television, so that his word on that proposition carries much more weight. Jim, do you have to be crazy to become…in…to join management in public television?

DAY: I think it helps, Dick. I don’t think it’s essential, but it does help, ah, unfortunately there is not enough craziness in management today. It’s much too conservative, and conservative not in the political sense, but in the sense of not wanting to risk, and indeed, public television is risky.

HEFFNER: But, you were a risk taker. Wasn’t that to some extent because you could be a risk taker in those earlier days when there wasn’t a huge…when millions of dollars at stake now weren’t at stake?

DAY: Absolutely. In the beginning we almost no audience so we had nothing to lose. I used to be asked, “When you go on the air will you do programs of controversy?” From my point of view, controversy is good business. If we are going to be supported by our audience, the thing we have to fear is not controversy but indifference. If we do controversial programs it gets lots of publicity, and so the chances are, I don’t know, we’ll get 50 angry letters, but we’ll also get 50 checks. That’s 50 more than we’d have if we didn’t do controversy.

HEFFNER: I thought the theory was that these days that the controversy prevented the big, big checks from coming in.

DAY: Well, I suppose it does. I don’t know, I had one instance at KQED that we put a news program on the air that was very popular and, and, and there was a story that evening that dealt with one of our big corporate donors and they phoned me immediately and said that “we just sent you a check for fifty-thousand dollars and we didn’t do it to get kicked around”, and I said “Do you want me to send it back?” They didn’t want me to send it back, knowing of course, that would be very important publicity for them. But you’re right, that there is a caution. There’s always a “looking around” thing, you know, “who must we not offend?” And now there are so many people involved: the government, corporations, the audience…it becomes, I’m afraid, less than risk-taking.

HEFFNER: Would you…you said a moment ago when you said conservative, public television has become conservative…you said in a political, in a political sense now…is it conservative or radical in a political sense, or neither or both, or what?

DAY: Probably more conservative than liberal from my point of view. If you take a look at the program schedule, you’ll find that it’s fairly bland and…

HEFFNER: Politically speaking.

DAY: Politically speaking, and somewhat I think toward, ah, toward big business. I wouldn’t regard it as being liberal as the charge is made so often that it is liberal. In my experience, whenever you criticize any established institution you’re charged with being liberal. Well, I think that’s the function of journalism, to challenge institutions, to keep them on their toes. So I don’t regard that as being liberal. There’s very little of that on public TV today.

HEFFNER: Then why is the charge made so often? It’s made constantly that there’s a left-leaning tilt to public television.

DAY: I suppose, then, that it depends on…in terms of balance and what, as you know that’s written into the Public Broadcasting Act, that in matters of controversy, that television must observe balance and objectivity. Objectivity, of course, is a subjective term that means very little. Balance, it depends where you put the fulcrum, as any high school physics student knows. The fulcrum has moved so far to the right, that, ah, the balance…what used to be regarded as the left is now the center. And if you take a look at the people on public TV today, the balance is between the far right and the center, not the far right and the far left. The far left is almost non-existent on public TV today, probably non-existent on television in general.

HEFFNER: And when you were calling the shots on 13 on National Public Television, where was the balance?

DAY: I don’t know. I never found that very a useful concept in terms of TV, but remember when I was at 13 I did a nightly news program called “The Fifty-First State”. Now, the reporters were very skilled reporters. They unfortunately didn’t wear blue blazers and capped teeth and well-coiffed hair. They were genuine reporters who went out into Brooklyn and Queens and dealt with highly controversial issues that were happening in the boroughs. And some felt that was liberal, it was left-leaning, just to deal with these, these hot button issues. I didn’t. I felt that, again, that was the function of a public television station, to deal, in some cases, in those areas where commercial TV did not deal in their news programs.

HEFFNER: Where did the concept of balance, of fairness and balance fit in at 13 when you were calling the shots? And, because I know what you say in the book, I wonder what you would say… you would say was an area where I, very much on the sidelines…no longer involved…took exception to what you did, what you do and I wonder what you would say now.

DAY: …exception in what way, Dick?

HEFFNER: …because I thought what you felt, and I get this again, in your intriguing new book, that balance…ah…this can be a negative and almost a destructive concept of the television.

DAY: Yes, for the reasons that I’ve just given, that, ah, that it’s a term that can be interpreted depending upon where the fulcrum happens to fall. When it was written into the Public Broadcasting Act my feeling was that it was a means by which Congress could take exception to almost anything that was broadcast and they themselves and certain other certain congressmen did not like. It isn’t that I’m opposed to the idea of fairness and accuracy. Fairness to me means that you deal with an issue you recognize that there are other points of view on this issue and acknowledge that there are other points of view. Accuracy of course, is far more easy to measure than balance. It’s accurate, or it’s not accurate. I feel very strongly about imposing standards of accuracy on television, on public television specifically. But balance, because it is so subjective, can be used to create a situation of self-censorship. In the book we call it prudence. The manager says, “Well, we better not do this because it might offend certain congressmen”. So they pull back from a distance so much that Congress itself exercises that option. People who make the decisions are always pulling back from what they feel may be something that may offend one of the funders.

HEFFNER: Yes, but the question of prudence. Are you saying you did not require that you be prudent? Are you saying that prudence is necessarily a political back-saving phenomenon?

DAY: Well, that’s a difficult one, because obviously I favor prudence. And there were times when I did pull back. But there were times…when I should have pulled back, specifically for instance, when we produced a program in the NET days that was a satire on President Nixon…it happened to fall just before the election. It never ran, for obvious reasons. I did not know it was being produced and did not see it until it was delivered to PBS, ‘til after it was delivered to PBS…I think prudence might have been exercised in that situation.

HEFFNER: Yes, you tell that story in “The Vanishing Vision” and I think it is particularly telling. But, Jim, what about the Fairness Document…now I’m getting…going a little bit afield here, but what do you think about the Fairness Document? Were you opposed to it?

DAY: No, I wasn’t. I think, I think…that opposing fairness upon broadcasting is still, in my point of view, an important issue. I realize it’s been abandoned because now there’s such a multiplicity of outlets. There’s no longer any need to impose this upon broadcasters. I…and I do know that…an imposition of the Fairness Document caused a good many of commercial broadcasters to pull back from doing things knowing that they would have to put on some sort of balancing program. But on the other hand, it seems to me that there is a need to impose some kind of standard upon broadcasters that says that if your programming tends to fall in one area there’s a need to balance that in some fashion with programs in another area. Now in this case balance is not a matter of a single program, it’s a matter of an overall program schedule and there came a point, I think, insofar as the FCC came down on fairness at all, which it didn’t. There is a tendency to say this program, this program is not fair. As a matter of fact, it should have been…overall, the programming is not fair, and it tends to tilt towards one side without giving the other side, or other sides adequate exposure.

HEFFNER: I’d love to continue talking about this because I would challenge something…

DAY: You would…

HEFFNER: …said “The Vanishing Vision”. What do you mean? It’s your title. What do you mean?

DAY: Well, actually, the title given to me was not my title…

HEFFNER: Well, don’t even say…(Laughter)

DAY: (Laugher)…The vision that I think we had, certainly in San Francisco, in the early years as you recall, was a public television system that was innovative, that took the risks that commercial TV did not and could not, as a matter of fact, take. That it would be innovative in the sense that it would create new programs, new program forms, or whatever. But unlike many of my colleagues in the business, I always felt that it should be comprehensive programming, as the BBC is comprehensive, which is to say that it ought not to broadcast only alternate programming (programming that commercial programming did not do). But as you broadcast the full range of programming including dramatic programs and maybe even sports, comedy, and so forth and not be…into those programs that are good for you. In the book as you may recall, in the days when there were only 7 VHF channels on the air in New York, my friend Hugh Weldon, you remember Hugh, a very amusing man but a very bright man, was the head of BBC programming. We talked in New York one day and he said “You know, Jim, you people here in America are very funny about the way you handle television. “ I said “Why’s that, Hugh?” He said “You have seven channels in New York. Six of them are fun and one of them is good for you.” I said “What do you do in Britain?” as if I didn’t know and he said “We use…the BBC practices education by stealth. We put on a comedy program followed by a serious documentary followed by a drama followed by another kind of cultural program. People were drawn in”. Today there’s almost no joy in public television. Look at the schedule and you’ll see one documentary after another on problems, problems that most of us would prefer to avoid.

HEFFNER: Like this one.

DAY: That’s right. Absolutely. (Laughter) And so it should compete with commercial television, not for the numbers, that would be entirely wrong, but compete for quality. And so…there are…I suppose one example we have immediately at hand is “Prime Suspect”, now “Prime Suspect 4”, which the reviewers in The New York Times say is a cop show, but it’s a better cop show than the cop shows on commercial TV. There was recently a criticism of public TV because it did a series on Jazz at the same time, I don’t know, as A&E or some other network that was doing a series on Jazz, but the reviews said that this was a Jazz show like the other one, but that this was a much better Jazz show. So, there is an area, a vacuum, there seems to be, in television, of quality. There is a need to do something better. In this morning’s New York Times there’s a story of a program that got excellent reviews in its third or fourth week now going off the air because it’s too good, or because it’s put opposite another program that’s too competitive. So we’re losing some good programs because they don’t meet the standards of commercial TV, those standards being a maximum audience.

HEFFNER: You know, when I read “The Vanishing Vision”, I rather thought that the vision had something to do with numbers, numbers for ratings, numbers for dollars. And that the vision you had when you began way back when in San Francisco, had to do with your being an educator, if I may use that hateful word, and that hasn’t much to do with public rather than educational television.

DAY: No. Ironically, when we began the station in San Francisco, which was the sixth to go on the air, it was very early on, the California law did not allow the schools to pay us for school services so that for the first four or five years we had no instructional programming at all. We had to begin with general audience programming that was, from my point of view, that was really hopeful. I think in the instructional area, if we aren’t talking about instruction…

HEFFNER: I didn’t mean instruction, Jim, I really didn’t mean that. I meant…you and I know that all of television is educational…educational good or educational bad. Your instinct, your interests, they were focused on educational good. Whether you want to call them public affairs programs, cultural programs or whatever, you were concerned with television as a teaching instrument. Not as an instructional, in-school instrument, but as a teaching instrument. That seems to be, or it seems to me as I read “The Vanishing Vision” a vision that has, to some considerable extent, vanished.

DAY: I see what you mean. Now, my vision, as I’ve indicated, was a bit different than what you’ve just described. Teaching, of course, is a word we can argue about…what do you mean by “teaching?” One of the things, I think, that influenced me, Dick, was my own experience in growing up. I came from a family that didn’t read books, for the most part, and the things that I love so much now, music and so forth, were things that I learned at some part from schools, and some part from radio. There was a wonderful book program on NBC in those years. I first began to have an urge to go to the library and follow up on those conversations on books and so forth, and it seems to me that educational television was a means of opening up lives, a means of saying “here’s something you haven’t discovered yet, that you may like”. And, incidentally, I feel very strongly today and said so in the book, that I think this ought to be made available to everyone on an equal basis. It’s unequal only because some public TV stations are stronger than others. Some do a better job than others, but it ought to be available to everyone to be discovered. Now you can’t measure that by the numbers. If you only have two percent of the audience viewing your program but some teenager in Montana happens upon a public TV show that changes his or her life because it opens it up to things, different discoveries…teaching, yes, but it seems to me, I mean, I’ve learned about life from “The Mary Tyler Moore Show”, I’ve learned about things from “MASH” because those were comedies that were real, and in the sense that, that there was poignancy, there was sadness, tragedy, in addition to comedy in these shows. That’s the kind of teaching I think of…where from the program you learn something about yourself; why you behave as you do and why other people behave as they do. Yes, teaching is something I always believed public television should do.

HEFFNER: Jim, the organization of public television…what have you got to say about it?

DAY: It’s bureaucratic, it’s unnecessarily complex, it’s almost impossible to explain. It’s highly competitive in the sense that instead of having one lead organization you have at least two, BBS and CPB. One has the money the other has the program distribution. The strongest stations around the country think that they are the lead organization. They compete with each other for money. They go through the same doors looking for money for their programs. And given the limited financial resources of public television it is utterly wasteful to have all these various organizations. The other thing about the organization, of course that I feel…about is the fact that when NET was dissolved and it folded into 13, NET was a single production organization with producers that produced national programming. The stations around the country objected to this. They objected partly because the programs came from New York and we all know how the rest of the country fears or…New York. And so when the Corporation for Public Broadcasting was organized, given the charge to build a new, new distribution system using the technology which in those years were telephone lines and are now satellites, they went around the country and said “OK, now we’re going to reorganize this”. …there were 351 managers, or however many there were in those days “We’re going to reorganize this, how should we do it?” And they said “We want to be the only ones to produce the programs”, because that will save us from what they called “problem programs”, the ones that came from New York and dealt with a drug situation that existed in New York that didn’t exist in the rest of the country.

HEFFNER: Aha.

DAY: …or programs about gays, if you got that, you cause people in arms, to turn gay and so forth…sounds absurd, but you know, you’ve seen that…it happens. So the result is you have 351 people in charge, which means you can’t place responsibility very clearly, and that’s not the way you do good television programs. I do believe in democracy as a means of resolving our differences. But in public television, our differences ought to be aired, if not to resolve them.

HEFFNER: Jim, do you eliminate all of these stations when you centralize public broadcasting so you essentially have a real network, rather than the multiplicity of money-raising that goes on?

DAY: Well, I would centralize the national production so that there would be a body of creative people working together and interacting. I think, for example, the BBC or TV Global in Brazil, which has now become one of the major producers of creative programming in the world…I think that interaction among the people is rather important. So I would centralize it for both reasons of creativity and reasons of economics. I would take from the local stations the matter of producing national programming except as they are commissioned by the central programming arm, but would encourage them to do local programming, which has died out in recent years. Each station now wants to be a national producer and not a local producer. I would certainly maintain the idea of identification with the community so much as they are located. Now there may be ways…as you know in the book I’ve said that we are one of the few democracies without a public network that has two networks, in some cases, three. We try to do everything with one network. If we had one that was highly centralized, I would have to…a second network that was decentralized the way this one is with maybe independent production.

HEFFNER: You talk about two now…

DAY: Yes.

HEFFNER: …only one. What do you think is going to happen? In two minutes.

DAY: I don’t know what’s going to happen. I have no idea. And I’ve not tried to put forth any kind of a plan for the future, because I think the problem is one of determining what the purpose, what the mission of public television is. That’s never been clearly determined. That must be done. There must be strong national leadership to articulate this mission to Congress and to the American people. And if that is done, and if the American people want public television, we will find ways to organize it. That’s not the problem.

HEFFNER: Question. “What are you doing” and “Why” has been asked for all of these decades, and never really answered except in the most general terms.

DAY: Well, if your old boss, Edward R. Murrow had taken over public television in the earliest days, it would have been answered, and answered in a way which I think would leave an impression on both stations around the country and on people who support public television.

HEFFNER: Do you see any leadership like that now?

DAY: No. No, I don’t, and I don’t know where it is going to come from. So because of the federal funding, I think because of the federal funding, people who are in leadership positions now come not from public broadcasting but rather from bureaucracies of government for the most part.

HEFFNER: And, to some extent, it seems to me they’re imitating commercial television. What do you feel…

DAY: Well, I think they are. It may be an act of desperation. I think that that’s the vision that has been lost, is that they don’t see clearly what their mission is and in order to survive, they’re moving closer and closer to commercial television. We don’t need that. We have enough of that.

HEFFNER: The bottom line becomes the bottom line.

DAY: The bottom line becomes the bottom line. Precisely.

HEFFNER: Jim Day, thank you so much for joining me today.

DAY: It was my pleasure.

HEFFNER: And thanks, too, to you in the audience. I hope you’ll join us again next time. And if you care to share your thoughts about our program today, please write to THE OPEN MIND, P.O. Box 7977, FDR Station, New York, NY 10150. For transcripts send $4.00 in check or money order. Meanwhile, as another old friend used to say, “Good night and good luck”.

Continuing production of this series has generously been made possible by grants from: The Rosalind P. Walter Foundation; The M. Weiner Foundation of New Jersey; the Thomas and Theresa Mullarkey Foundation; The New York Times Company Foundation; and, from the corporate community, Ruder-Finn.

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