It was public TV's first unqualified national success, a smash hit. Before Masterpiece Theatre, American Playhouse or Hollywood Television Theatre, there was An Age of Kings, Shakespeare's history plays in 15 parts, a chronicle of Britain's monarchs from Richard II (1399) to Richard III (1484).
Fred W. Friendly, the legendary CBS News producer who tried to bring innovation to public TV in the 1960s and later developed a celebrated series of televised seminars on major public policy issues, died March 3 at his home in New York City. He was 82. "He was a great broadcaster, a great innovator, a great friend of public television," observed PBS President Ervin Duggan in a release. At CBS, Friendly worked for years with Edward R. Murrow, producing many of his appearances, including the milestone 1954 report that questioned Sen. Joseph McCarthy's anti-communist campaign and the famous CBS Reports: "Harvest of Shame" on the lives of migrant workers, aired in 1960. He was named president of the news division in 1964 and quit two years later when the network carried an I Love Lucy rerun instead of a Senate hearing on the Vietnam war.
Richard Carlson, a Republican credited with defending public broadcasting from attacks by members of his party, announced Jan. 24 that he will leave the CPB presidency June 30 or before. He opposed overlapping stations and pushed new rules to limit grants to them--winning support among politicians but losing the backing of many station execs. He spoke up for objectivity and ideological balance in programs, while spurning demands that CPB take a more intrusive role in programming to detect and correct imbalance. He trimmed the CPB bureaucracy and paid a quarter of the staff to leave, changing its human face, with consequences not yet known.
San Francisco's KQED-TV remains one of the most-watched public TV stations in the country, but, in the 1980s and '90s it suffered under the expectations of a viewership that recalled its early years. David Stewart reminds us of KQED's fertile '50s and '60s. In his history of public TV, The Vanishing Vision, James Day recalls that the first year of KQED/San Francisco, 1953, was nearly its last. Its headquarters was in the back seat of a station wagon. Day, the president, and a staff of eight had managed to keep the station on the air, but the board, alarmed by its increasing debts, had decided to call it quits.
Max Morath reminded America about a largely forgotten part of its musical legacy, but beyond that achievement of mass education, the musician also helped educational TV accept the element of entertainment in its programs. This article by Contributing Editor David Stewart is part of Stewart's planned book on public TV programming. Stewart, who retired as CPB's director of international activities, profiled early television's favorite professor, Frank Baxter, in a January issue of Current. In the summer of 1959 an itinerant musician and sometimes TV producer, Max Morath, was playing piano for melodramas in the restored mining town of Cripple Creek, Colo. A year later, the 33-year-old graduate of Colorado College had written and performed a 12-part TV series that would change noncommercial television forever. Over the next five years — while the music rights were held by National Educational Television (NET) — The Ragtime Era became the most watched noncommercial series up to that time, run and rerun constantly by all the educational (and many commercial) stations throughout the country.
Like Norman Corwin, the exceptional radio producer profiled in the last issue of Current, Frank Baxter had his great broadcast successes on the cusp, just before his medium became too commercially successful to continue airing the kind of programs that made Corwin and Baxter famous. Both were forerunners of today's public broadcasters. This Baxter profile was written by CPB's director of international activities, David Stewart as part of his history of public television programming. When he died in 1982 many were astonished: Frank Baxter still alive in the '80s! Many remembered him as mature, if not quite elderly, nearly 30 years before when he grasped national attention simply by talking to a TV camera about Shakespeare's plays and poetry.
The old-timers wandered curiously among the shelves, munching cookies and poking into file boxes, looking casually for their footprints in the history of public broadcasting. It was the concluding field trip of this month's Public Broadcasting Reunion [related article] — a bus ride from Washington to nearby University of Maryland at College Park, where the new National Public Broadcasting Archives is open for business. Donald R. McNeil, the founding director, and Thomas Connors, his designated successor, showed off a facility that already has:
2,500 shelf feet of corporate records from CPB, PBS, NPR and other organizations;
360 shelf feet of personal papers and dozens of oral histories of the field;
5,600 audio tapes from the National Association of Educational Broadcasters, WAMU-FM and WETA-FM; and
3,000 videotapes from PBS, WETA-TV, Maryland PTV and other sources, among other things. Five hundred file boxes from Children's Television Workshop are on the way, and 800 more reels from NPR. Standing in the high-ceilinged, half-empty room in the basement of the university's Hornbake Library, Connors invited the visitors to talk with the archives about old correspondence, reports and other items that might make the day of some future historian.
The man who put New York Mayor Fiorello LaGuardia on the radio, reading the comics during a newspaper strike — M.S. "Morrie" Novik — talked the other day about his first trip west of Chicago. That excursion to Iowa more than 50 years ago was also the first time the head of New York's municipal radio station, WNYC, had much contact with the midwesterners who were big in "educational radio." Novik recognized they were up to the same thing he was, and he joined a fellowship that continues today. He was among his fellows again Oct. 8-9 , during a Public Broadcasting Reunion, where a big roomful of admitted idealists reminisced, ribbed each other, tut-tutted about things these days, and unabashedly proclaimed their values.