Over the summer, two P.O.V. explosive controversies in quick succession put many public TV general managers to the test: How far would they extend their necks for the principle that public broadcasters should present diverse viewpoints and controversies on the air?
It wasn’t a perfect national test, of course, because many programmers couldn’t or
wouldn’t confront the principle. They had reason to nix Tongues Untied for its
street language and could ignore Stop the Church, because PBS had yanked the film
before air date.
But the scheduling questions prompted self-examination among decision-makers across the country, with about half of the stations that usually carry P.O.V. approving Tongues Untied and only about seven airing Stop the Church.
Two managers of the many who went all the way on principle were Richard Ottinger, executive director of Georgia PTV, and William Kobin, president of KCET, Los Angeles.
For their decisions, Ottinger was grilled by the ranking state legislators and Kobin
condemned by the archbishop of Los Angeles. Both managers may feel financial consequences in months to come.
Letting viewers decide
For Ottinger in Georgia, the test was Tongues Untied, Marlon Riggs’ angry film
about being black and gay.
“I looked at it, the staff looked at it,” says Ottinger. It seemed to him “an important public affairs issue about a part of the population that is understood very little by the rest of the population.” The “extremely well produced” program “conveys as pure and true a message as you could possibly put in a program,” he says.
“It was far better than to have three bald-headed white men talking in a studio about [black homosexual men],” says Ottinger, though he suspects a good documentary of Nova quality would have reached more people.
Oh, what problems this program posed. Other PBS programs had contained frontal nudity and foul language, he says, and some had dealt with black concerns and some with homosexuality, but never had they all been packed into a single show.
The choice was especially hard for the Georgia network, he observes, because it serves not only a rural, conservative state, but also Atlanta, a large and relatively young city.
Already the newspaper writers were taking sides, with TV critics praising Tongues,
and an Atlanta Journal columnist condemning it vehemently. Would the columnist set the standards for future programming?
Ottinger found his clincher while thinking back over past scheduling controversies. In Georgia, he had learned, “it has never been popular to make decisions about what
anybody can or cannot do.” When the calls began coming in, he remembers, many of them said, “Thank you for giving us a chance to make up our own mind.” Of 926 calls, 51 percent were positive. On July 21, Georgia PTV aired P.O.V. in its regular 11 p.m. slot.
The backlash of more than 350 negative letters came a couple weeks later, after a
Baptist-related group put notices in many church newsletters. The notices listed the names of Ottinger’s commission members.
Three months after the broadcast, Oct. 17, Ottinger found himself answering to the
appropriations panel of the Georgia House of Representatives, which provides 40 percent of the network budget.
“It was basically the House leadership. … We call them the Green Door Committee,
because they used to meet in secret and draw up the budget,” says David Nordan, a
reporter for the Atlanta area’s Daily News.
Ottinger presented a five-page statement from the Georgia Public Telecommunications Commission, expressing “complete confidence in the executive director and his staff.”
The statement assured the politicians that the network would be “sensitive”
to citizens’ concerns and air controversial programs after 9 p.m., but asserted that
public TV “must provide courageous, responsible, honest and candid treatments of
issues and situations that exist in contemporary society.”
The commission pledged it would not “shrink from considering for broadcast those
programs that reflect concerns, attitudes and/or interests that are controversial,
unorthodox or unpopular.”
If Georgia PTV continued to air programming not suitable for families, said House
Speaker Pro Tem Jack Connell in Broadcasting magazine, “they may jeopardize
some of the funding they receive.”
The reporter, Nordan, thinks the meeting mostly “gave these guys a chance of being
on the record against immorality,” and sees little severe risk to public TV or to
Ottinger personally. “They call him Dick, he calls them Mr. Speaker.”
But though Ottinger doesn’t expect legislators to pull the plug on the network over a single program dispute, he acknowledges they could inflict “some punitive damage.”
Censorship the issue
For Kobin in Los Angeles, the storm began Aug. 12, when PBS and P.O.V. announced
they were withdrawing Stop the Church from the series, although the show was
already listed in program guides across the country. Without warning, the question was put to KCET: Will you air the film anyway?
“Either decision was going to make some people mad,” says Kobin with understatement. And either choice carried financial risk, though Kobin says he didn’t “sit around projecting revenue gain and loss.”
Gay activists were threatening to tie up pledge-drive phone lines. And Catholics — an even bigger part of the Los Angeles community — would surely be offended by Robert Hilferty’s film of an AIDS activists’ disruption of a Catholic mass. Some of Kobin’s oldest friends on his board of directors opposed the broadcast. He hated being accused of Catholic-bashing.
Kobin was a backer of the P.O.V. series — “It’s doing a valuable job.” KCET had run Tongues Untied even before it became part of the P.O.V. series. And he thought “Stop the Church” was “a significant film because of the view it gave of the anger” of gay activists against the disapproving church.
On Kobin’s moral scale, the decision was a close call. “To me, it boiled down to an issue of censorship. If we don’t [broadcast the program], it’s tantamount to saying no one should ever broadcast that film, and I just don’t subscribe to that.”
“It was the most difficult experience I’ve ever had in broadcasting,” he says now. The station announced Aug. 28 that it would air the film with a wrap-around discussion of First Amendment issues.
A week later, Cardinal Roger Mahony, archbishop of Los Angeles, proclaimed that
broadcast of the “hate film” would encourage church burning and suggested that the faithful not watch or support KCET. Though the cardinal was proposing his own boycott, he accused KCET of giving in to blackmail by gay activists.
“One of the mandates of a public television station,” Kobin replied in a press conference later that day, “is to explore significant issues of controversy and to present a wide diversity of opinion and programming” — much the same thing Ottinger had said in Atlanta.
The next evening, Sept. 6, KCET aired the 90-minute package “Stop the Church:
Issues and Outrage,” including statements by the cardinal and Kobin and discussion
among Catholic and gay leaders, a communications professor and a newsman.
In sum, the public reaction has been enormous — about 14,000 calls and letters. The archbishop’s scorn had financial effect. Though supporters of the program sent in nearly $85,000 without solicitation, a flood of negative responses led the station to cancel memberships worth an estimated $100,000 a year. And a businessman quit the board of directors, withdrawing a pledged $100,000 gift.
Kobin has been touched by well-wishers’ remarks since the blow-up. “Strangers have come up to me at receptions — they must have recognized me from my panhandling during pledge drives — to tell me how much they support the decision.”
Blaming the broadcaster
But most of the reaction has been negative. Though Kobin took pains to make it clear that KCET was not endorsing the disruption of worship services, many Angelenos didn’t get it. “Most viewers think everything we broadcast represents a point of view that I share,” he said.
For Kobin and Ottinger, there was little pleasure in facing the P.O.V. questions, but some satisfaction with their decisions.
“What this thing was to me, in my life, was tremendous,” says Kobin. “It’s a decision I’m glad I made, because in the final analysis, I have to live with myself, and I want to look back and be proud and not regret I didn’t go the other way.”
Back in Atlanta, Ottinger reflects on his decision. “If the circumstances were all
over again,” he says slowly, “I keep coming back to the same conclusion. I’d do
it again. But I truly wish I hadn’t had to make the decision.”