‘Tongues Untied’: a debate on purpose and courage

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Tongues Untied wasn’t explicitly on the agenda for the first of two big open-mike sessions at the Public Television Annual Meeting June 23, but station reps could hardly talk about anything else.

What came out were conflicting views of public TV’s purposes as well as
the Marlon Riggs film that divided the system a year ago when it was distributed
as part of the P.O.V. series.

Bob Allen of Oklahoma ETV led off by saying PBS was moving too fast with Tongues,
which contained some nudity and kisses between black gay men. Calling forth
an old southern story, Allen advised that it’s best to cook a frog by turning
up the heat slowly — so it doesn’t jump out.

“In our home markets,” Allen said, “PBS is viewed more often than not as the family stations.” But with some recent programs, “people feel they are losing some of their trust.”

What should PBS do? asked Charlie Rose, the WNET newsman recruited to moderate two of the conference’s major open-mike sessions.

“No one disagrees that we should serve all the people,” said James Heck of WUSF, Tampa, but “we need to watch the way we treat the subject,” or some viewers will be offended and “won’t hear the message — all they’ll do is be turned off.”

Stephen Kulczycki of KCET, Los Angeles observed that public TV ends up choosing
between protecting the innocent, as Bob Allen proposes, and “going to the edge” with challenging programs. “I don’t think we can carefully walk the line in the middle.”

“This is the toughest issue we deal with,” agreed PBS President Bruce Christensen. “Do we make the calls perfectly every time? No. If I had to do it again, I would say, ‘Marlon, we do need an edited version.'”

Colin Dougherty of KVPT, Fresno, Calif., reported that he’s been getting calls from people who say, “Colin, I can’t trust you anymore.”

“You gave us kerosene and a match”

“Why can’t we have some kind of standards?” Dougherty asked. “We don’t have to feed the viewers pablum, but we don’t have to feed them ground glass, either.”

“I don’t think it was ground glass,” Christensen responded. Dougherty insisted it was.

The station makes the final call, Christensen pointed out.

“You have given us our own kerosene and a match,” Dougherty replied.

Do you want someone else to make the decision? Rose interjected.

“We don’t want to be force-fed something as drastic as Tongues Untied,” said
Dougherty. By putting the program on the satellite schedule, PBS made both
the larger Fresno community and its gay community angry at his station, he

“There is some heat,” said Christensen, “but that heat goes with part of the job.”

Bob Larson at WTVS, Detroit, decided not to air Tongues, but said PBS was right in offering it to stations so they could make their own decisions. What public TV needs, he said, is a regular forum for controversial programs like Tongues.

Hal Bouton of WTVI, Charlotte, said “cultural diversity” and sexual preference are separate issues. “I think there is a consensus in this country, among the members and among the viewers, and lately they’re not getting the kind of programs they’re paying their money for.” There was applause.

Milton Chen of KQED, San Francisco, responded with his hope that public TV wouldn’t retreat to “safe and complacent” programming. There was bigger applause. Part of public TV’s service, he said, “is to stretch the public’s mind.”

“Cannot demand edited version”

“We at PBS will try to provide the best service for the entire country,” chief programmer Jennifer Lawson promised, and will offer alternative versions edited for language and sensibilities when possible.

“Why can’t PBS say there will be an edited version?” asked Ben Hardcastle, programmer at WMFE, Orlando.

“We can ask for, but cannot demand an edited version,” Christensen replied. Artistic integrity is a founding principle of PBS, he said.

Broadcasters requiring unwarranted editing is as much a disservice as producers refusing to honor the decisions of broadcasters and taking their complaints to the press, he said.

That was the complaint of John K. Hill of KLVX, Las Vegas, who charged that P.O.V.,
the series that presented Tongues, had caused problems for him in the local press because he chose not to air the show. (P.O.V. Executive Producer Marc Weiss later denied badmouthing stations to the press and said he had always defended stations’ decision-making rights in his interviews with reporters.)

“We live in a civilization that is locking people out,” commented Kulczycki. “Our responsibility is … not to keep people out but to give access to more people so they can feel part of the future of this country.” The recent riot in his city was “simply a wake-up call.”

“Least courageous” set the standards?

If PBS decides that the national program service “represents the values of the least courageous in this room, it won’t be worth being in this business,” asserted David Liroff of WGBH, Boston.

Ron Santora, program manager of KQED, San Francisco, spoke up, though he hadn’t planned to “come out” in the enormous Hilton ballroom full of his professional colleagues. As a gay man, he said, it was difficult to listen to talk of “traditional family values.”

In chasing down programs for June’s Gay and Lesbian Pride Month schedule on KQED, Santora found he had to get most of the shows from overseas because public TV had not built an adequate library.

“I would have loved to air your remarks, because you were so eloquent, intelligent and sensitive,” responded Bob Allen, when Santora was done. “We did not feel that way about Tongues Untied, and that was the difference.” The film, he implied, was clouded by “unreasonable emotion.”

Tongues Untied was way ahead of its time,” Santora said, “because we haven’t done the preparation” of carrying other programs about sexual orientation over the years. Referring to Allen’s frog-cooking story, Santora said the chefs had not gradually turned up the heat under the pot.

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