With ‘Tales of the City,” public TV earns extremes of scorn and praise

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Not all viewers were prepared to accept Mona's lesbian affair, Mary Ann's open mind, and Michael's gay romances, but the rest of the audience kept watching.

Though Oklahoma ETV took what it thought was a cautious approach in scheduling an edited version of Tales of the City, a state representative offended by the mini-series’ gay content is winning support for a proposal to slash the network’s state funding in half.

Oklahoma ETV’s decision to air American Playhouse‘s six-hour adaptation of Armistead Maupin’s Tales of the City has “stirred up quite a bit of animosity amongst a considerable number of legislators from rural areas,” said Bob Allen, general manager. “It’s going to create some difficulty for us.”

The Oklahoma network is one of two state nets that have drawn the ire of legislators by airing the high-profile mini-series that PBS fed in two versions to stations Jan. 10-12. Last week the Georgia Senate passed a nonbinding resolution directing Georgia PTV to “cease airing it and never air it again,” said Executive Director Richard Ottinger. State funding including a $20 million building project are vulnerable to cuts from legislators who publicly roasted Ottinger for airing Tales in a Jan. 20 appropriations hearing.

And in Tennessee, where three stations opted not to air the Tales, WTCI, Chattanooga, has had to respond to charges of censorship after its board to pulled the show one hour before airtime.

Reactions as severe as these were by no means common in the wake of Tales. But with issues of censorship, decency and sexual mores swirling around it, Tales of the City generated quite a few tales of its own.

“Looking at the big picture, running the series was a whale of a success for us, exclusive of the beating we took,” said Ottinger. Calls to the Georgia network last week were up to 700, running five-to-one in support of the show. And the backers, he added, were calling both houses of the legislature.

“The water was wonderful, but the waterboy got shot,” Ottinger added.

TV critics around the country praised Tales for its authenticity, characterizations and faithful adaptation of Maupin’s book, but also warned that its language, nudity and sexual content were not for the faint-hearted.

Public TV stations in northern and western markets drew especially strong audiences, and heard both praise and disapproval from viewers.

Ward Chamberlin, chairman of American Playhouse, characterized the reaction to Tales as “extraordinary” and “mostly positive.” He added, however, that he was “saddened” by the heat that politicians had turned up on some stations for airing Tales. “It’s no fun to get beat up on.”

“Most honest piece of TV”

Virginia Fox, executive director of Kentucky ETV, praised the programs in a Jan. 21 letter to PBS’s top programmer, Jennifer Lawson. Tales of the City is “without exception the most honest, real, compelling, entertaining, insightful piece of television drama I’ve ever seen,” she wrote. “[Y]ou sent us a piece of high-quality educational product that probably will nonetheless evoke a firestorm of criticism and negative reaction … but only on the part of those who surf past and get just a glimpse of this gem–or don’t see it at all, but hear about it from those who just saw a glimpse.”

In a review that was picked up by smaller dailies, the New York Times‘ John O’Connor found Tales to be a “startlingly accurate snap-shot of a particular place and time.”

“With the six-hour ‘Armistead Maupin’s Tales of the City,’ public television is doing exactly what it should be doing,” wrote O’Connor. “… PBS is broadcasting a first-rate mini-series that commercial television wouldn’t touch on a dare.”

Viewership in Nielsen’s 25 metered markets averaged a 4.3 rating and a 7 share, according John Fuller, research director for PBS. Since 1989, when PBS began measuring overnights in all Nielsen metered markets, no PBS drama series has achieved such high ratings, he added.

Not surprisingly, KQED, San Francisco, tops the Tales ratings chart with a 14.0/21 average; KVIE in Sacramento hit a 6.5/10. Five major-market stations on both coasts achieved average ratings of 5 to 6, Fuller said.

Georgia PTV hit a 2.8, according to Ottinger. “That’s damn big for PTV, particularly in the South.”

Tales prompted the first a “spike” in viewer response since I’ll Fly Away‘s “Then and Now” debuted last fall, said Karen Doyne, spokeswoman for PBS. Stations reported a wave of negative calls prior to the broadcast; viewers with good things to say began calling once the series hit the air.

Of the negative calls that some stations reported, a “significant proportion were from people who objected to any non-negative portrayal of homosexuals.”

Eight stations that shared their call-in data with American Playhouse reported positive response rates ranging from 49 percent at KCPT, Kansas City, to 90 percent at WNET, New York.

Other stations, such as Chattanooga’s WTCI and Oklahoma ETV, heard mostly from viewers objecting to Tales.

“Gay propaganda”

The conservative Washington-based Family Research Council got “quite a few calls from our constituents asking what to do about this,” said Robert Knight of the council. The group told callers to phone their local stations and congressional representatives.

In CPB’s Jan. 12 balance hearing for interest groups, Knight described Tales as a “slick piece of gay propaganda that presents 1970s gay live in San Francisco as superior to marriage and family, with few apparent consequences from promiscuous sex of illicit drugs.”

“The series is full of gratuitous nudity, crudity, lewdness and foul language,” Knight added.

Well aware that some portion of their audiences would object similarly to Tales, stations in conservative regions of the country found themselves in what several described as a “no-win” situation. National publicity of Tales made it difficult to not schedule the series without being accused of censorship. Whether programmers aired or rejected the mini-series, they would face a backlash.

Weighing those considerations, Oklahoma ETV delayed airing the edited version of Tales until 10 p.m., central time. At the time, that approach seemed “very conservative,” said Allen.

“Scandal” in Oklahoma City

The Oklahoma network’s broadcast prompted the strongest rebuke yet from a state legislator who has objected to past programs with homosexual content.

Rep. Grover Campbell, a Republican and member of the minority leadership, got considerable media coverage with a press conference Jan. 20 at the state capitol.

Of the three commercial TV stations that reported on the event, one led its 10 p.m. news with the story under the banner of “Scandal” and cut to a clip of two men kissing, said Allen. The station ran the story two subsequent newscasts, each time generating waves of “very, very hostile” phone calls to the station.

“The longer it went on, the cause became more organized,” he said.

Calls from Oklahomans also came into CPB’s “Open to the Public” 800-number, which the state network was promoting in on-air spots, according to Fred DeMarco, senior v.p. for CPB. During last week’s CPB Board meeting, DeMarco reported that the corporation received about 800 calls responding to Tales, mostly “favorable to the show.”

Not wanting to repeat the language that he found objectionable in the film, Rep. Campbell said that the film’s scenes of “two men French kissing” and men “lying in bed, caressing” were particularly offensive to him.

“I don’t think public television has the right to publish anything and broadcast anything they want,” he said, because it is “paid for by citizens.”

“The legislature and Congress have the right to restrict what tax dollars are used for,” Campbell explained. He plans to ask members of Congress to bar CPB and the National Endowment for the Arts from funding films that “contain obscene material or things Americans would object to.” CPB and NEA contribute federal dollars to the production of Playhouse, although CPB funding went to the series indirectly through PBS.

When the Oklahoma legislature goes into session next month, Campbell said, he also will propose legislation that similarly restricts state network’s programming and slashes its state funding in half. In a press release, Campbell proposed that the legislature study whether to transfer the network’s authority to the state Department of Education.

“I am losing faith in the ability of OETA staff and authority members to responsibly monitor their own broadcasts,” Campbell said in the release.

To build support for his proposals, Campbell has been showing “the most sensational scenes” from Tales to “legislators all over the capitol,” said Allen. “I’ve talked with a few who are tending to agree with his feelings.”

Scenes depicting promiscuity and men kissing each other, Allen said, are “not something people here are prepared to accept.”

“The die is cast and we’re going to have to deal with it as best we can.”

Didn’t watch it, didn’t like it

In Georgia, during the weeklong airing of Tales, a candidate for the Republican gubernatorial nomination held a press conference in the capitol rotunda in which he called on GPTV to “stop running X-rated movies,” recalled Frank Bugg, deputy executive director.

Lt. Gov. Pierre Howard wrote a letter to Ottinger asking him to pull the series, which had been scheduled to run in one-hour episodes at 10 p.m. Jan. 10-13, with a two-hour finale Jan 14. Howard, who admitted not having seen the show, expressed a concern over whether GPTV was an appropriate channel for his children to watch.

Ottinger wrote back explaining why he wouldn’t do that, and, on Jan 20., appeared before the state legislature for an appropriations hearing.

“Dick got roasted pretty good at the hearing,” said Bugg. “Quite honestly, I think he handled himself pretty well. It was a no-win situation.”

Phil Kloer, TV critic for the Atlanta Constitution, described the session as “very ugly.” Ottinger was “attacked vehemently by a number of conservative state senators and representatives.”

“After 40 to 45 minutes of taking a real good beating,” Ottinger recalled, he informed legislators that it would be the last time he appeared before them. He said he made the announcement “in order to position myself that I had not been brow-beaten.”

On the front page of the next day’s Constitution, his parting remarks were portrayed as a resignation in the line of fire.

Because Ottinger announced his last appearance “after being crucified,” Kloer said, “in many people’s minds, it was linked.”

Ottinger hopes to retire sometime this year, and had already informed the Georgia network’s board of his intention. He’s postponed making definite plans, and hoped to get through this year’s legislative session before doing so.

In addition to clearing up the misperception of Ottinger’s future, the Constitution on Jan. 21 published a strong editorial in support of Georgia PTV, blasting Howard for attempting to block the broadcast of Tales when he hadn’t even seen it. Other Senate members were criticized for “drumming up a resolution condemning GPTV …. The hypocrisy of such an act … would be exceeded only by its foolishness.”

Last week, the non-binding resolution quietly won what could be considered unanimous approval when it was adopted without being deliberated, described or even announced by name, along with nine other “point of privilege resolutions.”

Normally that procedure is reserved to “honor individuals,” explained Ottinger. Rarely does it “reflect a position of the Senate.”

“We’re going to have to dance awfully hard to keep our building in the budget, but not purely because of this,” Ottinger predicted. The new teleplex, now being planned, will have six distance-learning studios and three production studios. “I’d like to be out of the way in time for the new manager to be with the staff before they go into the new building.”

Although he joked that “timing is everything,” Ottinger guessed that Tales “probably would have been a problem for us no matter what. We’re trying to serve an entire population with as extreme a range of points of view from liberal to conservative as exists in the world…. Our constant job is trying to juggle.”

“If it was all very mundane and easy, it probably wouldn’t be a very effective service,” he added.

An hour before airtime

In Chattanooga, WTCI was attempting to “juggle” its service to different communities when a report on the series’ content prompted such a negative public reaction–including a bomb threat–that board members pulled the show one hour before it was set to air.

After the Chattanooga Times reported on the station’s decision to air the unedited Tales on Jan. 12, WTCI received “hundreds of negative phone calls,” said Vice President Kelley Wilde. One caller threatened to “bomb the building” and “hunt down anybody who works at the station.”

The board’s executive committee stepped in to screen part of the series and “decided it was in the best interests of the community and the station, not to air it,” Wilde explained. Instead, WTCI announced a private screening for viewers who wanted to watch it.

WTCI later heard from people who “objected to our removing it from the schedule and thought we were responding to the homosexuality,” she added.

The latter wave of calls were what WTCI had hoped to avoid in scheduling the unedited version of Tales. Back in 1992, when WTCI decided not to air the Masterpiece Theatre mini-series Portrait of a Marriage, the station heard from hundreds of upset viewers. With Tales, WTCI’s staff made a “judgment” to begin presenting unedited versions of controversial programs and allow viewers to vote with their remote controls. “We hoped it would have a different outcome than it did.”

“We scheduled the program because we believed in the program,” said Wilde.

Now WTCI is developing a written policy on controversial program that will give staff guidelines to go by, so that “we can’t be accused of censorship” in the future.

A conclusive breakdown of how many PBS stations aired the unedited and edited versions of Tales, and how many declined to schedule it, was unavailable last week. Among those that postponed a decision to air it is South Carolina ETV, a member of the four-station consortium that presents Playhouse. SCETV does not carry programs with frontal nudity, explained Kathy Gardner-Jones, and did not want to air the edited version that was heavily flagged without screening it first.

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