MPT has a new public affairs show, and this time the experts are women

March 20, 1992|By David Zurawik | David Zurawik,Television Critic

In a hot and brilliantly lit studio at Maryland Public Television in Owings Mills, a group of women sat around a horseshoe desk Wednesday night and discussed politics while cameras and tape machines whirred, clicked, hummed and recorded their images and words. It was some talk. The women were taping a new weekly PBS series. "To the Contrary," a national, prime-time news analysis show, features women as host and regular panelists, instead of the usual nearly all-male lineups.

Host Bonnie Erbe, legal affairs correspondent for the Mutual/NBC Radio networks, asked panelist Kate O'Beirne of the Heritage Foundation what she thought of the presidential field and the expected nominations of Bill Clinton and George Bush after convincing wins by each the day before.

"It hearkens back to an earlier time in my life," O'Beirne said, looking straight into Camera 1 with the serious demeanor of a pundit, "when I had a date for the prom, but I kept hoping someone else would ask me before it arrived and I actually had to really go with him."

The studio exploded in laughter.

"Finally," a female technician said, "some relief from TV's Pale Male Talking Head Syndrome."

"To the Contrary," which will debut April 2 and air every Thursday night at 8 on MPT, is important for several reasons -- including the break it promises from TV's diet of white, middle-aged, male-only "expertise."

First, there's the lineup. MPT executive producer Carol Wonsavage has assembled a cast of heavy hitters for this show. Erbe, who brought the idea to MPT, is scheduled to be host of each of the 52 shows planned this year. In addition to O'Beirne, regular panelists will include: Nina Totenberg, legal affairs correspondent for National Public Radio; Linda Chavez, former Reagan White House staffer and current commentator on NPR; Dorothy Butler Gilliam, Washington Post columnist and analyst on Black Entertainment Television; Gwen Ifill, a Washington correspondent for the New York Times; Julianne Malveaux, educator and economist; Constance Berry Newman, director of the federal Office of Personnel Management, and Ann Lewis, a commentator and political consultant who coined the "Pale Male Talking Heads Syndrome" term in a 1988 Ms. magazine article. They, and others yet to be named, will rotate in teams of four each week; they plan to tape on Wednesdays and air it on Thursdays.

The talent behind the cameras carries some impressive credentials, too. Producer Melissa Forster Martin comes from the award-winning "On Stage at Wolf Trap." Editorial producer Susan Morrison worked for ABC and CBS News and "MacNeil/Lehrer." Field producer Pamela Kahn worked for "World News Tonight With Peter Jennings."

More important than the lineup, though, is the show's potential to bring some gender equity to TV, which has mainly reserved for white men its awesome power to anoint someone an expert.

A survey by a media watchdog group found last year that only 15 percent of the guests and panelists appearing on PBS public affairs programs -- "Inside Washington," "McLaughlin Group," "Washington Week in Review," "McLaughlin One on One" and the "MacNeil/Lehrer NewsHour" -- were women. As shockingly low as that is, it's an improvement over previous years when similar surveys found women "experts" even less represented.

And it's not much better on the commercial broadcast networks -- ABC, NBC and CBS. The most recent figures for "Nightline" show only an 18 percent level of representation for women "experts." The one exception is on cable network CNN, where "Crier and Company," a weekday public affairs show, has been featuring a woman anchor and women experts for more than a year. But it airs at 11:30 a.m. -- a time when many working women can't watch.

"Public television operates under a mandate to reflect the community it serves," said Nancy DeStefanis, founder of Women Are Good News, a national group headquartered in San Francisco that did the study of women on PBS. "Women are 53 percent of the population and 54 percent of the registered voters. This is a situation that's overdue for change. . . . Women have been invisible far too long on PBS."

Women Are Good News is lobbying PBS stations across the country to carry "To the Contrary" and to place it in times of highest viewership, DeStefanis said. "The lack of female representation in political analysis programs . . . perpetuates the myth that women have little to contribute in this area," she said. "And this is an especially pivotal year with a record number of women running for office -- nine for the Senate and already 80 for the House. . . . This kind of show is desperately needed."

The show has already been picked up by enough PBS stations to give it coast-to-coast coverage. That includes WETA in Washington, WNET in New York and KCET in Los Angeles. But there are notable exceptions -- WGBH in Boston, WTTW in Chicago, KTCA in Minneapolis/St. Paul, and the Georgia and New Jersey PBS networks -- which say they have no room on their schedules.

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