Public television faces conservatives' attacks as it airs sensitive film

June 24, 1992|By David Zurawik | David Zurawik,Television Critic

Public television, frank depictions of homosexuality, NEA funding and protest from conservatives. It's a recipe for controversy, and it's back on the front burner as PBS presents the "Lost Language of Cranes" at 10 tonight on MPT (Channels 22 and 67).

Donald E. Wildmon's American Family Association is urging congressmen and taxpayers to watch the film about a father and son both coming to terms with their homosexuality to see how "PBS uses some of its tax funds to promote the homosexual lifestyle." PBS has responded with a four-page defense of the program.

The film, the protest and the responses not only bring the public television debate back into focus but also shed new light on the dilemma PBS is confronted with as criticism grows.

Last month, conservative forces lost their battle in Congress to stop $1.1 billion in funding for public TV. But they did manage to engage legislators and much of the media in a hard look and emotional debate about the state of public television and federal funding for some of its programs.

One of the more emotional points of that debate was over "Tongues Untied," a critically acclaimed documentary about African-American homosexuals that aired last summer on PBS. Patrick Buchanan used the ad in his presidential campaign to attack President Bush for condoning "pornographic and blasphemous art" funded by the National Endowment for the Arts. Sens. Jesse Helms, Robert Dole and others used the film to try to make their case on the Senate floor as they argued against money for the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, the major funding arm of PBS.

That's the political climate within which "The Lost Language of Cranes" arrives. There's also an economic climate. Simply put, public television is hurting. Funding has been cut back at the state and national levels, and cable is taking away its viewers.Texaco recently pulled out of "Great Performances" -- whose track record includes "Brideshead Revisited" -- saying it was going to fund an arts program on cable's Bravo channel. The core audience for PBS is an old one, viewers 55 years and older.

PBS needs to present more daring and innovative programming geared to younger viewers if it hopes to survive. "The Lost Language of Cranes" is daring. It's also one of the most finely crafted, sensitive and touching films viewers will see anywhere on TV this year.

The film is produced by the BBC in association with WNET-TV, the public TV station in New York that produces "Great Performances." It's based on a novel by David Leavitt and centers on a middle-age college professor (Brian Cox) his wife (Eileen Atkins) and their son (Angus MacFadyen). The film also features Corey Parker, of "thirtysomething," and Rene Auberjonois. In the course of the film, both father and son announce their homosexuality. The mother is left to deal with it. It is a film about secrets, communication, loneliness, courage and lies. It's poignant, melancholy and brave.

But the film also shows several bedroom scenes, which Wildmon describes in his letter to members of Congress. He details the scenes of "open-mouthed kissing," "mouth-to-mouth kissing" and a "graphic bed scene [of] caressing and kissing."

"I wonder," Wildmon asked, "if this is the kind of programming taxpayers want to give $1.1 billion to support."

Such scenes have led to controversy elsewhere on commercial TV. Two years ago, "thirtysomething" aired a scene that showed a homosexual couple in bed, and lost several hundred thousand advertising dollars. The reaction was such that ABC did not rerun the episode during the summer even though it had paid for the rights.

Again, PBS needs to be daring to attract new viewers. And, if films such as "Cranes" are not shown on PBS, where else will they air? But can PBS stand the heat of such protests and, perhaps, even further cutbacks in corporate funding because of the controversy?

For now, PBS is hanging tough. "Public television is for all Americans," said Melinda Ward, the director of cultural programs for PBS. "PBS airs programs which explore themes as varied and different as the diverse groups that make up American society, including programs which deal with issues related to gay life."

"There's no reason for us not to air the film just because it happens to be about homosexuals," said Michael Styer, MPT's senior vice president for programming. "It's really about relationships. I know this group of Wildmon's is upset about it, but they seem to take exception to a lot on public TV for whatever reasons."

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