PBS catches flak in battle over film

July 27, 1994|By David Zurawik | David Zurawik,Sun Television Critic

LOS ANGELES -- The plan was to showcase fall shows. But PBS and its new president, Ervin S. Duggan, spent much of their first day on press tour here defending public television against charges of timidity and kowtowing to corporate underwriters.

"The real story is not that PBS is timidly caving in to pressure, but that we are cooly dealing with pressure. . . . We are at Ground Zero in the culture wars raging across this land," Duggan said.

But a group called the Coalition vs. PBS Censorship launched a campaign yesterday to reverse PBS' rejection of "Defending Our Lives," a film on domestic violence, which won an Academy Award this year as the best short documentary.

The coalition includes the California Women's Bar Association, the National Organization for Women's Legal Defense and Educational Fund and the National Coalition Against Domestic Violence, and 28 other state coalitions on domestic violence.

In a letter to the group, Jennifer Lawson, executive vice president for programming, said PBS rejected the film because its producer and director founded Battered Women Fighting Back, and a member of the group is interviewed in the documentary.

"PBS programming must be free from the control of parties with a direct self-interest in that content," Lawson said.

The coalition counters by saying, "Regular programs at PBS are routinely underwritten by companies that have a substantial monetary stake in the issues covered." The group cited "Wall Street Week," produced by Maryland Public Television, "The Nightly Business Report" and a recent documentary on New York Times columnist James Reston produced in association with that newspaper.

But the fiercest criticism came during a stormy press conference with Duggan, who was hit with numerous questions about his decision shortly after arriving at PBS this spring not to fund a sequel to Armistead Maupin's "Tales of The City."

The miniseries about life in San Francisco in the 1970s dealt openly with gay and lesbian relationships. Critically acclaimed, three of its episodes finished among the 10 highest-rated shows of the year for PBS.

Duggan said the decision was purely an "economic one" -- the producers wanted too much money. He denied that PBS was caving in to pressure from the right, especially from Donald Wildmon's American Family Association, which had objected to "Tales."

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