America wants good old elitism, insists PBS boss

TURNED ON IN L.A. -- FALL PREVIEW

July 29, 1994|By David Zurawik | David Zurawik,Sun Television Critic

Los Angeles -- He believes PBS' best moments are when it's "upper-middle-brow." He thinks former Reagan speechwriter Peggy Noonan "could be a kind of Katharine Hepburn of public television."

He says, "We are all Anglophiles," and promises to "serve our Anglophilia." And he refused to fund a sequel to "Tales of The City," a miniseries about life in San Francisco in the 1970s that scored higher in ratings this spring than "Prime Suspect 3."

Meet Ervin S. Duggan, the new president of PBS, the man commissioned to lead public television into the 21st century. He's a former White House aide to Lyndon Johnson, assistant to Sens. Lloyd Bentsen and Adlai Stevenson III, and, most recently, member of the Federal Communications Commission. In other words, he's part of what's been called the permanent government in Washington. Now he's calling the shots on public Duggan met with TV critics here this week. He later described the session as similar to being set upon by a "pack of jackals." From this side of the podium, I can say without fear of contradiction that it was an even rockier meeting than the one critics had the week before with CBS Chairman Laurence Tisch. CBS stock dropped six points minutes after reports of that session were heard on Wall Street.

Duggan started with a speech.

"While other commercial networks program for the eyes and the glands and the gonads, we program for the hearts and the minds of the American people," he said.

"While others are dragged by a commercial imperative to address the audience as consumers, we address our viewers as citizens, as fully rounded humans," he added.

Only moments after celebrating PBS's freedom from commercial imperatives, he announced that one of the benchmarks of his administration would be PBS "entering strategic partnerships with strong media companies." He said that process has already started through a PBS video venture with Turner Home Entertainment and a science show co-produced with Disney. Duggan said Turner and Disney will provide "non-profit venture capital."

The term seems like a contradiction. Whether it is or not, Ted Turner and Michael Eisner have stockholders who demand that nothing come before commercial imperatives. For his part, Turner says he expects a return for his investments.

The most troubling statements by Duggan were those asserting that we were all Anglophiles and that PBS's best moments were those that were upper-middle-brow.

The Anglophile statement was part of his effort to promote "The Windsors," a series on "The House of Windsor," which will debut Nov. 7.

His upper-middle-brow remark: "I think that if you look at the history of public television in its most brilliant moments, we have managed to be the givers of great and beautiful upper-middle-brow moments to the American people."

Taken together, they suggested a Euro-centrism and an elitism, as well as being totally out of sync with a country moving toward increased ethnic and cultural diversity.

Asked about that during the Q&A session, Duggan said, "When I made the comment [about Anglophiles] I didn't mean to imply a sweeping generalization. It is simply a comment about the success [of British imports on PBS]. . . . A certain strain of programming is very successful. We can only conclude that says something about the taste and enthusiasm of our audience."

He stood behind his upper-middle-brow remarks, saying, "We [at PBS] are what I would call democratic elitists."

Duggan made the Noonan remarks as he announced that PBS was funding a three-part miniseries called "Noonan on values."

"Now, when I look at Peggy Noonan, I don't see a right-wing former Reagan speech writer. I see a quite fascinating woman with a kind of intellectual glamour that suggests to me that she could be a kind of Katharine Hepburn of public television," Duggan said.

This announcement came on the heels of confirming that PBS had lost "National Geographic" for lack of money, and had cut funding for "American Playhouse" to almost nothing. Also, it came after Duggan said he was pessimistic about the future of original American film and drama on PBS because of its cost.

"We are, frankly, troubled about the future of drama on public television," Duggan said.

You can't start to judge Duggan after only six months on the job. But it's clear PBS is a fragile entity. If it is going to survive and remain viable, some tough decisions have to be made in coming months and years about what it will or will not be.

For his part, Duggan thinks PBS is doing just fine.

"We are like Scarlett O'Hara taking the draperies off the windows and fashioning them into a ball gown and going to the ball and becoming the belle of the ball," Duggan said. "We do a fantastic job with the meagerest imaginable resources," he said. "A network that is doing that much good with so little surely must be doing something right."

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