'Quiz Show' raises questions on ethics of television

September 28, 1994|By Marc Gunther | Marc Gunther,Knight-Ridder News Service

WASHINGTON -- Robert Redford calls "Quiz Show" a parable about "the eternal struggle between ethics and capitalism." It's no wonder that he explores television, an arena where ethics and capitalism clash all the time.

In "Quiz Show," capitalism triumphs. The networks and producers, hungry for ratings and profits, deceive their viewers by fixing the results of the quiz shows.

But the reality of television is more complex.

The networks weren't wholly to blame for the quiz show scandals. Fakery isn't an easy thing to define, then or now. And television, for all its flaws, often manages to rise above commerce to serve the public.

Still, Mr. Redford's "Quiz Show" is an entertaining movie that raises provocative questions about television and its responsibility.

As Mr. Redford put it last week during a panel discussion about "Quiz Show": "Is television a public trust?"

The Annenberg Washington Program, a media think tank, gathered a roomful of network executives, scholars and journalists to screen the movie and ponder such issues.

Immediately, Mr. Redford's film came under attack for committing the same sin for which the quiz shows were punished: faking reality. The truth is the scandal didn't happen the way it does in the film. Although NBC executives -- including network president Robert Kintner -- are cast as the bad guys, there's some doubt about whether they were aware of the cheating.

Julian Goodman, a former NBC chairman and a friend of Kintner's, praised "Quiz Show" as a drama but rose to defend the late Kintner.

"You've made him a heavy," Mr. Goodman said. "There's no evidence to support it and much to deny it. Kintner and his people were deceived, like everybody else. NBC was not a conspirator, but a victim."

Mr. Redford replied that the movie is labeled entertainment, and that some dramatic license was taken. And, while some details in the movie were clearly invented, there's no question that NBC and Kintner were slow to react to charges about the quiz shows.

When the discussion turned to today's television, the industry came under sharp attack from one of its own: Don Hewitt, the executive producer of "60 Minutes."

Mr. Hewitt said that the quiz show scandal was unfortunate, but that shows like "Twenty-One" and "The $64,000 Question" were understood to be entertainment. The cheating that went on there is not unlike the coaching that guests routinely get today before going on "Oprah" or "Sally Jessy Raphael."

What troubles Mr. Hewitt more is the tabloid tinge that has colored the network news divisions, which were once held to higher standards. "Today, a lot of what's on television is lucky if it can hold its own with the supermarket checkout counter," he said. "I'm a little bit ashamed of the business I grew up in because it doesn't have to be that way."

Mr. Hewitt argued that ethics and capitalism need not be in conflict, that the networks can do well by doing good. The evidence? "60 Minutes," the most profitable show in TV history and one that has generally avoided the low road.

"We've never mentioned O. J. Simpson, Mrs. Bobbitt or Amy Fisher," Mr. Hewitt boasted. "You can be a thoroughbred and a cash cow."

But just last week, on CBS, "48 Hours" broadcast a very well-done and news-making program about Haiti, to disappointingly low ratings. The next night on "Eye to Eye," Connie Chung interviewed O. J. Simpson's mother, and did much better.

The lesson there? Carole Simpson, ABC News anchor and correspondent, says that, in the end, viewers get what they deserve.

"What is a business supposed to do if the money and the ratings come from base appeals to prurient interests?" she asked.

And yet, every night on the network news, the public gets a solid and thoughtful summary of world events. ABC's "Nightline," too, remains a daily oasis of intelligence and taste.

And, despite the low ratings, programs about Haiti and health care continue to get made and broadcast, along with daily doses of sleaze.

What to do about the sleaze? At the "Quiz Show" forum, television's harshest critics said the government should step in, as Congress did after the quiz show scandal.

Richard Goodwin, the congressional investigator played by Rob Morrow in "Quiz Show," said: "I don't see why we think we can regulate the things that pollute our bodies and not the things that pollute our minds or pollute our values."

But Daniel Boorstin, historian and former Librarian of Congress, rose to plead eloquently for common sense. "A free society is a society of creative chaos," Mr. Boorstin said. "That's something we should celebrate."

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