I’VE BEEN waiting for the courage to write about Channel 13. For me, it’s a place fraught with feelings stored up over the 11 years I spent there – some very good times; others, pretty bad. From either perspective, I owe Channel 13 a lot and wish there were a way for the station to recapture the spirit of those early days under Bob Wilson.
When Bob took over as manager of tiny KERA in 1968, there was no place to go but up. A fledgling himself in his mid-20s, Bob had no precedents to guide him, no sense of past mistakes or future danger, no inkling whatsoever that the whole world wasn’t possible in that crazy little red schoolhouse on Harry Hines.
Much, miraculously, was possible. The Ford Foundation began funding the first Newsroom show in San Francisco, and Bob, ever alert to opportunity, got wind that more Newsrooms might be in the offing. With the help of Jim Lehrer and KERA chairman Ralph Rogers, he got the grant: $500,000, which is worth close to $2 million today. It was an incredible coup that put Channel 13 on the map and established its reputation for solid journalism. But time was already running out without our realizing it.
PUBLIC TV’S TROUBLE BEGAN IN 1972
As early as 1972, a friend from the Ford Foundation advised: “Now’s the time to walk the plank out of public television. There’s nothing organic about it in American life.” He knew that the Foundation would eventually withdraw as financial angel of PBS. What’s more, that same year Nixon had vetoed a critical funding bill for public television.
It was Watergate that brought an unexpected stay of execution and produced the high-water mark in PTV programming: The Senate hearings were broadcast in prime time to a large, fascinated audience. Public television’s fortunes seemed assured. Congress approved federal funding with no threat of a presidential veto (who would dare?) and what followed was the golden age of public broadcasting: The MacNeil-Lehrer Report, Live from Lincoln Center, Dance in America and Nova.
It was not to last. Lacking a market base, dependent on the federal government and a few corporate givers, vulnerable to cable and the new world of narrow-casting, PBS and its member stations entered the Eighties as a sitting duck marked for extinction.
Now the stations are fighting a holding action, struggling to save as much as they can. The question that has plagued PBS almost from the beginning arises again: What exactly is public broadcasting?
The answer: A collection of local stations with local agendas loosely affiliated for the presentation of a few key national programs, mainly oriented to public and cultural affairs. Now cable is making serious inroads into PBS’ cultural sphere. The Entertainment Channel, CBS Cable, Bravo and the Arts Channel will soon be offering all the cultural fare that the market can absorb. What’s left for PBS is its original strength: public affairs.
KERA NEEDS TO GO BACK TO BASICS
The MacNeil-Lehrer Report will expand to an hour in prime time next spring. Clearly, this is a move in the right direction. An obvious accompaniment is lively local public affairs programming. When Channel 13’s new president, Richie Meyer, canceled Newsday, Voices and Business Edition, he was faced with financial problems that left him little choice. But surely, down the road, there’s a middle ground between nightly news and no news at all. A weekly show using a single host-producer, free-lance reporters and live guests could be done for less than $200,000 annually. No elaborate production staff would be necessary. The host, working with an assistant, could handle it easily.
Election nights are another target of opportunity. City and off-year state and national election nights go virtually uncovered on most Dallas television stations until 10 p.m., except for an occasional crawl across the bottom of the screen – not nearly enough for political junkies. This could be handled by the weekly news team plus free-lance reporters and tape pieces without great cost. Call it $25,000 for each election night. That’s half the price of a documentary.
Richie Meyer is a bright, dedicated man who is highly regarded in public television. He wants badly to rebuild KERA and feels hurt by the personal attacks on him as a result of the canceled programs.
It’s odd, really, that Channel 13 has always aroused antagonism in the community. Perhaps it’s because the station invariably, unavoidably promises more than it can deliver. Or maybe it’s the fact that so many very different people feel they own a piece of KERA, and in a way they do, which leads to conflicting missions and inevitable disappointment. Or it could be that Channel 13, like national public television, has never found a place in the organic life of Dallas. If so, this is the challenge that faces Richie Meyer, vice president Pat Perini and the many good people who have given large chunks of their lives to public broadcasting.
A NEW FACE FOR D MAGAZINE
A footnote to the KERA story: Chris Tucker, former editor of KERA’s Texas Vision Magazine, has joined D as an associate editor. Chris has been a prolific free-lance writer. His work has appeared in several publications including Omni and The Progressive. He has also taught literature at both the high school and college level. Chris knows the territory and knows how to articulate the Dallas story. Read his piece on takeover-king Harold Simmons in this issue, and we think you’ll agree.
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