Public television may have more staying power than cable

A YEAR AGO I predicted that cable television would edge public TV out of cultural programming and possibly out of existence. That isn’t proving to be true. On the contrary-the battleground is littered with failed cable cultural networks, from CBS Cable to the Entertainment Channel. Cable networks are beginning to learn what PBS has known all along: The audience for arts programming simply isn’t large enough to make these offerings commercially feasible.

Yet The Wilderness Years (depicting the life of Churchill between the world wars), Richard III (a breathtaking production) and Wagner’s Ring Cycle were among the finest television programs in recent memory. And where did they appear? On PBS. of course. It’s highly unlikely that elegant cultural programming can be provided in the United States without federal, corporate and foundation subsidies. And that means public-not cable-television. Commercial “narrowcasting” must make a profit just as commercial broadcasting must, but we forgot that fact a few years ago in our rush to future technologies.

There’s no question that cable technology has the ability to do everything that it’s been advertised to do. Cable can bring you 80 channels or more; it can provide home security systems and allow you to talk back to your TV set; it can permit you to shop at home, work at home or stay at home for your entertainment (assuming that you want to). What cable cannot do, apparently, is get installed and marketed in people’s homes without incredible disorientation for many of those involved.

In this issue, Leellen Childers chronicles her year-long battle to get cable. She isn’t the only one who’s had trouble. Even Stanley Marcus, that stylish gentleman with impeccable cool, steams up when he talks about the struggle to get a cable line run to his house. He had to deal with so many different people that he finally decided he didn’t want cable any more.

What’s gone wrong? Think of all that we went through during the cable franchise battle three years ago. Dallas was the largest plum to fall into cable’s Garden of Eden. There was bare-fisted, bombs-away warfare among big national companies ready to promise anything and to spend whatever it might take to win the right to wire Dallas. They hired expensive local public relations firms. They politicked in black and Hispanic communities. Some contenders sought out local investors who were thought to have clout at City Hall. Yet not long ago, one of those investors said that he is now awfully glad his company didn’t win.

Poor Warner Amex. The winner of 1980 looks like the loser of 1983. Wiring Dallas has turned out to be a costly business, and the profits that were supposed to flow like honey have been rather slow to start. Worst of all, the company has squandered the excellent reputation that Anne Hall, who represented Warner Amex during the franchise fight, built for the new enterprise in Dallas.

Now the Cable Television Board has given Warner Amex 60 days to shape up, or the company could be fined or even lose its franchise. There’s nothing good in this debacle for the City Council, which doesn’t need to put any more time, money or energy into granting another cable franchise to a troubled industry. With the bloom so thoroughly gone from the cable rose, who knows if the next winner would be any better? At this point, the best the city can do is to keep trying to ride herd on a messy situation. Meanwhile, Warner Amex is fighting regulation with a bill in Congress that would curtail the powers of city government where cable is concerned. But none of this is going to make very much difference if Warner Amex doesn’t start making some money. The company somehow has foiled to realize that-above all else-it is a service organization. Warner Amex in Dallas is not primarily a programming company. It is not a production house. It is not even-despite its problems with city government-a public relations firm. Basically, Warner Amex must provide a service to succeed, and this means ensuring that all who deal with the public are adequately trained and able to sustain a company esprit de corps. No wonder Stanley Marcus was put out. He’s known all his life that customers must be pleased or they will destroy you with indifference.

So you can bet on public television to endure, not grandly but doggedly, while cable sputters like a falling meteor across troubled skies, hoping it won’t collide with direct broadcast satellites or other competing technologies whose promise burns suddenly brighter. Public-television will trudge along, pleading for more federal dollars and hoping the economy improves.

Meanwhile, there are pockets of prosperity: The MacNeil-Lehrer Report has a $10 million grant from AT&T-matched by $10 million from public televison-to expand to an hour this month. Hodding Carter’s Inside Story has received another $4 million from General Electric. And at KERA, Bob Ray Sanders is going back on the air with a weekly news analysis program.

There is still the problem that public television in Dallas tends to put too little of its resources into programs (acquired or produced) and too much into simply maintaining itself. The current budget shows that in the new fiscal year, KERA-TV plans to spend only half the funds it raises on programs. If about $2 million cannot be raised for production costs, that figure could drop to one-third. KERA’s dream is to raise $18 million to finance new production facilities and operations. This seems high, especially considering the extreme scarcity of local production grants (which is not likely to change) and other compelling needs in the community, beginning with the Arts District. Whatever happens, much good has come from PBS and its satellite stations. They deserve to survive, and it now looks as though most of them will.

IF THIS issue looks bigger than usual, it’sbecause our annual fall “Dallas Look” hasgrown to 80 pages. That’s more coverage thanhas ever been given to fashion by a Dallaspublication, and we’re proud that it’s happening in D. More than 40 years ago, Neiman-Marcus turned Dallas into the fashion capitalof the Southwest. Later, Trammell Crow’s Apparel Mart appeared on the scene to enhancethat reputation. Now “The Dallas Look” ismaking a statement that’s growing to international importance. If you want to know moreabout it. just turn to page 81.


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