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Tuning In: List-swapping embarrassment may spur PBS to reform and renewal

Monday, August 02, 1999

By Rob Owen, Post-Gazette TV Editor

PASADENA, Calif. -- As PBS approaches its 30th anniversary in November, the public broadcaster is under assault from all sides: competition from cable, lawmakers who want to cut its funding and foolish actions like the current imbroglio over member stations selling or renting donor list information.

PBS president and CEO Ervin S. Duggan said the list-swapping revelations are being taken seriously. He compared PBS's damage control to CNN's reaction after the Tailwind scandal last summer.

"I admire Ted Turner and Tom Johnson for entering into a process of self-criticism, self-reform, which were self-renewing for CNN," Duggan said. "I hope when we deal with this list exchange and rental issue we will see the public television system moving in the same way."

Duggan said the practice of list swapping with political groups will not be condoned. Non-profit groups are not allowed to engage in political activities.

"No station should do anything that calls into question its independence or impartiality," Duggan said.

But Duggan made clear stations exchanged lists with both parties, saying it was a non-partisan effort, and to characterize it as a one-party affair would be inaccurate.

"This is non-political behavior," he said. "The first story unfortunately was about list-sharing with the Democratic National Committee. What we've learned since then is that the Dole '96 campaign was involved in list-sharing with some stations."

Duggan said the conservative Heritage Foundation and even a group called "Country Club Republicans" engaged in list-sharing with PBS stations.

"This is about the sometimes frenetic and desperate search for names that sometimes represent contributions," Duggan said. "List brokers and the fund-raising people in public television are quite indifferent to the political parties; they are simply looking for lists that produce the fund-raising results that they want."

PBS has strongly urged member stations to prohibit the exchange or rental of lists with political parties or candidates to ensure their donors' right to privacy. The Corporation for Public Broadcasting adopted policies that require stations to maintain control of donor lists or face the loss of funding.

"I don't know what the fallout will be," Duggan said about the list exchange issue. "If we put this in perspective, if we understand the arm's-length nature of list brokers and if we reform within a period of two weeks and ban this practice, and above all if we make it clear this does not touch the editorial or production operation of our stations -- fund raising has nothing to do with programming -- we will make things right."

Duggan defended the continued existence of government-funded public television against conservatives in Congress who seek to eliminate its funding.

"Public television can be seen as the television equivalent of the public library," Duggan said. "If the public library didn't enjoy public support, it wouldn't be the public library anymore. It would become something more like Borders. There's a place in the ecology of media for one non-profit, non-commercial, publicly supported institution whose mission is different."

PBS announced a new underwriting deal with the Web directory LookSmart, which will underwrite five PBS programs for three years each, including "Sesame Street" and "Mystery!" Upcoming programs on PBS include a Fall 2000 Bill Moyers special on health care for the elderly called "Dying in America." The acclaimed documentary "The Buena Vista Social Club," about a group of 80-year-old Cuban musicians, will air in November.


PBS is getting into the Saturday morning cartoon race, making a $40 million deal with Canadian animator Nelvana for six new childrens' series set to debut in Fall 2000.

Nelvana will finance the series with co-production partners, international program sales and corporate underwriters.

All six of the programs are based upon children's literature, including Maurice Sendak's "Seven Little Monsters," William Joyce's "George Shrinks," Don Freeman's "Corduroy Bear," Rosemary Wells' "Timothy Goes to School," Michael and Betty Paraskevas' "Junior Kroll" and Andrew Beck's "Elliot Moose." The shows are aimed at a preschool-age audience, which is what sets them apart from traditional network cartoons, said John F. Wilson, senior vice president PBS Programming Services.

"I see a terrific opportunity on Saturday morning for PBS quality, non-commercial programming, particularly aimed at the preschool block," Wilson said. "Saturday morning is populated with school-age programming for the most part."

PBS Kids, a sister network aimed to compete with the educational channel Noggin (a joint venture between Nickelodeon and long-time PBS programmed supplier Children's Television Workshop), will premiere Sept. 6, but few people will see it right away. PBS Kids will eventually air as a part of multiplexing once TV stations go digital. Until then PBS stations have the option of running PBS Kids on a secondary channel or cable channel.

Officials said PBS Kids may soon be available to some satellite TV customers. But there's still no movement on a deal to restart production of the acclaimed PBS kids' series "Wishbone." Wilson said a "substantial, undisclosed sum" of money has been reserved to create new episodes, but it's not enough to get the job done. The search continues for more funding.


Last summer "ER" executive producer John Wells acknowledged he considered Pittsburgh as the setting for the hit medical drama. His new show, "Third Watch," could have ended up filming in the 'Burgh, too, but it landed in New York. "We went and scouted [Pittsburgh], but it's really the actor problem," Wells said. "There's some wonderful actors there, [but] we just don't have enough depth of the pool. By the time you figure the cost of casting out of New York, flying people in to the tune of 25 per episode, putting them up at the William Penn, flying them back, it becomes very [cost] prohibitive."

Wells, who graduated from Carnegie Mellon University in 1979, said a series could be shot in Pittsburgh, but it would need to have a smaller ensemble cast and fewer demands for guest stars each week.

"It's a great city to shoot in and that's why there are a lot of films there and not television shows, because you can center it in a more responsible fashion," he said.


Dick Wolf, producer of "Law & Order" and its spin-off "Law & Order: Special Victims Unit," met with critics Friday prepared to chastise NBC for scheduling his new show at 9 p.m. Mondays this fall.

He thinks "Special Victims Unit," which deals with sex crimes, should air at 10 p.m. instead of "Dateline NBC" which currently has the time slot.

"I don't think it's appropriate," Wolf said. "It's not designed to be a 9 p.m. show. How can you do this show and not have 10 p.m. content? It'd be kind of silly -- sex misdemeanors?"

Knowing the time slot, Wolf plans no content changes for the series. "I'm making the show they bought," Wolf said. "If they want to put it in the wrong time slot, that's their option."

Wolf's dislike of the time slot isn't driven solely by content concerns. At 9 p.m. the show airs opposite the popular "Everybody Loves Raymond" on CBS and "Ally McBeal" on NBC. At 10 p.m. "Special Victims Unit's" main competition would be less challenging: CBS's new drama "Family Law."

Wolf isn't alone in his unhappiness. NBC Entertainment president Garth Ancier would prefer to see it at 10 p.m., saying, "It's a better way to program the night." While Ancier is the network's newly-appointed programming chief, he said putting the spin-off at 9 p.m. was a decision made by his bosses.

"Other family members felt it should be done that way," Ancier said, adding that there are those at NBC who feel "Dateline" at 10 p.m. Monday is appointment television. Ancier said he feels the only newsmagazines that are appointment television are "60 Minutes" and the Friday edition of "20/20."

He later acknowledged NBC's news division successfully lobbied to keep "Dateline" in the 10 p.m. time slot.


NBC's Garth Ancier said a wrap-up TV movie based on the series "Homicide: Life on the Street" is a possibility.

"We're checking into the availability of the whole cast to shoot a movie," Ancier said. "We've held the sets and we think we'll do it. Now it's up to [series executive producer] Tom Fontana. We said, 'It's your call, if you feel you have a good enough story to tell in a movie.' They want to bring back people like Andre Braugher."

Ancier said Fontana and his business partner Barry Levinson are developing a mid-season show for NBC set in Miami. Ancier described it as "a mixed genre show, but it includes cops."

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