Sunday, April 17, 1994

Journal; The Plot Thickens At PBS

Published: Sunday, April 17, 1994

The continuing soap opera of PBS -- will it survive its cable competition, conservative critics, financial woes? -- is hardly the most thrilling of cliffhangers. It's barely more compelling than the middlebrow "Middlemarch," a profusely illustrated Cliffs Notes version of George Eliot, now airing on a public station near you. But with the new revelation that PBS has, in a cloak of darkness, abruptly abandoned its most successful prime-time dramatic series in more than a decade, the plot thickens most mysteriously. Is PBS heading for a disastrous denouement?

The series in question is "Tales of the City," a six-hour adaptation of the first of Armistead Maupin's six novels about life among a cross-section of San Franciscans. When broadcast in January, "Tales" was greeted with critical acclaim and record-breaking audiences for its touching portrait of the bygone 1970's and its wonderful cast headed by Olympia Dukakis and Donald Moffat. Because the show contained a sprinkling of female breasts and profanities, PBS offered a slightly modified alternative version to its stations. But except for three Southern states in which the religious right predictably exploited "Tales" for political ends, the series was not only broadcast without incident but served as an exceptionally potent tool for local station pledge drives.

"Tales" was a cheap hit for PBS; almost all of the $8 million production cost was picked up by Britain's Channel 4, which originated the project. So happy was PBS with the result that it encouraged Lindsay Law, the producer who brought "Tales" to public television as part of his "American Playhouse" series, to pursue a sequel with Channel 4.

But in late March PBS suddenly started sending Mr. Law what he called "weird signals." When he and Mr. Maupin sought reassurances from the network's programming director, Jennifer Lawson, they discovered that "More Tales" was no longer wanted by PBS. Reporters alerted by Mr. Maupin were stonewalled by PBS spokesmen, who would only answer from a script of "talking points."

As the "talking points" have it, the most concrete reasons for PBS's decision to back away from "More Tales" are that it requires too much funding and that public television, unlike vulgar commercial networks, doesn't sink to sequels. Both explanations are bogus. PBS had told Mr. Law from the start that it had earmarked no money for "More Tales," and he had already been pursuing corporate and private sponsors instead. And PBS does air sequels -- witness "Prime Suspect 3."

So what happened between January and March that made PBS run away from its big hit? To this outsider, two events seem significant. The first is the arrival of a new PBS president, Ervin Duggan. The second is a new all-out campaign against "Tales of the City" by Donald Wildmon's American Family Association: with little fanfare in late March, members of Congress were sent a 12-minute bootleg videotape darkly highlighting the series' four-letter words, fleeting nudity, pot-smoking and one prolonged gay kiss.

Mr. Duggan's pre-PBS job was as a Bush Administration appointee, backed by the National Association of Evangelicals, to the Federal Communications Commission, where he pledged his fealty to "decent family values." Is he now acting as a censor to appease the fundamentalism and homophobia of family-values kooks? Or is the retreat from Mr. Maupin's "Tales" -- tales so benign, by the way, that they originally ran as a serial in the mass-circulation San Francisco Chronicle -- just a dumb programming decision by a television novice?

Repeated efforts to get Mr. Duggan or Ms. Lawson to stop hiding behind flacks and explain their actions were to no avail. Congressmen and benefactors with a hand on public broadcasting purse strings may be more successful in smoking them out. Meanwhile, the millions of viewers who delighted in "Tales" because it is the kind of adult American drama they can't find on commercial television -- and who pledged money to support it -- have reason to feel betrayed. At a time when public television's overall viewership is declining sharply and even its preschool monopoly is facing stiff competition from Nickelodeon, PBS can hardly afford a president who recklessly tells both the gifted creators and discerning audience of the most successful prime-time drama in years to get lost.