Archive for the ‘Public Television’ Category

Downton Upper

David_Lloyd_GeorgeHad Britain not produced a Winston Churchill or a Margaret Thatcher Americans might know a lot more about another British Prime Minister David Lloyd George pictured here in the prime of his long life.

A few million of us have been, sort of, introduced to Lloyd George thanks to the PBS import of Downton Abbey, the Masterpiece series that began its fourth season last Sunday. In an episode in the first season of Downton, Lloyd George’s name is mentioned in passing drawing, as usual, a stinging retort from the Dowager Countess played so well by Maggie Smith. “Please don’t speak that man’s name,” she huffs, “we are about to eat.”

At the time – we’re right before the outbreak of The Great War – Lloyd George, described appropriately by his great granddaughter the historian Margaret MacMillan “as one of the most interesting and controversial politicians in modern British politics,” was serving as Chancellor of the Exchequer in a Liberal government and he had proposed what would come to be called “The People’s Budget.”

That budget sparked a revolution in British society. Lloyd George promised to pay for both guns and butter in pre-war Britain by soaking the rich. He advocated social reforms, particularly old age pensions and a war against “poverty and squalidness,” as well as massive spending on the British Navy, including the huge dreadnoughts thought necessary to keep pace with the German Kaiser’s naval ambitions.

Lloyd George, MacMillan writes in her superb book The War That Ended Peace, loved a good fight and didn’t flinch from his People’s Budget that was constructed around increases in “death taxes” and new and steep taxes on the landed aristocracy. Little wonder they disliked “that man” in the plush rooms at Downton Abbey. He was paving the way for the ultimate demise of Lord Grantham and his like.

“The rich wanted the dreadnoughts,” MacMillan writes of her great grandfather, “and now they didn’t want to pay.” And, for that matter, just what was the value of the aristocracy? Lloyd George answered this way: “A fully equipped duke costs as much to keep up as two Dreadnoughts – and they are just as great a terror – and they last longer.”

On another occasion Lloyd George said, “death is the most convenient time to tax rich people.” In the U.S. conservative politicians would label that “class warfare” and we’d debate the fairness of “death taxes.” Such policy made Lloyd George prime minister.

Downton Abbey, for all its high-class soap opera touches – the nasty villains, crippling tragedy and clueless Lords – really offers a peephole into the rigid class structure that once, and to some degree still does, define British life. Downton is at the center of a society where ones life and possibilities were defined by ones birth. The imperious Mr. Carson, Downton’s butler, and his downstairs staff were born to “service” and lord – or My Lord – help them if they screw up. Those who manage to escape their class limitations – the upstairs maid who dreams of becoming a secretary and the Irish chauffeur Tom Branson who manages to escape for love – are the exceptions. Mrs. Hughes, Daisy and the rest seem destined to live and die in service.

Most Americans, of course, continue to buy the notion that with our long-ago revolution against the mother country we were able to create a “classless society.” Even as income inequality and a lack of mobility have become features of modern American society few politicians on this side of the pond would dare to advocate a “redistribution” of resources from the country’s economic lords to the little people. Rather than disparage the 1%, Americans seem to let the excesses of a Bernie Madoff or JP Morgan Chase float away like the smoke from one of Lord Grantham’s after dinner cigars. Perhaps some of our guilty pleasure in feasting on the glided soap opera that is Downton is that we are convinced our make believe “classless” society is superior even if the dinner time attire at Downton is much better than sitting on the sofa and eating a Domino’s.

Americans have never had a royal family unless you count the Kennedys and George Washington rejected John Adams’ suggestion that the president be addressed as “His Excellency.” Still we loved Lady Diana and can’t get enough of the future king and queen. We adore British imports – Scotch whiskey, The Beatles, James Bond and Manchester United. Since at least 1941 when Churchill and Franklin Roosevelt struck a partnership to defeat the Nazis, the United States and Britain have had their “special relationship.” In almost every case – the Suez Crisis in 1956 being a major exception – we’ve been joined at the hip, often for good and occasionally not, with the Brits on matters of foreign policy.

As much as I like the series, and I really do, Downton says as much about America in 2014 as it does about Britain in 1922. As the New York Times noted in marking the return of the fourth season the series and its characters are remarkable in their ability to soldier on when terrible things happen. “The series is optimistic, warmhearted, almost Reaganesque in its ability to find a rainbow. Mr. [Julian] Fellowes [the series creator] holds up a bowdlerized edition of British society, where beneath a thin veneer of stratification, servants and masters are friends and confidants, and even cataclysm doesn’t break the bond.”

We also like Downton so much, I think, because of what it doesn’t say. A television series devoted to how The Great War destroyed a generation of British manhood and how domestic politics brought a landed aristocracy to heel wouldn’t command much of a following. On Sunday evening we get the sunny version, which is good television, but not very good history.

By 1922 Lloyd George, having sat across the table from Woodrow Wilson to craft the Treaty of Versailles and create the League of Nations, was out of power. Internal conflicts and scandal in the once dominate Liberal Party doomed the Liberals to minor party status from which the party has never recovered. Even Churchill jumped ship on his old mentor Lloyd George and returned to the Tories – the Dowager Countess certainly must have approved – as Britain sank into a period of deep reflection and sadness spawned by what Lloyd George called “the cruelest and most terrible War that has ever scourged mankind.”

David Lloyd George was born the son of a Welsh schoolmaster and as such would have had much more in common with Irish Tom Branson, the chauffeur turned Downton land manager, than with the dandy fellows who are sent into a twitter when black ties replace white at dinner. When Lloyd George was finally given his own title – Earl Lloyd George of Dwyfor in 1945 – he is reported to have said in Welsh “Y Gwir Yn Erbyn Y Byd ” – The truth against the world.

As we tune in this week to see if the sensible American, Lady Cora, and her head strong daughters can continue to outwit – its not that difficult – the dense Lord of the Manor, recall that Lloyd George said his country’s job after The Great War – a war that claimed more than 700,000 British lives – was “to make Britain a fit country for heroes to live in.” I doubt he had Lord Grantham in mind.

 

The Architect

For most of the nearly ten years that I spent in front of a camera at Idaho Public Television in the late 1970’s and early 1980’s, Peter Morrill was behind the camera making me look as good as was humanly possible. (That’s Peter nearby upstaging Big Bird). That he didn’t always succeed in making me look good reminds me of the old joke about some of us having a face well suited for radio, but Peter always tried.

By the time I left television for good late in 1985 in order to tip my toe in the churning water of politics, the guy I always counted on to get the broadcast on the air had honed his television skills to the point where he could literally do it all. He shot the film – later the video – edited and polished the script, adjusted the lights, tinkered with the graphics, everything it seemed including jawing with the engineers about tweaking the transmitter. Peter had become through sheer design and love for the box with wires and lights a complete television talent who understood the business from the perspective of the kid carrying the tripod in the field to the state legislator wrestling over the public TV budget in the Statehouse. It was a natural progression for him to become General Manager of Idaho’s system and the guy who would lead Idaho’s only true statewide media organization to great accomplishments while serving an ever larger audience.

Morrill has been rightly praised over the last couple of weeks – the legislature passed a proclamation – following the announcement of his retirement that will come later this year. Typical Peter, he’s staying around until his successor is on the job and I use that word – successor – intentionally. Someone will follow him. He’s not going to be replaced.

During his 34 years at Idaho Public Television Peter Morrill and his team have won a bucket full of impressive awards, including an Emmy and a Murrow award, somehow found the money to upgrade the entire statewide system to a digital platform and made the Idaho system the most watched per capita in the nation. All the while Morrill has had to reach more and more Idahoans who are willing to pledge a few bucks a month to support not just Big Bird and Masterpiece, but truly outstanding, high quality local productions. In the public service space, Morrill and IPTV have been leaders with live coverage of the state legislature and the courts and in offering the most serious public affairs programming available on the tube in Idaho. It’s all been done with steadily diminishing resources from the state.

At the same time Peter has been an outspoken even courageous voice in defending the public television mission as  one of the few places in the current vast wasteland of cable where serious and occasionally controversial programming can be seen. This in fact may be his greatest legacy.

Obviously, I’m a friend and admirer and far from objective. Together in the old days we made some modestly important television – a trip to the then-Soviet Union that resulted in a couple of documentaries, some pioneering statewide public affairs programming produced with minimal modern technology and important political debates, including Church and Symms in 1980. We certainly had more fun and independence than our age and experience warranted and those years produced the kind of television war stories that remain cherished memories for life. We once shut down and partially flooded the Ram Bar in Sun Valley (during the day) when a portable light got a little too close to the ceiling sprinkler system. That video still exists, I think, as do about 20 bad takes of yours truly in a Dan Rather-style trench coat trying to complete a on-camera stand-up that came close to getting the better of me and had my camera guy, the impressive Mr. Morrill, bent over in laughter.

We once put the late, great environmental writer Edward Abbey on the air in Moscow (Idaho) for a half hour interview even after the author of The Monkey Wrench Gang insisted that he be allowed to continue smoking his big cigar during the broadcast. That was, of course, in violation of any number of rules, but the show must go on. Peter walked into a Russian Orthodox church service in Moscow (Russia) with a 16 mm film camera on his shoulder after assuring our KGB-like minder that of course we wouldn’t film anything inside the church. He did, mostly without having to look through the view finder.  The less said the better about that night on the town in the capital of “the evil empire.” Certain amounts of vodka were consumed. The good news – we weren’t sent to Siberia. We interviewed then-presidential candidate and future Secretary of State Alexander Haig in the bridal suite of an Idaho Falls hotel complete with a statue – very romantic – of Venus d’ Milo over the general’s shoulder. And, we once attempted election night coverage with a couple of interesting and opinionated on-set analysts – former Governors Bob Smylie and Cecil Andrus. The fun made up for the salaries.

Critics frequently contend that public television isn’t really all that necessary in an age when any cable or satellite subscriber can locate a couple of hundred channels from the comfort of the living room couch. The truth is just the opposite. If all you want to watch is the Real Wives of.…fill in the blank, or your idea is news is O’Reilly or Maddow then you don’t need public television. However, if an occasional documentary, serious drama or music program or a political talking head that does need to shout to be heard strikes your fancy then the public channel is often your best and only bet.

Peter Morrill did what very few people in his industry do. He went from the guy who actually makes programs to the guy who actually figures out how to put and keep them on the air. He mastered the details of every aspect of the business and in the process became a nationally respected and locally effective salesman for the very idea of public television. Not a bad career. Idaho is damn lucky he made the state his home and gave so much of himself to build and sustain one of Idaho’s greatest public assets.

It was my good fortunate to be along for some of the early ride and some of the best days I’ve ever had in what some would call work. Announcing his retirement, the State Board of Education called Morrill “an exceptional leader.” That’s it. Exceptional people, with real talent and commitment often become exceptional leaders of important organizations. Peter Morrill did just that and all the thanks he receives will be less than he deserves.

 

Symbolic Cuts

burnsMinimal Money, Real Impact

Noted documentary filmmaker Ken Burns has waded into the fray over eliminating federal funding for the Corporation for Public Broadcasting and sharply reducing the measly dollars we spend on the national endowments for the humanities and the arts.

In a piece in the Washington Post, Burns – his Civil War documentary may be the best long-form television ever – asks us to remember that during the Great Depression somehow the country found the dollars to support artists, writers and photographers who produced some of the most enduring work of the 20th Century. Surely, he says, we can afford a fraction of a cent of our federal tax dollar for CPB and the endowments.

In the interest of full disclosure, loyal readers need to know I have a strong bias here. I cut my journalism teeth years ago with a daily half-hour broadcast on public television. I have volunteered for 15 years on various boards dedicated to the mission of the public humanities and the bringing of thoughtful programs on American and world culture, history, literature, religion and philosophy to Idahoans and Americans. I’m a true believer in these well established and minimally funded institutions and I also understand the federal budget.

The $420 million we spend on CPB, almost all of which goes to local public TV and radio stations and programs like those Ken Burns makes, and the $168 million we spend on each of the endowments is a total drop in the federal budget bucket. The Pentagon spends that much in an afternoon.

Case in point, Boeing just got an award from the Defense Department to build a new generation of aerial tankers – price tag $35 billion. Assuming Boeing builds a full fleet of 179 tankers, that averages out to about $195 million per plane. That buys a whole lot of what the endowments and CPB provide Americans.

I know, I know, we need new aerial tankers to replace those in service since Eisenhower was in the White House, but don’t we also need a place – for a tiny fraction of the cost – where Ken Burns’ documentaries reach a huge audience or where the humanities endowment supports a local museum or library?

Congress and the president continue the gandy dance around the real need to address the federal budget deficit. We have a crisis in three areas – defense spending, Medicare and Social Security. We need to address a combination of very difficult tradeoffs. Extend the retirement age, means test Medicare, reduce the size and scope of our military power on every continent and raise taxes. It’s easier to say than to cut, but there you have the real issues.

Anyone who tells you we can address the dismal federal deficit by cutting CPB and the National Endowments is practicing demagoguery on the scope of Huey Long, the subject, by the way, of a Ken Burns’ documentary.

Much of this debate, it must be noted, is about ideology rather than real budget savings. Some conservatives assail public broadcasting or the pointy headed humanities and arts community as the preserve of “liberals.” Nonsense. William F. Buckley found a home on PBS. Were the great man alive today, do you think he could find a place on Fox or CNN? Not a chance. Listen to a week of The NewsHour or Morning Edition and really consider the range of views, opinion and ideology you hear. Public TV and radio have become one of the few real clearinghouses of ideas about the American condition. Not liberal, not conservative, but truly fair and balanced.

America is a country of ideas. We have thrived for as long as we have because we value the big debate, the chance for lots of voices – from Ken Burns to the Red Green Show (on PBS) to the Trailing of the Sheep Festival and a summer teacher institute in Idaho (funded by the Idaho Humanities Council) – to be heard, considered, rejected and embraced.

We must get serious about the federal deficit. We must also recognize that a guy as talented as Ken Burns would never have a chance in the “marketplace media.” A long-form documentary on baseball, jazz, the National Parks or World War II simply won’t find a place in modern commercial broadcasting. So, eliminating that platform is really a decision to eliminate the ideas represented there.

If we lose what a Ken Burns represents, we lose a connection with our history and our culture that simply can’t be replaced. We will regret it, but not as much as our children.

More Assaults on Public TV

big birdVirginia Governor’s Plan Sounds Familiar

I wrote yesterday about Virginia Gov. Bob McDonnell’s hasty retreat from a controversial Confederate History Month proclamation. Some how the Guv left out any reference to slavery in his proclamation, an oversight he quickly corrected.

McDonnell is not pulling back, however, from another of his controversial proposals – a plan to eliminate state support for the Virginia public television and radio system. Much as Idaho Gov. Butch Otter proposed a four-year phase out of state support for public television earlier this year, McDonnell is asking the Virginia legislature to cut $2.2 million in state support over a four-year period.

The Washington Post quotes the governor’s spokesperson today: “Due to a historic $4.2 billion budget shortfall, and because of the growing educational programming options on cable and through the internet, the Governor had to set priorities and make some tough decisions.” Sounds familiar.

The Richmond Times-Dispatch says the McDonnell is “gunning for Big Bird” and notes that eliminating the modest amount the state devotes to public broadcasting has long been a priority of legislators in the GOP-controlled House of Delegates. McDonnell’s proposal may not fare as well in the Democratic Virginia Senate.

As we know, in Idaho, the heavily GOP legislature refused to embrace Otter’s budget recommendations to eliminate support for public television (and several other small agencies) and the governor quietly signed an appropriation a few days ago that gave the Idaho system the same type of percentage reduction in funding that most other state programs received. Otter also signed, in a public ceremony, legislation to provide a temporary tax credit for donations to public television and several other programs.

Also as in Idaho, the editorial and public response in Virginia has been in favor of allowing public broadcasting to take its share of cuts in a tough economic environment, but not use the downturn as an excuse to eliminate a vital service.

As the Virginia Pilot noted in an editorial: “A tough budget year shouldn’t be used as an excuse to take a gratuitous swipe at local stations that are struggling to continue providing superior educational programming and insightful coverage of local and state issues during the recession.”

In Idaho a massive show of public support for public TV sidetracked the governor’s budget notions. We’ll soon see if Virginians appreciate Big Bird as much as folks in these parts obviously do.

Six Degrees of Separation

BerezkhovThe Day I Met Stalin’s Interpreter

My old friend and former business partner Chris Carlson has a belief about meeting a total stranger. Chris contends that if you talk long enough and ask enough questions about the stranger’s friends, family, job and geography you’ll discover some person you both know. I’ve seen him do it and I’m a believer. It is a small world.

It has been said that we are all connected to everyone else by no more than “six degrees of separation” and often it’s really only one or two degrees of separation.

This then is the story of my, dare I say it, one degree of separation with Josef Stalin, Adolf Hitler and most of the other leading figures of World War II.

As I mentioned in a recent post, I have been enjoying a fine new book about the historic and controversial Big Three conference of Roosevelt, Churchill and Stalin at Yalta in 1945. The man who served as an interpreter for Stalin and Russian Foreign Minister Viacheslav Molotov – the Molotov Cocktail was named after him – was quoted in the book. I met and interviewed the interpreter for Stalin and Molotov in Moscow in 1984. As I look back on that encounter, it feels like my own first hand brush with the history and personalities that shaped the 20th Century.

Valentin Berezhkov - that’s his photo at the top of this post – had quite a life and I’m confident my interview wasn’t on his Top Ten list of big events. In addition to providing translation services for Stalin at the wartime conferences with Roosevelt and Churchill, Berezhkov was present when Molotov and German Foreign Minister Joachim von Ribbentrop – that’s the Ribbentrop who was executed after the Nuremberg war crimes trials – signed the Soviet-Nazi non-aggression pact in Berlin in 1941. That infamous deal divided Poland between the Russians and the Germans and cleared the way for Hitler to invade Poland and begin World War II. Later, when Hitler invaded Russia, Berezkhov burned papers at the Russian embassy in Berlin before the SS broke in and kept him captive until he could be exchanged for German diplomats who had been trapped in Moscow when war broke out.

Later in his life, Berezhkov was a writer and diplomat. He served in Washington and was often a spokesman for the Kremlin on a whole range of political, diplomatic and historical issues. He left Russia in 1991 and re-settled in California where he taught at Occidental College. Berezhkov died in 1998.

In 1984, I had the remarkable opportunity to make a reporting trip to the Soviet Union. My Idaho Public Television colleague at the time, Peter Morrill, now the general manager of Idaho PTV, and I accompanied a group of Idahoans on a “people to people” exchange. We spent more than two weeks in Moscow, Leningrad (now St. Petersburg), Minsk and Vilnius in Lithuania. The film Peter shot and the interviews we conducted were shaped into two documentaries. During the course of that remarkable trip – quite the adventure for an aspiring young reporter from Idaho – we spent an hour in the Russian capitol with Valentin Berezhkov. I still have his business card.

I confess to not understanding much about Berezhkov’s importance or personal story at the time of that interview. We had asked to speak with someone who could talk about the Russian experience during “The Great Patriotic War.” Our Soviet-era handlers offered him up and he spoke with authority and vividly about the horrible suffering of Russian civilians during the war. He treated us with genuine respect and kindness and seemed to take the rookies from Idaho seriously. I remember wondering just how much of what he told us was pure Soviet propaganda, carefully scripted for the rubes from the West.

When I read the new book on Yalta, and saw the reference to his role in the history of World War II, it all came together. This guy was an eyewitness to some of the greatest history of the 20th Century. He participated in some of the pivotal events that shaped the modern world. I wish now that I had been smart enough to ask him more and better questions.

In Berezhkov’s memoir, published in 1994, he recalled shaking hands with Hitler at the Fuehrer’s office in Berlin in 1940. ”His palm was cold and damp,” he wrote in the book, ”giving me an unpleasant sensation, as if I were touching a reptile.”

As the Independent noted in his obituary, during his translating career, Berezhkov, “to his continuing wonderment, met the entire Soviet leadership – and other world leaders as well, including Adolf Hitler, Franklin Roosevelt, Harry Truman, Winston Churchill and Clement Attlee.”

In his memoir – At Stalin’s Side – Berezhkov writes with critical insight about how his own life spanned the century from the Bolshevik Revolution to “the disappearance of the great empire in which I lived all my life.” He acknowledges the great tragedies and the awesome failures of communism, but also remembers the sense of hope that existed before what he calls the ultimately “doomed” experiment of communism came crashing down. Late in his remarkable life, he wished for a democratic future for Russia and that his own grandson will enjoy a better life.

I am glad I met and talked, even for a few minutes, to an eyewitness to the history that fascinates me; the history that I can only read about. I’m also glad to know that Hitler handshake was unpleasant. After all, I shook the hand that shook that hand. Small world, indeed.

Killing Off Big Bird…

big birdIt Has Been Tried Before

Idaho Governor Butch Otter proposed in his State of the State speech this week a four year phase out of state support for Idaho Public Television. Otter’s proposal would eventually eliminate the $1.7 million the system now receives and uses primarily to support its services statewide.

Combined with other holdbacks, the reduction will be more like 33% in the first year.

Otter’s idea has received extensive media attention and, in an irony too rich not to mention, the governor’s speech containing the proposal was carried statewide only on, you got it, Idaho Public Television. Here’s guessing the public pushback is just beginning.

In an editorial, the Times-News made a practical political point that legislators may really want to ponder: “There are few more respected institutions in Idaho than IPTV. It’s beloved by every Idaho parent with a 4-year-old – even if those 4-year-olds have long since grown up.”

The governor and his advisers have said that public TV should hustle up private and corporate support to keep going, but that seems very unlikely given two hard facts.

One, the folks who run Idaho Public Television have mastered the art of looking under ever rock in Idaho for support. They run a lean, mean operation that makes the absolutely most of the checks they collect from Idahoans. In fact, compared to peer operations – states with state licensed systems – Idaho already out performs in the private fundraising arena.

Two, the worst hard times in anyone’s memory hardly seem like a realistic time to tell a state operation that has been around for 40 years to rattle the tin cup more loudly. Every non-profit I know, even the most popular – and public TV is popular – is hurting in this economic environment.

[Full disclosure: I worked for Idaho public television for about eight years back in the 1970’s and 1980’s, I recently joined the Friends of Public TV Board and I have many long-time friends in the operation. I am not an unbiased observer.]

I do know, from having the weird experience of reporting on the decision, that public television funding was eliminated back in 1981. That, too, was a time of severe budget constraint and legislators were looking under rocks. Part of the discussion then, as now, was also ideological. Some lawmakers, including then-Senator Dave Little of Emmett, the chair of the Senate Finance Committee and father of the current Lt. Governor, simply didn’t think the state belonged in the “government TV” business.

Legislators came to rethink – and some, perhaps to regret – the “unfunding” and state support was partially restored a year later. Also in 1982, the legislature mandated a statewide merger of services that created the streamlined, efficient system that exists today.

Personal opinion: I don’t believe Idaho Public TV can survive in anything like its current form, covering virtually every corner of the state, with the kind of Idaho-specific programming and reach without state support. It simply won’t happen.

This discussion is really about whether statewide public television service and programming will continue – period. Removing state funding will also serve to squander the substantial investment Idaho taxpayers have already made in a more-or-less state of the art delivery system. As a very practical matter, translators will sit unused on many mountain tops.

The state is big enough – no statewide newspaper, two time zones, diverse political and social culture – that public TV here, in more than any state I know, pulls the population together. It’s been a bargain for 40 years and will be a bargain this year and next and beyond, even at twice the price.