Pushing the Envelope: PBS Content in Idaho
[Sorry, the video for this story has expired, but you can still read the transcript below. ]
TERENCE SMITH: For years, the single biggest contributor to Idaho’s statewide public broadcasting system has been its legislature. This year, some of the legislators decided that the old saying “he who pays the piper, calls the tune” should apply to the station’s programming.
ROBERT LEE: My wife and I were watching public television not long ago. We enjoy it. Most of the programming is very good. We were watching a program entitled “The American Experience,” [sic] and subtitled “The American.” It was well done. We got partway through that, and there was a very graphic display of sexual relations between unmarried adults on television, during primetime. I objected to that.
TERENCE SMITH: Here’s what Senator Robert Lee didn’t like, a “Masterpiece Theatre” production of Henry James’ novel “The American.” Senator Lee was debating the station’s programming choices with its general manager, Peter Morrill.
ROBERT LEE: We have a responsibility here to exercise what we believe are community standards of morality. I believe in this state, we are a highly moral community, and so the question is, do you intend to help or to follow high moral standards in the programming that you’re presenting, and following the moral standard of our communities?
PETER MORRILL: The program that you spoke of, with all due respect, is from the “Masterpiece Theatre” series. It was broadcast at the hour of 9:00 at night. It met all industry standards.
ROBERT LEE: I don’t give a damn about industry standards. I care about community standards, and that’s what we ought to be following.
TERENCE SMITH: And those community standards, Senator Lee says, are more conservative in Idaho than in the rest of the country.
ROBERT LEE: The point is, we are putting money, public funds, hard-earned tax dollars, into public television. We have an obligation to make sure that it has good oversight, and that public television reflects the morals and standards of people in Idaho.
TERENCE SMITH: Because the PBS station gets 28 percent of its money from the state government– that’s $1.5 million a year– Senator Lee says the legislature should have some say over what is broadcast. For PBS, it’s an important, potentially far-reaching argument. Most PBS statewide systems are even more reliant on state tax dollars than Idaho.
For Idaho Public Television, criticism of “The American” came at a time when the station already was being attacked by lawmakers for two shows that dealt with homosexuality. The first, called “It’s Elementary,” aired in September, 1999. It showed how some schools addressed gay issues.
TEACHER (in video): If someone says that they’re gay, or they say, you know, someone else is gay or someone is homosexual, what does that mean?
STUDENT (raising hand): Oh, oh!
TEACHER: Mickey, what does that mean?
STUDENT: It means, like, that they’re in love with a boy, that a boy is in love with a boy or a girl is in love with a girl, or also they could be just teasing or something.
TERENCE SMITH: Then in June, 2000, the station broadcast a program called “Our House” that profiled children with gay parents. Like “It’s Elementary,” “Our House” aired on more than 100 PBS stations across America, including all the major media markets. Peter Morrill defended his decision to broadcast the shows in Idaho.
PETER MORRILL: In our country we have a tradition where the government does not try to impose a point of view on its media outlets, and I think the viewer at home feels very uncomfortable about the concept of a politician or politicians deciding what programs they’re going to be watching.
STAN HAWKINS: Why would you continue to do those things that you know are going to be controversial; you know that legislators are going to take heat, and we’re going to continually have this question to deal with repeatedly, year after year after year?
TERENCE SMITH: Senator Stan Hawkins attacked Morrill for his programming choices.
STAN HAWKINS: In the state of Idaho, homosexual conduct is against the law, and on that principle, I don’t think that any tax-supported broadcast system, whether it be television or radio, ought to be using taxpayer dollars to try to normalize a conduct or an activity that’s illegal.
TERENCE SMITH: So upset were the lawmakers here at the capitol that they required Idaho Public Television to clear its programming in advance with the state board of education. The lawmakers also compelled the stations to air a daily “viewer beware” disclaimer.
ANNOUNCER: Events and depictions appearing on Idaho Public Television that are broadcast…
TERENCE SMITH: The disclaimer, written by the state board of education, which control’s the station’s license, is designed to remind viewers that sodomy is illegal in Idaho.
ANNOUNCER: Idaho Public Television and the Idaho State Board of Education expressly offer such programs as part of their highest priority of our programming and not for the purpose of promoting, supporting or encouraging the violation of any criminal statutes.
TERENCE SMITH: Taken together, these legislatively mandated restrictions on Idaho Public Television are the only ones of their kind in the country. They have alarmed defenders of free speech. Robert Corn Revere is an attorney for the Association of American Public Television Stations.
ROBERT CORN REVERE: We are dealing with an area where the government is a licensee, but we’re also dealing with a blanket restriction by a legislature designed for no purpose other than to stifle speech.
TERENCE SMITH: And therefore in violation of the First Amendment?
ROBERT CORN REVERE: Yes.
TERENCE SMITH: What you call oversight, some people call censorship. Is it?
ROBERT LEE: In a manner of speaking, I suppose it is. But I call it discretion. Every station manager, every board editor, even your program, you have people who make decisions about the type of programming, so they make choices. And all we’re saying is make the right choices.
RON PISANESCHI: So we’ll roll through the things that we’re going to highlight for the board.
TERENCE SMITH: Making the right choices has forced general manager Peter Morrill and director of programming Ron Pisaneschi to walk a fine line with the board of education when scheduling national programs.
RON PISANESCHI: There’s another program that’s going to have some issues. It’s the “Jesus Christ Superstar” on “Great Performances.” Now, this is not the sort of sanitized version. This is– most people have the sort of vision in their mind of what this show is, but if you actually watch it it’s, you know. There’s a certain sacrilegious nature to some of it. And then comes the program that has a lot of potential for people to be concerned with, and that’s the “American High” series.
TERENCE SMITH: At this monthly programming meeting, Morrill and Pisaneschi discussed an upcoming show that they know will strike sparks. It’s a highly promoted PBS national series about high school students, and one of the profiled students is gay.
STUDENT: There’s a lot of baggage that comes with being gay.
PETER MORRILL: What’s Salt Lake doing with it? What’s Utah or Oregon and Spokane doing with it?
RON PISANESCHI: Salt Lake is running it at 9:00.
PETER MORRILL: Okay.
RON PISANESCHI: KSPS and Oregon are both running it at 10:00, so my sense is it really should be at 10:00, as opposed to 9:00. We’re just certainly not going to pull the show.
TERENCE SMITH: Since the restrictions were put in place last June, the state board of education has yet to stop IPTV from airing any shows. And Peter Morrill says the station has not and will not pull programming.
PETER MORRILL: Do I expect public television, Idaho Public Television to broadcast programs in the future that are going to rile some folks up? Well, you bet. That’s part of our mission of looking at difficult issues our society is dealing with. If we don’t have programs that don’t deal with difficult issues, I would really question whether or not public television is needed or not.
Public television is one of the last things on the media landscape that has the guts to deal with some of our vexing issues in our society. And if public television goes down, there’s not a whole lot in back of it to take its place.
TERENCE SMITH: Idaho parents Dennis and Susan Mansfield question why public television needs to push the envelope. A deeply religious family, the Mansfields told their legislator that they were offended when “It’s Elementary” aired.
DENNIS MANSFIELD: I’ve long since believed that the joy of PBS is creativity and a challenge. It doesn’t have to be controversy. See, there are enough people on the network– networks that are trying to achieve the optimum of controversy. When I set my eight-year-old down and he’s watching “Sesame Street” or he’s watching some incredible outdoor Africa adventure, and then I have to worry — or not worry, but have to be concerned that some creative, you know, leader at PBS is going to stretch my little eight-year-old — he has no business stretching my little eight-year-old. He has every business being responsible to Senator Lee and the others that advance him the cash to do the job that he does.
DEMONSTRATORS: Two, four, six, eight Idaho can’t stand for hate!
TERENCE SMITH: But the more vocal viewers have been those in support of IPTV. Shortly after the restrictions became law, public television supporters marched to the state board of education.
DEMONSTRATOR: We want to promote diversity and acceptance of people who are different.
TERENCE SMITH: Viewers like Jack Brown, a high school music teacher, who attended the march, say it’s up to parents, not government, to screen what their children watch on PBS. Brown’s six-year-old son, Kevin, watches PBS shows nearly every day.
JACK BROWN: That’s what the channel changer or the remote is for. If it’s something you’d rather not watch, then… and you’d rather not have your children watch, then of course that’s parental supervision. I don’t need the government telling me what I can and can’t watch. I’m quite capable of doing that myself.
TERENCE SMITH: So just click it off?
JACK BROWN: Click it off.
SPOKESPERSON: Is there anyone there that you’d like to testify?
TERENCE SMITH: Brown’s views reflected the overwhelming majority at a public hearing this February, when the state board of education considered a legislative proposal to eliminate all public funding for IPTV.
WOMAN: Now come some members of the Idaho legislature who want to privatize– translate: dismantle– the system, not because of financial concerns, as other states have experienced, but because they don’t like some of the programs.
TERENCE SMITH: In a teleconference from seven towns across the state, more than 900 residents submitted testimony on the fate of IPTV. Only 33 favored an end to government subsidies to the station.
WITNESS: And I would just like to say, please do not send Idaho Public Television to the butcher.
TERENCE SMITH: Responding to the public backlash, the senators ultimately gave PBS the funding it sought, including money to help the station make an $11 million conversion to digital broadcasting. They also allowed the station to dispense with the broadcast disclaimer after this summer. But even as the budget was approved, lawmakers pressed their points about programming.
STAN HAWKINS: I’d like to have a page come forward, if I could, and give Mr. Morrill a couple of tapes that I’d like to have him consider for possible inclusion in your programming. These are tapes that offer an alternative view to the evolution theory, and so I’m expecting that we’ll hear right back from you on that. And Mr. Morrill, thank you very much.
TERENCE SMITH: Despite the PBS station’s political victory this year, Senator Hawkins made it clear that the debate over programming is not over.
STAN HAWKINS: We sent a fairly strong message, and if Mr. Morrill hasn’t got the feeling yet that he needs to be careful with his program decision making, you know, I think this is still a consideration.
TERENCE SMITH: And at the public television headquarters in Boise, the managers say they know they must tread carefully in the narrow path between offending the legislature and defending what they consider to be creative programming.