The Ombudsman's Mailbag
By Michael Getler
July 7, 2006
Fireworks Set Off Fireworks
As usual, there was a glorious fireworks display on the evening of July Fourth next to the National Mall in the nation's capital. And, as usual, it was broadcast live by PBS as part of the traditional 90-minute "A Capitol Fourth" show combining music by the National Symphony Orchestra, top singing and stage performers, and patriotic themes with the fireworks display. But this year's airing also set off some fireworks from a fair number of disgruntled viewers.
This is the second time in just over a month that I have written about a holiday concert broadcast by PBS that stirred viewers enough to write to me. The first was the annual National Memorial Day Concert performed on May 28, also from the West Lawn of the U.S. Capitol building. It was also a 90-minute extravaganza of music, patriotism and remembrance, and it was also produced by Capital Concerts, Inc., under Executive Producer Jerry Colbert, who started producing the Independence Day concerts for airing by PBS in 1981.
These concerts and telecasts are highly popular among viewers all over the country. The July Fourth national birthday celebration, in particular, is among the very top-rated annual shows on PBS, with more than 10 million people watching last Tuesday on many of the 350 or so PBS-affiliated stations, according to the specialists who track such things.
The great majority of those who wrote to me after the Memorial Day Concert simply wanted to say thanks to PBS. But some others wrote at the time because they found fault with some aspects of that program; observations that seemed to me to be worth recording.
In the case of the just-aired July Fourth concert, however, all of the mail I got was critical. Again, keep in mind that people usually write to an ombudsman to complain, and this program got a huge audience and it's possible that 99 percent of them enjoyed it. So, a couple of dozen e-mails may not mean much. But the fact that these messages from around the country all reflected, in one aspect or another, frustration about a program that is intended to be a celebration struck me as, once again, worthy of recording.
Some of the criticism was about choice of performers and music. I've included some of those letters in the representative sampling that follows. I'm not going to get into those aspects other than to say that I don't agree with those critical of the choice and performance of Stevie Wonder as a featured part of the program.
A Whimper Rather Than a Bang
But several of the e-mails focused on the manner in which the concert was presented, especially the ending, when the orchestra was still building to a crescendo of "Stars and Stripes Forever" and the fireworks were building toward a crescendo as well, and suddenly the program credits and lists of sponsors and other things filled the screen. That's what struck me as the most important and relevant criticism.
I was among those viewers who couldn't believe this worthy and entertaining program was ending that way, with a whimper rather than a bang, interfering with the final bursts of music and fireworks that provide a sense of completion to what is meant as an uplifting experience.
It looked sloppy — the proverbial tail wagging the dog — as though a producer and a network that know how to time things perfectly every hour of every day had not figured this one out, and were determined to go through routine credit and promotion procedures rather than allow viewers to enjoy completion of what it was they tuned in for in the first place. So I think this is a real problem for the producer and for PBS. You don't want to make people angry on July Fourth.
One thing those rapidly scrolling credits make clear, if you can keep up with them, is that this is a complicated program involving dozens of government entities — most importantly the National Park Service that controls the fireworks display and its timing — as well as the independent producer. PBS is basically only the broadcaster and distributor. So, if the fireworks start late or finish late, they, and the music, can bump into PBS regulations that say that a 90-minute program must actually end in one hour, 26 minutes and 45 seconds to allow for credits, sponsors, promotion and other closing elements.
One way or another, PBS ought to find a way to fix this by either getting everyone committed to the same page as far as timing goes, or letting the program run over. That, of course, is easy for me to say but not something that is easy to do. It would involve complications for member stations all across the country. But my suspicion is that the uniformly critical mail I received about Tuesday night's concert is, indeed, reflective of a much larger group for whom this sure fire popular event ended up producing a sour note. The producer's response to viewers' concerns is included at the end of this column.
Here's the Mailbag, and the Producer's Response
I just finished watching the PBS program "A Capitol Fourth" and cannot believe PBS had the audacity to speak over and then cut out of the complete playing of "Stars & Stripes Forever" by John Phillip Souza. One thing I always look forward to on the Fourth is hearing that great piece of patriotic music. And PBS sullied the great piece by treating it with less respect than the country and pop music played (in its ENTIRETY) earlier in the program.
Toward the end of "Stars and Stripes Forever" the PBS announcer starts naming the sponsors and you even play a clip of [Lockheed Martin], completely cutting out the music for a number of seconds, then you cut back to the idiotic announcer who is still naming sponsors. Finally, you just cut out of the entire program, before the conclusion of the "Stars and Stripes Forever." Unforgivable. Simply unforgivable. I hope next year PBS has the good sense and good taste to air the "Stars and Stripes Forever" in its ENTIRETY. YOU BLEW IT.
Robert Nocera, Springfield, MO
Really would have appreciated the opportunity to hear the "Stars and Stripes" without constant interruptions (i.e. credits) on tonight's (otherwise excellent) program. Couldn't you have fit it in before or after the music??? That ruined a great song/feeling.
San Diego, CA
We watched your annual Capitol Fourth program last night. We feel that there was too much singing at the end of the program, when you could not see the fireworks. Your acknowledgements went on and on, and interfered with the fireworks also.
We watched another program after yours, and they put on about 20 minutes of fireworks, without so much interference. There was some singing, but more quietly, and we never did see who was singing. The orchestra played too, like yours, but also so that we could see the fireworks. Their acknowledgements at the end of the program amounted to three.
What a horrific coverage of the fireworks on the National Mall tonight. First the credits run during the fireworks and then you cut to promos for other programs and the finale of the fireworks is just beginning. Who is calling camera shots at WETA?? Another reason not to send money. You should take a lesson from WRC and its coverage of the Macy's fireworks from NYC . . .
Ronald Frezzo, Silver Spring, MD
Well, the High Def Was Good
Last night we watched the fireworks show in D.C. on WETA. The quality of the high def is very good but I do have a few comments on the specific broadcast. Why was the camera showing Stevie Wonder during the fireworks? People are watching to watch the fireworks and hear the music, not see it. There were so few shots of it we changed stations. Also, when the camera was showing the orchestra, they were showing strings during horn section playing and the harpist when she was doing nothing. It just seemed sloppy and not worthy of the quality of high def.
Lastly, the fireworks were still going on when Jason Alexander was talking and the credits were rolling and the TV version finished before the end of the fireworks. WETA then showed the short Virginia clip and then did a repeat of the show. Why would they show the repeat before the original one was done? We then switched to the NY fireworks, which was far better "orchestrated."
Commercial stations do voice-over commercials. PBS should have higher standards. The Fourth of July show from Washington, D.C., had voice-over sponsor advertising on top of the "Stars and Strips Forever" and ultimately the end of the song was even cut off. While that's not the national anthem, it's close. The advertising was tacky!
Tom Miller, Cicero, IN
I am extremely upset with the Capitol Fourth Concert. I was not able to attend the fireworks display in the District this year, so I was counting on watching them on one of three PBS stations that were showing them this year. The concert as a whole was wonderful, all the musicians, the celebrities, everyone. However, where I am extremely disappointed is with the actual showing of the fireworks themselves! Yes, I realize that Stevie Wonder's set ran over, that was obvious. But through the end of his set, AND following his performance during the playing of the 1812 Overture, whoever was running your cameras forgot the most important part: the FIREWORKS! Just because music is going on does not mean that you don't show the finale of the show, which again, is the fireworks themselves. I am extremely disappointed with the viewing of the fireworks for this concert this year, and I hope that by next year the camera positions and changes will better show the most important part of the evening next year.
Every year PBS ruins the end of the fireworks by cutting short the finale and then running the same tape we've been seeing for the last five years. Where's the integrity in that type of program rigging? What's worse is all the PBS ads for up and coming PBS shows which preempt the finale year after year and the sponsors. Yes, they are important, but couldn't they be shown at the end of the finale?
Vincent Careatti, Annandale, VA
I am writing regarding the program last night "A Capitol Fourth." I have watched this program for many years and must say that last night's performance was a HUGE disappointment. Without the fireworks, one would hardly have known it was in support of the 4th of July. Please get back on track for a more patriotic show. My mother in Iowa commented today that the show really disappointed her and she could not understand the lack of patriotism. I hope you will respond to this note and tell me why you disappointed so many of us.
College Station, TX
My husband and I watched "A Capitol Fourth" and were disappointed that they changed the format of music for the fireworks. Throughout the program our nation's patriotic songs were few and far between and then to not even end the evening as they traditionally have with fireworks and stirring patriotic songs was a big letdown.
Taking Issue with Wonder
While I appreciate all of the artists that participated in this concert, including Stevie Wonder, I was utterly insulted that more than half of the music was their own and not patriotic music. The Fourth of July is the birthday of our country and not an opportunity for artists to advertise themselves. I was especially insulted that the fireworks occurred while Stevie Wonder performed his own songs. Please try to remember in the future what this day is about and focus on music that celebrates the history of this country. I was incredibly disappointed in this year's performance. I could hardly recognize it as a patriotic show.
I was shocked and saddened at the choice of Stevie Wonder's very odd music for the 4th of July last night. There were many in the crowd as you watched whose eyes were not amused at his music and choice of songs. Who approved the song "Superstition" for the fireworks display? Right at the steps of the nation's Capitol at the beginning/middle of the display. There are literally hundreds of good American classics to choose from. Please pass the word. I cannot be the only one who thought this.
We were looking forward to tonight's July 4th celebration on PBS and enjoyed it UNTIL Stevie Wonder appeared. There was nothing in his performance even remotely attuned to the birthday celebration of our country . . . nothing patriotic, or nothing pertaining to love of country. What did any of his songs have to do with the theme of the show????? Let's check the programming before next year's show . . . and in the theme of national fervor, why no military presence? Poor choices.
Barbara Whitmer, Cherry Valley, CA
My husband and I were so very disappointed with your 4th of July celebration. Macy's was very disappointing, as well. How sad. There is no reason for unpatriotic music behind the fireworks. Why can't you find artists that perform PATRIOTIC music? That is what our celebration is all about, isn't it?
. . . and with Allah
I am appalled and outraged that Allah would be mentioned on our Fourth of July celebration to our nation and our beloved country. Stevie Wonder was adorned with an award and then proceeded to thank and profess to Allah. Our men are fighting in Iraq against the Jihad and Allah. We found this very offensive especially on PBS, we are a country founded by God. We are Christians and we have no right to use the word Allah on our national holiday. What a disgrace to our heritage. We are outraged and saddened by these events. We trust that you will address our concerns. Where are our military? They make and deserve our honors, not Stevie Wonder. Where have we gone wrong, yes, turning our back on God and our country.
Angela J. Borland, Phoenix, AZ
We just watched the July 4th program from Washington, D.C., and would like to make a comment. There are millions of people in these United States that love Southern Gospel Music, performed by numerous quartets, trios, etc. Their voices and harmony are without parallel. Why do we never see them as featured artists?
John K. Benner, Northfield, NJ
I just watched the July Fourth day on the National Mall. What was that about? If it was about patriotism, I must have missed it because all I saw & heard was a tribute from one black man to another. Stevie Wonder who is a great artist but what has that got to do with Independence Day? What about the "bombs bursting in air" over Baghdad. Meanwhile Stevie plays his latest songs having absolutely NOTHING to do with patriotism? I'd like to hear your comments on this, not so patriotic, programming.
Jim Kelly, Silver Spring, MD
A great 4th program, however this was not the venue to present an award to Stevie Wonder who just had to play the race card in his remarks and failed to sing a patriotic song. Stick to what it is all about — celebration of the 4th.
Ken Mays, Hewitt, TX
Capital Concerts Responds
In response to questions about the presentation, the producers of "A Capitol Fourth" said the following:
We make every effort to show as much of the fireworks as possible. We do not control the fireworks or its timing. In fact, the fireworks show is only approximately 20 minutes long and it runs a couple of minutes past 9:30 p.m. EST.
Like every other television program, we show end credits acknowledging the people who worked on the program and the sponsors who fund it. However, we make our credits transparent so that viewers can see as much of the fireworks as possible (other programs tend to use a black screen to roll the credits on). Therefore, we are able to broadcast as much of the fireworks as possible given our 90 minute time slot.
Perhaps it can be suggested to PBS that this particular program should be handled in the same manner that the other networks do with major live events, and give permission to run the concert past the 90 minute time slot to show the fireworks in their entirety.
Given this particular set of circumstances — that we do not control the fireworks or the amount of time available on PBS to broadcast the program — the producers of "A Capitol Fourth" have always endeavored to accommodate as much of the fireworks coverage as possible.
Lastly, we feel it's important to point out that the comments you received are representative of a very small minority of viewers. As you know, "A Capitol Fourth" is a top-rated, multi award-winning program that has been on air for 26 years, consistently leading all PBS Music and Performance programs in ratings results. For example, the 2005 concert ranked third among all PBS series and specials for the season; the 2004 broadcast is among the top 15 music/dance programs aired on PBS since the network's inception. The overnights for this year's broadcast resulted in a 3.1/6, a 7 percent increase over last year. Of the 54 stations carrying the show, 44 aired it live and 19 gave it two plays in prime — demonstrating strong station and audience support for the program.
We feel confident that our joyous celebration — which has become America's premier Independence Day holiday concert — helps unite the country in honor of our history and values.
I'll be away from the office July 7-17. But my assistant, Marcia Apperson, will be here so don't hold back on your e-mails and phone calls.