It may be state-of-the-art, but can state-funded TV really teach and inspire?
BY BRETT BURSEY
Since it began broadcasting as a pilot project to a few Columbia high schools in 1958, South Carolina Educational Television (SCETV) has been generously endowed with state tax dollars "to provide a statewide educational communications network." The blessings that allowed SCETV to become a world leader in educational broadcasting came with the attendant liabilities of being dependent on government money and control.
While SCETV says it offers "television that teaches and inspires," critics charge that its first concern has been to avoid offending the sensibilities of the 170 legislators who vote on SCETV's budget. They point to SCETV's history of cancelled shows, even programs that received critical acclaim elsewhere in the country. They argue that a state-funded educational system -- at least as currently structured -- cannot do justice to public broadcasting. The constraints are reflected in programming that avoids controversy.
Most Americans get their public television and radio broadcasts from community-owned stations that get little, if any, state tax support. Only 21 of 173 Public Broadcasting System licensees are state-run. SCETV, this state's only PBS affiliate, is the largest state-operated network in the country.
While SCETV contributes staff and hardware to public broadcasting, none of its $18.8 million state budget went directly to public programming. Only one percent of SCETV's broadcast capability is dedicated to public broadcasting; the rest goes into schools and government agencies as educational and instructional TV.
Private donations and grants to support public broadcasting in South Carolina totaled $7 million last year. The "ETV Family," those who show their support by giving money, contributed $2.8 million last year to the SCETV Endowment, a private nonprofit organization created in 1977 to raise funds for public broadcasting.
crown jewel in what one 20-year employee
called "Henry's edifice complex."
The Corporation for Public Broadcasting contributed another $4.2 million in federal and corporate grants last year to SCETV for public programing.
Over the past several years, SCETV has spent $10 million to lease its own satellite and $12 million to build a new telecommunications center to expand its broadcast capability. This year, using money from a variety of state funding sources, every school will have its own satellite dish linking it to SCETV.
This year, SCETV President Henry Cauthen, who has led the organization since 1965, is stepping down. He will leave behind a much bigger and shinier station than the one cobbled together 40 years ago with the help of his father, John Cauthen, SCETV's initial promoter and first chairman. (More on SCETV's early history). Under the younger Cauthen's leadership, SCETV steadily expanded its budget and technological capability. It can now broadcast 32 channels simultaneously and transmit 1,300 hours of programming a day.
But not everyone is impressed.
A former executive at WIS-TV, the state's largest commercial station, calls SCETV's enormous technical capacity a "boondoggle."
"The quality of the output isn't enhanced by increasing the output," he said. "The studio [Cauthen] has built is motion-picture quality, one of the grandest in the country. The routing switcher is the second-biggest ever built. Only the one for the Olympics in Barcelona was bigger."
The new telecommunications center is the crown jewel in what one 20-year employee called "Henry's edifice complex."
A Charleston broadcaster said, "My first impression [of the new telecommunications center] was, 'My God, it's bigger than at the national networks -- ABC and NBC.' My second thought was, 'How are they ever going to use all this?'"
Bishopville High School librarian Robin Horn said, "No matter how much I tout SCETV, you've got some teachers who use it and others who don't. About a third of my teachers don't use it at all."
She said the teachers who do take advantage of SCETV programs want videotapes, not live feeds. "Tapes allow the teachers to schedule programs, as well as stop and start the tape if the students have questions," Horn said. "Don't get me wrong," Horn said, "my satellite dish looks nice out there, but I don't use it as efficiently as I could."
Horn borrows tapes for her teachers from a friend in the next county. She wonders whether the satellite dishes were a good idea. "I could have had a whole lot of tapes for what this system cost."
SCETV Executive Vice President Ron Schoenherr has worked under Cauthen for 25 years. He bristled at criticism that the system is overbuilt. "We need to spend more money on hardware," he said.
Schoenherr insisted that the satellite system is cost-effective. "We designed the system around the 10-year lease on the satellite," he said. The system costs about $15 million, he estimated, adding that will prove itself in time.
Schoenherr said that this fall SCETV will be operating at about 90 percent of its capability in broadcasting educational programing across the state. But while SCETV staff can tell you exactly how many hours of educational programing it beams up, nobody knows how much is actually being used. In February 1996, the Legislative Audit Council chided SCETV and the Department of Education for not doing "utilization" studies of its educational broadcasting. In the 36 years the legislature has funded educational television, no thorough assessment of its effectiveness or actual reach has been conducted.
It doesn't seem necessary as long as the agency can point to dismal educational rankings to justify its budget with the legislature. And as long as it doesn't make waves.
"It only takes one person in the legislature to stand up and make some noise to become a problem for us," Cauthen said at a recent SCETV meeting. It's a fear that has shaped Cauthen's management style over the years. The station's 400 employees are frequently reminded that they work for a state agency, not a creative venture.
Cauthen's fear has led to a history of censorship at SCETV, beginning in the fall of 1968. A production by the Public Broadcasting Laboratory was cancelled for not being "instructional, informational or cultural in nature." The show was "Day of Absence," performed by an all-black cast. It was a satire about blacks being driven out of a Southern town, only to later be invited to return.
In 1980, Cauthen decided not to air "The Death of a Princess," a national PBS special about the execution of a young woman who was a member of a Saudi Arabian royal family who was found guilty of committing adultery. At the time, John West was ambassador of Saudi Arabia, and there were concerns at SCETV that airing the program might embarrass the former South Carolina governor.
In 1991, SCETV chose to blur out the last scene in "The Grapes of Wrath," in which a white woman takes a starving black man to her breast.
Programs with homosexual themes routinely have been censored. In 1992, Masterpiece Theater's "Portrait of a Marriage" was shown at 11 p.m., without the lesbian love scene. "Lost Language of Cranes," the story of a gay father and son finding each other, was not aired at all. While Georgia and North Carolina PBS viewers got to watch American Playhouse's "Tales of the City," a series about San Francisco in the late 1960s, its homosexual content was deemed unfit for South Carolinians.
Most recently, and in spite of unprecedented public demand, SCETV refused to show Point of View's "The Uprising of '34," an award-winning documentary about the suppressed history of South Carolina's labor movement in the textile mills.
Schoenherr said the program itself wasn't cut but that the entire Point Of View series had been pulled. Although SCETV was one of four stations to sponsor the program, Schoenherr said the critically acclaimed series was dropped because of its "very one-sided journalism. They deal with some rough and difficult topics."
That approach to scheduling strikes some viewers as paternalistic at best; dishonest at worst.
"I begged them last year to air 'The Uprising of '34,'" said Sen. Kay Patterson (D-Richland). "I'm not chopping wood and carrying water for the unions, but that is part of South Carolina's history and I wanted to see it."
"Henry Cauthen told me that Jesse Bowers made the decision, and he couldn't overrule it. That was insulting," Patterson said.
Patterson believes that Bowers, vice-president for programing and the only black among eight vice presidents, has been the fall guy for recent decisions that have angered some members of the SCETV family.
When the afternoon state news program on educational radio was cancelled, SCETV credited the move to a budgetary decision made by Bowers. Listeners were made to wonder whether that was true when the station later claimed to be solvent enough to go to a 24-hour schedule and to add several national news programs.
Some people wonder whether the radio news program, arguably the best in the state, was cut was because its reporters had been filing investigative pieces on state agencies and making legislators uncomfortable with all their poking about. When a reporter filed a Freedom of Information request with the Medical University of South Carolina about its experiments using animals, Cauthen got a phone call from MUSC President Jim Edwards. The former governor was not pleased with the state-sponsored publicity.
Cauthen told the news team that no more FOI requests would be filed without his permission and reminded them that they were state employees, not investigative journalists. Within months, the entire news program was cancelled.
The SCETV Commission is comprised of seven members appointed by the governor. There is no merit selection process for commissioners. Historically, the prime requirement was supporting the governor. The commission, according to state law, is in charge of the state's educational TV system. For the past 31 years, the commission has seemingly been a rubber stamp for Cauthen.
Dr. Walton Owens Jr, a retired Clemson professor who has served on the board for the past decade, said, "The commission failed over the years to give Henry any guidance. It's an authority figure thing that I've never figured out."
Owens, a management specialist, said that the board previously had a "laissez faire attitude" and only met three or four times each year.
Things changed when Gov. David Beasley appointed Charleston businessman and longtime SCETV commissioner John Rivers to serve as chairman. Rivers began calling monthly meetings and expanded the chairman's roll to include responsibilities previously handled by Cauthen and staff members.
Rumors that Rivers -- and, by association, the governor -- wanted new leadership at SCETV ended in May, when Cauthen announced his intention to retire in July 1998.
A recent lengthy interview with Rivers failed to reveal why he felt that the commission couldn't fix whatever was wrong with the system without first getting rid of Cauthen.
"I raised hell three years ago that the commission didn't have a strategic plan, no bylaws and no rules," Owens said. When Owens persisted in trying to define the role of the commission after Rivers took over, he said he thought "Rivers saw it as a direct attack."
"What I've heard over and over again," Owens said, "is that Rivers wants to run SCETV more like a business. What does that mean? It's rhetoric. A businessman is a bean counter."
the hearts and minds of the workers he
now manages. Staff characterizations of him
run from "an idle rich dilettante" to
"his heart's in the right place but he doesn't
have any production experience" to "he doesn't give
a crap about PBS."
Owens is puzzled at Rivers' suddenly waking up to problems after 12 years as a commissioner. "My question for Rivers," Owens said, "is, 'Did you get a revelation, or did Beasley tell you to do it?'"
When the question was put to Rivers, he said, "That's a personnel matter I can't comment on."
Rivers doesn't seem concerned about winning the hearts and minds of the workers he now manages. Staff characterizations of him run from "an idle rich dilettante" to "his heart's in the right place but he doesn't have any production experience" to "he doesn't give a crap about PBS."
One employee was put off by Rivers' insistence that his parking place be moved because the door of his chauffeured car opened into bushes. "He was born on third base and thinks he hit a triple."
Rivers' father owned Channel 5 in Charleston, the ABC affiliate, as well as considerable property in the Holy City. Rivers inherited the station in 1986, and sold it a year later for $64 million. Rivers Enterprises was created to manage his financial holdings.
Rivers spends summers at a mountain resort he owns in Cashiers, N.C. The Chattooga Club sports one of the country's only regulation croquet courts. Among his accomplishments, Rivers was past chairman of the U.S. Croquet Association's International Relations Committee and its Benefactor of the Year for 1997.
Some 90 "organizations and affiliations" are listed on Rivers' six-page résumé. This doesn't include the 14 businesses he lists under "Firms." Rivers attended private schools -- Gaud in Charleston and Choate in Connecticut -- before receiving a degree in political science at the University of North Carolina.
While Cauthen and Rivers differ on management style, don't look for any significant changes in public broadcasting. "We don't want to do anything that offends anyone," Rivers said in a recent interview.
Should, and could, South Carolina consider cutting its public broadcasting responsibility loose from state government is a question the SCETV family, the commission and the legislature might do well to consider. It is a notion that sits well with conservatives who complain that public broadcasting has a liberal bent and that government has no business in public broadcasting.
But the idea frightens people like Elaine Freeman, founder of the SCETV Endowment. "You can't separate the educational mission out of public broadcasting," she said.
Freeman does acknowledge that public broadcasting is already separated in many respects from SCETV's educational mission. "The Endowment keeps an arm's distance from SCETV," she said, "We even pay for the air time we use to raise money" to buy programing.
While the public contributed $7 million (the Endowment plus CPB) for public programing at SCETV, the decisions about what those contributors get to see are made by state employees with more pragmatic concerns (their jobs) than cultural enrichment.
Kathy Gardner-Jones, spokeswoman for SCETV, said that while the programing done after 4 p.m. could be done privately, "the citizens would not profit from taking SCETV out of the PBS business."
John Lawson, Gardner-Jones' predecessor, is a consultant for public broadcasting in Washington, D.C. While his clients include 25 community-owned public broadcasting stations, he doesn't think South Carolina has the donor base to pull off a switch to private ownership.
Oregon Public Broadcasting went private in 1993. The system, previously owned by the state, is supported by more than 100,000 donors who give at least $35 a year. The SCETV Endowment, with a million more people to solicit than Oregon, has just 42,000 members.
Debbi Hinton, vice-president of the Oregon system, suggests that going private isn't necessarily a cure for censorship. "You just trade one master for another. Corporate and public support can be every bit as hard to keep happy as state support." Oregon went private because of diminishing state support after its legislature passed a property tax cap, something South Carolinians may have to address in the near future.
Since SCETV has a vested interest in keeping all the eggs in one basket, any initiative to study the possibility of separating public broadcasting from SCETV will need to come from the legislature.
"If PBS won't do it, who will?" is the slogan SCETV boasts. Critics suggest that "If SCETV won't do it, PBS will," would be more appropriate. The strictures of state controlled programming unfortunately mean that South Carolinians will continue to miss some of the best PBS has to offer.
Paul Camp, a physics professor at Coastal Carolina, summed up the concerns of many in the SCETV family. "There is no such thing [as the SCETV family]," he said after the latest SCETV cancellation.
"Families treat each other with dignity and respect, not contempt and supercilious paternalism."