Station Break

Beset by budget problems, bereft of substantive local programming, Channel 8 finds itself at a crossroads. Perhaps it's time to put the "public" back into Houston Public Television.

According to Radio/Television Department chairman Short, faculty resentment over the station's standoffish posture intensified when vice chancellor Felder attempted to channel the state higher education funding into the Center for Public Broadcasting project.

With or without those dollars, station manager Clarke says, Channel 8 is already moving on a course toward a greater sharing of the university's education functions.

"It makes sense in my mind that we have a role and a responsibility to help that university and others serve their students," says Clarke. "We're poised to be partners with all kinds of educational institutions and educators, and we're already headed down that path -- essentially back to our roots."

It's a trip that some old public TV hands would like to abort in its infancy.

Both Korshak and former KUHT manager Bauer argue that the time has come to consider transforming Channel 8 into a viable public station by transferring its license to a community board whose priorities would better reflect those of the people whose contributions supply most of the station's budget. The notion is also endorsed by Marty Levine, the chair emeritus of the ACT board, and Mary Fay Way, who resigned as ACT's chair in 1994 in disgust over Clarke's management. However, that's a move that could not be made without the voluntary cooperation of UH, which is unlikely, given the immense value of the station's broadcast license.

Clarke arrived at the station as the heir apparent to Bauer, a wily Air Force vet who, for two decades, managed Channel 8 within budget while placating the succession of university administrators who oversaw its operations.

In one respect, Bauer was perfectly suited to the job.
"If anything, I was more conservative than them," he says of the UH brass. It's a tradition that the new manager has done little to disrupt.

Bauer was quite willing to shoulder the responsibility for the station's most celebrated act of censorship, its refusal to air the docudrama Death of a Princess after the Saudi government and its clients, American oil companies who contributed heavily to PBS, protested its airing in 1980.

In his recently published book, former National Educational Television president James Day describes with pride how the furor "put to the test PBS's independence and integrity and subjected the system to the heaviest political and public pressure since the days of Richard Nixon. Against all expectation, public television held its ground."

Maybe somewhere else, but not in Houston, which became one of the few major market stations to refuse to air the show.

The independently produced program had incensed Saudi traditionalists with its scandalous depiction of the sexual doings of the country's royalty. Channel 8's refusal to show it provoked a lawsuit by educational activist Gertrude Barnstone that was unsuccessfully argued by attorney David Berg as far as the U.S. Supreme Court, which eventually refused to hear it. Local viewers who wished to see Princess had to settle for screenings at the Rice Media Center.

History repeated itself a decade later, when KUHT became the only major-market public station other than Detroit's to refuse to air Tongues Untied, a documentary on black gay subculture. Bauer and Clarke, who had not yet become manager, take joint responsibility for the decision, citing the strong language content of Tongues Untied.

Currently, the station'sR> policy is to use the Public Broadcasting Service's edited versions of programs that are supplied to the most conservative stations in the market. That's why fans of the Brit-produced Prime Suspect series have watched Helen Mirren open her mouth to say "bloody," and heard nothing come out.

Clarke says it may be time to review Channel 8's use of the edited versions of PBS programs. But he didn't sound enthusiastic about the prospect, nor is he apologetic for the mush being served up by Weeknight Edition.

"We're not doing hard news and hard public affairs," he says. "With Weeknight Edition, what we are attempting to do is to have a broad spectrum of opportunity to go out throughout the community and tell stories. So it's more informational programming." The show, according to Clarke, is as well watched as "anything we've had on in local programming, and it's there every day." He acknowledges criticism of the soft, fuzzy approach, but he and his programmers "believe that we have developed the vehicle which will better serve the total community."

Despite its high saccharine content, the format does allow Channel 8 to stimulate support by plugging organizations that couldn't get such lengthy exposure elsewhere. It's as much a publicists' service as a public one. The production and on-air folks perform competently, but the material hardly lives up to its advance billing as "compelling community related TV."

"It's fluff," acknowledges one member of the Weeknight Edition team. "They don't like controversy around here."

Clarke's most controversial move at KUHT did not directly involve programming, but rather the staff bloodletting he carried out on April 28, 1994.

The atmosphere rapidly darkened inside the Channel 8 offices that sunny spring morning. Broadcast production chief Korshak was headed into Clarke's office to fine-tune a budget proposal when she encountered a gray-faced Yvonne Menuet, the station's development director, going in the opposite direction. Korshak was seconds away from being "reduced in force," as the university termed it in a press release later in the day.

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