PBS's canceled 'Middletown' segment: was its 'slice of life' spiced up?

The withdrawal from PBS schedules of the final segment of Peter Davis's ''Middletown'' series represents more than a disagreement between an independent filmmaker and a TV network. At issue are some basic problems involving access to the air and the quality of the material to be aired.

''Seventeen'' is the final two-hour episode of this supposedly serious sociological electronic follow-up to the famous Lynd study in book form of ''Middletown'' (actually, Muncie, Ind.). It details the lives of a group of real but probably unrepresentative youngsters. Pictured is open marijuana smoking, explicit sex talk, questionable attitudes in race relations, excessive drinking, etc.

The shockingly candid sequences will probably never reach public television screens -- perhaps never reach any large audience at all. But series producer Peter Davis has indicated that he is ''looking for other outlets,'' which may mean cable or theatrical release. It is probable that the same legal problems which, it is reported, may have influenced the PBS decision would probably influence other potential exhibitors. Thus, in a way, one filmmaker's freedom has been inhibited.

But does free access also mean free license? It is a question that needs pondering, especially in the area of TV, a medium that enters the home. Moviegoers leave their home to attend films, so the perspective is changed by physical distance. But TV comes into the home, and what is actually artistic selectivity could be confused with reality.

The warily worded PBS announcement of the dropping of ''Seventeen'' -- in the form of a bulletin to PBS station managers from Susan Weil, senior vice-president in charge of programming at PBS -- reads as follows: ''We regret to announce that Peter Davis has withdrawn episode 6 of the 'Middletown' series, 'Seventeen,' from the PBS schedule. After full consultation with Mr. Davis, PBS offered Mr. Davis the opportunity to make certain changes in the program in the light of questions raised by several minors concerning their participation in the program. Mr. Davis advised PBS that he prefers to keep the program intact and accordingly has withdrawn it. We understand the basis of Mr. Davis's decision and we respect his dedication to the integrity of the entire Middletown.''

A spokesman for Mr. Davis told the Monitor that, as far as he is concerned, the statement from Miss Weil tells the story.

A spokesman for PBS explained that ''the decision was reached after confidential discussions in closed-door meetings. The segment did not conform to PBS national standards. We have nothing more to add to the bulletin.''

The first and second segments of the series have already aired on PBS on the past two Wednesday nights and have been rather well received by audiences and critics alike. I have screened most segments and find, despite some ''street language,'' that the series seems to be a worthwhile, although flamboyant, effort to update the Lynds' ''Middletown.'' I have seen the original sixth segment and believe that it does a disservice to the youngsters involved, the city of Muncie, and also the filmmakers. It is comparatively easy to exploit adolescents, to encourage them to ''perform.'' That may have been the case in ''Seventeen.''

The main problem lies in the cinema verite form used in presenting the material. There is a very thin line between reality and fantasy on TV -- and a technique that seems to be a slice of life, with no narration to place it in perspective, may be misinterpreted to be ''typical'' or even ''real.'' Actually, there is selectivity and editing involved that allow the filmmaker to present those portions of his footage which represent his own point of view. In this case, whole portions of Muncie's student population have been eliminated from the picture, leaving only a few seemingly exhibitionistic youngsters and their parents appearing to represent Muncie's high school population.

The question to be pondered is the age-old one of deciding where public responsibility should override individual freedom. It is a question that is always relevant, but it is most immediate in TV because of the complex intimacy of home-viewed television.

According to the program director of WIPB, Muncie's PBS affiliate, there is a question of whether or not actions of the filmmakers influenced the student behavior. There is also a dispute over the question of releases from the parents of the youngsters, who are mainly minors.

James T. Needham, WIPB general manager, told the Monitor that the station is in the process of preparing its own one-hour version of the Muncie story, titled ''Middletown Revisited.'' The host will be Ben Wattenberg, with an air date of May 3. According to Mr. Needham, the Muncie station show will update the Lynd report and a later study, as well as the Peter Davis series.

The original ''Seventeen'' sequence, the final episode of ''Middletown,'' was scheduled for April 28. PBS has not announced a replacement program yet, but viewers can be certain it will not be a cinema verite documentary.

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