Critics in conversation: more on `State of the arts'

The increasing choices for viewers in today's media environment are discussed on page 18 today by Arthur Unger, David Sterritt, and Alan Bunce, Monitor writers well known in this section. Here, joined again by feature editor Roderick Nordell, they talk about such things as how bad American TV finances good British TV -- and how television and movies are becoming more different and more the same. Nordell: I know, Arthur, that you have recently been abroad on a television panel in Berlin.

Unger: One of the things that came up in this conference I attended with public service television people from all over the world was that the European interpretation of what constitutes public-service television is very different from our American concept of public television. The BBC considers itself public-service television. And to them that means a great percentage of what they do is entertainment, along with their mix of cultural and informational material. Which is why they air shows like ``Fawlty Towers.''

Bunce: A few years ago I heard a BBC executive -- compare, in a nutshell, his view of the American approach to television with that of the best of British TV. He was introduced to the president of a US commercial network, as I remember. They chatted briefly and then the BBC executive said, ``You know, the primary difference between us is that I'm in the business of broadcasting and you're in the business of business.'' That remark -- although very one-sided and incomplete -- does help identify certain problems in American commercial television and particularly, and rather sadly, commercial television for children.

Unger: But we must never forget, too, that we see the best of British television here. England sees about the worst of American television.

I had an interesting conversation -- speaking of British television executives -- with the head of Granada television, David Plowright, a couple of years ago, who told me that he was very grateful for bad American series television because he came to this country, looked at it, bought it very cheaply, showed it on his channel, got very high ratings, and made a lot of money out of it. And then he was able to use the profits to do quality British television, which he in turn, sold to American television.

So, in a way, bad American television was underwriting quality British television.

Sterritt: I think something that I've been observing in recent years involving cable TV is perhaps relevant here. There has been the theory floating around for a while now that cable TV was going to open up a huge diversity of television programming to us all, that we could flip all these different cable channels, have an enormous selection, videotape things off them, and so forth.

The pessimist's view of the same situation was that even with this multiplicity of different channels available, the situation was going to be closer to commercial radio, especially AM radio, and also FM radio, where there are a lot of stations you could listen to but they all sound pretty much like each other.

So far, I do not see cable TV fulfilling its promise very well. There's definitely some programming on cable that is worthwhile and that you might not see on network, VHF, or even public television -- but not mostly.

Unger: There are several worthwhile shows. But, at that meeting in Berlin, these people were amazed because they don't hear of any of these shows that are interesting concepts, that are reasonably, intelligently done, didn't really make it, but are still things that were done on American television. They have no idea that we even tried those things.

Nordell: It's almost as if we're saying, by definition, what people want is bad, even in Britain where they have the BBC. Are there things that people want that are also good, by the kind of evaluations that you would make of things?

Sterritt: I don't think that it's a question of what people want is bad. I think it's -- just turn it around slightly -- what's easiest to get people to accept is what's familiar. So I think producers gravitate immediately, whether it's in the movies or in the broadcasting media, toward that which they can package effectively, which they can identify and promote in an efficient way, and which the public will accept because it's the sort of thing that they're accustomed to. I think that is a great limiting factor.

Unger: I think one of the things that came out in this conference that we keep talking about, in Berlin, was the fact that we need to take another look at the funding of public broadcasting here.

Public television all over Europe is relieved of the problem of yearly fund-raising drives. They are supported by the government. They are supported with taxes, with taxes on the television sets. And they do not have the problem each year of going hat-in-hand to the public and begging for money so that they could complete another year. They can devote all their time to good programming.

Well, I think it's about time we allowed public broadcasting in this country to do that same thing.

Nordell: You mentioned that abroad people were amazed to find there were some good American TV shows. What would they put in that category?

Unger: Well, I would say, the Bill Cosby show, which really delves into family relationships -- upper middle-class family relationships, but family relationships; ``Kate and Allie,'' which also investigates a new kind of family, two divorced women with children who have formed a family relationship; ``Cagney and Lacey,'' again a relationship of two women in the work situation; ``Valerie,'' which is also a family show which delves -- I think honestly -- into family relationships.

I think there are more of those kinds of shows that are well-written, well-acted, and not at all the ``Father Knows Best'' or mindless entertainment shows that we used to have.

Sterritt: You're talking about some very successful shows there, too. A problem that the cinema has is just getting the stuff out there to the audience and also overcoming a certain amount of resistance that's grown up among older moviegoers. There's been such an emphasis, in Hollywood especially, toward gearing movies for that young audience that likes to go out of the house and has spending money in its pockets, and all that. There's been so much stuff, so much product, as they call it, aimed at them, that a lot of older viewers have gotten somewhat turned off.

Now, I've seen signs, recently, of the fantasy boom, the action/adventure boom, kind of running out of steam. There have been a couple of big-budget, megaflops in those areas. I've also seen a resurgence of -- well, there's been a lot more independent moviemaking over the past, maybe, 20 years -- more and more non-Hollywood, nonestablishment moviemaking since the studio system has more or less declined. And some of that moviemaking is very thoughtful, sensitive, intelligent stuff.

The best example I can give has been the revived career of Horton Foote, who won an Academy Award back in the '60s for writing ``To Kill a Mockingbird'' but then was really heard from very little in the mass media world. He was writing for the theater, and so forth. He made a comeback just a few years ago to the movie world with ``Tender Mercies,'' with Robert Duvall, which a lot of people saw, a very sensitive, thoughtful movie, an uplifting film in many ways. Now, I'm just using him as an example for this sort of thing. He's come out with a couple of beautiful movies since then, ``1918'' and ``On Valentine's Day.''

Unger: As a television critic, may I say that those last two movies were made basically for television?

Sterritt: They were made with the support from television, but they had their . . .

Unger: American Playhouse films . . .

Sterritt: . . . initial releases as regular . . .

Unger: That was part of the arrangement.

Sterritt: . . . commercial, theatrical movies.

Unger: Television would fund it and they would be shown theatrically, first, and then shown on TV.

Sterritt: Right.

Unger: Which may be a new wave.

Sterritt: Well, not necessarily, because he's now working on the third in his trilogy which will be released the same way. But there are six more plays -- there's actually a trilogy of trilogies -- and those are going to be made directly for broadcast.

Nordell: Speaking of these different media, wasn't there a recent statistic that for the first time the rental and buying of video cassettes had exceeded movie admissions in the country? Does that mean we like to now watch things in seclusion instead of with a group of our fellow human beings?

Bunce: It's interesting how unpredictable the effects of developments like home video are. When cassettes first came on the market, movie producers were scared stiff of them. They felt that it was going to have a terrible impact on their business. And now, of course, it's added a multibillion dollar component to that industry. Of course, home video does affect theater owners and distributors, but in terms of the movies themselves, it is actually a broadening, and perhaps a customizing, of the audience.

Sterritt: It's true. Changes are taking place in Hollywood, too. For example, more and more films are being released to theaters in 70mm prints that give a larger, sharper image. Dolby Stereo has become very commonplace.

So the movies are still trying to present us with something larger than life, something that's really big, that TV, so far really can't compete with. Although, as we all know, TV screens are getting bigger and people are hooking up their TV sets to their stereo systems, and so on.

Bunce: I wonder if you'd indulge me in an admittedly somewhat impressionistic observation about that. I've had the feeling that over the decades the physical experience of movie watching in a theatrical setting is becoming less and less like movies used to be and more like television. And in its advanced, state-of-the-art viewing equipment, television has become more and more like a movie theater used to be.

In the old days -- going back to the '40s and even '50s -- you sat in a larger movie theater. It seems to me -- although is may be a mistaken impression -- that theaters were a little darker, so that entering them was a tribal experience that related in many ways to your subconscious as well as conscious levels of thinking. It was a very different from anything you would experience in the home -- like radio. Now, as theater screens have become smaller and auditorium lights a little brighter, it's less and less like the old movie experience and more and more like watching a big TV screen, with people sitting around you as in a living room.

Sterritt: Yeah, the movies have gone in both directions at once.

Unger: But what does this all mean? Does it mean that we're seeing a merging of television and cinema into one art form?

Certainly from a technical point of view, the distribution of movies right now is archaic. It's archaic to bicycle a film from one theater to another and show it. And, sooner or later, films are going to be shown from satellite to the theater directly.

Sterritt: Ultimately, yes.

Unger: . . . which will be even closer to television.

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