Checking PBS For Elitism

HAD enough of those upper-class British characters on ``Masterpiece Theater''? Have you stopped following the costly adventures of homebuilders on ``This Old House''? Through with the millionaire fund managers forever doing guest shots on ``Wall Street Week''? To be more direct about it, do you find the Public Broadcasting Service a bit elitist - featuring people and subjects that have little to do with the hard-pressed lives lived by 90 percent of the ``public'' mentioned in its title?

If so, you have plenty of company. People level all kinds of charges that broadly classify as anti-elitist in attitude - some of them even anti-intellectual: The entertainment is high-falutin,' force-feeding viewers on things like ballet. The news shows are full of self-serving corporate types and academic theorists.

Alan Lomax, the legendary folklorist, tells me he thinks PBS is elitist in another way - ethnically - because it is dominated by British and Northern European artistic standards. And many say PBS, funded by taxes, airs too many British plays - a practice they view as snobbish - when it should be buying American.

That last point resonates in Congress when funding time rolls around. To show the flag, the network sticks an ``American'' label on any series it can: ``American Playhouse,'' ``The American Experience,'' ``American Masters,'' ``American Patchwork.'' Last June a Canadian drama about a Blackfoot Indian girl aired on ``American Playhouse'' (well, the theme was more or less American, the series explained).

But the most recent anti-elitist salvo involves blue- and white-collar working Americans. If you have the impression that labor is all but invisible on public TV, you are right. The City University of New York (CUNY) has taken an exhaustive two-year look at PBS's 1988 and '89 prime-time hours and found a giant hole where the worker should have been.

The lion's share of time - in programs of all sorts - went to people in the business and social upper crust. They accounted for 10 times more programming hours, in fact, than the average worker. There were plenty of movie stars, big-name athletes, and famous artists on PBS, but no equivalent of commercial TV's ``Roseanne'' or the movie world's ``Norma Rae'' and ``9 to 5.'' And of the very few workers portrayed in dramas, most were British.

As for unions - forget it. One lonely 60-minute program about a union-management conflict showed up in the entire two years covered by the analysis, while many hours were devoted each month to business.

The clearest window on the forces skewering public programming in this way may be the story of Made in USA Productions, a nonprofit company that helped finance the CUNY study. It's been struggling for some 15 years to get a series about American labor on PBS, and you'd think public TV would have pounced on the idea. Where else on the schedule would you be able to find labor well-represented? Not on the MacNeil-Lehrer Hour, however well-done. Its guests tend to look as if they just stepped from a board room or think tank, according to one recent study.

It took until 1984 for a pilot script - called ``The Killing Floor,'' about the Chicago stockyards - to air on ``American Playhouse,'' and to this day ``Playhouse'' not accepted a second program that Made in USA is trying to get aired.

``Playhouse'' says one problem is script quality. Someone at Made in USA tells me she thinks it has something to do with public TV's desire to appease future corporate funders by keeping labor's story at arm's length - along with union funding of such shows.

The real reasons are undoubtedly more complex, yet it's obvious an imbalance as flagrant as this one needs redressing. Public TV should turn its cameras on the richly dramatic history of working people and the place of labor in American society.

Will viewers - including union members - then start rushing home from work to turn on shows about union meetings and blue-collar life? Creatively that takes a great deal more than most entertainment is offering today. It takes people like Arthur Miller and Paddy Chayevsky and other explorers of the American soul.

Minorities now play a sizeable role in public TV's picture of American society - a fact to applaud. Now it's labor's turn.

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