PBS Keeps Its Distance From Gay Programming
Once a month, In the Life broadcasts on 60 public television stations throughout the country, reaching an estimated audience of 4 million. The independently produced half-hour variety show, sponsored by New York City PBS affiliate WNET, is the nation’s first nationally distributed, gay-oriented television show.
In the Life began broadcasting in 1992, the culmination of more than a decade of efforts by executive producer John Scagliotti to bring programming to the country’s gay population. Enthusiastic audience response attests to the show’s importance to a constituency beleaguered by right-wing violence and threats.
The show offers practically the only consistently positive image of lesbians and gay men on broadcast TV, an image that can be a lifeline, especially for young gays struggling to come to terms with a hostile world. It also offers a desperately needed opportunity to dispel prevailing homosexual stereotypes for heterosexual audiences.
One might expect a show that provides such a unique and vital community service to be prized by PBS. Yet public television’s reception of the program has been wary at best. “Frankly,” said Scagliotti, “it’s pretty outrageous how they’ve been treating us.” PBS has refused to distribute In the Life, which means that the show not only has to sell itself to each public station individually, but also is generally excluded from the better timeslots, which are typically reserved for PBS offerings.
Scagliotti attributes the chill to a fear of right-wing backlash: On both a national and local level, public television has been vulnerable to ideologues who use homophobia to justify their assaults.
Nationally, In the Life was denounced from the Senate floor by Sen. Bob Dole (R.-Kansas) before it first aired (Village Voice, 6/30/92). “Is this the kind of programming taxpayers and public TV contributors have in mind?” he asked. (Actually, several PBS stations have used In the Life segments durign fundraisers and report record responses.) “It seems that the broadcasting apologists are hiding behind Big Bird, Mr. Rogers and Masterpiece Theatre,” Dole charged, “laying down their quality smokescreen while they shovel out funding for gay and lesbian shows.”
Perhaps the only appropriate response to this kind of delusion was comedian Kate Clinton’s sarcastic rejoinder during the first show: “Gosh, not another show on gays and lesbians!” While one could argue that shows that have the potential audience and educational value of In the Life should be funded by public television, in fact the Corporation for Public Broadcasting (CPB) gives not a dime of money to the show, which is funded entirely by individual contributions, some foundation money and one corporate sponsor.
Rather than pointing this out, public TV officials have more often been quick to back down to accommodate right-wing hysteria. During the same summer that In the Life premiered, PBS edited out 34 minutes from a BBC production of Portrait of a Marriage, diluting much of the film’s lesbian content.
Locally, In the Life has been pulled from at least two stations in response to right-wing objections. North Carolina’s WUNC abruptly canceled the program after just one airing; the station had received 25 negative calls. We had problems with it being too narrow a focus,” director of programming Diane Lucas told the Durham Herald-Sun (2/19/93). Apparently WUNC does not have similar concerns about the abundance of PBS business programming, which is arguably of direct interest to a much smaller audience than a gay and lesbian program. In Pittsburgh, In the Life was yanked off the schedule before it ever aired; a local right-wing radio host helped organize pressure to get rid of it.
Yet despite PBS timidity and prejudice, In the Life has made it in some surprising places. Sen. Dole’s ravings notwithstanding, it does air in Kansas City. Denver audiences have consistently given In the Life a strong response, and most recently the program has been accepted by the Nebraska PBS affiliate. The 60 stations that now broadcast the show are a far cry from the six that it started with less than a year ago. The producers hope eventually to have a weekly program and to have PBS pick up In the Life as one of its own programs–with PBS funding and distribution to all 355 stations.
At a time when violence against lesbians and gay men is on the rise and unprecedented efforts to curb their civil rights are mounting, any public voice that counters the stereotypes exploited by right-wing demagogues is urgently needed. That PBS has not had the courage to meet that need is an abdication of public television’s mission, as set forth in the 1967 Carnegie Commission Report: to “provide a voice for groups in the community that may otherwise be unheard” and to “help us see America whole, in all its diversity.”
Dorothee Benz, director of communications for ILGWU Local 23-25, is a freelance writer and a gay rights activist.