Newt Gingrich has been called many things, but one of them is not a friend of public television.
Last December, the House Speaker called for Congress to "zero out" funding for the Corporation for Public Broadcasting. Things looked pretty bleak for Big Bird and the gang as a fierce national debate on the very existence of public television ensued.
The debate hasn't totally ended, but the picture at PBS has brightened considerably. Gingrich has backed off in the wake of several public opinion polls showing widespread support for public television. An August pledge drive raised $22 million, up 13 percent from last year. And Congress has just approved full funding for 1996.
Most important for viewers, though, PBS has emerged from the debate with stronger and more focused programs than it has had in years. It is in the midst of launching one of its finest seasons ever.
Those who saw last month's "History of Rock & Roll" or "Listening to Children: A Moral Journey with Robert Coles" have a sense of what's right with public television these days. Programs premiering this week provide an even better window on the new, improved PBS.
Tonight, "Masterpiece Theatre" begins Edith Wharton's "The Buccaneers" -- for my money, the richest television production in the distinguished 25-year history of the series. Tomorrow afternoon, a wonderful new kids' show, "Wishbone," starring a dog who reads and lives the literary classics, joins "Sesame Street" and the rest of PBS' admirable children's lineup. And tomorrow night, Wynton Marsalis takes up the baton left behind by Leonard Bernstein in a series of smart and swinging music programs for young viewers called "Marsalis on Music."
Affirming the maxim "What doesn't kill you will make you stronger," PBS executives and underwriters say the debate started by enemies of public television is responsible for the improvements in PBS programming.
The irony is not lost on them.
"I think PBS has emerged stronger," said Kathy Quattrone, vice president of programming at PBS. "I think the debate made us refocus on the fact that we provide a different kind of service than viewers feel they can get elsewhere on television."
Quattrone defined the PBS difference as "public service and educational programs," and cited "Wishbone" and "Marsalis on Music" as examples.
Tamara Robinson, vice president of programming at WNET in New York, agreed. "I think we are more focused," she said. "I think a program series like 'Wishbone' really combines a lot of what PBS' mission is about. It's about education, children, literature . . . and it's fun."
As for "Marsalis," which is produced by WNET, Robinson said the series "marries the arts, performance, education and young people, to make it a winner for us on many levels."
While PBS executives can be as prone to hype as their commercial brethren, these two new series are worthy of it.
'Wishbone' for children
"Wishbone" is a near-perfect PBS kids' show. Geared to children ages 6 to 11 and their parents, it stars an adorable Jack Russell terrier. Each episode, finds Wishbone transported from his modern-day world into a work of literature.
Wishbone plays Sancho Panza in "Don Quixote," Odysseus in "The Odyssey" and Sherlock Holmes in "The Hound of the Baskervilles." An upscale version of Frasier Crane's Eddie, he's designed to get kids fired up for books and the adventure of
Maryland Public Television (Channels 22 and 67) is scheduling "Wishbone" at 4:30 p.m. Monday through Friday, offering local kids an engaging and educational alternative to the seductively violent and dangerous "Mighty Morphin Power Rangers" on Fox.
"Marsalis on Music," a four-part series that begins at 8 tomorrow night, is a series no music lover will want to miss. While it's targeted at young viewers -- as was the late Leonard Bernstein's unforgettable "Young Peoples' Concerts" on CBS -- it plays just fine for adults.
Tomorrow's installment, "Why Toes Tap: Marsalis on Rhythm," features both the Wynton Marsalis Jazz Orchestra and Seiji Ozawa with the Tanglewood Music Center Orchestra. Marsalis, the lecturer, explains rhythm to a hall full of kids. Then Marsalis and Ozawa take turns leading their musicians through excerpts of "The Nutcracker Suite" by Tchaikovsky, and the same piece as re-imagined by Duke Ellington.
Illustrates with trumpet
Rhythm becomes music, and music becomes multicultural under their inspired direction. On the third show, "Sousa to Satchmo," Marsalis takes out his trumpet to help illustrate a point about syncopation, and the series soars even higher.
The excitement over "Marsalis on Music" extends beyond PBS. The series is underwritten by Sony and Texaco.
Some of the gloomiest predictions about the future of PBS were tied to Texaco's decision two seasons ago to stop funding WNET's "Great Performances" and instead spend some of that money on the Bravo cable channel. For some, Texaco defines corporate underwriting for the arts through its support of the Metropolitan Opera radio broadcasts. To have Texaco back on board is important.
"We chose to become involved in 'Marsalis on Music' for the same reason we have sponsored Metropolitan Opera broadcasts the radio for the last 55 years: Because we firmly believe that programming such as this contributes significantly to the quality of life in the communities we serve," said Alfred C. DeCrane, Jr., chairman and CEO of Texaco.
Peter Dowd, a Texaco vice president, said the debate in Washington seems to have resulted in PBS' making decisions about what "niches" it would try to serve in a 500-channel universe.
"The debate led us to redefine and reaffirm our core values," agreed Raymond K.K. Ho, president of Maryland Public Television. "It resulted in a complete re-evaluation of what makes public television unique . . . and what values we deliver to the underwriters."
Ho, like other public television executives, believes that educational, nonviolent children's programming is one of the greatest services they can provide. In line with that, MPT will present "Kratts' Creatures" -- a daily live-action nature show for kids ages 6 to 11 -- on PBS stations across the country starting next summer.
The list of new PBS programs that are worth making a point to see is long. Here are a few I've seen, airing in coming weeks.
* On Oct. 16, the "American Experience" series opens with "Murder of the Century," a compelling 1906 case involving an eccentric heir to a railroad fortune, one of New York City's leading architects and the showgirl they fought over.
* "Mr. Rogers' Neighborhood" spends the week of Oct. 16 on programs devoted to helping children understand their anger and express it in ways that don't hurt others. If you haven't seen Fred Rogers in a while, sit down with your kids and watch. You'll be amazed at how much socialization and culture-work goes on in a typical half-hour show.
* For a decidedly more adult audience, Helen Mirren returns on Oct. 22 as Police Inspector Jane Tennison in the first of three "Prime Suspect" movies, which will be shown as part of "Masterpiece Theatre" this year. "Prime Suspect -- The Stolen Child" opens with Tennison having an abortion. As good as "NYPD Blue," "Homicide," or "Murder One" are, they simply are not in the same league.
In a further attempt to reach larger audiences, Eaton said, PBS will stunt such productions -- for example, airing "The Buccaneers" tonight, Monday and Tuesday, instead of spreading out over several Sundays.
Public television does seem to be more in tune with its public these days. Its critics are going to find that charging PBS with being "elitist" will be harder to sell in the face of this year's lineup.
"We've gone through a very healthy self-examination," MPT's Ho said, "and I think you are starting to see some of the fruits of that process."