"MASTERPIECE THEATRE," as everyone this side of Bimini knows, is made possible by a grant from Mobil Corporation. But what does that mean, exactly: "made possible by"? And if Mobil Corporation makes "Masterpiece Theatre" possible, why are PBS fund-raisers forever warning us that we must phone in a pledge right now in order to keep the show on the air?
In his absorbing and revealing new history of public television, PBS: Behind the Screen, culture maven Laurence Jarvik answers both questions. In doing so, he helps lay bare the fiction on which the PBS empire has been built.
"Masterpiece Theatre" is a production of WGBH-TV and a jewel in the public broadcasting crown, but it has been privately paid for since the day it went on the air (January 10, 1971). Mobil's subsidy is total: It reimburses WGBH for every expense of putting "Masterpiece Theatre" together. It even gives money to other PBS stations to defray their costs in promoting the program.
This is not altruism. "The Six Wives of Henry VIII" and "The Flame Trees of Thika" may not do much for Mobil's petroleum operations, but they have immeasurably enhanced Mobil's reputation. "Masterpiece Theatre" was created as part of an image-boosting campaign launched around 1970 by Mobil's vice president for public relations, Herb Schmertz. Employing what PR experts call "affinity-of-purpose marketing," Mobil sponsored "arts and cultural projects that would have a 'halo effect' on the company's image," Jarvik writes. "Public broadcasting, which reached an elite audience of opinion makers, was a crucial element of Schmertz's campaign."
Mobil did not pour millions of dollars into the coffers of WGBH and PBS and then stroll off. Who pays the piper calls the tune, and Mobil ensured that the tune of "Masterpiece Theatre" was to its liking. Schmertz was in on every major decision, from hiring Alistair Cooke as program host to spinning off "Mystery!" as a separate show. And when Mobil and WGBH (or PBS) did not see eye to eye, it was usually Mobil that prevailed.
"Upstairs, Downstairs," for instance, was strongly favored by Schmertz, but – in part because it was created by London Weekend Television, a private firm – hotly opposed by the broadcasters. "A flurry of memos swirled between PBS in Washington and WGBH in Boston to try to prevent 'Upstairs, Downstairs' from airing and thus weaken Mobil's influence on programming decisions," he writes. But Schmertz "threatened to pull Mobil's support if it were not aired," and "Upstairs, Downstairs" went forward, becoming one of the most-watched, most-loved series in PBS history.
Not one dime contributed by "viewers like you" has ever gone into the production of "Masterpiece Theatre." Nor is it underwritten by the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, the federal agency through which taxpayers funnel some $ 250 million a year to PBS and National Public Radio. The entire tab is paid by Mobil. Yet PBS has often scheduled "pledge breaks" around "Masterpiece Theatre," exploiting viewers' loyalty to extract generous contributions.
"Masterpiece Theatre," the quintessential public television offering, is entirely financed with commercial funds. It was created to serve the publicity needs of a commercial enterprise. Its content has been shaped in consultation with – or at the insistence of – its commercial sponsor. Much of its finest programming is purchased from commercial vendors. If it weren't for commercial interests, there would be no "Masterpiece Theatre."
Time and again, "Masterpiece Theatre" has been held out as the kind of programming that would not exist absent a federal subsidy. Yet the history of "Masterpiece Theatre" proves the reverse: that television of the highest caliber can be "made possible by" the private sector, with no government involvement at all.
"Masterpiece Theatre" is not alone. Much of the best programming in the PBS archives was paid for privately, from "National Geographic" and "The Undersea World of Jacques Cousteau" to "The French Chef" and "Free to Choose."
High-quality TV requires no government pipeline, and a government pipeline is no guarantee of high quality. The supposedly educational "Sesame Street" is produced by Children's Television Workshop, which gets a $7 million annual subsidy from the taxpayers. But what the taxpayers get in exchange is not smarter kids. Academic performance has plummeted since "Sesame Street" went on the air; a shelf of studies question its educational merit.
What the taxpayers do get for their $7 million is uninterrupted 30-minute commercials for a vast array of "Sesame Street" toys and wares. According to Jarvik, CTW products gross "over $800 million in retail sales around the world each year." Its top officials pay themselves salaries of $200,000 and up. It controls an "endowment" of $70 million. "Sesame Street" may not prepare children for school. But thanks to its government subsidy, it makes well-connected insiders very, very rich.
In the end, federally funded television is just one more 1960s government scheme gone sour. Jarvik does an admirable job of showing how and why it failed – and why masterpieces like "Masterpiece Theatre" are an argument against public television.
(Jeff Jacoby is a columnist for The Boston Globe).
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