Why WDCN is getting better
By Jim Ridley
FEBRUARY 7, 2000: Last week there were naked people on WDCN-Channel 8, and a funny thing happened: nothing. The occasion was an episode of Culture Shock, a four-part PBS series on controversies in the arts. The episode, "The Shock of the Nude," dealt with the furor surrounding the exhibition of Manet's Olympia, which depicts a nude prostitute reclining in wait for a client. With its raw technique, and its unseemly glimpse of the demimonde, the portrait scandalized the Parisian bourgeoisie when shown in 1865.
But would such programming scandalize Nashvillians? That question has haunted WDCN in recent years. Nudes, whores, outrage--it's hard to say which has been more scarce on Nashville public television. In years past, if WDCN was notorious for anything at all, it was for its lack of controversy. In the mid-'90s, the station took sharp raps for what many viewers perceived as excessively timid gatekeeping. Yet here was Channel 8, in prime time, offering a program about the very value of confrontational art.
WDCN posted a viewer call-in number at the end of the show. Sure enough, several messages were waiting for 'DCN staffers when they showed up for work Thursday. But if anyone expected the voice-mail equivalent of villagers with pitchforks, all they got were kissy-faces. "I am sure it must have made you a little bit nervous in this particular market," cooed one. "But you are to be commended for putting it on."
Such calls are the norm at WDCN these days. Last summer, after 37 years under the auspices of the Metro Board of Public Education, WDCN severed its ties to local government and became a nonprofit corporation. It was the first step toward revitalizing a station that had been seen for the past decade as hopelessly stodgy.
WDCN had a precarious position in the community in the early '90s. On the one hand, it had to satisfy viewers who rely on public television for first-rate arts and public-affairs programming. On the other, as part of the Metro school system, it had to be extraordinarily sensitive to community standards and political concerns.
Now, with ambitious new leadership--much of it hired from out of town--WDCN is trying to shed its conservative image. On Feb. 22, the station is adopting a new name: Nashville Public Television, WNPT-Channel 8. Under this banner, the station will attempt to carry more "challenging and thought-provoking" shows, a difficult balancing act when the station's support depends on the contributions of viewers.
Banking on Nashville's wealth of music and TV talent, Nashville Public Television plans to beef up its local programming, with an eye toward shows that can be exported nationally. It has altered its nightly lineup, dropping some old favorites in the bargain. It has also been carrying the full PBS schedule--something the station didn't do for many years, to viewer frustration.
The new Nashville Public Television says it is not afraid of change or controversy. But is the new Nashville?
Steve Bass thinks so. WDCN's president and CEO since 1998, when he was lured away from Boston's powerhouse station WGBH, Bass believes Nashvillians are far more open to progress than the market he left behind.
"In terms of resistance to change, Boston's got it all over Nashville," says Bass, 42, boyishly earnest and relaxed in a starched, striped shirt and maroon tie in WDCN's boardroom. "The old joke in Boston was, how many Bostonians does it take to screw in a light bulb? It took five: one to screw in the light bulb, and the other four to talk about how nice the old one was. I think this city is more ready for it and looks at it more positively than negatively."
Maybe so, but change has been slow to come to WDCN. The hiring of Bass and new program director Beth Curley, the split from Metro, and the creation of WDCN as an independent non-profit organization may all have happened in a whirlwind two-year time frame, but getting to that point took agonizing years of negotiations, discussions, and bureaucracy. Separating from Metro had been discussed since the early '70s. By 1991, though, the limitations of WDCN's oversight by the city's school system had become a headache on all sides.
Started by the Davidson County School Board, WDCN began broadcasting 25 hours a week in September 1962, primarily as an educational channel with learning courses in Spanish, art, and history. This was five years before the Public Broadcasting Act, which in 1967 created public television's major funding source, the Corporation for Public Broadcasting. This was also seven years before the founding of the Public Broadcasting System in 1969. In other words, programming in the early years was almost exclusively local, and locally funded.
Throughout the 1970s and '80s, WDCN created a reputation for broad-based quality programming by alternating PBS shows such as Sesame Street and Firing Line with treats ranging from old Westerns to classics of foreign cinema. These were interspersed with WDCN trademarks like its Action Auction fundraiser, a weeklong orgy of tchotchke-hawking.
But there were several problems with the WDCN/Metro pairing. One was fundraising. In recent years, funds generated by the 29-year-old Action Auction had been declining drastically, down from $253,000 in net revenue in 1995 to $124,000 last year. On-air auctions may have been pioneered by public television--specifically, by the San Francisco station KQED, in 1955--but home-shopping networks stole the idea and eroded their revenue. That made pledge drives all the more crucial.
However, the common public perception was that WDCN was being funded very well, thank you, by taxpayer dollars. That misapprehension was compounded by a catch-22 within the school system itself. The money going to WDCN each year was coming out of the school system's annual budget. But if WDCN did a particularly good job of raising donations, the strapped school system would cut its funding. By 1994, WDCN was signing off at 10:30 some nights to shave operating costs.
"There was almost a disincentive to raise private money," Bass explains. "I think there was always a lingering fear that the more successful you are, the more you'll be punished."
The bureaucracy was stifling in other ways. As Bass observes, the Board of Public Education isn't there to operate TV stations; it's built to power the entire massive machine of Nashville public education. But WDCN had to follow the same inflexible guidelines as any public school. New WDCN employees were forced to undergo tests for tuberculosis--just because the tests were required of new Metro schoolteachers.
In 1999, the Metro school board freed the station to become an independent nonprofit corporation. In the short term, that will deplete WDCN of its government finances: Metro will continue paying incrementally smaller amounts to the station until the 2003-4 season. But staffers unanimously believe the change will result in increased--and desperately needed--community support.
How desperate is the situation? Program director Beth Curley, a red-haired woman with a wry, unflappable manner, worked in the Springfield/Holyoke, Mass., market before signing on with WDCN in January 1999. Among TV markets, hers was ranked 103, 73 notches below Nashville--and yet her station still outperformed WDCN in memberships and corporate sponsorships.
To make matters worse, the Springfield market has multiple PBS affiliates. Nashville is a "sole-service provider"--the only one in its market. A hopeful sign is that WDCN's memberships, which are basically viewer contributions, are currently up to more than 18,000 from their mid-'90s trough of less than 16,000. Yet that's less than five percent of the 428,000 households that tune in to WDCN each week.
There may be one lingering factor behind the low numbers. A poll of WDCN contributors last year produced a staggering statistic. When asked if they would like to see more challenging and occasionally controversial material on the station, some three-quarters of the respondents said yes. The response laid open the lingering gripe about WDCN: a sense that the station was acting as an informal censor, refusing to air even mildly controversial material.
The day after the school board vote, Steve Bass found a message on his voice mail: "Does this mean you're finally going to show Tales of the City?"
In 1994, PBS affiliates were offered an adaptation of Armistead Maupin's episodic novel Tales of the City, a seriocomic depiction of single life among gays and straights in San Francisco. Produced by Britain's Channel 4 Television, which faces much more relaxed broadcast standards than U.S. public television, the miniseries included some brief nudity and fleeting profanity. For U.S. consumption, PBS offered an edited version with fogged butts and "wiped" dialogue. Explained PBS spokesman Harry Forbes at the time, "The 'gods' were taken out of 'goddamn,' and all of the 'holes' came out of 'asshole.' "
As usual, PBS sent out an advisory detailing what might offend viewers. (Sample listing: "As Michael and Mona speak, the buttocks of two nude men can be seen in the background.") Just whom at WDCN it was intended for wasn't clear. Under a nebulous policy statement, untouched since 1970, the Metro Board of Public Education had full authority over programming and content. Being elected officials, the school-board members were doubly cautious about offending viewers. Yet inexplicably, the same statement left final programming decisions with the station manager. For 33 years, that person was broadcast veteran Robert Shepherd, who joined the station in 1963 and retired in 1998.
However, what got on the air was reportedly decided most often by one man: WDCN program manager Gaylord Ayers. A former TV copywriter who joined the station in 1969, Ayers vetoed shows that had usually aired without incident in other markets: Frederick Wiseman's Titicut Follies, the AIDS documentaries Silverlake Life and Tongues Untied, even an innocuous nature documentary, Monkey in the Mirror, that happened to show monkeys copulating. (One WDCN staffer still refers to that debacle ruefully as "the monkey-fucking incident.")
All of which made WDCN's community standards well-known. As the Scene's Elizabeth Cornell reported in 1994, after the Woodmont Baptist Church's Rev. Bill Sherman inveighed against Tales in the pulpit, parishioners called Ayers to thank him for not airing the show. Ayers hadn't yet announced his decision.
"I don't think I'm conservative," Ayers told Cornell in 1994. "I think the market is conservative." Yet an uproar resulted when WDCN refused to air Tales of the City. The calls the station received were almost evenly divided between pro and con, but there were hundreds who demanded to see it. Letters to the editor chided WDCN for cowardice.
In truth, WDCN had aired adult-themed movies such as Longtime Companion and The Lost Language of Cranes, although with little promotion in late-night time slots. And Ayers argued, in his defense, that he had indeed permitted nudity on the station--albeit in the form of a naked woman's corpse in a plane-crash documentary. (He let that slide, he told Cornell, "because I wanted people to understand that going up in an airplane is not entirely safe.")
But WDCN viewers weren't saying they wanted a diet of softcore sex, vile talk, and cracked skulls. Those things turned many PBS loyalists off commercial television. Rather, viewers took up arms because they thought they were losing out on PBS' hallmark: quality programming. Bass and Curley both say they're still fighting the misperception that WDCN has a secret vault backlogged with unseen PBS shows.
"Our predisposition these days is if it's coming from PBS, chances are we would run it," Bass says. "My view is that the second you start withdrawing [something controversial], you're viewed as censoring or denying something, and that's a mode you generally don't want to be in."
However, WDCN did not carry It's Elementary, a non-PBS documentary about addressing homosexuality in elementary schools. The show had drawn the wrath of conservative groups, and an equally vocal group wanted WDCN to show it. Bass and Curley say the decision was more a question of quality and the lack of an appropriate slot. "It wasn't something we felt was that important to run," Bass explains. Angry callers disagreed.
But controversy isn't what Nashville Public Television hopes to bring to Nashville. The station's new mission is severalfold. First, under the guidance of Curley and program manager Harmon McBride, the station is attempting to make better use of its "real estate," or air time. The first thing Curley did was to examine what was working on WDCN's schedule and what wasn't.
What was working was Tennessee Crossroads, the documentary show produced on the premises at WDCN. Now in its 13th year, the acclaimed mix of Tennessee features and profiles was the station's most watched program last November--making it the only locally produced show in the country to beat PBS programming. "Even against The Simpsons, we were drawing good numbers," says Ken Simington, a Crossroads producer-director and 20-year WDCN employee.
What wasn't working, though, was a show that had been considered one of the station's sacred cows. For more than 25 years, Middle Tennesseans tuned in at 7:30 Thursday nights to The Tennessee Outdoorsman, hosted by Jimmy Holt and John Sloan. A mix of uneventful hunting and fishing footage, bracketed by indoor bull sessions, the Outdoorsman had two audiences: a small cult that hooted at its production values, and a loyal core of armchair adventurers 50 or older. The latter made up 73 percent of its viewers. It habitually lost viewers from Tennessee Crossroads, which comes on at 7, and that hurt PBS' popular Mystery series at 8.
To strengthen the Thursday-night lineup, Curley placed another of WDCN's most popular local programs, Volunteer Gardener, in the 7:30 slot. The Outdoorsman was bumped to Saturday, where it performed badly. The show ended last October when former Metro Council member Holt, reading the writing on the wall, terminated his contract negotiations with the station. The outcry was "less than I would've thought," Bass says, but the station still received 40 calls.
"I think that some of the reaction had much more to do with the changes that are occurring in Nashville--that as this area becomes more urbanized, you can see a strain of concern from people that have been here a long time that the quality of life is changing, the values are changing," Bass says. He's not unaware that some viewers feared he'd canned the show out of some sinister liberal-Yankee agenda. But the new Thursday block has performed more consistently.
"Programming is a mixture of art and science," Curley says. "I think that a lot of what we've been doing this year has been right on." She also points to the station's Sunday-afternoon travel shows and its Saturday-night block of British comedies. "Speaking as a relatively new person in the community," she says, "when I go out and meet people, they say, 'You know, I stay home on Saturday nights now because I love those shows.' "
One of the station's overall missions is to expand its local programming. One way, says WDCN's local-programming director Joe Riley, is to fill the three minutes and 14 seconds between each show with "snapshots," small features ranging from children's programming to local profiles. For one, Nashville music writer Craig Havighurst and WDCN producer Christina Melton are sketching the history of WSM Radio--a project that cries out for expanding.
Riley says he fields pitches from Nashville producers all the time. Right now, he says, the station simply doesn't have the funds to bankroll longform projects on its own. The hope among Nashville filmmakers, though, is that Nashville Public Television will ultimately become the kind of nationwide content supplier that WGBH was during Bass' tenure. An encouraging sign is a joint WGBH/WDCN documentary on the Fisk Jubilee Singers, which will air nationwide May 1 on PBS' The American Experience.
"This could give indigenous filmmakers access to a national audience," says Coke Sams of Studio Productions, who's approached WDCN with a documentary project about Joe O'Donnell, a Marine photographer allowed into Nagasaki after the A-bomb in World War II. "It could unlock a great side of this town."
Who knows--the station may even find an answer to that 25-year-old question: "Why doesn't Nashville have an Austin City Limits?" The long-running PBS show, which just celebrated its first quarter-century--with a party in Nashville, oddly enough--has drawn on Nashville talent for more than two decades. And yet Nashville has never produced its own musical showcase.
Bassist Dave Pomeroy, who has talked to WDCN about a TV version of his radio show Nashville Unlimited, thinks such a show is long overdue. "It would prove that Nashville isn't a one-horse town musically," says Pomeroy, who was the music director for a failed WDCN pilot called Nashville Skyline in 1984.
The station would love to create such a show for countrywide export. But Bass cautions that Austin City Limits draws high ratings in smaller markets but low numbers in urban areas. That's the exact opposite of PBS' Sessions at West 54th--even if it is hosted by a Middle Tennessean, John Hiatt.
"In many ways, it's been less of a culture shock than I might have thought," says Curley, who's spent her first year in Nashville immersing herself in everything from Bluebird writers' nights to the Nashville Ballet. "I think I'm one of those people that believes people are people, and we're all sort of the same. Coming from the Northeast, where everything is already done in a number of ways, this is a very exciting community to be in."
Indeed. A new city art museum is on the horizon. So is a massive new library and the deluxe new Country Music Hall of Fame. Hundreds of new Nashvillians move here every year, from New York and L.A., from Mexico and Kurdistan, bringing different experiences and values than those of lifelong Nashvillians. Your public-television station belongs to all of them, and to you. Can Nashville Public Television find common ground to accommodate them all? At least it doesn't sound afraid to find the highest common denominator.
"Your best supporters recognize that out of the 6,000 hours of programming we broadcast, there are probably going to be three, four, five programs they may not appreciate," Steve Bass says. "They may not want to watch, they might be offended. But they understand the principles that underlie public broadcasting. What I have found is that the people who call up and threaten, 'I'll never give you a another dime if you do or don't do whatever,' are generally the people who never gave you the first dime."
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