TV: The Mummy’s Curse


Eighty pages into his coroner’s report on public broadcasting, James Ledbetter complains about the system’s “Byzantine complexity and inefficiency.” This is unfair to Constantinople. Public television is much more Egyptian. Like Ptolemaic astronomy, it’s tricked up with epicycles to explain eccentric motions. Like Tutankhamen’s diadem, it’s half-vulture and half-cobra. Like the Temple of Luxor, it’s a hodgepodge of art and politics, a dream world of obelisks, scarabs, and bulls, and a monumental mystification. Therein we find, as John Anthony West has explained in Serpent in the Sky, his meditation on the Sacred Science of the Pharaohs, “priest-bound necrophiles …worshipping a grotesque pantheon of animal-headed gods.”

None of this much resembles what the Carnegie Commission on Educational Television had hoped for in its 1967 report, Public Television: A Program for Action—a system inclusive of “all that is of human interest and importance which is not at the moment appropriate or available for support by advertising” and “a voice for groups in the community that may otherwise be unheard,” paid for by an excise tax on television sets. What Carnegie proposed, Congress would dispose in the Public Broadcasting Act of 1967, a product of both Great Society feistiness and what the historian of public television Ralph Engelman calls a “utopian tradition,” as old as Walt Whitman’s fervor for the telegraph, in which “a vital public sphere of communication can foster free and diverse speech, a sense of community, and purposeful action.” But because of Vietnam, the Great Society was already running on fumes. What Congress omitted from this disabling act was any means of funding such a sphere other than a begging bowl. And so, from the start, the experiment was corrupted by politics and money: the forked tongue and double penis of the Egyptian serpent.

Ledbetter, media critic for The Village Voice, looks back with a savage eye on the last thirty years of public broadcasting and sees a betrayal of its utopian promise, an unseemly mimicry of commercial networks, and a culture of increasing accommodation to partisan politics, sectarian pressure groups, and that “military-industrial-entertainment complex” so beloved of The X-Files’ Agent Mulder. In her book, B.J. Bullert, who had to take a day job as an assistant professor of communication at American University to support her habit of documentary filmmaking, examines the case histories of a half-dozen controversial programs from 1985 to 1993, interviews the appropriate apparatchiks, and presents a sort of ethnography of the labyrinth. As in the old English proverb, “They agree like bells; they want nothing but hanging.”

Inside today’s temple, priest-bound necrophiles include nine presidentially appointed board members of the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, “a dumping ground,” says Ledbetter, “for the worst sort of political hacks”; forty on-staff “gatekeepers” who decide on national programming for the Public Broadcasting Service; such alternative suppliers and distributors as the American Program Service, the Eastern and Central Educational Networks, a Pacific Mountain Network, and a Southern Educational Communications Association; 354 cantankerous affiliate fiefdoms that partake of these services…

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