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Public-affairs Programming : Boston's Wgbh: A Mission To Inform

March 14, 1987|CLARKE TAYLOR

BOSTON — Station WGBH here has become the primary producer of public-affairs programs for public television--and the station intends to keep it that way.

As one of the largest of the country's 300 public-television stations, the Boston station produces its share of traditional public-broadcasting fare, including "Masterpiece Theatre," "Evening at Pops" and the science series "Nova."

But it is with programs such as "Vietnam: A Television History," "Crisis in Central America" and the "Frontline" documentary series that WGBH has carved out a special role for itself.

"The first mission of public television is to inform . . . to address itself to those people who are still awake on matters of importance to the country," Peter McGhee, WGBH's manager for national productions said in an interview.

At its commodious facilities bordering Boston and Cambridge, the station currently is producing a 13-part series on the history of the nuclear age and a history series called "The American Experience" and is developing series about the history of Mexico and about global environmental issues.

McGhee, a former print and broadcast journalist who came to WGBH in 1969 to help create public television's "The Advocates" series, long has maintained that the dynamic intellectual community here places the Boston station in a natural position to produce such programs. But he expressed the view the other day that informational programming now constitutes the "most secure" mission for all of public television.

"With the growth of cable and home video, most (television programmers) seem more interested in what's going to make money than in what's going to help Americans understand their country and make the right choices," McGhee said.

McGhee acknowledged that the pursuit of what he terms "hard-core" news and public-affairs programs is fraught with difficulties--financial and otherwise. For example, he said, the fully funded, $6-million series on the nuclear age has been slowed down--a 1989 air date now is targeted--due to the problems inherent in "developing this very complex history in an accessible way."

McGhee also said that approximately half the funds still are needed to put into production the projected three-part series on Mexico, targeted for 1988, and the 10-hour "State of the World" environmental series, targeted for 1989.

He said the Mexico series "probably will die" unless the Corporation for Public Broadcasting and PBS grants a recent request by WGBH for $2 million to help underwrite the two projects.

"State of the World," however, probably will go into production even if WGBH is turned down, he said. It is a co-production with the British Broadcasting Corp. and Indian television, and has other funding from foundations. The station is likely to absorb the remaining costs itself if other support cannot be found, he said.

"The American Experience" is targeted for the 1988-89 public television season and is being co-produced with KCET in Los Angeles and WNET in New York. The stations hope it will become an ongoing anthology series about U.S. history, as "American Playhouse," "Frontline" and "Nova" have done in the respective areas of drama, public affairs and science.

McGhee said the first 16-week season of the history series is targeted to begin in the fall of 1988, with $4.25 million of its $6-million budget now in hand from the Corporation for Public Broadcasting and public television stations.

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