‘Pioneers of Thirteen’: a flashback to the heyday of public TV

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Although the technology was still a little shaky you could make a strong argument for the 1970s being the peak years of public television in this country.

A template for high-class, serialized drama was created by “Masterpiece Theatre” that no one other TV network emulated until the arrival of cable and HBO’s launch of late 1990s series such as “The Sopranos” and “Sex & the City.”

Programs such as “Theater in America” and “Dance in America” helped to fuel the regional theater explosion and the dance boom of the 1970s.

Much of the best 1970s public television work emanated from Channel 13/WNET in New York City and the era is celebrated in a wonderful special,
“Pioneers of Thirteen: The ’70s — Bold and Fearless” that will be aired on Channel 13 on Thursday at 9 p.m.

The show is both deeply nostalgic and slightly depressing because it points up the changes in public television since its halcyon era five decades ago.

Public TV was still so new 40 years ago that it received tremendous grant funding from the foundations that had helped set it up a decade earlier. Back in those days, audiences didn’t have to sit through ghastly pledge drive programming pandering to baby boomer music taste or the wishy washy public affairs programming that results from being in bed with so many major corporations (public television now carries many “enhanced” funding acknowledgements that are nothing more than commercials).

We learn in the “Pioneers of Thirteen” special that the landmark 1973 multi-part documentary “An American Family” (above) — which helped to put PBS and Channel 13 on the broadcasting map with 10 million weekly viewers — was basically funded by the Ford Foundation which asked for no controls over the way the series was shot or edited.

The special also delves into the creation of “The Great American Dream Machine,”
“The Electric Company,” the Bicentennial miniseries “The Adams Chronicles,” as well as the “Dance in America” and “Theater in America” series — none of which would be possible in today’s era of budgetary belt-tightening and having to compete with so many other channels and cable programming.

Meryl Streep narrates the 90-minute special which includes clips from “Uncommon Women and Others,” the Wendy Wasserstein play that was broadcast by “Theater in America,” and which introduced many TV viewers to the brilliant young Yale Drama School graduate who would go on to dominate American film for the next 40 years.

Set your DVR for Thursday at 9 p.m. This is one “special” that lives up to its TV terminology.

Joe Meyers

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