KUED Ch. 7 and KUER, the public TV and radio stations at the University of Utah, never showed better what public service broadcasting can be and what noncommercial stations are uniquely positioned to do than last week. They preempted virtually the entire end-of-week daytime and early-evening schedule beginning Thursday to air the war debates live in the U.S. House and Senate.
WETA, the public station in Washington, was plugged into the Senate and House broadcast facilities, putting the superimpositions on the pictures in its own studio and then feeding the coverage through PBS free to any public station that wanted to use it.
When they learned this early Thursday, Fred Esplin, Ch. 7 station manager, and Scott Chaffin, the program manager, got psyched up. "We checked to see if anyone else was carrying the debates. Neither KBYU nor the commercial stations were. So we decided to go with complete coverage," Esplin says. He found viewer response enthusiastic.
- THE HEARINGS WENT ON the air Thursday at 9 a.m. here, and Ch. 7 stayed with them until 7 p.m., about half an hour before the PBS feed ended. On Friday they were to have been followed by "Washington Week in Review" and "The MacNeil Lehrer Newshour," which would have provided analysis of the hearings, but the debates lasted until 4 a.m. Saturday, and KUED stayed right with them. The commentary during the debates themselves was sparse, limited largely to wraparounds in which Paul Duke and his colleagues Norm Ornstein and Steven Roberts switched from House to Senate and back. Duke is the "Washington Week in Review" moderator as well.
Ch. 7 did make two concessions to its regular programming. It cut off a senator midway through a speech in order to air part 1 of the new Agatha Christie mystery, "Peril at End House."
That brought some complaints, it says, perhaps a dozen. But Ch. 7 also got, as you'd expect, a number of calls from viewers lobbying for the heavily promoted "Mystery" series and wanting to know when it would be seen.
On Friday morning at 9, an hour and a quarter into the hearings, Channel 7 again cut out in order to air a live math telecourse for an hour, switched the hearings to Channel 9, the learning channel, and referring viewers to the KUER radio broadcasts.
KUER decided not to preempt its evening PBS news program, "All Things Considered," which runs from 4 to 7 p.m., so the congressional coverage effectively ended on radio here at 4.
- ONE VIEWER COMPLAINED on Thursday when the TV broadcast cut off Sen. Orrin Hatch in mid-speech and the broadcasts shifted to the House. Esplin says that was a judgment call by WETA over which Channel 7 had no control.
WETA says it has no firm count on the total number of PBS stations that elected to carry the debates but figures it at well over 90 percent. It says at least one public station in 24 of the top 25 markets used the material in its entirety.
The cable satellite public affairs channel is the only news organization that provides routine and regular gavel-to-gavel coverage of congressional proceedings - on C-Span for the House, C-Span 2 for the Senate. Last week it was even broadcasting the "special orders" in the House after adjournment. During this period, at about 10 p.m. Salt Lake time, I was watching a freshman congressman making an impassioned antiwar speech, one of the best of the day, to an audience of exactly two in the cavernous House chamber.
"The cable is great for people who have it, but nearly half the people of Utah don't," Esplin says. "So this is the kind of service we could and should provide for a greater listenership. We aren't dependent on ad revenue, and when there's a need and opportunity to do something with the debate on a critically important national issue, we figure we should do it."
Furthermore, TCI Cablevision of Utah carries only C-Span, not the second service that carries Senate matters. Almost every cable system offers C-Span. The exceptions are small systems that simply don't have the channel capacity, mostly in rural areas. About 52 million homes get it.
- C-SPAN PROGRAM hosts have suggested to viewers who don't get the second service that they put a bug in the ear of the people who run their local cable services.
Meanwhile, C-Span has offered C-Span 2 free temporarily to any system that offers it. At least 8 million people are getting it on a temporary basis, since early last week, added to the 23 million who can watch it regularly.
TCI Cablevision of Utah says that much as it would like to add C-Span 2, it doesn't have the channel capacity and won't until the system completes its conversion to fiber optics.
It's not unprecedented but certainly unusual for even a public channel to devote most of the viewing hours for days on end to public affairs programming of any kind. The most recent case was the Oliver North hearings, but here KUED split the programming between Channel 9 and Channel 7. The Watergate and Nixon impeachment hearings were aired on a delayed basis in evening hours.
PBS has been good about cooperating with individual stations to help bring hearings of special interest to the locality in their entirety. Two Arizona PBS stations, for example, have been taking a special feed on the Senate ethics committee hearings involving the two Arizona senators.
SOME OTHER CHANNEL 7 PROGRAMS this week will be of unusual interest.
On Wednesday at 7 p.m. the BBC program on cold fusion, reportedly a highly critical view, will be seen. It will be moved from Tuesday, where "Frontline" will be airing at 7 p.m. a wrap-up on gulf developments, including an analysis of how we embarked on this march toward war.
Ken Burn's acclaimed 11-hour "The Civil War," the most watched series ever on public TV, will be repeated on five consecutive nights this week beginning tonight at 8 p.m. through Friday. If the House-Senate war debates are still going on, Channel 7 may face an uncomfortable decision, whether to bring this series at the scheduled time, delay the episodes or split from the debates.