The prospect that Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich will make good on threats to reduce or eliminate federal funding to the Public Broadcasting System has most PBS representatives already talking about cuts in budgets and airtime. So why has Denver's KBDI-TV Channel 12 chosen this moment to expand its schedule into the wee hours of the night with programming that's a little on the weird side?
"The momentum in public television is always toward blandness," says Ted Krichels, Channel 12's general manager. "Blandness is safer. But we'd rather be known as an alternative service that takes some chances."
Not that Channel 12's new overnight block is revolutionary--the station isn't filling the midnight-6 a.m. slot with six hours of propaganda in favor of higher taxes, a smaller military and welfare on demand. In fact, the broadcasts assembled Sundays through Thursdays consist mainly of repeat screenings of PBS prime-time offerings shown earlier in the evening. But after the witching hour on Fridays and Saturdays, during a show executive producer Griffith Morgan III has dubbed 12 After Midnight, the station makes available a melange of sometimes outrageous music videos and hard-to-find films. They're connected by visual links featuring the music of Room 291, one of the city's more challenging art-pop bands.
Material like this wouldn't fly at most PBS stations, but Krichels claims that KBDI prides itself on doing the unexpected. As such, it is precisely the kind of PBS broadcaster that attracts threats to cut off its tax dollars. And the station gets plenty of those--around 30 percent of its $1.5 million budget comes from Uncle Sam; the government picks up less than 10 percent of the tab at Channel 12's more affluent local PBS rival, KRMA-TV Channel 6. But rather than allowing this financial dependence to make them overly cautious, the powers that be at Channel 12 have made a conscious effort to air controversial productions.
"We showed one last year called Damned in the U.S.A.," Krichels notes. "It was a look at censorship in this country, and I thought it was very well done--it had some very amusing footage of Jesse Helms denouncing Robert Mapplethorpe. But, to use the cliche, it contained some footage that some people might find objectionable. And as the staff members who answered the phones or opened the letters we received can tell you, many people did."
In fact, Channel 12 regularly receives complaints about its programs--particularly those that deal with homosexual themes. Last year, for instance, representatives from several Baptist churches in the metro area circulated a petition calling on the station to drop The Lambda Report, a nightly news series reported from a gay point of view. The document, signed by several hundred residents, read in part: "As people who live in a country founded upon Judeo-Christian values, we are appalled that you would broadcast programs that promote a perverted lifestyle. We promise not to pledge support or encourage anyone to pledge support at the station as long as such programming persists."
Donna Huffman, the head of PRIIME TIIME TODAY, a Littleton-based TV-watchdog group with ties to Christian organizations, also is critical of Channel 12's programming. "Some of their shows are excellent, and you'd hate to see them disappear," she says. "But some of them are so extreme that you'd love to have them disappear." Huffman doesn't support the elimination of all federal funding for PBS stations but instead suggests that reformers institute strict standards for what kind of outlets can receive tax dollars. "That way, if they wanted public funds, they would have to live within the guidelines. And if they don't, they would have to live with the consequences."
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Krichels hasn't responded to such pressure--and he says that generous donations from members of Denver's gay community have helped offset any loss of support from other quarters. However, he denies that Channel 12 presents only politically liberal interpretations of issues. As an example, he points out that the station recently aired When Abortion Was Illegal, a program with a decidedly pro-choice slant, alongside It's Our Move, a piece by local producer Fran Maes that espoused a pro-life perspective.
The content of 12 After Midnight is much less doctrinaire; it consists mainly of re-airings of Teletunes, the station's highly regarded alternative-music video program, and films such as director Fritz Lang's 1926 Metropolis and The Trial, a 1963 version of the Franz Kafka novel made by Orson Welles. "We're providing late-night viewers with something a little more intelligent than what's out there. And unless you're really into infomercials, there isn't much worth watching," says executive producer Morgan, adding, "My idea was to create a TV station within a TV station. A different entity with a different look."
The new service has been up and running since January 1, and thus far calls made to the station's viewer-request line have been largely positive, its officials say. But right now, only cable subscribers and viewers in Colorado Springs (served by a low-power transmitter) can see Midnight. That's because Channel 12 turns off its transmitter at 12 a.m.--and management is not yet convinced that viewership for the program is large enough to justify changing that policy, a move that Morgan estimates would cost thousands of dollars each month in additional electric bills. "Ultimately, I think everyone wants us to have an overnight presence," Morgan says. "Its just a matter of figuring out if we can budget for it."
At present, the budget is one of Krichels's main headaches. "If the funding is cut," he says, "we would survive like we always do, but it would be a devastating blow. It would cause us great difficulties in trying to access independent programming. We'd have a hard time doing more than just staying on the air." While he waits to find out what Congress will do, he admits, "We're all in an interested state of panic.