Did PBS bow to right-wing pressure in deciding not to fund a sequel to last January’s critically lauded, high-rated, but controversial miniseries Tales of the City, based on author Armistead Maupin’s randy account of ’70s San Francisco life? ”For PBS to insist it’s not running scared,” says Maupin, ”is preposterous. They’re only responding now because I’m holding them responsible to their audience, the public.”
The six-episode series showed nudity, drug use, and homosexuality (though PBS offered affiliates an edited version). In Tennessee, WTCI in Chattanooga pulled the show one hour before airtime, and the Georgia Senate passed a resolution advising Georgia affiliates not to broadcast it. But PBS claims finances are the main roadblock to continuing the show; the miniseries was mainly supported by Britain’s Channel 4, and PBS would have had to fund half of the production of a sequel. PBS spokesperson Harry Forbes says, ”The whole notion that we’re afraid of reaction to Tales is unfair.”
Whatever the reason for PBS’ foot-dragging, two documents generated by this controversy turn out to be almost as amusing-if not as enlightening-as Maupin’s work.
A March flier called Action! Page, from the Rev. Donald Wildmon, American Family Association president and ultraconservative TV critic, diligently recorded a ”sampling of the profane and vulgar language in Tales of the City,” and the number of times each offense occurred. Among those that can be printed:
*”a little nookie”…1
*”wham bam, thank you mam” (sic)…1
Wildmon’s R-rated opus, though, was just a warm-up for a strange memo that PBS sent to its member stations outlining possible responses to an imaginary question-and-answer session with the press.
”Q: Any reaction to Armistead Maupin’s angry comments?
”A: We have great respect for Maupin and were pleased to work with him on Tales of the City.
”Q: What was the response from the public to the series?
”A: Tales drew much public response, both positive and negative.
”Q: If Tales was so successful why not fund another series?
”A: We don’t follow the commercial television model, where a ratings success immediately spawns sequels and spin-offs.” (The letter doesn’t mention the imminent airing of the Mobil Oil-funded sequel Prime Suspect 3.)
Michael Schwarz, senior executive producer at San Francisco’s PBS affiliate, KQED, says the folks at his own station ”are piecing together financing to get the series produced without money from PBS.”
Even if KQED is successful, will PBS air the Tales sequel nationally? Stay tuned. More memos are sure to follow.