Discussing Controversy

I found an article from the Rocky Mountain News noting that a local PBS station had chosen to air the controversial “Sugartime” episode of Postcards from Buster.

In case you have missed the hordes of articles and news stories on the subject, Buster is a cartoon rabbit who travels the country sending back reports as it were on different activities around the country. The episode in question depicted maple sugar making on Vermont farms headed by lesbians. Though there is apparently no mention or appearance of any sort of romantic relationship between the women, the Secretary of Education applied pressure to PBS to yank the episode. A number of stations have chosen to show it anyway.

What made this article so interesting to me was that one station on Channel 6 chose to show the episode at 11:30 at night so parents could judge whether to allow their children to see it. (There was an implication that it would air again at some point) However, PBS channel 12 (KBDI) which is apparently the other Denver PBS station chose to air it at 7 pm and follow it with a 90 call in panel discussion show.

Thinking that perhaps there was a lesson here for arts organizations to perhaps use controversy to move regularly scheduled talk back/Q&A sessions away from mundane questions like “how do you remember all your lines” to more gripping discussions, I visited KBDI’s website to see how the Feb. 9 experiment turned out. I figured being a PBS audience there might not be the explosive confrontations one would find on Jerry Springer and some good discussion might emerge.

There wasn’t any video footage to be viewed, but they did have a comments board. Most of the comments fall between Feb 9-11 (just so those of you visiting in a few months can get a sense of how far you may have to scroll down.)

The biggest lesson that one might derive from the feedback is that when hosting an opportunity for discussion about a controversial event so that you can convince people you don’t champion the causes of a perceived liberal elite — you should actually include people on the panel that represent both sides of the issue.

It is not entirely clear whether the host was berating people because of their views or if he was always like that and people who complained hadn’t watched the show before. It does seem like the views represented by the panel itself were decidefly one sided.

It is tough to be yelled at in ones own house to be sure. It seems to me that in an age where the public can change the channel to one that expresses the views of the niche to which one subscribes, there is an opportunity and perhaps duty placed upon live performance venues to provide a forum for intelligent discourse since their settings are not so easily escaped.

But–it needs to be well-balanced and moderated and I imagine that would be tough to do these days. When you see and hear people relentlessly berating each other on television because that holds the ratings, you think that is the way one engages in discussion about topics with which one disagrees.

I am sure our Founding Fathers were not as cordial in their dealings as we imagine them to have been. (Just think of how many must have muttered something about going Aaron Burr on someone’s butt) I imagine they might have held themselves to some level of civility though.

This could be a great service arts organizations provide to society. Live discussion doesn’t allow you the anonymity of the internet or a phone call in. Done with the proper respect and care, arts events could become a welcoming venue for people who don’t necessarily view themselves as arts intellectuals, but who crave balanced intelligent conversations about issues of the day.

Doesn’t this happen on college campuses one asks. Well, currently Ohio is considering a student bill of rights to ensure those with views that conflict with those of their professor aren’t intimidated into keeping quiet.

Besides, as much as tickets to arts events cost. It is still cheaper and more accessible to a wider portion of the population than paying for college credits.

About Joe Patti

I have been writing Butts in the Seats (BitS) on topics of arts and cultural administration since 2004 (yikes!). Given the ever evolving concerns facing the sector, I have yet to exhaust the available subject matter. In addition to BitS, I am a founding contributor to the ArtsHacker (artshacker.com) website where I focus on topics related to boards, law, governance, policy and practice.

I am also an evangelist for the effort to Build Public Will For Arts and Culture being helmed by Arts Midwest and the Metropolitan Group. (http://www.creatingconnection.org/about/)

My most recent role was as Executive Director of the Grand Opera House in Macon, GA.

Among the things I am most proud are having produced an opera in the Hawaiian language and a dance drama about Hawaii's snow goddess Poli'ahu while working as a Theater Manager in Hawaii. Though there are many more highlights than there is space here to list.


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