KCET Plans National PBS Projects

December 29, 1986 | Lee Marguiles

When KCET paid off its bank debt last June, the public-TV station officially closed the book on the economic crisis that had crippled it in 1982, and from which it had been recovering ever since.

Six months later, it is clear that Channel 28 has moved beyond the mending process into areas of new growth.

Even before the recent announcement that the station would be launching an ambitious weekly series and a nightly news feature about local issues in January, the evidence of this expansion was on the national PBS schedule in the form of two documentaries that aired last fall.

Under previous management, KCET produced an occasional “Cousteau” or “Cosmos” series for PBS, but it primarily was known, because of its location in Hollywood, for producing drama–“Hollywood Television Theater,” “Visions,” “Meeting of the Minds.”

And in rebuilding the national programming department that was virtually wiped out in the cutbacks of nearly five years ago, the new management continued to give drama top priority, with such productions as “Cat on a Hot Tin Roof,” “Wings” and “Paper Angels.”

But it was public-affairs programming that got KCET on the PBS schedule in September and October: “Fighting Terrorism: A National Security View,” a look at how the government might handle an international terrorist incident, and “Hungary: Pushing the Limits,” a report on that nation 30 years after the Hungarian revolution.

The development of these documentaries was part of a planned broadening of KCET’s interests, said Phylis Geller, vice president of national productions.

“Our mandate is to provide the PBS national schedule with solid, high-visibility, excellent-quality programming. We see no need to narrow ourselves by categories,” she explained in an interview.

To oversee this new area of activity, Geller hired Blaine Baggett 14 months ago as executive producer of public affairs. He had produced such documentaries as “From Blitzkrieg to the Bomb” and the critically acclaimed PBS series “Spaceflight,” about the history of the U. S. space program, and had previously worked at PBS.

“He clearly had the background and the talent to hit the track running,” Geller said recently, and that’s just what he did.

Besides “Fighting Terrorism,” which he co-produced, and “Hungary,” of which he was executive producer, Baggett has commitments to co-produce with Boston station WGBH a documentary for the “Nova” series about spy technology and to co-produce with the BBC an eight-part series called “Discoveries Underwater,” about underwater archeology.

“It seems clear we’re beginning to emerge as an important resource for national public-affairs programming for PBS,” says Baggett, a 35-year-old native of Mississippi.

His assessment is echoed by Suzanne Weil, vice president of programming at PBS. “From PBS’ point of view, it’s one of the most welcome things that’s happened in the last 10 years,” she said of the emergence of

Baggett ‘s department at KCET. “There are very few public-affairs producers in the system. A lot of stations do occasional documentaries, but most of ours come out of Boston. Seattle does some, but there’s been a big hole on the West Coast.”

Baggett said that while KCET is not gearing itself to fill any particular niche, the focus now is on international affairs and science.

On the drawing boards and making the rounds in search of production money, he reported, are proposals for a four-part series about the Philippines to be produced by some of the principals television’s “Vietnam” series; an eight-part series on the latest developments and discoveries in the field of astronomy; an eight-part series about relations between the United States and England in the 20th Century to be co-produced with the BBC; a series on how the media shape public views about the nation’s purported enemies, based on the book “Faces of the Enemy” by Sam Keen; a documentary about present-day Iran, and a series on the politics of food.

“The fact there are so many things going on there is quite remarkable,” observed Barry Chase, vice president for news and public affairs programming at PBS. “We’ve known Blaine (Baggett) a long time and we know how talented he is, but we also kn ow how difficult it is to get the machinery up and running.”

Baggett has a special interest in the proposed astronomy series, and not merely because of his previous involvement with “Spaceflight.” He is among those whom NASA is considering to become the first journalist to fly in a Space Shuttle when the program resumes.

The project he most wants to do, however, is “Secret Intelligence,” a four-part series that would provide what he describes as “a comprehensive look at intelligence activities in America in the 20th Century.” Individual programs would look at the purposes of spying and how it is done, the Central Intelligence Agency, the Federal Bureau of Investigation and the counterintelligence efforts mounted by other countries, among them the Soviet Union and Israel.

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Producer of PBS Documentary: The Man Who Reveals the Secrets

January 23, 1989 | Judith Michaelson

Blaine Baggett stares at the plain, chocolate-brown telephone on his desk at public television station KCET on Sunset Boulevard, then, with a trace of anxiety, glances out the window toward nearby hills.

As executive producer of “Secret Intelligence,” a four-part documentary airing nationally on PBS on four consecutive Mondays beginning tonight at 9, Baggett is talking about the making of the series, which tracks America’s multibillion dollar international espionage empire from World War II’s Office of Strategic Services all the way to Marine Lt. Col. Oliver North and Iran-Contra.

Narrated by former “CBS Morning News” anchor Bill Kurtis, “Secret Intelligence” explores the role of the FBI, the CIA and the lesser known–but perhaps even more powerful– National Security Agency, home of “America’s modern code-breaking effort and other eavesdropping systems. . . . “

A quiet, unassuming man of medium height, build and coloring who could easily blend into a crowd, Baggett is also talking about ever-maturing, high-tech laser-beam listening devices, which figure in Program Four.

He hints they may eventually pose an even greater threat to individual liberties than anything that’s happened thus far–from the Palmer Raids and other Red scares, through Watergate, Vietnam and North’s self-described “off-the-shelf, self-sustaining, stand-alone entity” operating out of the basement of the White House.

“For instance, we could be having a phone conversation here,” Baggett begins quietly. “There doesn’t have to be a tap on that phone. They (the listeners) could turn that telephone receiver to an open mike somewhere across the street.” He pauses, then adds with a slight smile: “And maybe they \o7 have–\f7 whoever they are. . . . Not that I feel particularly persecuted, but they certainly know who I am.”

With a trace of Mississippi still in his voice, the 38-year-old Baggett–a former Peace Corps volunteer in West Africa (1973-74) and PBS’ creative director for national advertising and video promotion (1976-82)–speaks so softly that a listener strains to catch swallowed words that have a tendency to drop off the edge of his sentences.

The series, produced by KCET, looks at the nation’s intelligence apparatus from the vantage point of the “constant tension between secrecy and democracy,” the conflict between national security and the public’s right to know, on matters ranging from domestic surveillance to foreign assassination plots.

“So, where do I come down (between security and democracy)? I think the vast majority of these people are trying to do a very important function,” Baggett notes. “But it only takes a very few gung-ho types to threaten our entire constitutional process, and I’m scared to death of it. And I think the only way we’re ever going to remain as a democracy welded to truth is because we have strident congressional oversight. That’s why we begin and end the series with, ‘Who will watch the watchers?’ “

For Baggett, the idea for “Secret Intelligence” began on Sept. 1, 1983 after the shooting down of a Korean civilian airliner by a Soviet interceptor jet.

At that point, Baggett was an independent producer in Washington, working on “Spaceflight,” which became an award-winning, four-part series for PBS on the history of America’s space program. One of his sources for the series was a science attache at the Soviet Embassy.

“When the KAL airliner was shot down, I began getting calls from the FBI wanting to know what was the nature of my contact with the Soviet Union,” Baggett explained. “And I had two really contradictory reactions: Personally, I felt very threatened that my privacy had been invaded, and I was going about doing quite law-abiding work as a journalist. But secondly, I was happy our government was on top of things. . . . “

Yet later, a Freedom of Information Act request by Baggett showed no evidence of the FBI’s inquiry.

Having always been “particularly fascinated by American institutions, understanding them and how they evolve,” he got a small research grant from PBS. He said he wondered, “Can a series like this even be done? Will anyone talk about it? Is there enough information available? I found not only that it could be done, but that it was such an extraordinary story and that it had never been told before. . . . “

Not, at least, on TV.

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