This week, we find a group of well-meaning policy-wonk types trying to save the world through the teevee, with the unlikely help of my grandfather.
When first I saw the TV listing on the 17th, I assumed it was an early countdown program to the 1976 Presidential election. You know, the sort of show on which avuncular men in sensible suits would intone things like, “Rep. Morris Udall of Arizona represents the centrist wing of the Democratic Party.”
(Sure, March 1973 seemed awfully early to be looking ahead to the next Presidential race. But the mainstream media never cared much for Richard Nixon, so I figured they would put on a program about his successor just to piss him off.)
Instead, what we have here is something much more interesting — one of those earnest, Moog-toned Seventies civics experiments, with the hamstrung City of New York at its center.
“Choices for ’76” was actually a series of five hour-long TV programs produced by the Regional Plan Association, a New York-area citizen group, with a grant from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development. (Plus support from viewers like you.)
The “televised town meetings,” as they were styled, turned the spotlight on problems affecting America’s cities and detailed possible solutions. The March 17 show, first in the series, focused on housing. Others later in the series tackled issues like transportation and the environment. Stars like Ruby Dee and Eli Wallach hosted the episodes.
After each show, viewers were asked to send in ballots giving their opinions on questions related to each subject. The ballots were made available at banks, libraries and through some newspapers. Also, hundreds of thousands of surveys were mailed to people throughout the region.
The point of the series was threefold — to inform the regional public, to draw it into involvement in planning issues, and to obtain feedback that could be used as part of the planning process.
Was the “Choices for ’76” effort a success? Depends on who you ask.
The Regional Plan Association later reported that some 3 million people in the greater New York City area watched at least one of the programs. An average of 26,500 people submitted ballots after each of the programs — topping the 25,000 responses organizers had hoped for. The series was also honored with a regional Emmy Award.
Whether it made a real dent in the city’s problems is another question, and one I don’t have the answer to. I think the quality of life in most of New York City is better now than it was in 1973, but I have no idea whether that had anything to do, directly or indirectly, with “Choices for ’76.”
Did the show engage people outside the five boroughs with the city’s problems over the long term? I tend to doubt it, as I think people tend to focus on their own back yards after a certain amount of time.
I’m kinda surprised that my grandfather would have tuned in to this, in fact. I never knew him to be all that interested in civic planning. He was interested in how machines worked, but not societies. And, he had no particular attachment to New York City that I know of.
I kinda wonder if he didn’t tune in to this show expecting to hear about Morris Udall and the ’76 campaign.
(It is still a mystery to me, by the way, why the series was called “Choices for ’76.” The issues on offer were not specific to that year, and certainly weren’t going to be solved by then. Maybe it was an attempt to hook on to the slow-building interest in the Bicentennial, and to subliminally express the idea that America ought to be a better place by the time its 200th birthday came around.)
But, far be it from me to drench an earnest policy experiment — or my grandpa’s participation in it — in cynicism. It was worth trying; they tried it; and my grandfather was one of the millions tuning in.
I can only wonder what they might have accomplished with the Internet at their disposal.