Time for Reruns

If it please the court, I’d like to argue a brief on behalf of The Advocates.

It’s a series whose time has come. Again.

The Advocates was a weekly public-TV presentation from 1969 through 1974 and was revived as a bi-weekly for most of 1978 and ’79. Co-produced by Boston’s WGBH and Los Angeles’ KCET, it came to be known as the “PBS Fight of the Week,” and while the pugilism was all verbal, serious blows were landed. More than one partisan hotshot left the arena with his or her ego bruised.

1979 – The Advocates In Brief – Should the Constitution require a balanced budget?

The Advocates was more illuminating than the so-called “debates” among Presidential contenders we see on television every four years. At its best, The Advocates was as much fun to watch as a courtroom sequence on Law & Order or Boston Legal.

As the recent telecasts involving Republican hopefuls underscore, televised debates are rarely more than opportunities for candidates to recite their respective talking points and bumper-sticker slogans. And the journalists whose questions they try to sidestep seldom challenge dubious statements or push for detail for fear they’ll look biased or mean to viewers who already mistrust them.

The Advocates’ format dispensed with the interlocutors and left the debaters nowhere to hide. It recast debate as mock trial, with an “attorney” for and against a question presenting expert witnesses to help make his or her case

The series attracted top-tier participants. For instance, when The Advocates put the Equal Rights Amendment on its docket, the lead counsel in favor of passage was Eleanor Smeal, then president of the National Organization of Women, while the opposition arguments were framed by Phyllis Schlafly, the formidable head of Stop ERA.

The Advocates never won an Emmy, perhaps because there was no category for it. It did win one of the University of Georgia’s George Foster Peabody Awards after its first season on what was then still the National Educational Television Network, forerunner of PBS. The Peabody board’s citation called it a “series of bold, invigorating debates of crucial issues” grounded in the producers’ belief “that in a courtroom atmosphere such controversial problems as abortion, smog versus the auto, the use of marijuana, or the danger of offshore drilling could be dramatized and reasonably, if hotly, discussed.”

Note that most of the hot-button issues the board mentioned have, if anything, gained a few degrees with the passing years. The format could be employed today to air out issues ranging from the credibility of global-warming science to the smartest way to deal with Iran’s nuclear pursuits. The Advocates could “try” the realities and misconceptions of the Affordable Health Care Act or even the overall success or failure of the current President’s administration.

Moreover, the potential for public participation in The Advocates is much greater now than it was when it last aired, more than 30 years ago. We’re well into the age of instant communication, live coverage of high-profile trials and non-stop punditry. If the American public can cast votes by phone by the millions for their favorite performers on American Idol and Dancing with the Stars, why not use the same phone system get an indication of how citizens views various issues and controversies before and after they’ve watched courtroom-style testimony and cross-examination? Who knows, maybe a portion of the revenue from the phone votes could be applied to election costs or federal deficit reduction?

So, in summation, somebody in the public television system or, if they’re lacking in funds or ambition,  somebody at a cable news network should consider reviving The Advocates. It was born in the late 1960s, a time of division, protest and upheaval in America. Watch video of New York police clearing Zuccotti Park and tell me a revival is not overdue.


1979 – The Advocates In Brief – Should we legalize marijuana?


1979 – The Advocates In Brief – Should the USA Support Palestinian Self-Determination?


1979 – The Advocates In Brief – Should America require compulsory national service?



Noel Holston

Noel Holston

Noel Holston, originally from Laurel, Miss., is a freelance journalist, songwriter, storyteller and actor who lives in Athens, Ga., with his wife, singer-songwriter Marty Winkler. In a previous life, he was the TV critic at Newsday in New York and, before that, a critic and feature writer for the Minneapolis Star Tribune and The Orlando Sentinel.

  1. Lee Leslie

    Of course, Noel, I was just a teenager when these shows aired, but I loved them. I loved the rationale thought and argument. I loved how patronizing statements, much of which, we now call spin, was not allowed. I loved that only really smart people – those very people who “read an lead” – won arguments. It would be a great time to bring it back. While I doubt many of your readers will stop to play the videos, I was dumbfounded by how topical they are today. “Should the Constitution require a balanced budget?” – the House voted on it again this week (yes, alert readers, that is Barney Frank arguing in the video. “Should we legalize marijuana?” – was it just two weeks ago that Obama and Company began knocking down doors of legal dispensaries in CA. “Should the USA Support Palestinian Self-Determination?” – has it really been 30 years since this show aired? And, “Should America require compulsory national service?” – I’m thinking that could be part of the answer to the school dropout epidemic and I know it would help millions of parents who worry that their children will never find work and do not have enough life-experience to survive this terribly complicated world we live in. Thank you for your post. Get to work on it.

    1. fascinating to see the ways the deficit can be said to cause whatever’s convenient at the time — back then, it was the 15 percent inflation rate. since inflation is at 3 percent now, the deficit is blamed for creating a high jobless rate. but at least in 1979, no one argued that the poor always suffer most when spending cuts without tax increases are suggested as the only cure; nor that the deepest pockets of wealthy individuals and corporations will always carry more weight in controlling the conversation. refreshing to see wit and historical perspective – and mutual respect for opposing viewpoints — in a debate about how government does, or should, behave. if people were required to have a modest historical literacy (which means learning about both sides of how we came to form the governmental type we have) before screaming their viewpoints from the rooftops (since volume tends to increase proportionally as quality of the thinking decreases), could we return some meaning to the phrase “political debate”?

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