Arthur Singer Jr., Who Set the Stage for Public TV, Dies at 90

Arthur L. Singer Jr., who became an unheralded father of public television in the late 1960s after commercial networks were famously accused of broadcasting a “vast wasteland” of programs, died on Wednesday at his home in Westport, Conn. He was 90.

His death was confirmed by his son Charles.

In the formative years of government- and subscriber-funded public television and radio, Mr. Singer was said to have been instrumental in galvanizing federal officials, philanthropies and academics to seed the public airwaves with quality programming and to finance future development.

His efforts came in the wake of a speech in 1961 by Newton N. Minow, the newly named Federal Communications Commission chairman, to a roomful of 2,000 television executives in Washington, in which he dismissed their product as a “vast wasteland.”

In a typical day of broadcasting, Mr. Minow said, “You will see a procession of game shows, violence, audience participation shows, formula comedies about totally unbelievable families, blood and thunder, mayhem, violence, sadism, murder, Western bad men, Western good men, private eyes, gangsters, more violence and cartoons. And endlessly, commercials — many screaming, cajoling and offending. And most of all, boredom.”

According to Steven Schindler, writing in “Casebook for the Foundation: A Great American Secret” (2007), it was Mr. Singer, as executive assistant at the Carnegie Corporation of New York, who persuaded its president, John W. Gardner, in 1965 to create a commission that, with the endorsement of the White House, would study the future of educational television.

As Mr. Singer recounted it, David Ives, a friend who was working at WGBH-TV in Boston, called him in 1964 to ask his advice about whether a commission on the financing of public television should be named by the White House.

“I suggested a private commission with the president’s blessing,” Mr. Singer recalled in a brief memoir. “and that the scope be broadened to include the nature of educational television, not just its financing. At that moment, stimulated by Ives’s call, the Carnegie Commission was born.”

The 15-member Carnegie Commission on Educational Television would produce a report, “Public Television: A Program for Action,” that laid the groundwork for the Public Broadcasting Act, which President Lyndon B. Johnson signed into law in 1967, setting up the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, which would seed the formation of PBS and NPR and an infusion of high-quality programming.

The columnist James Reston of The New York Times wrote that the Carnegie report was “one of those quiet events that, in the perspective of a generation or more, may be recognized as one of the transforming occasions in American life.”

As Carnegie’s liaison to the commission, Mr. Singer recruited the staff, including his former colleague Stephen White as its director (and later principal author of the report), and concurred in the appointment of James R. Killian Jr., the chairman of the corporation of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, as the commission’s chairman.

“In addition to establishing the infrastructure for public broadcasting,” Mr. Schindler wrote in the analysis for Duke University’s Center for Strategic Philanthropy and Civil Society, “the commission laid the groundwork for connecting the American public to informative, entertaining and enlightening television and radio programming.”

In an interview with the Columbia Center for Oral History in 1971, Mr. Singer said of the commission, “If there was any one thing at the foundation that I enjoyed most and took the greatest pride in its outcome, that’s it.”

Mr. Singer left the Carnegie Corporation in 1969 to become a vice president of the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation, where he helped initiate two popular public television programs, “Nova” and “The American Experience.” The foundation also financed popular science books, among them “The Making of the Atomic Bomb” (1986), a Pulitzer Prize-winning narrative by Richard Rhodes.

“He pointed out that since we gave people money for a living, we were mostly bearers of good news and we should feel good and make others feel good about the work we did together,” Doron Weber, vice president for programs at the Sloan Foundation, said by email. “Having a good time was one indicator that we were doing our job.”

Arthur Louis Singer Jr. was born on Feb. 14, 1929, in Scranton, Pa., as his parents were on their way to their new home in New Jersey. His father was in the textile business. His mother, Isabel (Corcoran) Singer, was a homemaker.

After graduating from Williams College in Massachusetts in 1950 with a bachelor’s degree in economics and earning a master’s in business administration at the University of Michigan, he served in the Navy in the Mediterranean.

Mr. Singer was a dean at M.I.T., where he helped establish the university press and organized the first meeting in the United States between American and Soviet experts of what became known as the Pugwash Conferences on Science and World Affairs, named for the town in Nova Scotia where they were held.

In addition to his son Charles, he is survived by two other sons, Arthur and Philip; his wife, Joan (Cristal) Singer; and two granddaughters.

Jonathan F. Fanton, a former president of the New School, the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation and the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, described Mr. Singer as his most important mentor.

“I learned a lot from him,” Mr. Fanton said in an email: “Pick good people, give them room to grow, take responsible risks, look over the horizon for issues not identified or fully understood.”

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