“Town Meetings by Television:" Regional Plan Association’s “CHOICES for ’76”
By Kristian Taketomo
Between Saturday, March 17 and Monday, March 19, 1973, every major television station in the New York urban region — from Hartford, Connecticut to Trenton, New Jersey — broadcast a one-hour, documentary-style program on housing in the tri-state region of New York, New Jersey, and Connecticut. “Housing — A Place to Live,” which aired at different times on eighteen channels, was the first of six “television town meetings” produced by Regional Plan Association, metropolitan New York’s private, citizen-led planning agency. Four other programs on transportation, the environment, poverty and urban growth followed the first, airing every other week. The sixth episode, on government, was slated for autumn.
Regional Plan’s documentaries were part of $1.5 million project called “CHOICES for ’76,” a public participation campaign designed to collect “informed public opinion” around “gut issues” in the tri-state area’s thirty-one counties. A $300,000 grant from the Department of Housing and Urban Development along with contributions from 21 foundations and 69 corporations financed the program. Area residents were to watch the CHOICES episodes in small groups of eight to ten people organized and hosted by leaders in institutions like churches, unions, women’s groups, schools, and more. Each television town meeting was structured around a series of “choices” which attendees would react to in surveys distributed by the meeting host. Meeting hosts would then mail these “ballots” — which were also printed in local and regional newspapers as well as publicly available at schools and over 700 libraries and bank branches — to pollster George Gallup, Jr. for processing and analysis.
The “Second Regional Plan” stressed the need to better produce, distribute, collect, and analyze public participation data. To accomplish this goal, CHOICES utilized two technologies: the television and the computer. Regional Plan believed that television was the most effective — and, perhaps, only — way to communicate with a population as large, diverse, and scattered as that of the New York metropolitan area. Television also offered an opportunity for two-way communication since the agency planned to respond to viewers’ “choices” as survey data became available. Moreover, with Regional Plan hoping to receive hundreds of thousands of completed surveys, computers would be essential to process and analyze the volume of data elicited from the audience.
The CHOICES campaign was the agency’s answer to an urban region in distress. Regional Plan acknowledged that postwar planning had gone off the rails. Policies underwriting downtown renewal and incentivizing sprawl had pit urbanites against suburbanites, white people against people of color, and experts against laypeople. As planners, they faced both the so-called “urban crisis” and also, by the early 1970s, a public relations crisis for the profession itself. Regional Plan endeavored to respond to these popular frustrations by giving people a voice… but only after the people had been “informed” by the CHOICES documentaries. Emphasizing reason over emotion and discussion over debate, Regional Plan set out to rehabilitate public engagement in urban and regional planning while still setting the tone and the topics of conversation.
For historians, CHOICES for ’76 is significant not only as a source of popular opinion data about tax, zoning, and development policies in the New York urban region in the early 1970s, but also as a window into planners’ perceptions of the public mood, their commitment to regional community, and their faith in new telecommunications and information technology.
GOALS for the Region
By 1973, Regional Plan Association had been a presence in the New York urban region for nearly half a century. The agency traced its beginnings to 1922, when the Committee on the Regional Plan, a group of civic and business leaders in the New York metropolitan area announced their intention to draw up a 40-year regional plan. Between 1928 and 1931, the Committee published ten “survey volumes” and two “plan volumes.” New Deal relief programs helped the budding organization grow in influence and realize more than half of the “First Regional Plan’s” 470 proposals during the 1930s. After a decade of relative impotence in the 1940s, in the 1950s Regional Plan leveraged renewed interest in regional planning to regain its clout and to reestablish itself as the thought leader for the postwar region.
In the late 1950s, the agency pinpointed large-lot zoning, industry’s mass urban exodus, and demographic “scatteration” as trends that could result in an ugly, inefficient growth pattern they dubbed “Spread City.” They advocated for clustered economic development in regional centers, a program that would both nurture “new towns” and rehabilitate older downtowns. This “Second Regional Plan” included an experimental public participation component called “GOALS for the Region” in spring of 1963. The project revolved around five agency-produced television programs on regional growth. Regional Plan recruited participants to watch these informational programs in small discussion groups and, afterwards, as individuals, respond to a series of questions in short, topical surveys.
Between the 1963 GOALS campaign and the 1973 CHOICES campaign, public opinion soured around on urban planning and on cities themselves. In 1972, Regional Plan decided to again mobilize television to boost support for a slate of developmental policies. The scale of CHOICES, however, was bigger than GOALS. Whereas the 30-minute-long GOALS documentaries were broadcast once on a single channel, the hour-long CHOICES programs would air at multiple times on multiple channels. During GOALS, Regional Plan simply mailed participants brochures on weekly topics. For CHOICES, Regional Plan circulated background papers and published articles, editorials, and ballots in in area newspapers. The agency even printed 100,000 copies of a companion book, How to Save Urban America, edited by the Pulitzer-Prize-winning journalist William Caldwell, 20,000 of which would be sent to “every social studies teacher between New Haven and Trenton.”
CHOICES’s ambitious scale responded to GOALS’s failure to achieve a regionally representative survey sample. GOALS “group chairmen,” predecessors to CHOICES “meeting hosts,” personally recruited their viewing group. And, since chairmen were largely white, middle-class, college-educated, suburban-dwellers, so too were the vast majority of individuals sampled. For CHOICES, Regional Plan planned to devote serious attention and resources to attracting people of different people of varying races and ethnicities, class brackets, and educational levels into the program as consultants, organizers, and participants. To reach greater numbers of blacks and Puerto Ricans, Regional Plan organized a Committee on Minority Affairs and planned to broadcast all six documentaries in both English and Spanish.
Beyond differences in scale and scope, one fundamental departure from the earlier campaign was the nature of the questions posed on CHOICES response forms. GOALS questions primarily concerned respondents’ personal preferences. How satisfied were respondents with their living conditions? What kinds of housing was most desirable? How important was “neighborliness” in choosing a place to live? CHOICES questions, on the other hand, struck a more propositional tone. Whereas GOALS asked respondents to evaluate their prejudices and inclinations, CHOICES would have them to react to specific policy measures. GOALS surveyed feelings, while CHOICES would audition solutions. Moreover, perhaps more importantly, CHOICES would measure Regional Plan’s communicative efficacy as well as the public’s willingness and capacity for regionally holistic thinking.
20th Century Town Meetings
The CHOICES campaign strove to foster a popular sense of regional community. Regional Plan hoped to instill an image of the New York region as a single system. Campaign materials explained how every decision — whether large or small — reverberated across the tri-state area. “No one lives in a Region,” said the narrator of “Housing — A Place to Live.” “People live in a city or a town or a suburb. They don’t live in a Region until they begin to see what happens in the city affects the town. What happens in the town affects the suburb; and suburbs, like ungrateful children, often strangle the cities that bore them.” The programs named shortsightedness and localism as enemies of regional well-being. Parochialism was toxic no matter the territory, and CHOICES maligned militant urbanites and exclusionary suburbanites in equal measure.
Internal discussion about the campaign’s official title reflected this concern with empathy and respectful dialogue. Some of the initial advertising mock-ups used the alternate campaign name, “Gut Issues.” While McManus agreed that CHOICES materials should “communicate first with the gut, and then the heart and mind,” he maintained that the project should remain branded “CHOICES for ’76.” In a letter to agency leadership, he wrote:
The image of [Gut Issues] is tawdry, overly emotional, and misleading. We aren’t going to have people shouting at each other in the series. This isn’t going to be another 7 p.m. news program where the issues are reduced to 30 second simplicities, or people taking pot shots at one another. What we are doing is offering basic CHOICES on where our urban society should be headed. That’s a whole of a lot more important. We are presenting possible solutions for urban programs. We are presenting some hope not fear…We are not presenting overly emotional statements for one point of view…but a balanced presentation of pros and cons — CHOICES.
McManus felt that the campaign should defuse feelings of disaffection and resentment among members of the public. “If this marriage between the historic New England Town Meeting, television and the computer could be expanded to involve more people everywhere in the country,” he said, “the climate of the country could be changed from frustration and despair to hope and willingness to work together on the solution of common problems.” TV Guide made similar remarks about the social potential of the campaign. “Choices for ’76… is not just a documentary, or even a series of documentaries, but an audacious democratic experiment; it is TV asking grave social questions, and viewers being asked to say where they stand.”
Not only were television and the computer vital to the logistics of the CHOICES campaign, they reflected Regional Plan’s commitment to the idea that telecommunications and information technologies could revolutionize not just planning but democracy itself. Sociologist Thomas Streeter explains the emergence of this utopian belief in the positive potential of television between the late 1960s and the early 1970s. Streeter argues that for a coalition of liberal elites, cable operators, and regulatory economists, television seemed to have had “the potential to rehumanize a dehumanized society, to eliminate the existing bureaucratic restrictions of government regulation common to the industrial world, and to empower the currently powerless public.” The late 1960s were marked by significant changes in television production in New York City. In 1966, Mayor John V. Lindsey reformed the New York’s film production process. Now, producers could film on City-owned sites with a single permit. As a result, there was a twofold increase in film production in New York City during 1966 over 1965. In 1967, Lindsey created the Advisory Task Force on CATV and Telecommunications to review ways in which New York’s three cable service providers might better serve the public. The committee recommended that cable franchises operate two public access channels.TelePrompTer, one of three CATV operators in the city, called the addition of two new public access channels on July 1, 1971 “the beginning of a new chapter in the history of democracy.” CHOICES for ’76 was a product of this cultural milieu.
CHOICES for ’76, then, was not only a test of the regional public’s willingness to work together, but also of collaborative potential within the telecommunications industry. In that sense, CHOICES for ’76 was a major success. Though one ABC executive told McManus, “You’re smoking opium if you think you’ll ever convince the stations to cooperate,” he was able to coax free airtime from all regional networks. “We went from one station to another,” McManus explained, “and when you got right down to it, the guy would say, ‘Well, I think it’s a good idea, but these other stations are never going to agree.’ And I’d say, ‘But you’d agree if I could get the others, right? Ultimately, they would and they did.” CHOICES seemed to have proven that television could be mobilized as an educational organizing tool at the regional scale — The same could not be said for print media. Consulting firm Participation Systems Incorporated, which reviewed the project, blasted area newspapers for their “one-way media mind-set” for their reluctance to cooperate with RPA Newspapers.
During the GOALS campaign, Regional Plan had to contend with characterizations of their television programs as “one-sided,” “brainwashing,” even “propaganda.” While more positive attitudes about informational television prevailed during CHOICES in the 1970s, certainly Regional Plan’s principal concern was the continued growth of the New York urban region. Regional Plan hoped that CHOICES’s appearance of transparency and receptivity might temper popular frustration with planning and thereby facilitate the agency’s policy goals. However, Regional Plan’s team of experts did earnestly believe in the revolutionary social and political potential of telecommunications and information technologies, as well as the transformative power of a regional identity. To Regional Plan, these seemingly oppositional beliefs — in the importance of centralized, business-friendly planning apparatus and in the need to engage with the public — were not at odds. To them, both haphazard sprawl and the overwhelming perception of “urban crisis” on the part of the public threatened business interests, everyday people, and the very future of the region.
Kristian Taketomo is a doctoral candidate in the History Department at the University of Pennsylvania.
 Regional Plan Association, “News Release: No. 1173” (February 14, 1973) and “News Release: Facts about CHOICES for ’76” (March 12, 1973), Box 156, Press Release Files, Regional Plan Association records, #2688, Division of Rare and Manuscript Collections, Cornell University Library (CRMC).
 For an in-depth, historical overview of Regional Plan from its inception to 1965, see Forbes B. Hays, Community Leadership: The Regional Plan Association of New York (New York, NY: Columbia University Press, 1965).
 Regional Plan Association, Spread City: Projections of Development Trends and the Issues They Pose: The Tri-State New York Metropolitan Region 1960-85(New York, NY: Regional Plan Association, Inc., 1962).
 Participation Systems Incorporated, “Formative Evaluation of Citizen Involvement in CHOICES FOR ’76” (May 20, 1973), 38, Box 152, Post-CHOICES Reflections, Regional Plan Association records, #2688, CRMC.
 “Introduction to the First TV Town Meeting,” (1973), 1-2. Box 153, 1973, Regional Plan Association records, #2688, CRMC.
 Michael McManus to William Shore and Sheldon Pollack, “Ogilvy & Mather’s Ad Campaign: Gut Issues vs. Choices” (December 18, 1972). Box 153, Advertising, Regional Plan Association records, #2688, CRMC.
 Michael McManus qtd. In Wolf Von Eckardt, “Town Meetings by Television,” Washington Post (January 19, 1974). Box 152, News Montages, Regional Plan Association records, #2688, CRMC.
 Ross Drake, “Where Do We Go From Here?” TV Guide (March 17, 1973), 20. Box 152, No Folder, Regional Plan Association records, #2688, CRMC.
 Thomas Streeter, “The Cable Fable Revisited: Discourse, Policy, and the Making of Cable Television,” Critical Studies in Mass Communication 4 (1987), 181.
 City of New York, “MOME Office History,” Accessed August 15, 2018. https://www1.nyc.gov/site/mome/about/office-history.page.
 Ralph Engelman, The Origins of Public Access Cable Television, 1966-1972(Columbia, SC: Associations for Education in Journalism and Mass Communication, 1990); Megan Muller, The Rise of Cable Programming in the United States: Revolution or Evolution (Austin, TX: University of Texas Press, 2003).
 TelePrompTer Letter (July 14, 1971). Box 156, Publicity: TV Station Contacts, Regional Plan Association records, #2688, CRMC.
 Ross Drake, “Where Do We Go From Here?” TV Guide (March 17, 1973), 22. Box 152, No Folder, Regional Plan Association records, #2688, CRMC.
 Participation Systems Incorporated, “Formative Evaluation of Citizen Involvement in CHOICES FOR ’76” (May 20, 1973), 34-35. Box 152, Post-CHOICES Reflections, Ideas, Regional Plan Association records, #2688, CRMC.
 Regional Plan Association, Public Participation in Regional Planning: A Report of the Second Regional Plan (New York: Regional Plan Association, 1967), 28.
 See Regional Plan Association, The Spreading Metropolis: A Burden to Business? A Report of 52 Business Executives on the Development of the New York Metropolitan Region, (New York, NY: Regional Plan Association, Inc., 1962).