Things are tough in the world of public television.
State budgets for local stations are being slashed or eliminated, as in Rhode Island where Gov. Lincoln D. Chafee has proposed to fund Channel 36 through Dec. 31 and then eliminate state funding.
Five states have eliminated funding and others have cut contributions.
In Washington the federal contribution, through the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, is under constant attack from Republicans who believe that PBS is biased and that it shouldn't receive any public money whatsoever.
Mitt Romney says no to federal money.
But a larger problem for PBS and its stations is one of mission.
When the service was created in 1970, the mission was apparent: Create quality programming that couldn't be found elsewhere. As PBS was cobbled together from a collection of educational stations, children's programming was always an important element and remains so; also books, cooking, political talk, business, interviews, documentaries, music and drama.
Over time, the television landscape has changed out of recognition.
Competing broadcasters, to say nothing of the Internet, have eroded the once solid franchises that were the backbone of PBS broadcasting.
Books have been largely ceded to C-SPAN and the ever-creative Brian Lamb. Cooking, far from the glory days when the only place you could find out how to make a roux was from Julia Child, is now the theme of two cable cooking channels that are creating new stars.
Political talk, which in its modern incarnation was born on PBS with "The McLaughlin Group" and "Firing Line," is now a staple of commercial television. Likewise, cable has pushed ahead of PBS in developing business (Remember "Wall Street Week"?), interview, history and arts channels. Other PBS innovations like "Motor Week" and "This Old House" are also under attack on cable.
Running down the list of what PBS does that no one else is doing brings one to the last franchise that PBS still dominates, and that might be called the "British bonanza." PBS has been mining effectively the output of both the BBC and the commercial British television channels with great effect since the days of "Upstairs Downstairs" (commercial in Britain).
Today, in its struggle for audience, another British import, "Downton Abbey," is the brightest star in PBS's dimming firmament.
If PBS is to again command the community loyalty it once enjoyed, if it is to answer its political foes, if it is to be a decisive force in television and perhaps on the Web, it needs to stop whining about money – now part of its demeanor – and to ask itself, "Is it new?" Is it bringing in and developing young talent? Is it doing something, anything, that will be imitated around the world? Is it creating programs that will bring in dollars in syndication and entice sponsors to be associated with the excitement?
In the 1960s the BBC, which had become a national treasure during World War II, had lost its way. Commercial television was eroding its audience and pirate broadcasters were attacking its radio franchise. The BBC got off the couch and joined the creative fray, especially the satirical revolution. Bam! It was back.
Of course, the BBC with its private tax, called a licensing fee, had a lot of money to spend. But it wasn't money that saved the BBC from ignoble decline – it was unleashing creative forces in post-Empire Britain.
Particularly, the BBC encouraged young writers and producers. It worked.
PBS should think of itself as an incubator, not as a roost for the old, the tired and the timid. Had PBS, or rather one of its bigger stations, been offered "The Daily Show" or its stable mate "The Colbert Report," it's hard to imagine that they would've been welcomed.
Yes, PBS, those retread English comedies and Lawrence Welk won't cut it going forward. –For the Hearst-New York Times syndicate