PBS Hasn’t Kept Up
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
A Wake-Up Call for Public Broadcasting
The U.S. House of Representatives, in an act of retribution that is vicious, punitive and crass, voted to eliminate the modest funding provided to public broadcasting through the Corporation for Public Broadcasting (CPB).
The $430 million in federal funding for public broadcasting is somewhat less than the $500 million purportedly spent by the Pentagon on military bands. Like Henry VIII's dissolution of the monasteries, the House has ruled that everything must go.
The cut would be another thread pulled out of the tapestry of our national culture. Without public broadcasting, MSNBC and Fox will set the tone for a generation or more; Twitter will set our thought processes. Already dispassionate news is in retreat.
Fortunately, Republican leaders rewrote the House bill because they knew it would never sail in the Senate, where Democrats hold a majority. The cleansed version didn’t whack CPB funding but instead met the goals of deficit hawks by cutting other spending.
Let me state that I produce and host “White House Chronicle,” a Washington talk show that airs on a number of Public Broadcasting Service (PBS) stations. I offer my television show free of charge to all stations. I pay for the program's closed-captioning, and pay PBS to put it on its satellite.
The action of the House will, if anything, benefit independent producers such as myself, Dennis Wholey and Rick Steves. Our product, for which we find the funding, possibly could be more acceptable to the stations than expensive programming like “Frontline,” “Nova” and the Ken Burns' series.
But I must say that PBS programming, already burdened with reruns and resuscitated British comedies, will be the worse for it. Its promise, never fulfilled, will be dashed.
CPB is the creation of Congress for helping fund the Public Broadcasting Service and National Public Radio. NPR, a ratings behemoth, will survive better. It has a loyal following and has proven that there is a market for down-the-middle news programming.
PBS, unlike NPR, has no central programming function, but instead is a loose confederation of television stations that have different owners. Yet PBS does control the “voice” of PBS television. It does this through programs it supports and sends to the stations on what is called the “hard feed.” You know these as the aforementioned “Frontline” and “Nova,” but they also include “The NewsHour,” “Washington Week with Gwen Ifill,” “Charlie Rose,” “Consider This,” and the heirs to “Masterpiece Theater.”
These programs, unlike mine, are fed to the individual stations in a bundle for which the stations pay. They are produced by well-heeled stations like Boston's WGBH-TV, New York's WNET-TV and Washington's WETA-TV.
Some of these PBS programs have been around a long time — and they show it. Television is a cruel medium and it demands innovation, experimentation and retirement. In commercial television, life is short and death is brutal. Even the Sunday-morning programs go through dramatic iterations. Less so PBS programs.
But the more egregious failure of public broadcasting is there isn’t enough fun in it: There are no high-jinks. If “The Daily Show with Jon Stewart” had been offered free of charge to PBS, it probably wouldn't have made it to the coveted world of the hard feed, where tedium and quality are dreadfully mixed in the manager’s minds. I'd like to think my program's originating station, WHUT, and WETA, which carries my program on Sunday mornings, would've picked up something so revolutionary. But PBS itself? No.
In the 1950s, the most staid broadcast entity on earth was the BBC. I worked there as a news film scriptwriter. We could show pictures of blood, but not tell people what it was. Hard to believe, huh? But elsewhere in the corporation, things were moving: Brilliant young people were pouring out of Oxford and Cambridge and setting the Thames on fire with programs like “That Was the Week That Was” with David Frost and “Not Only … But Also” with the comedy team of Dudley Moore and Peter Cook. It was explosive, dramatic, exciting, uninhibited television. The best place to be in the evening was in front of your television set.
Maybe the brush with Congress will be good for the managers of PBS, and they'll lift up their skirts a bit, as the BBC – that old matron — did in the 1960s.
Public broadcasting can save itself, but not with “The Lawrence Welk Show” or that tired, old British show, “Are You Being Served?” – For the Hearst-New York Times Syndicate