How Necessary Is PBS?


TIME – Spectator Column – July 26, 1993

How Necessary Is PBS?

After 25 years, the mission seems muddled, the programs redundant

BECAUESE PUBLIC TELEVISION is blandly virtuous and soaks up smallish sums of tax money, almost no one but right-wing ideologues has ventured full-bore critiques. A 25th-anniversary report, put out last week by a task force of the usual Establishment suspects (Vartan Gregorian, Joe Califano, Tim Wirth and so on), provoked intriguing newspaper headlines (OVERHAUL PROPOSED, teased the Washington Post), but its reformist manifesto — the 351 local PBS stations should get less federal money, the central programming apparatus should get more — turned out to be tepid and intramural, a birthday wish list posing as tough-minded scrutiny. <

Understand: MacNeil/Lehrer is indeed splendid; Ken Burns should be funded in perpetuity; documentaries sympathetic to black homosexuals and skeptical of Republicans are just fine by me. I have raised money for the A.C.L.U., call myself a Unitarian and give dollar bills to almost every bum who asks; I have standing to question just how essential PBS is these days.

When public TV was launched, there were only the three networks. You could watch Gomer Pyle or Land of the Giants or Lawrence Welk. Public TV was singular, glorious, redemptive. Today, of course, there is a democratic hurly- burly glut of cable and home video. Imagine if Americans had been presented in 1968 with a referendum: either a single channel broadcasting a mix of news, documentaries, children’s shows and performance, or else a dozen intermittently worthy channels, two with nothing but news, two with nothing but congressional sessions, one with nothing but kids’ shows, several with music, two with nothing but science and nature programs, and so on. In other words, in a world of CNN, C-SPAN, A&E, the Discovery Channel, public TV begins to seem redundant. Charlie Rose, the 1990s’ Dick Cavett, conducts thoughtful interviews with members of the cultural elite every night on PBS. But with the actual Cavett doing the same thing on CNBC, Rose (who last week interviewed Sarah Jessica Parker) may not be America’s worthiest recipient of federal subsidies.

If other channels are putting on what was once available only on public TV, public TV is increasingly putting on pop crud. Why is it so civilizing to underwrite broadcasts of Wall Street Week, Cary Grant movies, John Bradshaw new age lectures, the powerfully annoying Barney — or Lawrence Welk reruns, which are now shown on 77% of PBS stations. Chief PBS programmer Jennifer Lawson says, disingenuously, that the Welk shows are legitimate as “an alternative to violence and gratuitous sex on commercial television.” Local stations find it’s those shows at the not-exactly-Susan-Sontag end of things that inspire subscribers to send in money. But isn’t that, to use a trope PBS devotees should appreciate, destroying the village in order to save it?

The familiar debate over the ideological tilt of PBS’s documentaries misses the real problem with such programming: just as conservatives loathe PBS shows that challenge their comfortable world view, the liberals responsible for PBS documentaries aren’t much interested in discovering truths that might jostle their notions of truth and injustice. Neither side really wants let-the-chips- fall-where-they-may TV. Edge, an irreverent PBS magazine show, was canceled last year after airing just eight programs, and PBS declined a $5 million grant to create unconventional 1992 election-year coverage. “Anything apart from the norm won’t be allowed,” says a senior public-affairs producer who recently left PBS. “They aren’t really interested in innovation.”

Devoted viewers also crave the reassurance of the status quo. It’s not just Rumpoles and films of elk that compel many PBS maniacs; rather, they like the sense of belonging to a tweedy club, of feeling urbane by virtue of the TV channel they watch. There are apparently fewer and fewer such people, however: between 1987 and 1992, public TV lost 22% of its prime-time audience, twice the decline of commercial networks.

The remaining unassailable argument for public TV is, as Lawson says, that “it’s free and universally available.” Not every American can afford entry to the zillion-channel cable nirvana. But if universal access is now the compelling problem — and it will only get more acute — why not address it directly by subsidizing cable TV for poor people, a means-tested “cable stamps” program. After all, public TV began as a Great Society scheme, and Sesame Street was intended to uplift ghetto children. The opera shortage, on the other hand, may no longer be a crisis deserving federal attention.