TV Programs: PBS

You're (Not) Watching PBS

Public broadcasting wasn't always a political issue. Well, it was once only a mildly political issue. When the first college instructional stations signed on in the mid-Fifties, there was still widespread, bipartisan belief that TV could bring the very best teachers into every classroom within reach of an antenna. The US armed forces, faced with the Cold War job of instructing hundreds of thousands of recruits about the new mysteries of electronics and atomic energy, worked hand in hand with universities and the corporate world to explore the possibilities of mass teaching through television. This was true on the other side of the Iron Curtain as well.

Your local college TV station was probably started by a professor of electrical engineering who learned his stuff in the Army. It might have been built from donations of Raytheon, General Electric, and Texas Instruments parts. Those were the earliest, most naive days of educational TV. If you watched old Doc Jensen talk about Egyptian mummies and pyramids every morning at 7:45 and passed a test, you could get college credit.

As the Fifties rolled over into the Sixties, the shiny new Ford Foundation made grants for video recorders at $50,000 apiece so school and community stations could exchange and copy each others' tapes. That, at first, was all the “network” was: a central shipping office in the Midwest that handled tapes and 16mm films. Plain, boring old educational TV became National Educational Television, with a step up in its ambitions. More and more, these stations used the NET contraction, to subtly suggest that it was a network, just like the bigger, better known channels, and also to begin distancing themselves from their modest, limited roots in instructional media. They had more than mere education in mind.

From the outset, NET liked to pose as the intelligent alternative to commercial TV, the sole inheritor of the television crown of brains, and 60-plus years later, its successor PBS still does. Giving it more of the trappings of ABC, CBS or NBC was supposed to raise its profile and its audiences.

By the mid-Sixties, public broadcasters had spent years of wining and dining to convince congressional staffers to tell their bosses that NET deserved money to convert to color television and have the same kind of coast-to-coast live capability that the three major commercial networks had. That was called “Interconnection”, and at the time it was treated as an obvious if not self-evident token of fairness; not between left and right, but between metropolitan and rural. Conservatives back then were broadly in favor of extending the reach of educational stations in their own communities.

Lyndon Johnson's administration worked with other Democrats to form new agencies to support independent public radio and television stations. The Corporation for Public Broadcasting was established as the parent organization, the “bank”. It funds research and engineering projects, but is best known for its funding of TV's Public Broadcasting System and radio's National Public Radio. Separate from this support of network programming for TV and radio, the CPB also gives grants directly to the stations themselves to fund transmitters as well as the recent (2009) changeover to digital television.

Political activists of the left were never satisfied by NET's relatively bland, consensus-driven history and educational programs. They didn't care about white professors lecturing about the solar system. They wanted Angela Davis and Bill Ayres. “NET Journal” was a left voice for civil rights, so not every station carried it—another strike against NET. It allowed choice! Well, to hell with that. The hilariously one-sided “Great American Dream Machine” was criticized in Congress and attracted as much heat as support. The new, more centrally organized PBS looked like a more pliable, politically weaponizable vehicle, and so it proved to be. But it didn't happen nearly as quickly as its most impatient hijackers wished.

In the mid-Seventies, moderates and cultural conservatives struck back with a most effective weapon: money. Herb Schmertz of Mobil Oil became the indispensable Santa Claus of public television, often flying to London and personally selecting the programs that would air in America the following year. To the teeth-gnashing annoyance of the more woke crowd of PBS's early wave of left politics, the new face of PBS was generally a polite, beautifully costumed British series set in the 19th century. No one was talking anymore about public broadcasting providing a live feed from ghetto councils. Thanks to Schmertz's demands, for the first time PBS sponsors would be recognized and thanked by name, (“This episode of Ricochet Silent Radio is made possible by a generous gift of the Rhody family”) although in a far more restrained way than on commercial TV.

PBS had the fields of documentaries, American history, and public issue panel discussions almost to itself for its first 20 years, with occasional hits like “Eyes on the Prize”, and was still relevant enough to make Ken Burns' The Civil War a national television event in 1990. But that was, in many ways, their last hurrah, twenty-eight years ago. The kinds of cultural programming that people associate with the BBC was increasingly being done by cable, not PBS. This trend would accelerate.

PBS tried to fight back by trying to get sympathetic TV critics to call their new competition “copycat programmers”, as if PBS invented documentaries. They rolled out ad campaigns like “If Not PBS, Who?” The answer was, the Discovery, Learning, History, and Science Channels; A&E; Bravo; Logo; Black Entertainment Television and literally hundreds of others. If you didn't get your news from PBS, you could get it from Fox, CNN, or MSNBC; if you didn't get historical drama from PBS, you got it from HBO, Showtime, and Sundance.

Their craftier, more successful radio cousins at NPR made it into a strong brand name, the Disney or IBM of mainstream liberalism. The right got the AM talkers; the left got the FM talkers. Morning and afternoon drive-time news radio and commentary for liberals became a branch of public broadcasting so popular it can license its name to companies making non-related products aimed at the same buying crowd. This level of marketing is something usually reserved to names like Harley-Davidson, Jack Daniels, or Ruger. Conservatives who generally abide by the free market should own up and admit that the libs created something profitable. Strictly from a commercial branding point of view, at this point PBS should consider repackaging itself as NPR Video, a streaming service affiliated with a much more successful public media enterprise.

Even a pittance of public money, especially federal money, is important to their self-image and ego. “America's forum for new voices, new visions” is an empty claim, but at least Uncle Sam's dough, even if it only covers 5% of the budget, gives PBS a threadbare excuse to represent the nation. This is one reason why it was always an elusive target for GOP budget cutters; it wasn't possible to do more than symbolic harm to the system. The national network and the local stations have no co-ownership; neither can force the other to do anything. At most, Congress could go after the direct support that stations get, not PBS itself, but there's not much appetite to shut down the TV at Cottonwood Junior Community College.

So, conservatives never overthrew public broadcasting. NPR thrives. But PBS withered away. Oh, it still exists, and when a piece of luck like “Downton Abbey” comes its way, it can puff itself back one twentieth the audience, and influence, it had a quarter century ago. PBS is now little more than America's Official TV Network of White Guilt. To be fair, it also features Benny Goodman at pledge drive, Jewish guys in major league baseball history, and British drama, for which I thank them.

Go ahead, oppose them. Just don't feed their delusions of grandeur. Public broadcasting was born in a 1950s world of limited information, limited bandwidth, and narrow choices. It dreamed of a world where you could be in Tupelo, Utica or Provo and still be able to see “Macbeth” on TV. In that world it had a real purpose. Today, you could be in Tupelo's outer fringes and see virtually any version of Shakespeare ever filmed, on your phone, at any time of the day or night. PBS struggles with that new world. Wouldn't it be wiser for them to declare victory over cultural deprivation, mission accomplished!—and then fold their tents forever?