Green Room

Psst: PBS isn’t really as good as commercial television. Why do we subsidize it?

posted at 5:25 pm on October 8, 2012 by

Sunday night, I enjoyed watching some historical soap operas. First up was Call the Midwife, the story of young nurse-midwives in the East End of London during the postwar years. It served up satisfying moments of drama and poignancy that reminded me of the youthful-innocent-confronts-real-world stories I enjoyed in my youth—books like Catherine Marshall’s Christie (if you have girls in your family, buy them a copy now!).

Then it was on to a guilty pleasure, Upstairs, Downstairs, the first episode of the new season of this old chestnut, a story of the servants and masters of 165 Eaton Place, a London townhome. The latest version is set on the eve of World War II, and although it features some stodgy storytelling and limited sets and casts (crowd scenes are always shot close-in, probably to conceal the low numbers of extras), I can’t resist.  Both shows appear on PBS.

Compared to other dramatic series I’ve followed in the past few years, though, I would have to rank these two offerings well below ones such as HBO’s Rome, AMC’s Mad Men, HBO’s medieval fantasy Game of Thrones, and even A&E’s late 1990s Horatio Hornblower series in depth of storytelling, acting, and overall design.

And therein lies a dirty little secret: commercial television has been outpacing PBS in quality dramatic offerings for a long time.

It’s an illusion that the public network sits at the head of the artistic kingdom. In fact, they only occupied that spot for a very brief moment. If you review Emmy winners for dramatic series over the past 50 years, PBS only won four, all in the 1970s, for programs such as the old Upstairs, Downstairs, (three wins) and Elizabeth R. They were nominated for other shows during that decade—the Forsyte Saga, the Six Wives of Henry VIII, the First Churchills—but those nominations faded in the following decades as broadcast networks and then cable channels began offering more intriguing fare. PBS’s British import Downton Abbey broke a long dry spell for the network, managing to snag a best dramatic series nomination but not a win this year. (The network picked up many other nominations but in acting, editing, writing and other categories.)

This might come as a surprise to many people, especially baby boomers, who tend to think of PBS as the standout in artsy, and occasionally artistic, serious dramatic presentations.

Public broadcasting has lost its grip on the claim to singular documentary excellence, as well. Ken Burns’s Civil War series was a masterpiece, but his subsequent entries haven’t been nearly as interesting. I remember watching the one on jazz and thinking to myself: how many times am I going to hear that so-and-so was the greatest jazz trumpeter/singer/pianist/sax player ever? When will someone explain that jazz, like most popular music, relies on a very simple chord progression used over and over?

Burns’s take on America and World War II? Not nearly as compelling to this viewer as the History Channel’s World War II in HD, which offered similar first-person testimonials but paired them with never-before-seen footage and without the not-so-subtle subtext on race and class in Burns’s presentation. The History Channel also re-aired HBO’s excellent adaptation of Stephen Ambrose’s Band of Brothers. In fact, History, Discovery, and even the Weather Channel offer documentary programming that, while not always rising to the production values of some PBS offerings, presents scientific and historical information in attractive ways.

As to the various “great performances” PBS offers, opera from the Met is now available in movie theaters. What about Antiques Roadshow? History offers Pawn Stars and American Pickers. How about America’s Test Kitchen? Food Network offers…everything.

As for news programming, the question for conservatives always has been: why should you be allowed to use power (tax dollars) to retain power? PBS news programming skews left. PBS has brought us Bill Moyers and Charlie Rose, after all, and the smugly titled Need to Know—just look at its web page to get a taste of the viewpoint. Public dollars advance these viewpoints. No liberal would tolerate public funding going to a Charles Krauthammer or Bill O’Reilly program.

Children’s programming, of course, shines on PBS. But its Sesame Street is so successful it’s hard to imagine it not finding itself at the center of a bidding war should it be offered to commercial networks.

Speaking of commercial, the two programs mentioned at the outset of this post played without commercial interruptions, but at the end of Midwife, I sat through a parade of sponsor announcements that only the most sycophantic PBS courtier would claim were not advertisements. There was a spot about upcoming events at a college in the region, one on Viking River Cruises and even a tastefully fashionable few moments from Ralph Lauren.

Most of these sponsors avoid crossing the line into commercial advertisements by simply composing their messages in third-person (Viking Cruises are great) rather than second (You know ya wanna…go on a Viking Cruise). While sponsors can use web addresses and other enticements, they usually can’t promote a specific price or a “call to action” (the buy-me message).

When Exxon Mobile underwrote PBS’s Masterpiece Theater years ago, CBS reported the sponsorship cost around “$7 to 8 million annually.” That’s roughly the cost of two or three Superbowl ads. The difference is the Superbowl ad money would have been taxable once added to the network’s revenue stream.

The left has gleefully latched on to the “Romney Wants to Kill Big Bird” meme to denounce Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney’s announcement that PBS would be on the chopping block as he looked for ways to cut spending.

But Romney and conservatives don’t want to kill Big Bird. They want him to be the goose that lays the golden tax-generating egg. He’s a “one percenter,” if you look at all the merchandising revenue he and Sesame Street generate. Why shouldn’t he pay his fair share, to use the president’s terminology?

Why shouldn’t all the PBS-generated advertising sponsorship revenue be considered taxable income?

PBS used to be a big fish in a small pond. Now, the pond is an ocean, and there are bigger, brighter, more beautiful marine animals with it in the pool. It’s time to get rid of the myth that PBS is the model for artistic and documentary programming. It’s time to stop its tax subsidies. And maybe, at some point, it will even be time to suggest it swim with the commercial big boys, producing tax revenue instead of living off it.

Libby Sternberg is a novelist.

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Downton Abbey is pretty stupid though I still watch it. (Cue the dog’s butt!)

I generally watch popular shows aired in the UK. When PBS buys them, they shave off time from them, so you are not seeing the entire program.

A problem with most foreign programs is that they are too PC. There’s always a lesson that must be taught or a token character. US cable programming is much superior.

Blake on October 8, 2012 at 5:37 PM

You’re destroying the narrative here Libby. What about the children!?!?!?
Seriously I love PBS, watch it often, and the sooner they get their greedy, arrogant, elitist, liberalmarxists hands out of my pockets the better!
I know and look over the liberal schlock! So many know no better. When Charlie Rose leans over his little table to his guests and says with gentle quiver, “Obama, he’s so…. wonderfull. How do we get…’them’ to understand that?” I know he’s a brazen *ss clown and they’re stealing from me to perpetuate an alinsky ideology I whole heartedly oppose!
Now that is for the sake of the children.

onomo on October 8, 2012 at 5:44 PM

Who exactly is the “Public” in PBS?

What about the HALF of the country who are Republicans or Conservatives? Are we included in the “Public” that have a voice on PBS?

NO.

PBS has overt animus for folks like us. Every week, folks like Smiley, Moyer, Ifill and shows like Frontline, Independent Lens etc., showcase and present arguments and forward the cause of Progressive, liberal America.

Conservatives and Republicans not only are not represented or given a voice on PBS, they are shown disdain and mocked weekly.

But OUR taxes as well fund this one-sided operation.

It is THE example of “taxation without representation”.

Opposite Day on October 8, 2012 at 5:47 PM

Now, the pond is an ocean, and there are bigger, brighter, more beautiful marine animals with it in the pool.

Libby,
The pond is an ocean, and it’s in the pool? The subject of this sentence is confusing. Please clarify! You don’t want to find yourself quoted in a James Taranto column!

Marcola on October 8, 2012 at 6:08 PM

Big Bird is a felon.

I have it on good authority from a former Sesame street colleague of Big Bird that I won’t name, that Big Bird hasn’t paid any income taxes in the last 30 years.

parke on October 8, 2012 at 6:26 PM

Who exactly is the “Public” in PBS?

Opposite Day on October 8, 2012 at 5:47 PM

My local PBS affiliate (WTTW Chicago – Channel 11) tells me that the “Public” is actually “Viewers Like You!”

I like Downton Abbey. That’s the most I’ve enjoyed Masterpiece Theater since I, Claudius.

I’ll also sometimes watch This Old House and The McLaughlin Group, although I’m increasingly convinced that John McLaughlin has gone senile.

WTTW also has this helpful little program called “Check, Please!” which does weekly restaurant reviews. I’ve had more than a few good meals thanks to that show, even if they tend to limit themselves a bit too much geographically. (Come on, guys! Not all your viewers live on the North Side!)

And of course, as a kid I regularly watched Sesame Street, Mr. Rogers, Reading Rainbow, The Electric Company (Morgan Freeman! The SUPER is having his SUPPER!), 3-2-1 Contact, Square One, and Degrassi Jr. High.

I think there’s still a role for PBS in today’s market.

In any event, I think we all know that for all the screaming about “ZOMG! Rmoney’s going to KILL BIG BIRD!!!! ARRRGH!!!1!!ELEVENTY!!1!”, the end result is probably going to be “PBS’s budget will only grow at 1% per year as opposed to the originally planned 3% per year”.

JimLennon on October 8, 2012 at 6:28 PM

Great job, Libby.

I never would have discovered Monty Python without PBS rebroadcasting the BBC, but that’s as far as it goes.

John the Libertarian on October 8, 2012 at 6:50 PM

In fairness to PBS, drama series aren’t the kind of programming they’ve tended to specialize in — I mean, I don’t think they have any now besides “Downton Abbey” — so it’s not surprising that they don’t get a lot of awards or nominations in that category. (And one doesn’t need to look through the Emmy records back for a full 50 years — PBS didn’t start until 1970.)

They’ve put more emphasis on airing miniseries, and they’ve won 10 Emmys for Best Miniseries.

J.S.K. on October 8, 2012 at 7:47 PM

It’s probably worth noting that not everything that airs on your local PBS station is something distributed by the PBS network. PBS stations pick up many shows from other distributors, similar to how commercial stations pick up syndicated shows. For example, “The McLaughlin Group” is not a PBS network show — it just airs on PBS stations.

http://www.pbs.org/ombudsman/2008/05/caution_that_program_may_not_b.html

J.S.K. on October 8, 2012 at 7:58 PM

And therein lies a dirty little secret: commercial television has been outpacing PBS in quality dramatic offerings for a long time.

A boob tube lover.

Dante on October 8, 2012 at 8:03 PM

JSK…I know about the “distribution” vs. actual “production” process for PBS. I don’t think that is significant in the debate over whether PBS should continue to get taxpayer dollars. All it tells us is that perhaps PBS should rethink its production and distribution process.

I also concede that Emmy-winning is not the be-all of determining quality. But I do think reasonable observers would agree that quality programming is now up and down the dial, and that PBS might have outlived its purpose.

Libby Sternberg on October 8, 2012 at 8:05 PM

Here’s how I think about it:

Imagine there were no public television and then some “bright” pol (like Bambi) says: “We really need to have a government subsidized television network.”

What would the response be?

Let’s see. We have hundreds of cable channels and satellite channels. We have YouTube videos and privately produced Vlogs. We have information and video of all types coming out of our ears.

And on top of all that, we need to have one more channel or else the republic will fall?

Please …

I like the PBS slogan: “If PBS doesn’t do it, who will?” Yeah, how about anyone?

Okay, I admit PBS does serve a need for aging baby boomers who just gotta see the latest Peter and Paul and Mary reunion concert, but that’s only because no one is willing to show that dreck.

PackerBronco on October 8, 2012 at 8:14 PM

Anyone wishing to express an opinion in a PBS poll on their website as to who is most likely to manage the economy better should go here –“Who will make it better?”

http://www.pbs.org/wnet/need-to-know/economy/who-will-make-it-better/15052/

The question they are asking is this:

Do you think Mitt Romney would do a better job managing the economy than Barack Obama?

When I last looked at the results it was a virtual tie.

For a while, Romney was actually leading.

Please vote, and tell your friends!!

Trochilus on October 8, 2012 at 8:20 PM

Compared to other dramatic series I’ve followed in the past few years, though, I would have to rank these two offerings well below ones such as HBO’s Rome, AMC’s Mad Men, HBO’s medieval fantasy Game of Thrones, and even A&E’s late 1990s Horatio Hornblower series in depth of storytelling, acting, and overall design.

Rome – meh.
Mad Men – meh.
Game of Thrones – haven’t seen it, tired of hearing about it.
And Horatio Hornblower wasn’t too bad.

Here’s the thing: the first couple of shows you mentioned weren’t what I’d call “family programming”. That’s what PBS has historically provided. Whether it was Nature, or Mystery!, or the late night British Comedies and Doctor Who that I came to love as a kid. These shows are far better to watch with your young ones than any of the stuff you mentioned. Sure, I love me some Breaking Bad, but it’s really adults-only.

PBS serves a role, although it has slipped from that role. It does need to be defunded, but not until we’ve first dealt with the more pressing matters of spending, such as ObamaCare, stimulus packages, bailouts, etc. I’m not defending PBS or NPR as legitimate government programs per se, but you’re comparing apples and oranges here.

And making an argument for commercial television by pairing up Pawn Stars with Antiques Roadshow demonstrates a serious lack of perspective.

MadisonConservative on October 8, 2012 at 8:54 PM

No liberal would tolerate public funding going to a Charles Krauthammer or Bill O’Reilly program.

This. If PBS even remotely leaned to the right instead of the left, liberals would be apoplectic. Big Bird would be nothing but a pile of ashes and bones. Oscar the Grouch would be declared a public health hazard and welded into his garbage can. Cookie Monster is on the outs as it is because of his love of the sweets–imagine if he were associated with anything conservative. And Elmo…poor, sweet little Elmo…I hate to think what would happen to him.

butterflies and puppies on October 8, 2012 at 10:58 PM

The thing is that there are commercials on PBS, the shows end earlier than network and they have commercials. So they get tax money and have commercials.

Cindy Munford on October 9, 2012 at 1:51 AM

making an argument for commercial television by pairing up Pawn Stars with Antiques Roadshow demonstrates a serious lack of perspective.

MadisonConservative on October 8, 2012 at 8:54 PM

MadisonConservative, you make some great points about PBS drama being family-friendly vs the shows I mentioned (except for Hornblower, which so inspired my preteen daughter that she dressed as him for Halloween one year).

That said, I think family-friendly drama would find a home on commercial television.

As to the comment above about Pawn Stars vs Antiques Roadshow, I disagree. If anything, I find Pawn Stars a better program because the shop owners are actually giving real money for the objects brought in to the store (often after expert appraisal)rather than placing a value on them that may or may not hold up if the objects’ owners go to market themselves.

Libby Sternberg on October 9, 2012 at 4:35 AM

Before Bush Derangement Syndrome took hold, Frontline was one of the best investigative news programs on television, if not the best. It still leaned left, depending on the topic, but at times it truly shone.

As for PBS in general, I love British tv and before BBC America, it was the only way to see it (Mystery, Sister Wendy, Monty Python). Antiques Roadshow is fun as well.

But dangit. We’re broke. Sink or swim PBS.

Kungfoochimp on October 9, 2012 at 4:46 AM

As to the comment above about Pawn Stars vs Antiques Roadshow, I disagree. If anything, I find Pawn Stars a better program because the shop owners are actually giving real money for the objects brought in to the store (often after expert appraisal)rather than placing a value on them that may or may not hold up if the objects’ owners go to market themselves.

Libby Sternberg on October 9, 2012 at 4:35 AM

Pawn Stars is faked. Antique Roadshow is not. You do know that, right?

Dante on October 9, 2012 at 8:43 AM

Pawn Stars is faked. Antique Roadshow is not. You do know that, right?

You’re missing the point. Both shows’ entertainment value is in seeing people bring in objects for evaluation. I think Pawn Stars delivers a more entertaining version of that setup.

Libby Sternberg on October 9, 2012 at 9:08 AM

and that PBS might have outlived its purpose.

Libby Sternberg on October 8, 2012 at 8:05 PM

Growing up in the 1970s in the shadow of NY, we got ABC, CBS, NBC, and WPIX (Yankees channel!), WOR (pathetic Mets channel), WNEW (It’s 10 pm, do you know where your children are) and PBS. 7 whole channels. There has to be something on. Now I’ve got a couple hundred channels and struggle at times to find something to watch. We just don’t need to fund highbrow entertainment anymore.

As for Antiques Roadshow vs. Pawn Stars (or American Pickers, which is much better IMO) the latter, though there may be more of a set up for the cameras, is more realistic. They give you your actual price. AR just gives you an expert guess at what the auction price might be. There’s no guarantee that there’s someone in the auction audience that day who would pay that price. As well, then there’s the auctioneer’s cut. So when AR says that an item will fetch $1000 at auction, they leave you with the impression that the owner will get $1000. The owner won’t. That’s dishonest. Rick will say an item is worth $1000, but only offer $400, because he’s got to make a profit, as well as pay overhead.

rbj on October 9, 2012 at 9:44 AM

Trochilus on October 8, 2012 at 8:20 PM

It’s R-52/O-47 right now!

GWB on October 9, 2012 at 9:44 AM

and that PBS might have outlived its purpose.

Libby Sternberg on October 8, 2012 at 8:05 PM

Very likely now that the networks have become dedicated truth assasins. When they all become mainstream state run media, PBS is just a weak pile on. But it still holds the edge for “training” the next generation.
Scary huh?

onomo on October 9, 2012 at 10:00 AM

You’re missing the point. Both shows’ entertainment value is in seeing people bring in objects for evaluation. I think Pawn Stars delivers a more entertaining version of that setup.

Libby Sternberg on October 9, 2012 at 9:08 AM

I’m not missing any point. You are presenting your opinion as ex cathedra. While you may find value in objects being evaluated, I may find value in the drama of the relationships and competition. I also may find value in the history of the object rather than its appraisal. I couldn’t care less which one you find “more entertaining” as it has absolutely no bearing on anyone else’s personal opinions.

Dante on October 9, 2012 at 10:09 AM

I’m not missing any point. You are presenting your opinion as ex cathedra. While you may find value in objects being evaluated, I may find value in the drama of the relationships and competition. I also may find value in the history of the object rather than its appraisal. I couldn’t care less which one you find “more entertaining” as it has absolutely no bearing on anyone else’s personal opinions.

“Ex cathedra”? Really?

I’m offering my opinion. You seem to disagree with it. I disagree with yours.

If you find value in certain aspects of “Antiques Roadshow” but not in “Pawn Stars,” that’s fine, Dante. But I don’t think taxpayers should have to pay for the former. And if you’re right about its value–entertainment or overall quality–a commercial network would probably pick it up if PBS disappeared tomorrow.

Libby Sternberg on October 9, 2012 at 10:29 AM

That said, I think family-friendly drama would find a home on commercial television.

Then why, in the year 2012, hasn’t it? You see? Your claim is like Obama saying that his economic policies will kick in eventually. We’ve had mainstream cable availability for decades, and family-friendly programming is pretty much confined to channels like the Hallmark Channel. Even Nickelodeon, The Disney Channel, and the Cartoon Network all show crap I wouldn’t want my children to see, when the day comes that I have them. If private industry is going to bring out a competitor to PBS, why haven’t they already?

As to the comment above about Pawn Stars vs Antiques Roadshow, I disagree. If anything, I find Pawn Stars a better program because the shop owners are actually giving real money for the objects brought in to the store (often after expert appraisal)rather than placing a value on them that may or may not hold up if the objects’ owners go to market themselves.

Libby Sternberg on October 9, 2012 at 4:35 AM

Sorry, but I’ve watched Pawn Stars. The interactions are staged and faked, and the numbers they give are grossly exaggerated. Not quite as bad as Hardcore Pawn(a guilty pleasure, I must admit), but it’s as cliche as Jersey Shore. Antiques Roadshow has been around for a looooong time and has a subdued, professional, and non-fake approach that, again, I would find far more appropriate for younger audiences.

May I also point out that you’re defending a show whose title is a play on “porn stars”…something neither you nor I would want to explain to an 8-year-old?

MadisonConservative on October 9, 2012 at 2:00 PM

“Ex cathedra”? Really?

I’m offering my opinion. You seem to disagree with it. I disagree with yours.

If you find value in certain aspects of “Antiques Roadshow” but not in “Pawn Stars,” that’s fine, Dante. But I don’t think taxpayers should have to pay for the former. And if you’re right about its value–entertainment or overall quality–a commercial network would probably pick it up if PBS disappeared tomorrow.

Libby Sternberg on October 9, 2012 at 10:29 AM

Then you should base your agrument around that part highlighted in bold instead of your perceived quality value of entertainment.

If private industry is going to bring out a competitor to PBS, why haven’t they already?

It has. Every channel and every show is a competitor to PBS.

Dante on October 9, 2012 at 2:30 PM

Then why, in the year 2012, hasn’t it? You see?

Your previous comment on this got me to thinking more, and I actually do think there is some family-friendly stuff on broadcast networks. Shows like Grimm (although it contains some gore) and maybe Once Upon a Time. I wouldn’t be surprised if there are others, but I don’t catch a lot of broadcast series TV.

May I also point out that you’re defending a show whose title is a play on “porn stars”…something neither you nor I would want to explain to an 8-year-old?

There are plenty of double entendres in some family programming adults don’t explain to children, nor need to.

As for Antiques Roadshow’s “subdued, professional and non-fake approach…”, I find it boring and sometimes, oh, a little too “precious.” And, just as with “Pawn Stars,” the assessments/deals featured are selected ahead of time, so there’s a certain amount of setup there, too.

It’s a matter of opinion, though. You enjoy one. I enjoy the other. I’m not without sophisticated tastes (I could go on about why I prefer Faure’s setting of Paul Verlaine’s poem Clair de Lune over Debussy’s), but I think the day has passed when we can say that PBS offers the sine qua non of shows by a long shot.

Libby Sternberg on October 9, 2012 at 2:41 PM

Then you should base your agrument around that part highlighted in bold instead of your perceived quality value of entertainment.

I think it’s important to talk about the quality of programming, though, because one argument one hears when trying to talk about stopping the PBS funding is that PBS does something unique and provides high-quality programming.

I believe it’s important to point out that its programming is not necessarily unique nor always of high quality.

Libby Sternberg on October 9, 2012 at 2:48 PM

I think it’s important to talk about the quality of programming, though, because one argument one hears when trying to talk about stopping the PBS funding is that PBS does something unique and provides high-quality programming.

I believe it’s important to point out that its programming is not necessarily unique nor always of high quality.

Libby Sternberg on October 9, 2012 at 2:48 PM

Oh, dear lord.

Dante on October 9, 2012 at 3:29 PM

Oh, dear lord.

I get that you’re no admirer of the “boob tube” or its audience (which includes me), Dante. Loud and clear.

Libby Sternberg on October 9, 2012 at 3:59 PM

I get that you’re no admirer of the “boob tube” or its audience (which includes me), Dante. Loud and clear.

Libby Sternberg on October 9, 2012 at 3:59 PM

Dante is no fan of anyone on this site. He’s nothing more than a troll, looking to disagree with whatever CW is at hand, and to win an argument with you based on semantics. I highly suggest ignoring him.

MadisonConservative on October 9, 2012 at 4:15 PM