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 Libby Sternberg
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.