The Squeeze on PBS


Can’t wait for the 200th pledge drive rerun!

It would be kind of sad if it weren’t so perfect somehow.

On cable, we have at least four channels representing various PBS outlets. Always the same thing. 20th century political pundits ranging from the antiquated News Hour to the downright saurian Bill Moyers, spinning and respinning the New Deal of the 1930s, followed by NOVA warnings of Global Warming and Frontline discovering new kinds of minority oppression. As well as five year old rebroadcasts of BBC shows like Foyle’s War, Midsomer Murders, and what’s the new one? Squiggly Manor? Uh no. Downton Abbey. Beautiful retread of Upstairs Downstairs, which funded PBS during its glory years. Yeah. Sigh.

Until the pledge drive season. When suddenly it’s time to rally the check writing troops and we get a spate of Great Performances reruns featuring Streisand from 1968, Bob Dylan tributes from 1992, and of course retreads of Sarah Brightman and the Blind Tenor, who was never quite in the same class with Domingo and Pavoratti, just close enough to tickle the generosity of pseudo intellectuals in Darien, Lake Forest, Beacon Hill, and Grosse Point.

Stuck in time. That’s my point. PBS is supposed to be the shining light of quality television, the TV that the best educated watch when they watch, presumably only so they can support the most intellectual and culturally polished aspects of the culture.

What a crock. PBS is actually a mirror of the ossified state of liberal/progressive mentality in America.

Watching PBS in any of its venues is akin to being pinned to your grandmother’s couch in the sixties watching the Lawrence Welk Show. It’s all for old people who don’t want anything to change. Yesterday’s news, yesterday’s opinions, yesterday’s entertainment, and constant reruns. Call it the Hillary constituency.

Without abundant government subsidy, the jig would already be up. PBS is being squeezed to death from three different directions. Forget the doddering pledge drive guys with the cultured voices and grey toupees. Forget the outrageous offers to buy DVDs for three times the price they’d be at Best Buy. Forget even the nerve of taking 15 minute chunks out of programming the octogenarians presumably want to see in favor of wide shots of young Marxists answering telephones while you wheedle your dwindling audience for more money.

Here’s the thing for all you hyper-intellectual progressives to take note of. The game is over. Done.

First. BBC America shows every sign of being a capitalist, profit-seeking network. PBS ain’t going to get a shot at Orphan Black or even the later versions of Doctor Who. BBCA haven’t even tried to show Downton Abbey. That tell you anything? They seem perfectly happy selling ads for shows people want to watch. Odd, eh? No sententious introductions listing foundations, trusts, and other nonsensical phantom sponsors of their programming.

Second. Netflix doesn’t have all the good stuff, but they have a lot. All of Midsomer Murders, most of Inspector Morse, all of Foyle’s War, and more Miss Marple than you can shake a stick at. And the biggest hit BBC1 has had in 10 years, Call the Midwife. Oh. And almost all of Helen Mirren in Prime Suspect. Without pledge drive interruption. And show after show after show that never turned up on Masterpiece Theater. Did American intellectuals ever actually have anything to contribute to television? Except Dick Cavett, of course. You know. The lofty view.

Ah. The third and most deadly source of squeeze. A living, breathing example of what public television could and should have been lo these many years. The Ovation Channel.

I’ll give the conservatives a breather here. Right wing as I am, I love the Ovation Channel. I’m sure most of its producers and creative lights are leftist as can be. But I don’t care. They sell ads and they are purveying art in every possible form. They roam the country looking for talent. They spotlight aspects of artistic endeavor you’d never think existed, and they make the creative, intellectual aspect of life vital again. They make it live again. What PBS should have been doing during my lifetime and never did.

I won’t run down the list of their programming, some of which is cheap fill in the blanks stuff but much of which isn’t. It’s new. I’ll direct you only to a surprisingly wonderful three part series called Big Ballet.

It’s a perfect microcosm of the channel’s mission. A diminutive former professional ballet dancer decides to stage Swan Lake with dancers who never got their chance because they were too large, too, well, fat. His partner is a former successful ballerina who was considered too tall. Together, they undertake this mission.

Reality TV schlock, right? No. It works. This isn’t about kicking people out a week at a time. It’s about the delicate balance between being demanding and kind. What should be the best in us. Three episodes. Spoiler. The finale, the performance, will bring tears to your eyes. Art should be accessible to everyone. It doesn’t belong only to the bluenoses of PBS.

Why the squeeze will probably finish off the mummy of government subsidized culture TV.

  1. Barbara’s avatar

    You should have issued a Target Warning with this column, RL. Retreads; ossified; grandmother’s couch; doddering; grey toupees; octogenarians; mummy. Micro-aggressions all.

    I thought you disliked Inspector Morse, formerly a heartthrob of mine.

    Had to look up “saurian.” I’m glad to learn the word and will never again read or hear about Bill Moyers without thinking of that apt descriptor.

    Other than your giving offense to the elderly, this is a perfect summation and why I have not turned to our PBS channel for more than a decade. I sent them checks for many years and did research work for them pro bono. Oh the regrets.

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  2. Tim’s avatar

    They may have had some usefulness several decades ago but I think you’re right: they are laughably stuck in the past now. Still, I dislike NPR more for how superior its audience feels for listening to it.

    PS – I, too, had to look up the definition of saurian. Language is amazing because it can convey an entire joke with only a word. What a perfect description of Moyers. Much funnier than simply saying “ancient” or “crusty”.

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