No I am not talking about membership in the Greek system (aka college sorority/fraternity membership drives). I am talking about the fund raising practices of the Public Broadcasting Service and the Public Broadcasting Corporation. This is the part of American TV that’s supposed to be good for you.
PBS financed and televised Sesame Street back in the late sixties; it is the custodian of Mr. Roger’s Neighborhood, and the Joy of Painting. It televised high brow BBC stuff back when nobody in America knew what BBC was; I remember that our local PBS station in Charlotte, NC, televised the intense cold war drama The Prisoner (“Be seeing you!”) in 1967-68, in addition to documentaries and large portions of the national political conventions before C-Span came along. The commercial stations were busy televising stuff like The Monkees and Laugh In. Many PBS stations anticipated C-Span by providing wall-to-wall coverage of the Watergate hearings in 1974, as well as re-running the same in the evening hours for people who worked. This may have been one of the most patriotic things PBS ever did.
Like all media, PBS is a much different animal than the outfit that televised the Watergate hearings. It now runs a serious news service, an alternative to radical right radio and TV (aka Fox News). The flagship show is the PBS News Hour, which is worth a gander, at least every once in a while. It is not as loud or as glitzy as the usual cable suspects, which makes it refreshing, although there is a discernable liberal bias.
Since those long ago glory days of Watergate, PBS has become ever closer to its British cousin, BBC. For instance, back in the seventies you could catch Monty Python’s Flying Circus on Saturday nights or Miss Marble, Upstairs Downstairs (the era’s Downton Abbey) and, that lovely Masterpiece Theatre miniseries, Brideshead Revisited. The latter coincided with the ‘fairy tale’ wedding of Prince Charles and Lady Diana Spencer. Also, by that time, PBS had discovered what is known in American parlance as Britcoms; i.e., Are You Being Served? To the Manor Born, The Good Neighbors and the long running soap operaesque series, East Enders.
Americans would tune in in droves on Sunday evenings to watch Masterpiece Theatre. This is still true of Masterpiece’s Sunday evening timeslot, which hosted the blockbuster Downton Abbey, amongst others.
PBS, with it’s mix of educational, local interest, cooking (it pioneered television cooking when it picked up Julia Child’s show in the sixties), documentaries and good drama, was thinking man’s television. Sounds great, right?
Alas, there’s always a fly somewhere in the ointment. For PBS the fly is that the Corporation for Public Broadcasting (“CPB”), the mothership as it were, is funded by the U.S. Government. This is not a large budget allowance but it is money and some Congressional/Administration wag is always threatening to do away with it. Thus, your local PBS station, which most of the population receives via a cable TV system (average bill $130 a month), does not sell commercial time. The station can’t run on air, however, so we, the viewers, must make up the difference between what the station may get from the government (funneled through CPB) and what the shows actually cost.
Remember, when you watch say, Ken Burns’ Civil War documentary, the station televising it had to pay Ken Burns’ distribution company for it. Ken Burns can’t live on air, either. What it got from CPB and what it had to pay Mr. Burns amounts to a deficit. Therefore, we, the viewers are responsible for making up that deficit. Thus, you have pledge week.
Or, I should say, pledge period. My local PBS station (WETA, ostensibly in Washington DC, although they are actually located in Northern Virginia) has about four pledge periods a year. These last from three to four weeks. During this time, all the usual PBS programming is dispensed with and we are treated to banalities such as a pastiche of Peter, Paul & Mary’s later concerts, infomercials on how to keep your brain functioning after 60, how to keep your body functioning after 60, how to get and keep enough money for your retirement (little late for that one) and, on the weekends, hour after hour of Motown, Psychedelic Rock, Sixties Protest Music and/or The Beach Boys, all with looped concert footage of oldsters getting down, as much as they can anyway. These outfits hawk CD (!) collections of the music featured in these “concerts” a portion of which goes to the station. (Evidently most loyal PBS viewers have never heard of Spotify.) You also get old TV show retrospectives, Carol Burnett and Laugh In being the most popular. Only at the end of the period does the original schedule return, to be interrupted by the same people you’ve seen for years, pleading for your $10 a month in exchange for tote bags and mugs.
I have no interest in any of this; therefore, I turn off PBS for four weeks. That comes to about 16 weeks out of the year when I do not watch PBS at all. I can’t be the only one.
In the DC area, however, we have a bonus PBS station, one that only appears on the digital spectrum; WETA UK. This is all Brit all the time. This station features 24/7 programming straight out of BBC and, recently, the Sky Network. This is where all the old Inspector Morse reruns went, as well as Inspector Lewis, Midsomer Murders, Vera, Miss Marple, Doc Martin, Miss Fisher’s Murder Mysteries, Call the Midwife, even Downton Abbey. Britcoms have their place on UK, as well; Are You Being Served is shown several times a day. Doctor Who appears on Sunday evenings, as well as the occasional fluff piece about the Royal Family and the English countryside. Even some of the more contemporary British sitcoms make an appearance.
UK has so far been a pledge free zone, but now the WETA people, never to be to done out of dunning their audience, have begun holding the “new” (12th) season of Midsomer Murders hostage (in Britain, Midsomer Murders is into its 19th season and was renewed for a 20th). You watch as the same people you’ve seen for years at the old WETA beg for that same old $10. The subtle threat? That this lovely set up will disappear and you’ll be stuck with the old WETA or, God forbid, Dancing with the Stars.
I hate to tell you this, guys, but I can get the entire Midsomer Murders library on Netflix and perhaps even Amazon Prime, for free, or a small fee ($99 a year/less than $10 a month). I can check out CDs of Midsomer Murders at my local library. I can watch Downton Abbey for free on Prime, as well as any number of BBC/Sky favorites. I can do this at my convenience. I swipe the screen and there it is.
I can do this with an Internet connection. I do not need WETA or WETA UK. I can get up to the minute versions of these shows, as well as the older ones if I so desire. I currently pay over $200 a month for a cable/phone/Internet bundle. I could eliminate the cable and lose at least half that monthly cost, something I am seriously considering. This consideration is not helped by the fact that there you are as I sit down in front of my TV to watch a “new” episode of Midsomer Murders, asking for my money or else. Even if I pay the cheapest rate, $5 per month, that is $5 added to my cable bill. If I went for $10, for that I could get another premium cable station that would provide first run movies and great contemporary TV, all commercial free.
Time to join the 21st Century, PBS (and CPB). Start a streaming service, do some original programming, stop dunning cable subscribers, already paying through the nose, for more money. Back in the day electricity and a roof antenna ran the TV. Now, TV’s a lot more expensive, not to mention more complicated. Find some other way to make your money, even if you have to go to tasteful commercials. Stop treating us like elderly idiots and do some creative fundraising. Show stuff we’d actually like to see during your pledge drives, not infomercials for music we can get for free elsewhere.
The times, they are a’changing. You should too.