March 23, 2017

Hate to say this, but maybe Trump is right about PBS

We know we won’t make many friends among more liberal readers with this week’s column, but we hope they will at least consider its premise.

Before we get into specifics, under no circumstances should this piece be read as an endorsement of either Donald Trump or his proposed budget. The purpose here is simply to point out that in one very specific case, what the Tweeter-in-Chief is looking to do may actually make sense.

While wanting to clear federal funds for a huge increase in military spending that even Pentagon brass says is unnecessary may be a puzzling reason for pulling the plug on the network, Trump may be correct that federal support of PBS should cease. That’s because PBS no longer fills the role it was specifically created to fill.

That’s because PBS no longer fills the role it was specifically created to fill."

When PBS succeeded the more-modest National Educational Television in 1970, the TV landscape was a hell of a lot different than it is today. In terms of entities with national reach, there were but three others: ABC, CBS and NBC, none of which had much motivation to put quality (and/or educational) programming before profits. Thus was the network chartered (under, ironically, the Republican administration of Richard Nixon) with the charge of creating a more diverse programming palate free of commercial considerations.

Almost a half-century later, that three-network universe is as dead as the VCR cassette. Today our TV-watching options are vast and ever-expanding. And an astonishing number of shows are of a staggeringly high caliber, certainly on a par with any of PBS’ most acclaimed series. If anything, PBS isn’t afraid to take its cues from commercial outlets. For instance, the Civil War period piece “Mercy Street” wouldn’t be out of place as a companion to Cinemax’s wonderful, turn-of-the-20th-century medical drama, “The Knick.” And let’s not even get started on the heaping helpings of Baby Boomer nostalgia that today comprise public television’s most ubiquitous and potent fundraising efforts. Isn’t a salute to the British Invasion or Summer of Love better suited to, say, VH-1 Classic?

But more to the point, with everyone from ABC, HBO and A&E to FX, WGN America and Netflix contributing to what is widely considered television’s “second golden age,” is PBS even necessary?

The knee-jerk response is, of course! As the popular reasoning goes, no PBS, no Ken Burns documentaries, no British costume dramas, no Big Bird!!! But that may not be the case. Why wouldn’t PBS programming survive the demise of the network itself?

You don’t need a Ph.D. in mass communication to know that HBO, CNN or History channel would be thrilled to add Burns to their stables of stars. Similarly, it’s hard to imagine there isn’t at least one kids-targeted cable channel whose suits would kill to drown the Children’s Television Workshop folks in cash for the rights to “Sesame Street” (although ad content could be a sticky issue). And wouldn’t “Antiques Roadshow” be a perfect fit alongside History’s “American Pickers” and “Pawn Stars?”

This is not intended to be anti-PBS. It would be marvelous if "The Donald" pulled an about-face and kept subsidies for the network, NPR and other arts-focused entities on his hit list. But then again, maybe losing PBS won’t be the tragedy some believe it would be.


Chuck Darrow is a veteran entertainment columnist and critic. Listen to “That’s Show Biz with Chuck Darrow” 3 p.m. Tuesdays on WWDB-AM (860), 104.9 FM, WWDBAM.com, iTunes, iHeartRadio, and TuneInRadio.

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