Arts and Culture

Make Yanni Stop! Pay What it Takes!

Public television in the US is great, when not meeting its bills by peddling folkie nostalgia and new-age nostrums.

By Steve Burgess 10 Dec 2010 | TheTyee.ca

Steve Burgess writes about what's on the screen, big and small, every other Friday here at The Tyee.

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The living legacy over there. Who invited him to the party?

Recently on KCTS, the Seattle PBS station: penetrating Frontline documentaries on Obama's behind-the-scenes health care negotiations, and on a bizarre criminal investigation that jailed a group of innocent navy men. Nature offered an examination of the amazing intellect of crows.

This weekend on KCTS: Magic Moments -- the Best of 50s Pop, John Sebastian Presents: Folk Rewind, and Tackling Diabetes with Dr. Neal Barnard. Plus, don't miss Yanni: A Living Legacy!

In other words, Pledge Week. 'Tis the season when PBS becomes something else -- a purveyor of folkie nostalgia, inspirational speakers, and gentle new-age nostrums. Step back, Nova, American Experience, Frontline, Independent Lens; take a bow, Magnificent Mind at Any Age, Dr. Wayne Dyer, Easy Yoga for Arthritis, and John Denver. To fans of regular PBS programming it's like watching your spouse get drunk at the Christmas party and start hitting on strangers.

Randy Brinson has heard the complaints many times. And the KCTS programmer feels your pain. "Intuitively, it doesn't make sense to change our programming," he says. "But analytically, that diversity of programming helps us reach a wider cross section of viewers. A very small percentage of TV viewers watch PBS, and of those a very small percentage donate. Our regular programming is usually not the most effective at getting people to call in. We always have to balance the anger of regular viewers with our need to increase financial support."

What are ya gonna do?

Clearly this has not been an easy time for any organization that depends on public donations. Brinson says that KCTS has been doing better than many PBS stations, with the number of supporters staying roughly steady. "But the average gift has been smaller," he says.

Corporate support has also suffered, Brinson says. "For the fiscal year 2010 we raised about five per cent less money in corporate underwriting than the year before. When compared to fiscal year 2007 levels, our 2010 corporate underwriting was down more than 18 per cent."

Still, Brinson denies that the infomercial-style health programming has been spreading through the schedule like kudzu. “One of our goals has been to scale it back. We're also trying to make more use of regular programming during pledge periods. For instance, we recently aired a Nature special on a pledge night.”

Pledge Week programming would not be necessary if more regular viewers would support the public broadcaster. The regular pleadings usually pull in just as many complaints as donations. As a Williamsport, Pennsylvania viewer wrote to PBS ombudsman Michael Getler: "I cannot imagine too many people continuing to watch a channel when all you hear is nagging women. I might actually be willing to give something if I knew that it meant letting my son see his program all the way through."

Living in the Yanni state

Therein lies the frustration for PBS programmers. Viewers like Williamsport seem to think that PBS is like a stray cat -- feed it and it will only come back for more. The couch potato crowd has not grasped the concept of public-supported television.

"Some viewers are very dedicated and take a philanthropic point of view," Brinson says. "Others are not so dedicated. They enjoy some shows but don't watch as frequently. A part of our audience feels motivated by specific programs -- concerts by particular artists, or hearing from authors of books they're interested in. Pledge programming helps us attract less committed viewers into sampling our service and perhaps making a contribution."

Ideally Pledge Week can utilize programs from the PBS archives that are both popular and worthwhile. KCTS has gotten plenty of mileage out of Alone in the Wilderness, the fascinating and gently hypnotic video diary of Dick Proenekke. KCTS has also made use of archival Ken Burns documentaries, re-airing episodes of The Civil War and the World War II series The War. And this pledge period has featured reruns of the moving American Masters documentary Lennon NYC.

Brinson promises good things on the horizon for regular PBS fans. The always charming Neil deGrasse Tyson returns Jan. 19 with a new series of Nova Science Now, part of a new science-heavy Wednesday lineup that will also include the regular Nova series, moving from Tuesdays. And looking ahead to spring, PBS will be re-airing the entire nine-part Civil War series, arguably the highpoint of the public broadcaster's documentary programming.

In the meantime Yanni, and Magic Moments -- The Best of 50s Pop. Want them to shut up? You know what to do.  [Tyee]

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