Why PBS Can't Save America

U.S. Public TV scrambles grating gurus, dead singers and major exposes no one sees.

By Steve Burgess 30 Sep 2004 | TheTyee.ca

Steve Burgess is a freelance writer and the author of Who Killed Mom?, published in 2011 by Greystone Books.

Born in Norwalk Ohio, home of the famous virus, Steve was raised in Regina, SK, and Brandon, MB. He writes a regular column for The Tyee, often reviewing films but also, sometimes, detailing his hilarious world travels for Tyee readers. Steve is a former CBC Radio host and has won two National Magazine Awards. He has also won three Western Magazine Awards.

Reporting Beat: Travel, pop culture, politics, cobbling, knife sharpening, furnace repair.

Twitter: @steveburgess1

Website: Steve Burgess

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Most people agree that PBS' Pledge Week is annoying. Certainly no fun for the folks at PBS, and no fun for us. Just aggravation.

The thing is, pleas for money are not the most troubling thing about Pledge Week. By this time we all understand the need for those wheedling requests that pop up like Robson panhandlers, continually breaking our complacent viewing reverie. Funds are required if PBS is to survive.

No, the most troubling thing about Pledge Week is the programming. It frequently sucks. And that suckage carries disturbing implications. If this the crap that brings in pledge money, what does that say about PBS and the people who watch it?

During Pledge Week entire evenings are suddenly devoted to the seminars of Dr. Wayne "The Public Dr. Phil"  Dyer. On stormy Saturday nights Pledge Week drags John Denver from the grave, and Nat King Cole, and Crosby Stills and Nash, who aren't even decently dead yet. Soft, squishy concerts you can order on DVD or perhaps receive as a gift with your pledge. Shows like that one where a panoramic camera flies over the countryside come back again and again. There are yoga lessons in prime time. In about 15 years this stuff will be standard in-house programming at senior citizens' lodges.

How low can brow go?

Occasionally Pledge Week unearths legitimate classics like Ken Burns' Civil War series, just to remind you of what the American public broadcaster can be. And much regular programming, such as it is, does continue during these regular telethons. But watching the dreck that gets highlighted at pledge time makes you wonder just what sells in this allegedly more highbrow TV neighbourhood.

I don't begrudge PBS their pledges. There's nothing intrinsically evil about music shows or self-help gurus, either. But it's not exactly the sort of hard-hitting stuff that requires a publicly-funded broadcaster. Besides, it lends a frightening caste to the future of public broadcasting in America when you see the pathetic pandering that shores up its financial base.

In a perfect world, Pledge Week could feature a Frontline marathon. PBS' investigative newsmagazine is television journalism at its best, capable of opening up current events to show you the guts of the issue. Recent Frontline programs have shone light upon aspects of the Bush Administration's mendacious war-mongering, and on the way corporate-funded politicos helped pass ruinous legislation that led straight to scandals like Enron and WorldCom.

In fact, Frontline is so good it's depressing. One wonders -- is anybody watching? In order to be truly effective, a show like this needs to be seen by a large enough audience to create a buzz. This should be the stuff of water-cooler conversation. But is it? I rarely hear people talk about it, or see news stories following up its investigative forays. Almost every week Frontline swings its axe to topple another tree. But is anybody listening?

Culture of pandering

The question arises naturally when one sees recent poll results for the forthcoming U.S. presidential election. Currently the American public seems content with a bogus carnival strongman -- a leader fighting the wrong fight but at least fighting, as though a sufficient number of casualties overseas can take the place of potential terrorist victims back home. Meanwhile cheap smear campaigns like the Swift Boat Veterans for Truth succeed in convincing enough undecided chuckleheads that hypocrisy is leadership and courage is cowardice.

Such election developments bring gloomy thoughts about the nature and quality of public discourse. And that gloomy frame of mind deepens when the Pledge Week schedule arrives. Is this what electioneering requires? Seeking votes or seeking pledges, must it always be about pandering?

Where TV is concerned, we all have our breaking points. For some it's Super Bowl nipples and gay smooching. For me it's that lethal combo of phone banks and "Take Me Home, Country Roads." I don't mind PBS asking for money. I just wish they'd ask more from us.

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