The Last Days of PBS? sadface
by A Real Person on October 21, 2010
Hello, my name is Nicole (All together now: “Hi, Nicole!”) and I am a PBS nerd. There are many shades of nerdity, some even within geek circles considered “cooler” than others, I think we can all agree. But being a loyal, devoted lover of public television in the old US of A has probably never been one of them. Sure, we all grew up with our PBS touchstones – Sesame Street, obviously. (And if you are of a certain age, The Electric Company – original recipe, hell yeah I see you, Morgan Freeman! – and 3-2-1 Contact, too.) And for the Anglophiles in the house, many of us got our first taste of Doctor Who and Monty Python, among myriad other British classics, thanks to public telly in the States. Nonetheless, I really feel as though PBS has contributed immensely to my cultural experience on so many levels… which is why the news out of the City of Angels on October 8th of this year made me feel like a piece of my childhood was on its deathbed.
On that date, Los Angeles PBS affiliate KCET announced that as of the end of this year, it would abandon the public television banner and go strictly independent. Yes, they promise they will still carry “programming that reflects ‘diverse, creative voices’,” but the lynchpins of PBS programming – Sesame Street, Charlie Rose, NewsHour, Masterpiece Theater – will be absent. The good news is that Angelenos like me won’t have to search too far for these shows as we’ve got an affiliate in Orange County, KOCE, that will still offer them. Nevertheless, the budget dispute that brought about this parting of ways is the first real concrete evidence of the trend that I and many others have probably seen coming for many years now… public television is struggling to find its place in the television culture of the 21st century. They’ve scrabbled to gain the funding necessary to acquire programming in the first place for a long time, but if the demand isn’t there… is PBS really, finally about to go the way of the dodo? Sadness.
The fact is that with channels like Discovery, National Geographic, Current and countless other cable networks offering documentary programming and current affairs, part of the necessity for having a public TV outlet to offer this sort of show no longer exists. Cable television diversity has killed innumerable old-school programming vehicles for decades – for example, the death of Saturday morning cartoons that many of us grew up with in the 70’s and 80’s, made redundant by channels like Nickelodeon, Cartoon Network and Boomerang showcasing ‘toons 24/7, or at least 12/7 (I see you, Adult Swim!)
As a kid growing up in the era of three major networks (four once Fox appeared when I was twelve), there was still enough of a lack of options for PBS to be a major contender for my precious TV time. And a lot of the time, it scored. Granted, sometimes it wasn’t down to PBS affiliated shows at all, but rather KCET’s own programming decisions like airing acclaimed films – some of them quite surprising – complete and uncut. (No shit, for the longest time I had a VHS copy of This Is Spinal Tap that I taped off PBS… fact!) Also, some choice documentaries aired during the ubiquitous Pledge Week that introduced me to favorites such as the great W.C. Fields, the subject of a fantastic documentary by future Curb Your Enthusiasm helmer Bob Weide which my dad taped and made me watch. (To my great benefit… and occasional amusement, when I run across fellow Fields nerds who can recite the whole “Carl LaFong” scene from It’s A Gift from memory.)
Still, at the forefront of these childhood memories were the grand old PBS standards… Carl Sagan, that beautiful egghead emcee of Cosmos who supplemented my fascination with outer space above and beyond Star Wars and Star Trek:
The Masterpiece Theater landmarks like Brideshead Revisited, which my forward-thinking parents actually let me watch with them when I was seven, even if I didn’t get all of the context at the time. I did later, certainly. (And it did still give me a crucial reference point for some very important realities… like being sat down and explained to why my uncle Bill was living with a guy called Gary. “Oh,” I said, “You mean he’s like Sebastian in Brideshead Revisited. He likes boys.” Conversation over. I liked Sebastian… no big whoop, man.) :
(Warning – English gents’ bare bums, NSFW!)
And then there was WonderWorks, the excellent 80’s series of kid-targeted films which introduced me to Anne of Green Gables. Yeah, on the surface, a pretty square literary adaptation of a beloved series of books, but damned if I didn’t identify with Megan Follows’ Anne as a dreamer, a lover of all tales grand and fantastical. She was a 19th Century rural Canadian nerd, and I loved her dearly. Plus, it’s hard not to love a lass who’s unafraid to smash a blackboard over a stupid boy’s head. Atta girl!:
I might be making a big to-do about nothing; time will tell if the KCET change-over is isolated and the PBS network will remain intact for the most part for some time to come. Still, it pains me a bit that after I unleashed a massive amount of squee about Masterpiece bringing the BBC’s outstanding Sherlock to U.S. audiences this month, it will likely be one of the last great offerings that series broadcasts on the channel that I grew up watching. I really hope that we aren’t seeing a trend in which the other great PBS stations – New York’s WNET, Boston’s WGBH – will eventually suffer the same fate. Prove me wrong, telly trends… prove me dead wrong.
Sound off about whether or not I’m overreacting – as well as your favorite PBS memories over the years – in the comments!