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The Last Days of PBS? *sadface*

PBS logo from the 1970's

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!

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26 comments

  • I was really disappointed when PBS cancelled re-running Mister Rogers Neighborhood. I always watched Mister Rogers and adored The Neighborhood of Make Believe and the whimsical Neighborhood Trolley! King Friday The XIII, Queen Sarah Saturday, Prince Tuesday, Lady Elaine Fairchilde, X the owl, Henrietta the kitten, Cornflake Especially, Lady Aberlin, and “speedy delivery” Mr. McFeely were my TV friends. I liked it when Joe Negri would play his guitar and when Mr. Rogers would sing those great songs he wrote. As an adult I’m still a huge Mister Rogers fan:)

  • I, too, grew up generally on PBS and specifically on KCET. My hometown has no other option for receiving PBS, KCET was it. The thought of the kids there not being able to watch Sesame Street is inconceivable to me. Just this weekend, I had to explain to my girlfriend why I can only say arroz con pollo as “arroz con poy-YO!” by pulling up Grover on youtube. Anne of Green Gables was a really, really formative show in my youth. I made coffee for Megan Follows when I worked at a cafe years ago and I basically lost it. I made coffee for far far more famous people (some of whom even tipped me), but seeing Megan Follows in person nearly gave me a heart attack. From what I’ve read and heard, the top brass at KCET doesn’t feel a responsibility to viewers and from what I have learned by working in public media, when you sever the connection between public media outlet and the public… bad news bears.

  • Adored All Creature, Upstairs Downstairs and others. Sesame Street helped me prepare my daughter for preschool and kindergarten. I’ve been a member for years. Hope this is not a trend.

  • PBS was where I first saw “The Snowman”, I love the snowman and boy flying to the North Pole to see Santa. “Walking in the air” is a beatiful song, it’s not Christmas if I don’t see it and “How the Grinch stole Christmas.

  • My heart broke when I heard the news about KCET. I’m currently reading the history of Sesame Street and one of the quotes that stuck with me was from the dinner where Sesame Street was conceived, “If children got what they wanted, there would be no school, no doctors, and we’d be eating candy and ice cream all day.”

    I think that is what makes PBS so important. Sure, it’s not as jazzy as the other stations. But PBS is able to make and broadcast the shows that no one else will. They make projects that are as good for our brains and souls as daily vitamins are for our bodies. I credit the children’s television revolution on PBS in the 70′s with shaping the minds that created the Dot Com revolution twenty years later.

    Yes, KCET, you won’t become rich as a PBS affiliate. But that’s the point. It is about broadcasting programming that NEEDS to be shown, not programming that is going to make you a buck. It is about the mission and vision of shaping society through television that challenges our society to think more, to live larger, and to demand excellence. I’m sorry you don’t understand why you were important.

  • I honestly gasped when I read this title. I love PBS, I mean, I don’t watch all the time, but they have amazing programming. Masterpiece Theater is my favorite, I’m really excited for Sherlock, and I think that I’ll really get into it. I guess there’s always BBC America… but still. They had the best documentaries that were really interesting. Way more interesting than the History Channel.

  • I love PBS, and I used to give money to my local affiliate. The thing is, I stopped. I stopped because I realized that every dollar I gave them (and there weren’t many when I was younger and even more not-rich than I am now) was spent in asking me to give them more money. Seriously, I was getting mail from them 4 times a week. So I switched over to giving all my public broadcasting dollars to radio. If there were a reliable way to give them money without constant harassment, I would do it. I tried asking them to stop. They didn’t. Any ideas?

  • I wonder if we’re not looking at this backwards — why aren’t we cheering this as a victory for the incredible feast of televisual diversity at our fingertips today?

    Of course we’ll miss some particular shows as the need for public funding of cultural TV programming (in a world of only five channels) finally ends. But there are so many outlets for creative television today — including some that probably would have given “Wired Science” a longer run — that the odds of finding even more great shows like Sesame Street and Cosmos are better than they have ever been.

    This is probably one of those moments where Progress doesn’t feel entirely satisfying… but it is progress. Why not choose to celebrate its positive impact?

  • Yes, ashamed to say I liked Barney back in the day, too. Still unsure as to why Baby Bop shrunk. And yes, Cyberchase is cute at times. And how in the world did I forget New Yankee Workshop? And at one time I had a mean crush on BOTH the Kratt Brothers.

    @Chris If that’s the case, then why couldn’t they have revived Wired Science and/or moved it on another network where it could’ve fared better. If it were up to you, do you think it would be possible?

  • I grew up on the 90s PBS. I watched “Sesame Street”, “Barney”(I even remember when they introduced the new characters), “Arthur” but as a kid, my absolute favorite show on PBS…was frakking “Wishbone” Nothing says awesome like an adorable Jack Russel that dresses up in cute little costumes and acts out scenes from classic literature.

    I also got my first dose of British TV and comedy through the local PBS station. “Keeping Up Appearances” and “Are You Being Served?” were Saturday night staples in my house.

    I’m happy to say I still have a PBS station but the shows on nowadays…could never compare to the stuff on 20 years ago that I grew up with.

  • I have worked for PBS! They’re nice folks but when they made “Wired Science” they wanted to expand their demo outside of 8 and 80 to grab that “everywhere in between” group. I believe some internal political turmoil led to the discontinuation of our show, but ultimately, they were afraid it was too shiny and would alienate their supporters, the more generous of whom were much older.

    You need only look at the fact that we were the first new show on PBS in 5 years to see that their tentative attitude toward growth would slowly be their downfall. PBS used to be REALLY edgy. Things like Nova and Sesame Street were groundbreaking television.

    It’s my guess that a lot of the network people from those days are still there, and just got older and got scared of taking chances. In trying so hard to protect its current audience, it never occurred to anyone that, unfortunately, many of those people wouldn’t be on this Earth for long and it would be of paramount importance to start trying to connect with the next generation of generous donors.

    It’s a real bummer.

  • @ Emmy: Huell Howser is still at it. Shoving a microphone in people’s faces while they’re trying to work and getting away with it ’cause he’s awesome. (He’ll probably remain on KCET too, FYI; his shows are produced locally and not part of the PBS programming.)

    @ beth: Sowwy. ;)

  • DUDE I KNOW! I pretty much grew up on PBS. They still have the best cooking shows. I remember watching Julia Child and Martin Yan as a kid; they’re part of the reason I wanted to cook and bake for a living. When I was broke and in college I would lie in bed in the short time between class and work and watch Bob Ross and take a nap. Now I watch a lot of Nova and Frontline and newer cooking shows like Anerica’s Test Kitchen and my imaginary boyfriend, Ming Tsai. If my local station closed down I’d pretty much die. For me the love is part actual interest in the content of the program and part weird nostalgia/amazement at some of the stuff they play. Any other Californians remember that “California’s Gold” show? With Huell Howser? That dude was bananas! My Mom will still do an impression of him on command.

  • Bob Ross–the calm half of the PBS Bi-Polar Painting Twin. As soon as I saw his name, my mind went immediately to Patton Oswalt’s Willy Alexander bit.
    If broadcast TV is to survive, the public weal requires PBS; the so-called variety of cable stations like those in the Discover group(all running the same dozen topics & pandering to the logic & attention span-challenged) are no substitute for a network that doesn’t answer to corporate parent companies or the threat of boycots by the lunatic fringe. Aside from the longer-running news/public affairs shows, the only real competition the networks ever gave PBS over the decades was when they ran the National Geographic of Jacques Cousteau specials.

  • NY with WNET, WBCH or WLIW , or their sister WLIW Create would be sad. Tuesdays nights in my house have always belongs to Nova , Frontline and Independent Lens.
    I believe in the Tri-state area there is a great financial support for PBS but in this economy nothing is ever guaranteed. Now more than ever we have to donate to our local affiliates.

  • Lisa, I second that. I, too can’t imagine NY without WNET. Or WGBH & WLIW. I’m more PBS in the 80s/90s though. Sesame Street, 3-2-1 Contact, Square One, Bill Nye, Shining Time Station, and Mr. Rogers Neighborhood WERE my childhood. Hometime and This Old House had HUGE impacts on me. Probably why I have a lot of respect for home improvement shows now. Watch HGTV and DIY cos of it.

    A few months back I found WVIA out of Northeastern PA. Was playing Jazz at the time I tuned in and stayed on that station.

  • Great piece, Nicole.

    I have to admit at one point I felt PBS had been outdone and become superfluous.

    But after checking back in with an open mind, I realized it still has its own usefulness. And its own cachet.

    Plus it’s not all about me. Whoever “me” is. It serves diverse demographics differently and well.

    That series on art in the 21st century is BEAST! (That’s a term of approbation I heard a fourteen-year-old say recently. And I’ve been DYING to use it.)

  • I discovered Monty Python, Blackadder, Red Dwarf, The Young Ones, Jeeves & Wooster, and As Time Goes By thanks to PBS. It was my BBC-America before BBC-A ever existed, and my comic sensibilities may very well be non-existent without it. Can’t imagine NY television without WNET.

    I hope you are overreacting, but I fear not.

  • Yeah…this totally sucks. I lost my PBS channel a couple of months back. I don’t have cable and don’t get another signal with my shitty antenna. They were one of the last bastions of decent tv….and that is sad.