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PBS Showed TV the Future. But What Does Its Own Look Like?

As satires go, Robert Wuhl’s “Open Season” seemed particularly far-fetched when it was released in 1996. The film’s high concept? After the television industry’s all-powerful ratings system malfunctions, a thinly disguised Public Broadcasting Service becomes the most popular network in the country. Educational programs such as “Kennedy: What’s Left to Say?” and a history of Limoges china shoot up the charts. (“What’s Limoges?” asks Regis Philbin in a cameo.)

Culture is suddenly cool; book sales and museum donations surge. So the top commercial network decides to fight back. It counters with “Greek’s Company,” “the first culture-com,” starring Alan Thicke as the counselor in a co-ed college dorm in ancient Greece. And Tom Selleck is cast as a renowned cellist who fights bad guys by day in “Rock Maninoff, Classical Crimefighter.” His catchphrase: “Time to face the music, scumbag.”

Alas, the glitch is discovered and the balance in the TV universe is restored. The public network’s ratings actually come in below those of the Weather Channel, Wuhl’s character moans. Wuhl’s satire flopped, too, taking in less than $9,500 at the box office.

But in retrospect, the movie may just have been ahead of its time. As PBS celebrates its 50th anniversary this month, it’s not ranked No. 1, but the rest of the premise doesn’t seem so crazy.

PBS’s influence is everywhere. There’s a fairly direct line from PBS’s groundbreaking reality series “An American Family” to MTV’s “The Real World” and “Keeping Up With the Kardashians” on E! Julia Child’s “The French Chef” begat the 24-hour Food Network, one million-follower YouTube cooking stars and even food porn like “The Chef’s Table” on Netflix. The DIY Network is filled with “This Old House” knockoffs. PBS made the BBC naturalist Sir David Attenborough a star in the United States, but today he is just as likely to be found on Discovery or Netflix, while the descendant of Carl Sagan’s “Cosmos: A Personal Adventure” airs on National Geographic.

PBS’s signature preschool shows have also been picked off. New episodes of “Sesame Street” air first on HBO Max. Powerhouse commercial media companies Viacom and NBC Universal have muscled in with their Noggin and Sprout cable networks. British police procedurals and costume dramas are found not just on Netflix, Amazon Prime, Hulu and HBO Max, but also BritBox and Acorn TV. Documentaries are equally ubiquitous, with HBO and Showtime and streaming services increasingly vying for titles, hefty check books in hand.

When PBS arrived a half century ago, television was essentially a three-network game, and PBS thrived by championing programming and audiences ignored by NBC, CBS and ABC. But that distinctiveness has faded in today’s world of hundreds of cable channels and seemingly unlimited streaming services, many built after rivals saw the commercial value in PBS’s embrace of food lovers, costume drama obsessives, home improvement tinkerers and other niches. PBS may still execute many of its programs better than its rivals, and its content remains free and over-the-air, crucial for reaching those with lesser means and those without broadband. But in a country where the vast majority gets their TV through a paid service, that distinction rarely registers.

This cornucopia of programming viewers can enjoy across the television landscape only intensifies the political pressures facing PBS. Why should the federal government subsidize public broadcasting, conservative politicians and others ask, when the commercial marketplace appears to be doing just fine delivering those types of programs?

From its beginnings, PBS has grappled with an existential conundrum — what it should be, and how it should distinguish itself. Thanks to its success, that quandary has become even thornier. More than ever, a thriving future for PBS will come down to how it manages an organization for the public good in a commercial environment, according to Marcia Smith, a documentary film producer (“The Black Panthers: Vanguard of the Revolution”).

“Is there still an idea of the public good that we can agree on beyond ‘Sesame Street’?,” Smith asked.

PBS is an odd entity to celebrate, really. It’s a “service” not a “system,” and not a network like CBS or CNN. Officially, it distributes national programs that it does not produce, and it is charged with operating the satellite system to interconnect all local public television stations. PBS did not originate noncommercial, educational television; there were already more than 100 such stations when PBS debuted in October 1970. “The French Chef” was its first broadcast, but the program had been airing on some public stations for six years. “Sesame Street” had begun a year earlier.

But it’s an anniversary worth commemorating. PBS and public television are now widely considered synonymous, having met the goal envisioned by its founders: helping autonomous educational stations nationwide combine resources, amplifying the reach of quality programs and shepherding new ones worthy of the federal funds allotted under the 1967 Public Broadcasting Act. Those stations, while committing to a common purpose, ultimately retain control over what they air. Call it upside-down, or bottom-up, as Paula Kerger, the president and chief executive of PBS, does. “You have a lot of responsibility, but not ultimate authority,” she said of PBS’s role. That leads to what she called “the beauty and the pain of trying to keep this whole system glued together.”

The act, which created the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, laid out a broad mandate for the programs that public television (and radio) should foster. It sought media for “instructional, educational and cultural purposes,” promoting “diversity and excellence,” and addressing “the needs of unserved and underserved audiences, particularly children and minorities.”

That left room for a wide range of offerings, from the how-to shows to gorgeous costume dramas to insightful documentaries and kids shows that weren’t trying to sell toys or sugar-laced cereal, but learning.

Alternative fare did flourish. “Black Journal” looked at public affairs from a Black perspective, a first. On “Zoom,” a diverse group of children created high-energy activities for their peers, including stunts like trying to whistle after stuffing their mouths with soda crackers.

Viewers followed the break up of the Loud family in Santa Barbara, Calif., on “An American Family.” In a pre-CNN era, PBS alone broadcast taped gavel -to -gavel coverage of the Watergate hearings, in prime time, no less. And on the irreverent variety show “The Great American Dream Machine,” experimental films mixed with sometimes risqué comedy. (“Who’s the first guy you ever made it with?” Charles Grodin asks his date in one sketch.)

“It was a great time in public television; if you thought it, you could do it,” Jack Willis, one of the executive producers of “Dream Machine,”’ recalled.

The political pressure — a constant in PBS’s history — didn’t take long to arrive. One month, to be exact.

In November 1970, PBS distributed “Banks and the Poor.” It chronicled how banks perpetuated substandard housing for low-income Americans of color, ending with a scroll listing some 100 conflicted U.S. lawmakers.

Bill Moyers, who as a special assistant to President Lyndon B. Johnson had worked on the 1967 Act, remembered the reaction in 2006: “All hell broke loose. President Nixon and his director of communications, Patrick Buchanan, were so outraged that the president vetoed C.P.B.’s reauthorization bill and wouldn’t sign another until the chairman, president and director of television for C.P.B. resigned.”

After a few more years of political kerfuffles over programming, a deal was struck in the mid-1970s that executives hoped would insulate PBS from administration meddling. The federal appropriation would now go largely to local stations, rather than directly to PBS. And those stations, more than 330 currently, would funnel the money — in part — back to PBS.

“Politically, it was the right thing to do to protect the system,” recalled Stuart Sucherman, who helped broker the deal. “But in hindsight that made an inefficient system more inefficient.”

It didn’t end the political posturing, either. In 1995, Newt Gingrich, Republican of Georgia, became speaker of the House pledging to “zero out” the federal funds, calling public broadcasting an “elitist enterprise” (he suggested that the conservative radio host Rush Limbaugh better represented “public broadcasting.”) Ervin Duggan, then president of PBS, fought back with a highbrow rhetorical flourish. He began a speech to the International Radio and Television Society by reading Thomas Hardy’s 1866 poem “The Ruined Maid,” adding that if Congress cut off funding it would be playing the pimp that forced PBS into the “electronic equivalent” of prostitution.

Invoking Hardy may have helped fend off that challenge, but the cycle of outrage and political grandstanding has repeated over the decades. In 2005, an episode of the children’s program “Postcards From Buster” featuring lesbian parents set off conservative complaints. Last year, a same-sex wedding on the cartoon “Arthur,” prompted another round of criticism when Alabama Public Television declined to air the episode. And in 2012, Mitt Romney enlivened a 2012 presidential debate by declaring, “I love Big Bird,” but “I’m going to stop the subsidy to PBS.”

Barack Obama’s re-election prevented Romney from canceling Big Bird, but a different result in 2016 reignited the funding wars. The Trump administration argued in a budget proposal that “alternatives to PBS and NPR programming have grown substantially since C.P.B. was first established in 1967, greatly reducing the need for publicly funded programming options.” But Congress restored the appropriation, which this year is $445 million, of which roughly 70 percent goes to the stations, radio and television. (PBS gets a small amount of direct money from the corporation; in the 2019 fiscal year, it was about $29 million.)

The most potent weapon in these battles over the years has been the activation of Big Bird, Elmo and characters from PBS’s other children’s shows. They often make the trek to Capitol Hill and have even testified at congressional hearings.

But even as PBS has fended off these funding threats, the culture wars and the push for political balance have taken their toll. PBS never did distribute that episode of “Buster” and an ambitious series of films on America’s role in the post-Sept. 11 world was criticized for being both too conservative and too liberal.

Politicians’ threats to slash federal funding make headlines, but that money does not come close to bankrolling PBS shows. The life of the public television producer often means spending years trying to coax backing from foundations and corporate sponsors, and local stations have come to rely on donations from their (older) viewers. And that financial state of affairs has hobbled PBS’s ability to compete, and skewed its programming choices.

Over the decades, PBS has seen many of its best programming ideas copied by its commercial competitors, who’ve nabbed some of its audience too. Particularly younger viewers.

Attempts to woo a new generation have had mixed success. When Fox canceled R.J. Cutler’s teen reality series “American High” in 2000, Pat Mitchell, PBS’s new president, brought it to public television, a bold move given PBS’s median viewer age of 55 at the time. She also tried to cut back on British drama by reinventing the venerable “Mystery!” with American dramas. But some donors, and thus stations, objected to the raw language and sexual and drug conversations in “American High” and they forcefully pushed back against the “Mystery!” plan.

The runaway success of “Downton Abbey,” which ended in 2016, eased some of the pressure on the PBS budget and drew donations to local stations. But any boost they got was temporary. Indeed, “Mercy Street,” PBS’s first original drama in more than a decade, was abruptly canceled in 2017 after two seasons when the funding fell apart.

“We have not solved our funding model,” said Sharon Rockefeller, president and chief executive of WETA, the public broadcaster in Washington, D.C., who has been in public broadcasting for more than four decades.

PBS, under Kerger, is pushing to bolster its foundation, but that won’t be enough.

The system, Rockefeller said, is “fragile.”

Money woes may be a constant in the history of PBS, and the encroachment of their commercial competitors shows no sign of easing. So there have been plenty of proposals for PBS’s future, most arguing for a complete do-over — including focusing on digital-first local news, or sticking to children’s content only.

But a more expansive vision, tailored to all the places PBS remains distinctive, could provide a programming blueprint for a sustainable future (if not a financial one). A vision that connects directly to its original mission, updated for a wired world.

Smith, the documentary film producer and president and co-founder of Firelight Media, said that for independent filmmakers, particularly those of color, PBS remains vitally important. PBS films air for free and PBS invests in engagement campaigns, connecting documentary work with communities through local stations.

Lynn Novick, a collaborator with Ken Burns on “The Vietnam War” and other films, and the director of “College Behind Bars,” said no other outlet would allow a filmmaker to come up with an idea and spend 10 years getting it right. PBS, she said, is “creator driven, more than top down, not an executive saying we need a documentary on the Civil War.”

The past seven months have unexpectedly underscored another area where PBS remains unique: Education.

In March, days before 600,000 Los Angeles Unified School students were sent home because of the pandemic, PBS’s Kerger received a call from Austin Beutner, the district’s superintendent. PBS and its area stations quickly marshalled educational resources for students with limited or no broadband access. Dozens of other public stations and school systems nationwide have followed suit.

Meanwhile, PBS LearningMedia, an online educational platform for teachers and students, has seen its users more than double this school year, compared to the pre-pandemic average.

In June, as Black Lives Matter protests generated national conversations about racism, PBS dug into its back catalog so films like Firelight’s “Freedom Riders” could begin streaming again. New programs about race include “The Power of We: A Sesame Street Special.”

“It is rather stunning to see how very relevant our original mission is today,” WETA’s Rockefeller said. “In the midst of this pandemic, public television is delivering free education content right into homes, connecting people with arts and performances, giving context to our history, and providing clear news and analysis.”

She added: “When other outlets are scrambling to create programming about the complex and troubled racial history in our country, we already have a rich library of programs and educational resources already at hand because examining our history and our culture has been a part of our mission all along.”

For Kerger, the last months have provided a “clarion call around service,” which, after all is built into PBS’s name. “This is a moment when the country was looking for us and here we are,” she said.

The challenge for PBS going forward will be to sustain that focus. It means convincing donors that service and an hour of nightly news and math programs for homebound students are equally worthy causes as sending a pledge to support a favorite costume drama. Corporations will need to be convinced to underwrite difficult examinations of the country’s racial tensions, not just “Antiques Roadshow.”

Leaps of faith that the money and audience will ultimately be there will need to be taken. But for PBS to thrive another 50 years, reinvention seems a necessity.

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