Do We Still Need PBS?
I hear a small giggle behind me at the Laundromat. I turn and see a small sparkle eyed boy trying to look over my shoulder. We shared a look of understanding as I show him my magazine.
How can I show him the world? And by extension how do we broaden our world view and learn beyond the classroom? Is art, culture and history only dispensed in a classroom or it there still a place for public broadcasting?
This is a clip of radio and television journalist Edward R. Murrow introducing Connecticut, New Jersey and New York viewers to their new education channel that will eventually become WNET.
Mr. Murrow spoke of not just providing education but entertainment and the mission of public television to provide what commercial television cannot or will not program.
I'm sure Mr. Murrow would not be too happy to learn about sponsored programs or commercials that now appear on PBS stations. I don’t know. Maybe public television’s mission left long ago and we are unwilling to call time.
Is It Worth It?
Many cities and states created their own public television networks to provide educational and cultural resources for their citizens in addition to proving access to the Public Broadcasting System (PBS).
The changes in broadcast media, technology and on-going budget crises and you have politicians questioning the need for government support for public television stations.
In fact, New Hampshire and Virginia and other states are in the process of dismantling their public television systems. Idaho is in the discussion process with the governor actively wanting to shut it down. On the federal level are two proposed bills to eliminate funding for National Public Radio and the Corporation for Public Broadcasting.
It comes down to money, politics and resources.
There is the added factor of technology and personal media. I have in my handbag a device where I can view videos, listen to podcasts, make phone calls and perform Internet research.
I’m no longer dependent on a group of people in New York, Los Angeles or Washington, DC deciding what content I should be allowed to consume.
Commercial television kicked me to the curb when I crossed 50. PBS programing of late seems very dependent on the BBC. Now I do love most of the dramatic programs from the BBC. I’m a huge fan. But I am an American. An American with a lot of diverse interest.
The truth is I haven’t felt welcomed in a long time at either PBS or my (former) member PBS station. It feels like the national and my local PBS stations are becoming a high class infomercial provider.
It is more about Doo Wop or Rock Classic music tied to fundraising than it is about my very diverse local community and the world beyond. The programing seems to be more about the weekend cooking, travel and home repair shows that have books and DVDs to sell. Far less about the Los Angeles Korean immigration experience.
There are no poetry series, not enough theater productions, or alternative dance that doesn’t involve competition.
I can now create or find content providers myself. Why do I need public television?
Because It Ain’t Just About Me
There is that twinkle eye little boy who might go home and practice numbers with The Count from Sesame Street. There is also a working mom who is watching a teleclass in order to pass her GED exam.
There are college students that access their local PBS stations to take college classes for credit in their homes.
It is a community that does not have any other media representation than their member stations who will report about the people and events in their community.
It is discovering that classic movie the Grumps tell you should watch and then finding out it is transformative. It is being an African-American woman and watching history programs about Irish and Jewish American immigration experiences. It is developing my own questions and observations about the difference between race and class discrimination.
We need PBS because not everyone has Internet or cable access. Or can afford it. We need public television because these so called American values everyone is yelping about can be still be communicated most effectively by television. It is about community.
There Will Be Changes
This can be a time of opportunity for PBS and the member stations. But it is a limited time opportunity because technology once again is going to kick it in the butt.
The British Broadcasting Company is working on an international iPad/iPod media device. This will allow folks to get ther BBC fix direct without the need of PBS or BBC America. With a fair subscription fee I know the Beeb will be raking in cash money.
Where will that leave PBS?
The real question is what do we want from our public broadcasting system? I want more poetry. I want more theater and programs of enlightenment. And I want to show that young boy the world I came from and help him understand the one he will soon enter.
What do you want from your public broadcasting station?