Friday, June 12, 2015

A Plea To Public Television

I love public television – commonly known as PBS. I’ve been a viewer (and inconsistent member, I’m ashamed to say) since the 70s and The Great American Dream Machine. I worked on staff at 13/WNET New York for a year and when I later went into business full time as a freelance writer, WNET was my client for ten years. My cable system offers three PBS stations and they are the channels I watch most. All that said, they are driving me insane with their Pledge (fund raising) periods, which have become longer and more tedious with every passing year. And because I care so much about the importance of public TV, I fear their fund raising tactic may be their undoing rather than their salvation. I find that a disturbing prospect indeed.

Perhaps for your edification (not everybody knows this), PBS is not a television network in the way that CBS, NBC and ABC are networks. They are still The Big Three networks on broadcast TV (vs. cable or anything else) and their “local” stations – the ones that begin with “W” in the east and “K” in the west – are affiliates directly responsible to and controlled by the primary network powers that be.

In direct and critical contrast, public TV stations are independent, self-supporting, local channels. PBS – the Public Broadcasting Service – produces and/or acquires many of the programs seen on public TV nationwide. But there are several other significant program services, and, a number of the larger stations – such as those in New York City, Boston, Washington DC, Los Angeles and San Francisco – also produce major programs with and without an assortment of production partners, that are also seen nationally.

There are around 300 independent public TV stations and the organization that to some extent unites them is APTS (the Association of Public Television Stations), which functions as a kind of union capable of standing up to PBS, which has been known to be a little grandiose and overbearing, however well-intentioned they mean to be. At least this is how things worked in the 90s, which is when I was last privy to the inner workings of public television; some important things may have changed that I’m unaware of.

But there are two changes of which I’m very cognizant. The first is that public stations now refer to themselves as PBS stations. I can’t tell you how vigorously this used to be fought against. Stations were passionate about trying to make the public understand that they were independent and their independence was critical to how they were funded, as well as their very reason for being: stations that produced/acquired numerous programs that specifically served local and regional communities in ways the Big Three affiliates never did and still don’t. But the “We’re not PBS message” was too difficult to explain and never got through, so it looks like the effort was finally abandoned.

The second change is how much they Pledge. There used to be three (and only three) key Pledge months: March, August and December. And pledge periods lasted for only one week in each of these months. Now, these three months are virtually consumed with Pledge, and in addition, other Pledge periods of varying lengths pop up throughout the year. This is no doubt happening because government funding, philanthropic funding and corporate funding have been in perilous decline since the 90s. So has individual viewer membership, which for most stations is where the bulk of their funding comes. As a result, some stations have folded. Some have joined forces. But all of them are hurting. Fiscal crisis is a constant in public TV.

The problem with Pledge as it’s currently conducted is that special “Pledge Programming” is broadcast, much of it provided by PBS. New programs are presented here and there, but most of it is very old, and it’s re-run countless times. How much of the same New Age self-help, music from the 60s, financial advice, and classical tenors is a person supposed to sit through – Pledge month after Pledge month, year after year? I watch little or no public TV during Pledge because my favorite programs have been replaced with the same Pledge shows that have been on for a decade or more! (They’re still showing Motown 25 and Motown is now over 60!). 

I’m not angry with public television for the volume of its Pledging; I know they need the money. I’m irritated with their lack of creativity – and very possibly financial effectiveness – in how they’re doing it. I urge public TV to abandon Pledge months and tired Pledge programming altogether. Instead, fund raising should be constant. Some short, some longer breaks between every program for a start. And, since the non-commercials are looking more like commercials anyway, have real commercials, just don’t interrupt programs and don’t have them between every show and don’t run more than one or two in a row. I could also live with a short crawl at the bottom of the screen once during a program, but not necessarily every program. Thinking outside the box might help you dig yourself out of your financial hole and stop torturing those of us who love you.

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