Tuesday, February 19, 2008

Are you being served by PBS?

The Times ran an article this weekend by Charles McGrath that asks: "Is PBS Still Necessary?" Or has it outlived its mission? I've heard this question before, and I must say I find it persuasive. Like any other "educated," arts-loving person, I have a kneejerk impulse to defend public broadcasting, on TV or on the radio. It is the enlightened thing to do. And personally, I know I owe a lot to PBS. I started out on Sesame Street and Mr. Rogers; it was a Great Performances broadcast of Into the Woods that first exposed me to Sondheim; I once stayed up very late to catch an airing of the Beatles' Shea Stadium concert film; and I owe my Britcom geekery, and much of my Anglophilia in general, to after-school airings of shows like Butterflies and Good Neighbors and Fawlty Towers. But we have a lot more channels now, and many of them do a better job at presenting the sort of stuff PBS is known for. So I am inclined to agree that, on today's television (and beyond), if there's a real demand for it, there will be a home for it outside of PBS.

I'll admit, when it comes to faith in public television, I've been drifting into heresy for years now. My first major disillusioning moment came when I was, oh, maybe 15. British comedy was a big draw for a certain, pledge-making demographic, and the local affiliate aired an evening of Monty Python that included a light documentary on the group (was it perhaps an earlier version of It's...the Monty Python Story?). I was up late, watching and typing simultaneously, as was my wont -- I had a large collection of VHS tapes that I treasured the way a Beatles fan treasures his bootlegs. (Not that I'm referring to anyone in particular, Mike.) And WVIA very seldom showed anything as "edgy" as Python. I couldn't believe my luck. The show got off to a rousing start, with a montage of Gilliam animation (including the cartoon where the two men bounce on the naked woman's belly as if it were a trampoline), and went on to include clips from classic sketches and interviews with the aged Pythons themselves. And then the station broke in for their first fundraising pitch. (I didn't record that part.) By the end of the first minute, the anchors were looking panicked -- it seemed the calls they were receiving weren't pledges, but rather complaints. The pepperpots in the audience didn't want this sort of filth on their TV, and they were letting the station know it. With drained, pale faces, the anchors promised that the station would listen to the callers' demands. More Keeping Up Appearances! Less Python! We apologize for assuming you might want something different! I sat there watching in dismay, feeling helpless. Too young to pledge anything. Too insignificant to fight the tide of old people who were offended by Monty Python but, apparently, soothed by the double entendres of Are You Being Served? So much for risk-taking, PBS.

I lost more faith in PBS when Sesame Street started to stink in the years following the death of Jim Henson. I can't even watch it anymore; none of the original puppeteers are still around, and it shows. Recently I caught a minute or two of Big Bird and Ernie talking to each other, and the pairing of familiar puppets and not-quite-right voices had an unsettling, body-snatchers effect. No thank you. But while all this has been happening, children's programming on Noggin and elsewhere has been improving. Nickelodeon used to be the network that ran cheap reruns of shows imported from other countries. Now (through Noggin) they're the ones developing engaging, worthwhile shows for young kids. The PBS lineup hinges on Arthur, and I've always had a deep dislike of Arthur (even in book form), so that's all I really need to know.

When I moved to New York I was so excited to be living within reach of a PBS affiliate that prioritized arts programming, particularly theatre. Several years ago the Tony Awards added an extra hour to the show, broadcast on PBS, in which they distributed the "creative" awards. Each category was introduced with a little behind-the-scenes film exploring the process of costume design or orchestration or whatever, and I thought it was the best part of the whole evening. But after the first year, the NEPA PBS station declined to show it -- they aired something like Pennsylvania Polka in its stead. I still haven't gotten over my disappointment. That sort of thing is much less likely to happen in New York. But I have found that every time I tune in to something on WNET, either because I read about it on Playbill.com or because it catches my eye when I'm flipping channels, they are always in the middle of a pledge drive. And I mean literally, with no exaggeration at all, every time. So when the hosts come on and make their appeal, reminding me that they need my support if they are to continue bringing me the programming I love to watch, I am not at all moved, because it has become very clear that they only air programming I want to watch when they're asking me for money.

So that's how I've come to the point where I'm willing to give up on public television. (Public radio is another issue -- the article above gets a little distracted in comparing and contrasting the two, but it does make a compelling argument for why they're different.) But, you might argue, what about programming for which there is a need, but not a commercial demand? Is there anywhere besides viewer-supported TV for that kind of thing? And so I ask you: What am I overlooking? What is Charles McGrath overlooking? Maybe you can tell me -- I gave up on wading through the largely subliterate "reader comments" on the Times's website, but that doesn't mean there are no thoughtful counterarguments to be made.

In other reading-the-Times news: did you see this cutesy story about the subway public-service announcement placard that, wowie zowie, has a semicolon in it? I was disappointed that there's so little meat in this story, but even more disappointed when I recognized which subway notice they're celebrating. When you're a copyeditor, and when you spend a good deal of time riding the 1 train, including occasional trips to and from the Bronx, you end up studying these signs rather closely. The one this article refers to has always bothered me because of its ungrammatical first sentence -- the part that comes before the sentence with the ballyhooed semicolon. The sign is meant to discourage people from leaving their newspapers behind them on the train (amen to that), and it says something like: "It doesn't matter what paper you read, its language or its views. Please put it in a trash can; that's good news for everyone." I've spent a lot of time staring at that first sentence, trying to fix it. There's no elegant solution. To keep the sentence structured as it is, you'd need to add a lot of words: "It doesn't matter what paper you read, what language it's written in, or what its views are." Or you could revise it entirely: "The title, language and views of your paper don't matter. What matters is that you dispose of it properly when you're finished reading." That's not exactly punchy, so maybe the sign is good enough as it is -- the meaning is clear enough. But it isn't right, and I'm not sure we should be reading an article in the Times about the brilliance of the grammarian who authorized it just because he knows how a semicolon works. I think what I'm feeling after reading that could best be called despair.

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