Tuesday, June 9, 2009

June 9: Pledge Drive and Funding Changes Needed For PBS

Sylvia Gurinsky

It's PBS pledge drive time, when the best network on television turns (in parts) into one of the worst.

No "Mystery," no "Masterpiece Theater," no "American Experience," no "Frontline" and no Bill Moyers or "Now." Not even "Antiques Roadshow." But there is plenty of (ugh) Wayne Dyer and Suze Orman - people PBS wouldn't be caught dead showing otherwise. And how many times has that program with composer/producer David Foster been shown on Miami's WPBT-Channel 2? (I've counted seven so far.) I like Foster, but he's turning into the new Andre Rieu - the program PBS can't stop showing.

Even the beloved opera singers Luciano Pavarotti, Placido Domingo and Jose Carreras turned into this monster called the Three Tenors, which PBS also showed too much.

All of this goes on because American public broadcasting does not have an independent, sustained source of funding. It has the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, which can sometimes be chaired by someone with a political agenda, and which, unfortunately, is subject to the whims of Congress.

The ideal system for PBS would be to have the same kind of funding system Great Britain has for the BBC: An extra fee on each new television purchased. Sadly, Congress will never allow that to happen. It just makes too much sense. Further, would Congress willingly allow themselves to lose any control over anything?

When there are no pledge drives, PBS programs have various corporate underwriters, and the promotions for some of those underwriters are beginning to look suspiciously like commercials, which PBS isn't supposed to have. That's part of the problem.

Years ago, PBS stations would abandon regular programming for weeks at a time to conduct auctions. During the 1980s, the network started to change to pledge drives. In the beginning, the special programming they put on truly was special - documentaries about great composers such as Rodgers and Hammerstein, concerts by Julie Andrews and so forth.

Sometime during the 1990s, stations started discovering they could raise gobs of money with repeated broadcasts of some of those high-end events, such as the first Three Tenors concert, which took place in Rome in 1990. Again, the repeats turned into a monstrosity.

During the past decade, self-help gurus also started showing up during pledge time, in PBS-sanctioned infomercials (That's the only way to describe it.).

About the only thing viewers haven't been subject to during pledge drives is reality programming (Heaven forbid).

President Barack Obama has announced a new commitment to the arts, and he should include PBS in that. He and CPB President Patricia de Stacy Harrison need to take a hard look at how the network raises money all year.

At the very least, PBS can take some steps during pledge drives:

-Remove the infomercials.

-Do not repeat programs more than once during a single pledge drive, with at least a week's separation between the two.

-Rebroadcast special PBS programming, such as Masterpiece Theater's "Jane Austen" series. How about themed "Antique Roadshows," such as the one that was shown before last November's presidential election?

-Do not remove public affairs programming, such as "Frontline" and "Now." Those programs are essential.

-Take classic programs out of the PBS vault. How about a special broadcast of "Upstairs, Downstairs" or "Mary Hartman, Mary Hartman"? How about showing vintage editions of "Live From Lincoln Center" (The hilarious 1981 concert of Danny Kaye conducting the New York Philharmanic would be a good example.) or "Great Performances"? Television viewers love nostalgia.

-And yes, bring up an independent, sustained funding source again.

Since the mid-1960s, PBS has been an important resource and a national treasure. Pledge drives and funding issues have put the taint on both. That must change.

No comments: