Wednesday, April 22, 2009

Do We Still Need Public Television?

With states having to decide on how to spend precious funds, state funding cuts are now threatening public television in general along with local public stations like Pittsburgh’s WQED, America’s first community sponsored TV station and the one that brought us Mr. Rogers' Neighborhood.

In February, Gov. Ed Rendell proposed to eliminate $8 million in funding for public television stations in Pennsylvania. This would mean a $1.1 million cut for WQED, and federal funding from the Corporation for Public Broadcasting is tied to state funding.

Simply put, a loss of funding of this magnitude would require fundamental changes in one of the nation's most treasured public broadcasters -- the home of "Mister Rogers' Neighborhood."

The WQED that the residents of Western Pennsylvania put on the air 55 years ago would no longer exist in the same form.

The media landscape has changed dramatically over the years with the advent of cable, satellite, and the Internet. Questions abound like Can We Save Our Newspapers? and with the tremendous number of cable broadcasters like the Discovery Channel and History Channel out there, it is natural to ask whether we still need public TV.

To answer that, we need to ask whether public TV offers enough unique quality programming that is not available anywhere else. Unfortunately, ‘quality’ is a very subjective term since we all have different tastes. But determining ‘unique’ is a bit easier.

Here is a sampling of the PBS network evening
primetime programming:

· Fine arts (
Great Performances, Live from the Met, Live from Lincoln Center, and Evening at Pops)
· Drama (
Mystery!, American Playhouse, and Masterpiece Theatre)

When it comes to fine arts and drama, public TV definitely offers programming that is not available elsewhere. And while the networks are still producing some drama shows, they are dissapearing in favor of cheaper-to-produce reality and variety shows. For example, Jay Leno will soon take up NBC’s 10-11 o’clock (ET) slot Monday through Friday.

Science and history shows are available on channels like Discovery and History but for the real science and history wonks, Nova and American Experience usually explore their topics in much more depth, partly because they don’t have to devote time to commercials. By the way, it should be noted that the landmark nature series, Planet Earth on the Discovery Channel here in the US originally came from the BBC, public TV in Great Britain.

This is where pubic television really proves its value as far as I am concerned. Documentaries on network television are few are far between. HBO produces some excellent documentaries for its pay subscribers. But Frontline does the best job in consistently producing top-notch documentaries of anybody. And who can forget
The Civil War and other great documentaries by Ken Burns? While the commercial networks present fine political interview shows on Sunday morning, Charlie Rose presents many interesting interview guests every Monday through Friday you would never see on commercial TV.

Other outlets like Nickelodeon offer childrens’ programming but in my opinion, nobody has ever produced anything to equal Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood (whose reruns have regrettably been discontinued by PBS) and the show that pioneered combining childrens’ education and entertainment in a single show, Sesame Street. And just as important, these childrens’ shows are presented without commercials and are available on free over-the-air TV.

And with local commercial TV being driven by ratings, the local public stations can instead concentrate on providing much better community affairs programming.

So a case can be made that public TV does indeed provide unique programming. But do enough people appreciate the 'quality' programming presented by public TV enough to want to keep it on the air? Should it be financed at least in part by tax dollars? Financing TV with tax dollars creates problems when the programming (especially documentaries) is seen as being too controversial to some points of view. But on the other hand, it’s hard to see how public TV can survive in its present form on viewer contributions alone.

It’s easy to take a resource like public TV for granted especially with all of the other media choices we now have. But as the expression goes, you never miss something until it’s gone. With all that public TV has given us over the years, I hope we will never have to find out whether that's true.

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