Blog Post

Public Radio v. Public TV

Henry Jenkins writes about the "convergence" of new and old media and the way certain new forms of media precipitate the end of old media while other forms of media persist along side new media. Charles McGrath has written a provocative op ed piece about the way that NPR, public radio, is exploding in its numbers while PBS, national public broadcasting television, is dwindling.  He wonders if it is time to let PBS go since it no longer does what it once was designed to do wherease NPR, more than ever, offers an important alternative media outlet.

 

I think his basic argument is right, that NPR offers a true option. There is no other great radio source for news, for progressive politics, or even for the odd ball show. Except for the valiant job of some indy stations, radio is mostly homogenous and dismal. Here in the Research Triangle, for example, we have a great indy music scene and so many colleges and universities and really fantastic radio. (A friend from LA, realizing he had many choices as he was driving from his apartment in Durham to the National Humanities Center, said that, in LA, there is barely any African American radio any more. In LA! We have jazz, blues, funk, soul, AfroPop, and on and on.) And we have NPR.  

 

PBS, on the other hand, has had its budget slashed and slashed year after year until its most predictable programming now seems to be the endless fundraisers. It's sad, because, even though other channels have taken up the educational challenge, where does one go now for international or political televised news that has not been corporatized beyond reality? Most news drowns in the local.  Or it is sensationalized human interest. Barely above tabloid journalism. 

 

Pundits complain that youth today are more likely to watch Comedy Central as a news source than CNN. Well? Comedy Central isn't as silly as most of our mainstream news these days.

 

I mourn the gutting of PBS. I'm not sure that the internet has really cut into public television ratings as much as poverty, from the Bush Administration's cuts. And competition from all the other channels out there. And from a probably necessary cowardliness about anything that seems controversial and might offend the Bush administration even more. I don't have any brilliant conclusion here, just a little sadness.

 

 

New York Times: http://www.nytimes.com/2008/02/17/arts/television/17mcgr.html

February 17, 2008
Television

Is PBS Still Necessary?

FORthe eighth straight year the Bush administration has ritually proposedtaking a hefty whack out of the federal subsidy for publicbroadcasting. The cuts would in effect slice in half the money thatpublic television and public radio get from the government. If wefollow the usual script, this means it?s time for upset listeners andviewers to rally to the cause, as they have in the past, and browbeatCongress into restoring the budget.

Every year, though, it gets a little harder to muster the necessaryoutrage, and now and then a heretical thought presents itself: What ifthe glory days of public television ? the days of ?Monty Python,??Upstairs Downstairs,? ?The French Chef? ? are past recapturing? Latelythe audience for public TV has been shrinking even faster than theaudience for the commercial networks. The average PBS show on prime time now scores about a 1.4 Nielsen rating, or roughly what the wrestling show ?Friday Night Smackdown? gets.

On the other side of the ledger the audience for public radio hasbeen growing: there are more than 30 million listeners now, compared tojust 2 million in 1980. ?Morning Edition? and ?All Things Considered,?NPR?s morning and evening news programs, are the second and fourth mostlistened to shows in the country. Go figure. Who would have guessed 40years ago, when public broadcasting came into being, that the antiquemedium, the one supposedly on its way out, would prove to be thegreater success and the one more technically nimble. You can evendownload NPR broadcasts onto your iPod.

Radio benefits of course from being a smaller target, and fromattracting fewer political enemies. In public television especially itused to be axiomatic that attacks on the budget were retaliation forperceived liberal bias. Newt Gingrichwas quite upfront about punishing PBS when he began his budgetaryonslaught back in 1995. By now, though, that war ought to be over.These days the Corporation for Public Broadcasting is run byRepublicans, and a few years ago, Kenneth Y. Tomlinson, who was thenchairman of PBS, wasn?t the least bit shy about trying to arm-wrestlestations into running a program whose host was Paul Gigot, editor ofThe Wall Street Journal editorial page. Unless you count occasionaloutbursts of hand-wringing earnestness on the part of Bill Moyers or David Brancaccio on ?Now,? it?s hard now to see anything resembling liberal excess on PBS, if there ever was such a thing.

Scanning the PBS lineup, in fact, it?s hard to detect much of a biastoward anything at all, except possibly mustiness. Except for ?AntiquesRoadshow,? all the prime-time stalwarts ? ?The NewsHour,? ?Nova,??Nature,? ?Masterpiece? ? are into their third or fourth decade, andthey look it. Every now and then a one-off like ?The War,? Ken Burnsand Lynn Novick?s World War II documentary, the most-watched PBS seriesin 10 years, comes along and makes a huge splash. The broadcast of thefirst episode was watched by some 7.3 million people, or about as manyas tune in to the ?NBC Nightly News.? But such projects are few and farbetween, and they?re so overwhelming and time-consuming that for manypeople they mostly serve as lengthy advertisements for the boxed DVDset, which you can view at your own convenience and your own pace.

More typical prime-time fare ? if you watch WNET, Channel 13, in NewYork, anyway ? is the weekly rerun of ?Keeping Up Appearances,? a BBCsitcom about class snobbery that was old 10 years ago. With her permedhair, dowdy clothes and fluty accent, the main character, Hyacinth, ispractically a parody of a certain strain in public broadcasting: theone that puts on airs and wants to pretend to singularity.

Forty years ago it really was different. There were only threenetworks, and none of them were known for challenging or high-mindedprogramming. Indeed, public broadcasting came into being out ofcollective despair over what had become of the airwaves. Cable haschanged all that. There are not only countless more channels to chosefrom now, but many offer the kind of stuff that in the past you couldsee only on public TV, and in at least some instances they do it better.

The stunning (and stunningly expensive) BBC documentary ?PlanetEarth,? for example, which in the old days would have been a naturalfor PBS, was instead broadcast on the Discovery Channel, which couldpresumably better afford it. The Showtime series ?The Tudors? is justthe kind of thing ? only better produced and with more nudity ? thatused to make ?Masterpiece Theater? (now simply ?Masterpiece?), once theflagship of PBS, so unmissable. Now it?s so strapped for cash that ithas pretty much settled into an all-Jane Austen format.

If you?re the sort of traditional PBS viewer who likes extended newsbroadcasts, say, or cooking shows, old movies and shows about animalsgnawing each other on the veld, cable now offers channels devoted justto your interest. Cable is a little like the Internet in that respect:it siphons off the die-hards. Public television, meanwhile, more andmore resembles everything else on TV. Since corporate sponsors wereallowed to extend their ?credit? announcements to 30 seconds,commercials in all but name have been a regular feature on publictelevision, and that?s not to mention pledge programs, the fund-raisingequivalent of water-boarding.

In a needy bid for viewers, public television imitates just as muchas it?s imitated, putting on pop knockoffs like ?America?s BallroomChallenge.? Even though a number of surveys suggest that a largesegment of the viewing population still wants the best of what publictelevision has to offer, there isn?t as much of that as there used tobe, and when it is on, it often gets lost amid all the dreck.

Considering how much it costs to create new topnotch programming,the best solution to public television?s woes is the one that willprobably never happen: more money, not less. Here too public radio hasan edge, because giving listeners what they want doesn?t cost nearly asmuch. NPR has benefited, moreover, from a huge bequest from the estateof Joan Kroc, widow of the longtime McDonald?s chairman, and you couldargue that it has spent its money more wisely than PBS, spiffing upexisting shows rather than trying to come up with new ones. Listenerscomplained mightily when Bob Edwards was booted as host of ?MorningEdition? in 2004, a month before his 57th birthday, but the changeinvigorated the show and ratings are up. (Jim Lehrer, 73, has been with ?NewsHour? since 1975, so long that some of his early viewers are now in assisted living.)

But by far the greatest advantage of public radio is that, by nottrolling after ratings, it has managed to stay distinctive: it doeswhat nothing else on radio does and sticks to its core: news and publicaffairs and the oddball weekly show like ?Car Talk? and ?A Prairie HomeCompanion.? At the same time, public radio thrives, in a way thatpublic TV does not, from internal competition: in addition to NPR, theold standby, there is the newer, hipper PRI (Public RadioInternational), importer of the invaluable BBC World Service newsprogram and distributor of innovative shows like ?Studio 360 With KurtAndersen? and ?This American Life,? which NPR did not fight for.

Where would we be without this stuff, gathered so conveniently atthe low end of the FM dial? How would we fill those otherwise emptyhours when we?re held hostage in our cars? At its best publictelevision adds a little grace note to our lives, but public radiofills a void.

 

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2 comments

I'd be one of the people who would be very sad if PBS went away. We don't have cable (or satellite) TV - by choice, since we don't watch enough TV to justify the cost - so aside from sports almost all of the broadcast TV we watch is on PBS, since the rest is mostly junk. I think when discussions are made about the relative value of PBS it's with cable/satellite competition in mind. Probably if satellite/subscription radio had an earlier start, NPR would be in the same place PBS is now.

And of course there's much less variety in most areas since there's only one PBS station in the market, and it needs to cater to everyone (whereas, as you note, there are a variety of noncommercial radio stations in this area). I'm still trying to figure out why Lawrence Welk is still on WUNC - I'm guessing it's because some state legislator said if it wasn't he'd cut funding to the station. :-) The DC area is quite different - there are at least 4 non-commercial TV stations there, including one that shows programs from around the world 24 hours a day - German news, Farsi dramas, Italian soccer, Chinese variety, etc. I'd love to have this here. Perhaps as we move to digital TV, things will get better in the Raleigh/Durham area too - WUNC has 5 different channels on their digital broadcast. Unfortunately the variety is still pretty limited and seems mostly aimed to please the state legislature rather than the viewers, but I think if PBS stations picked several underserved niches and ran with them, they'd gain more dedicated viewers and funding. Right now they're just trying to be like the commercial guys, and they're not going to succeed that way.

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Happy to see people are critical of PBS. I am a producer and director of cultural content at KNME-PBS and I am so tired of hearing people say how wonderful PBS is, numb to the concept of the potential for innovative content to take us into the future of broadcasting. Our station has all the high end equipment and resources, but we are ultimately limited in being able to pay creative staff, and limited in how our funding works, which is a project by project basis. In other words, I make shows according to who is willing to fund them, and thus, end up producing hand-me-down projects that serve as promotional shows for the good intentioned, but unimaginative, funders. I was told in the old days we had blanket funding, which meant producers came up with what content to produce, not funders - a model that NPR follows with the result of more distinctive, innovative programming. Not following this kind of funding model, the result for PBS is we have non-TV people making TV. The reason Lawrence Welk plays is because funeral homes pay for it, and they are cornering the elderly market. Our station strapped for funding takes the money and plays the show. It's business, not production. The argument that TV is more expensive than radio does not hold for me. At our tiny station we have state of the art equipment. The problem is that we have a tiny production crew, a limited number of creative minds to push the envelope. I'm not entirely sure why our managers outnumber ten fold our production people? Perhaps PBS is stodgy, too comfortable in it's PBS-ness. I welcome more people to critique our programming and demand better, more unique content.

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