The hue and cry from critics protesting the proposed cuts to the Public Broadcasting System made in President Trump’s budget makes clear those same critics haven’t looked at the PBS programming line-up lately.
Articles like this, which accuse the budget of putting Big Bird in “the crosshairs,” missed the news that Sesame Street moved to HBO last year, driving home the point that the best of PBS can find commercial distribution.
I won’t argue that PBS does not feature quality programming. The problem is that its content is polarized between excellence and dreck. It has superb shows, such as Downton Abbey, Sherlock and Frontline. But as Sesame Street’s defection demonstrated, most of these programs could easily find a place on commercial cable and streaming outlets. The remainder of PBS programming approaches self-parody: examples such as Golf’s Grand Design, Great Old Amusement Parks and Andre Rieu: Waltzing Forever.
The argument for public television—that it offers an exclusive place for quality content and entertainment that would be too narrow, too marginal and too unprofitable for commercial TV—is risible in an age of hundreds of cable channels and near-unlimited streaming.
Let’s start with the Doctor Who reboot. Undoubtedly, the quirky BBC science-fiction series, which dates to 1963, owes its U.S. popularity to public television stations that started using it as cheap filler back in the 1970s. Doctor Who is still as quirky as ever, albeit more polished than it used to be. Its ratings still run below the average of network shows, but it now reaches its devoted audience via BBC America.
In the 1980s, PBS gave us acclaimed adaptations of John Le Carre’s Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy, Smiley’s People and A Perfect Spy. Last year, AMC gave us the equally acclaimed adaptation of Le Carre’s The Night Manager.
In 1980, a Los Angeles PBS affiliate co-produced Carl Sagan’s seminal Cosmos. But it was the Fox network that aired Neil deGrasse Tyson’s Peabody Award-winning 2014 reboot.
Groundbreaking, urbane comedies like Transparent and Mozart in the Jungle that would have once found a home on PBS now are staples of streaming services like Amazon and Netflix.
Netflix’s Making of a Murderer and ESPN’s Oscar-winning O.J.: Made in America, part of its 30-for-30 documentary series, testify that commercial networks are willing to produce controversial investigative documentaries once exclusive to public TV.
In 2017, PBS offers little differentiation from what can be found on other television networks. Even rules that were once hard and fast—no advertising and no cuts—have gone by the wayside. PBS stations have been airing commercials for years. Fans of Sherlock have since reported that PBS cuts episodes by as many as eight minutes to leave time for a word or two from “donors,” but these effectively are just ordinary ads. If Mercedes-Benz and BMW are willing to pay to reach PBS viewers, there’s no reason to maintain government funding.
PBS fans simply are besotted with nostalgia. Public television was indeed unique up through the 1990s. Today, it’s lost all relevance. It is sucking up tax dollars and using them to subsidize high-dollar bids against Disney, Fox, Netflix and HBO for top-tier programming like Downton Abbey. It then tries to justify those subsidies by claiming such programming isn’t available anywhere else.
Well, PBS has lost Sesame Street to HBO. Time to ask if it is truly curating art and culture with Andre Rieu: Waltzing Forever?
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