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Why Watch It, Anyway?

The “normal” American household is said to watch television, or at any rate to have the set switched on, for seven or eight hours a day. No doubt the verb “to watch” has a special meaning for statisticians. It doesn’t mean the act of scrutiny and observation; perhaps something more like passive smoke inhalation. If this statistic is true, then mine is not a normal household. Apart from my intermittent attempts to keep up with new shows, my set spends much of its time switched off. I do like to watch CNN and C-SPAN, because you actually see debate and events unfolding on them, often in real time. The only news program that my wife and I rarely miss is the MacNeil/Lehrer NewsHour.

Often I watch 60 Minutes. Sometimes we watch reruns of the American Comic Sublime, like I Love Lucy and The Honeymooners. There are Seinfeld and Murphy Brown, because American comedy, at its best, can be very good indeed. Like practically everyone else, I miss Cheers, and I sometimes zone out in front of the set and let programs flash by. But as a rule I go by the immortal words of Quentin Crisp, who when asked what he watched retorted that “television isn’t something you watch, it’s something you appear on.”

These desultory habits, I realize, come not just from having been repelled by many of the programs I’ve tried, but from my upbringing. I was born in 1938 in Australia, and until I was twenty Australia had no broadcast television. I have no idea what it is like to spend a childhood in front of a TV set, to have my dreams and fantasies administrated, at an early age, by the Box. What did we do? We had to manage with those portable, low-energy, high-density information-storage-and-retrieval systems known as books, of which, luckily for me, there were a great many in my parents’ house. We even read aloud to one another, a practice which is by now almost as obsolete as the quilting bee.

When I try to describe this childhood to my godchildren, they look at me with pity. They find a world without television as unimaginable as one in which you had to draw water from the well in a bucket, instead of turning the faucet in the house. And yet, on another level, their imaginative input—and that of millions upon millions of other children, particularly in America—seems rather primitive to me, given the tribalism of television and its ability to enforce whatever is most passive in collective dreaming. Television inducts children very early into the ethos of total global marketing, creating fantasy figures (the latest being the Mighty Morphin Power Rangers, their antecedents the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles) which then become toys, which in turn have countless spin-offs. The amusements of my childhood weren’t quite so passive, from reading to making small balsa planes that didn’t fly very well to learning to fish, hunt, watch birds, and perform sickening experiments on beetles and spiders, thus preparing for my later life as a critic.

Reading is a collaborative act, in which your imagination goes halfway to meet the author’s; you visualize the book as you read it, you participate in making up the characters and rounding them out—Captain Hook, Mowgli, Alice, and the rest. The effort of bringing something vivid out of the neutral array of black print is quite different, and in my experience far better for the imagination, than passive submission to the bright icons of television, which come complete and overwhelming, and tend to burn out the tender wiring of a child’s imagination because they allow no re-working.

But “education” means one thing in the real world, and another in network-world, as we saw in 1992 when a dispute broke out between local affiliate network stations and a children’s education action group over early morning kids’ programming. In order to be seen to comply with the not very stringent demands of the 1990 Children’s Television Act, local stations started claiming that programs like Dragnet, The Jetsons, and ancient reruns of Leave It to Beaver were “educational in nature.” This rivals the famous nutritional discovery of the Reagan administration that ketchup, in school lunches, was a vegetable.

The TV culture that affected me, and whose possibilities excite me still, came into existence because Lord Reith created the BBC. And Reith and his successors believed that broadcasting—first radio and then television—was too important to be trivialized by deregulated market forces.

It’s not that Reith, back in the early Thirties, had a vision of a remote manger in Adelaide where Sir Keith and Lady Murdoch were exposing their bambino to the adoring gaze of the Australian shepherds, and decided to block the probable results. Reith was a conservative visionary. He knew in his bones that the best way to create good media was to guarantee their independence from Church, State, and Mammon.

He therefore created the British Broadcasting Corporation, an independent but state-financed broadcasting authority which turned out, defects and all, to have been one of the supreme cultural creations of the twentieth century. The BBC had for years been attacked from the left for its elitism and its indifference to public taste. Then when the left began to self-destruct in the Eighties, the right attacked it for, guess what, its elitism and its indifference to public taste.

The BBC has its own banal moments, but compared to American TV it clearly has been doing something right, and if asked what that thing is, I can only answer, a general reluctance to condescend to its audience, a refusal to treat the public as stupider than it is, a conviction that people are entitled to copious information and the play of opinion, and that TV and radio are vitally important parts of culture as a whole, not just means of entertainment. Though I doubt that Reith could have imagined what American network TV would bring forth half a century later—maybe no civilized being could have—he knew quite well that when the play of market forces begins seriously to interfere with the play of human invention, any medium is in trouble.

What evolved from the primacy of the BBC was a duopoly: more noncommercial BBC channels first, and then, much later, commercial broadcasting—ITV, Granada, and so forth. The former tends to keep the latter honest. The competition of the latter tends to push the former away from getting smug or dull. One would not wish to do without either. Nor, as I shall presently argue, can we do without the mutated and gravely weakened version of the Reithian idea that, for all its admitted defects, is the saving grace of American TV—the Public Broadcasting System.1

A warning about TV was issued some two thousand years before it was invented, by the Roman poet Ovid. Video meliora proboque: deteriora sequor. “I see better things and approve them: I go for the worse.” This should be engraved on every set in America. The history of American TV broadcasting is the exact reverse of what happened in England and the rest of the English-speaking world. In America, commercial television came first and noncommercial TV was tacked onto the airwaves thirty years later, as a less powerful exception to an entirely market-driven system.

The first network broadcasts started fifty-four years ago, in 1940. The transmission bands were simply given to the networks for nothing, like mining rights on state lands. They amounted to a gigantic and permanent government subsidy to commercial television, since the airwaves ought rightly to be viewed as common public property: a fact worth bearing in mind the next time one hears some tribune of the people in Washington complaining about congressional subsidies for “elitist” (i.e., noncommercial) broadcasting. This momentous gift came wrapped in fine phrases about public service and cultural standards, but not a lot was done to ensure such service or enforce such standards, because there weren’t any; you might as well have been talking about spotted owls during the mineral and railroad booms of the 1870s.

Network television was seldom imagined as much more than a delivery system for advertising. In its first twenty years or so, American network TV did make gestures of responsibility toward the wider culture, because its owners felt it ought to. It is interesting, for instance, to run the tapes of Leonard Bernstein’s series of concerts and lectures for Omnibus that aired on CBS between 1954 and 1956 and reflect how inconceivable it is that a set of ninety-minute programs on classical music could ever be run on network prime time today. No commercial channel in America could contemplate treating its audience as though it were intelligent enough to enjoy Bernstein. It would seem like ratings-suicide.

You cannot watch network TV without being shouted at, every two minutes, to buy something. This saturation is so extreme by now that some dyspeptic critics feel that commercials are the actual content of network television. And they may be right, if you agree that the main purpose of network television is to create a fictive paradise of desire to which quotidian reality is merely a backdrop, a world rearranged in such a way that we don’t have to experience it. In this paradise, information slowly gives way to “infotainment” and events are continually altered by the imperatives of television editing. For most members of a vast audience, an audience far greater than print can claim, TV has taken over their image banks, their modes of social expression. It generates the icons to which they look and the forms of homage they pay to them. And yet there are many things TV cannot do.

TV favors a mentality in which certain things no longer matter particularly: skills like the ability to enjoy a complex argument, for instance, or to perceive nuances, or to keep in mind large amounts of significant information, or to remember today what someone said last month, or to consider strong and carefully argued opinions in defiance of what is conventionally called “balance.” Its content lurches between violence of action, emotional hyperbole, and blandness of opinion. And it never, ever stops. It is always trying to give us something interesting. Not interesting for long; just for now.

Commercial TV teaches people to scorn complexity and to feel, not think. It has come to present society as a pagan circus of freaks, pseudo-heroes, and wild morons, struggling on the sand of a Colosseum without walls. It thus helps immeasurably to worsen the defects of American public education and of tabloid news in print. “Multiculturalism” comes down to a match between the Ethiopian with the trident and the blond Dacian with the net. John Winthrop, Frederick Douglass, and Thomas Jefferson pale to insignificance beside Joey Buttafuoco. If O.J. Simpson’s trial actually takes place, by the end of 1995 the networks will have given more TV time to the demented rituals surrounding it than to the entire history of America.

Since 1940, the basic message of network TV has been that human life tends to the condition of melodrama. Conflict. Goodies and baddies. Moral absolutes. More and more, network political coverage treats politics as a kind of gladiatorial sport, obsessively asking who’s losing, who’s winning, and failing to explore the nature of issues. But conflict and prosecution are not necessarily the whole story. Having sown this wind, we now reap the whirlwind of an absurdly caricatured polity, under whose stresses the traditional American genius for compromise, which is the heart of a pluralist democracy, is breaking down. Then we look back on past TV stereotypes and mistake them for reality. The lost America of family values and virtue that Newt Gingrich and his friends prate about goes back a long way but its current version was in large part a media construction of the 1950s; it was to be seen in Ozzie and Harriet, a fantasy that now gets recycled as another fantasy about statecraft and morality. It isn’t only television that does this, but TV sets the pace.

Network television has failed to provide American politics with a forum for real discussion. And in at least one respect it has actively corrupted politics. In other English-speaking democracies, like Australia or the UK, television time is set aside for party debate; it is free, as a necessary element in democratic choice. But there is no such provision in American commercial broadcasting, where candidates address the public through paid commercials of unbelievable dumbness and mendacity. As a result, a new seat in the US Senate is likely to cost between $10 and $20 million, and there are only two ways a citizen can run for such office. The first is by taking what are euphemistically called campaign contributions, bribes in plain English, from corporations and PACs, on the understanding that you’ll do what they want later on. The second is by being both inordinately rich and narcissistic enough to blow $28 million of your own money on the quest for power, in the manner of that real-life Chauncey Gardiner, Michael Huffington, the Man Who Isn’t There—who, by a narrow margin, proved too fluffy even for the voters of southern California. Since both ways add up to immense sums in TV ads, hundreds of millions of dollars in revenue, we may expect Niagara to flow backward before the networks have anything to say against this perversion of American democracy.

There have been times when television coverage of events penetrated public consciousness with an accumulative power that print couldn’t rival. One could name them: the Army-McCarthy hearings, at a time when the long attention span of the networks was closer to that of CNN or C-SPAN today. The footage from Vietnam, the first television war in history. The coverage of Tiananmen Square. And so forth. And television has given us indelible icons. When the shuttle blew up, the image saturated the world. President Reagan, in his funeral oration over whatever could be recovered of the dead astronauts, recited their names and promised: We shall never, ever, forget you. Today I doubt if one American in a million remembers their names, but we all remember the forking cloud.

Television is not, to put it mildly, an art of conceptual memory. Its images are always displacing themselves. It must therefore pump up each one’s vividness to keep the millions watching. Cut out more connective tissue, make each bright pop-up image brighter still. The audience’s revenge is selective inattention. The viewer is amazingly adroit at channel surfing, zapping past a channel whose product is judged in two seconds to be boring. Knowing this, the network must make the next product more vivid still… and so it goes, in a descending curve of simplification. As Lewis Lapham points out in his introduction to a new edition of Marshall McLuhan’s Understanding Media, McLuhan recognized thirty years ago that the relation between abbreviated news and the consoling icon of advertisement is as fixed and, so to speak, as theologically necessary as the ancient relationship of hell and heaven. We are given our glimpses of scandal and disaster: corpses in Bosnia, the burned-out crack house in New York, the assassination in Mexico City. The bad news sells the good news: the smiling anchor, more real than the world outside, and the ads, which are Eden. The core message, in the end, is that the world may be a strange, violent, and horrible place, but products keep it away, as garlic repels vampires. Hence the sense of reality-shortage that accompanies image-glut.

This, as we all know, has produced a fine crop of paranoid fantasies, based on the erroneous idea that those who make TV, especially network TV, are in control of its nature. Twenty-five years ago, when there was still a left in America, one heard much about how the People Who Run the Networks want to Take Us Over, and had it all worked out in advance: they knew what would stimulate the two hundred million rats in the laboratory of consumption to go out and buy more Tide and Duz and Chevys, they knew precisely what blunderbuss of entertainment the commercials should be loaded into like nails and buckshot. The viewer didn’t have a chance.

This belief, if I can judge from my own limited experience, was quite wrong. Network TV is not made by all-seeing manipulators who know exactly how to reach the audience. It is cobbled together by more or less ordinary anxious people who can only guess what the public might like, and are painfully aware that their guess is apt to be wrong. This cast of mind breeds a timid conservatism and the multiplication of spin-offs, knock-offs, and formulaic stereotypes.

The writer of books is like one of those inventors who, after much toil in the basement with bamboo and bicycle spokes, would come out with an ungainly flying machine and test it in the park. Generally it would crash, but it wouldn’t bring down a whole corporate economy when it did. The producer on network TV, however, has to cobble together something the size of a G-3, and then fly it cold, right off the drawing-board. The possibilities for loss and humiliation are large.

I experienced them, once. Few remember the event now, but I do. It was about fifteen years ago, when I was hired in some fit of aberration to co-anchor a new magazine show on ABC, called 20/20. My fellow anchor was the now, alas, late Harold Hayes, who had been a brilliant editor of Esquire but, like me, proved to have little talent for sitting in front of a TV camera with makeup all over his face and reciting lines that had been written for him by other people. The aim of 20/20, I was told, was to knock the socks off 60 Minutes, an interesting if hubristic mission, like confronting a tank with a pea shooter.

The role of producer was entrusted by Roone Arledge to a man named Shanks. He soon made three things clear to us. One, neither Hayes nor I was to have any say in what we would say, or rather read from the idiot-board; he had writers to take care of that. Two, the stories had to have an “interesting” angle; mere news value would not do. Three, since the audience out there could be assumed to have the attention span of caddis flies, we must alternate weight with lightness. Mr. Shanks’s idea of weight was light. I recall that he hired Thomas Hoving, the former director of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, as the cultural correspondent of 20/20—and then sent him forth to conduct a mock interview with the mechanical shark from Jaws. Mr. Shanks’s idea of lightness excluded all irony or wit as being over the head of the viewers.

Our first night was a disaster. It featured a lachrymose filmed interview with the black comedian Richard Pryor, who had set himself on fire while freebasing cocaine and now went on at length about the pain he had caused his family. This was followed by a long piece by Geraldo Rivera, about the use of live rabbits as bait in greyhound racing in the Deep South, featuring much blurry infra-red footage of crackers passing squirming bags of bunnies to one another. Since I come from Australia, a country where the rabbit has the status of the rat or the roach and is not, as it is in America, the totemic animal associated with the resurrection of Jesus Christ, I couldn’t see what Rivera was getting dewy-eyed about. Our script, however, required Hayes and Hughes to look concerned and exchange some pregnant talk about man’s inhumanity to…well, rabbit.

I will spare you the other details of that ghastly night. Suffice it to say that all across America the next morning there was a collective exhalation of rage from TV critics about the trivialization of news, to which Roone Arledge responded with the courageous assertion that he had no idea what the 20/20 team had been preparing and that if he had known he would never have allowed it on air, since it was so clearly not in the finest traditions of ABC. (In fact, he vetted the program every inch of the way and was constantly in the studio during rehearsals.) He then appeased public opinion by firing the anchors, and Hugh Downs was hastily summoned to replace us.

Luckily for Hayes and me, ABC had to pay us for the whole year, and I was able to concentrate on The Shock of the New. I later heard Shanks had some success in Australia with a quiz show.

Yet looking back on my brief career as the news equivalent of the blonde with the envelope, I realize that I had, however briefly and ineptly, been part of the avant-garde of network television. The first issue of 20/20 was unquestionably one of the worst turkeys ever seen on American network, and yet it was curiously prophetic, and critics like Tom Shales who saw in it an omen of the future of the TV news-magazine program were not wrong. There was the voyeuristic interest in confession of sins. There was the fixation on celebrity. There was the almost total absence of any serious news—by which I mean narratives and explanations which enable viewers to get a handle on the world in a rational way. There was the phony sentimentality, the mock humanism. Above all, there was the belief that reality must always take the back seat to entertainment, so that the audience must not be overtaxed, so that they will come back for more of the same Twinkie. It’s just that the first program of 20/20 did this crudely and too early. Fifteen years later it would have been perfectly in line with the news-magazine stuff that now clogs the air, from outright celebrity-trash tabloid shows like Hard Copy to the somewhat more ambitious ones in which the contralto blonde nevertheless gets to ask the latest urban cannibal how he feels when he opens his fridge.

Network TV had been going for only twenty-one years, and its origin was still comparatively fresh in memory, when Newton Minow rose before the National Association of Broadcasters in 1961 to denounce it as “a vast wasteland.” That was in the middle of what people now write about as the Golden Age of Television. Today it may be even vaster. But the difference is that few people have any illusions about it, or hope for its improvement. In that speech thirty-three years ago, Minow said that commercial television should “enlarge the horizon of the viewer, provide him with wholesome entertainment, afford helpful stimulation, and remind him of the responsibilities which the citizen has toward his society.” He could not have predicted how far these laudable aims would be frustrated by the self-referentiality of TV. It is no longer one popular cultural form among many, but something much bigger. It is an environment, a self-generating system, a machine that has learned to go of itself and feels no obligation to other forms, except movies—in their role as creators of celebrity. I don’t think the problems of network TV would be solved if the afternoon confessional freak shows, with their proletarians screaming about incest, were replaced by worthy professors discussing Proust or Melville, but being a critic I am awestruck by the magisterial indifference the medium shows to other arts.

For it has influenced them all, in a thousand ways. If I were to offer only a partial list of them, we’d be talking about the novels of Don DeLillo, the paintings of Robert Rauschenberg and Andy Warhol, and a plethora of Hollywood films from Paddy Chayevsky’s Network to Quentin Tarantino’s Pulp Fiction. But the door between TV and the rest of American culture only swings one way. There was a time when American networks did their play-of-the-week, or play-of-the-month, designed to bring original work by American dramatists before a mass public, but that was long ago. About dance it has virtually nothing; and not much about books either, unless they’re written by Jackie Collins. Once in a while a book will seem controversial enough, or sell enough copies, to get its author onto the talk shows, usually in the early morning when the eager scribe must try to summarize the thing in ninety seconds before the hairstylist or the exercise guru replaces him. But that is all, and as for the arts that I usually write about—painting, sculpture, and architecture—the silence from the networks is nearly perfect: on such topics there is practically no crossover between print and TV, except when some plutocrat pays a record price for a van Gogh, or when Morley Safer gets exercised about the obscurity, triviality, and cost of late American modernism. This gets about thirty minutes’ airtime every five years.

Even so, it is nothing compared to the provinciality, the utter vacuity and incuriosity, of American network TV’s view of the world outside the borders of North America. Anchors who are real newsmen, like Dan Rather and Peter Jennings, struggle against this, in the face of depleted budgets for overseas bureaus, but they seem unable to reverse the trend. If so many Americans are provincial, if—despite the ease with which great herds of them move around the world browsing on “culture” and “fun”—they have the utmost trouble even imagining that the rest of the world is quite real, much of the blame lies with the TV which supplies their pathetically attenuated picture of that world. Generally, network television only reports world events when there is bloody fighting or when some obvious American interest—already obvious, that is, to an uninformed viewer—is involved. This “interest” is usually defined in military terms, as when we had a few weeks’ saturation on Panama, whose dictator Noriega became a primal hate-figure for a short while and then was forgotten. We have about six months of airtime on Israel and the Middle East for every five minutes that might be grudgingly devoted to Australia or Indonesia. Brazil is now more populous than Yeltsin’s derelict Russia, with a higher GNP; but it remains off-screen—like most of Latin America, except Mexico.

When was the last time we saw anything on network television about events—not just flood or famine, but serious politico-economic events—in India, or Pakistan? Why did South Africa suddenly drop off the screen? Or postwar Vietnam? When the folk who run the desperately shrunken network news services decided that John Doe and his wife weren’t interested, and couldn’t keep it in their heads. Which is the best way to ensure that American television is no longer open to the world; and that Americans don’t know whether Singapore is south or north of Cairo. If we worry about American isolationism, which we should, then we have to acknowledge how far network TV and Nielsen ratings help to generate and sustain the isolationist frame of mind: American reality, versus the unreality of the other five billion people on earth.

From Congress to the Heritage Foundation, it is one of the dogmas of American conservatism today that television should be left to the free market. Only then will it reflect the interests of the American people, and escape the elitism and creeping socialism that are supposed to disfigure it in the rest of the world. How anyone could believe this, after prolonged exposure to network television, baffles me. In the first place, the term “free market” is a mockery in television, whose immense start-up costs and limited number of available signal bands make it a textbook oligopoly. And that aside, you’d think that if anything in American life proved beyond doubt that mass communications should not be left entirely to market forces, it would be the failure of commercial TV.

What interests me is the alternative—public television. I don’t think PBS is a spring of pellucid wisdom. But I am convinced that for all its defects, it is still America’s best hope of intelligent and humane television broadcasting.

The weaknesses of PBS were encoded in the system at birth. Nobody in power wanted an independent authority that could stand up to the networks, or especially, perish the thought, to Congress. It was imagined, not as a strong centralized body like the BBC, but as a loose federation of cells of very uneven strength—local broadcasting authorities scattered across America, some 351 of them at present, all competing for a share in whatever money Congress could be persuaded to part with.

They don’t have much in the way of common interests as broadcasters. Programs produced by PBS stations make up only 42 percent of all its national programming, and of these programs 60 percent are produced by three regional stations, WGBH of Boston, WNET of New York, and WETA of Washington. An additional 16 percent of all programs are produced by the Children’s Television Workshop, and most of the rest come from overseas companies like the BBC and Channel 4. Some are university affiliates. Some are managed by boards of education, and are aimed at classrooms. Only a tiny minority of PBS affiliates create their own programs. Most don’t have the money. But localism consumes a huge slice of PBS’s budget. Seventy-five cents of every PBS dollar is spent by the 351 local stations on the cost of their offices, studios, personnel, and local programming, even though the evidence suggests that national and not local programming creates most allegiance to local stations.

PBS is always short of money. And yet its operating budget of about 1.2 billion dollars compares quite favorably with the 1.5 billion dollars that it costs the BBC each year to run two national television networks and, what is more, to produce most of the programs it transmits. The difference is that the BBC’s funds are not diluted by localism, as those of PBS are. Only about 7 percent of PBS’s budget gets spent on making programs. Localism, the early cousin of multiculturalism, seemed like a terrific idea twenty-five years ago. It would enable the system to respond to the very different community needs of the vast American tapestry. But when money is short you get programming of a kind that was never envisaged for PBS and really has no place in it—stuff that’s just grout for the airwaves. Oklahoma ETA, for instance, is in the business of adapting reruns of old Lawrence Welk shows, which are aired on other PBS stations all over the country. And the drainage into localism causes shortages in the budgets of primary stations, which is one reason why the works of Shakespeare or Eugene O’Neill don’t get produced.

Unlike the BBC, the Public Broadcasting System was not set up to be secure. Its mandated independence, particularly in news and political commentary, has always stuck in the craw of the American right—and since the blight of political correctness descended on us, of the left too. Its mandated pursuit of balance has likewise come under a stream of criticism from special interests at both ends—from the two Jesses, as Robert MacNeil recently put it, meaning Helms and Jackson. That, too, has been there from the beginning. Within a year of the creation of PBS, in 1971, President Richard Nixon flew into a rage at the appointment of MacNeil and Sander Vanocur as anchors of a Washington news program and told his staff to see to it that “all funds for public broadcasting be cut immediately.”

Thwarted in this, Nixon’s men then proceeded to stack the board of the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, which controls PBS, with what a memo called “eight loyalists to control the present CPB board and fire the current staff who make the grants.” The new board then voted to discontinue funding the prime national broadcast of all news and political analysis on the PBS system. The pressures eased under Gerald Ford’s brief presidency, and Jimmy Carter’s, only to be redoubled by Ronald Reagan, who could neither see nor imagine any reason why the content of all TV should not be controlled by market forces. He repacked the CPB board with conservatives, and tried in 1981 and again in 1982 to get a Democrat-controlled Congress to cancel all federal funding for PBS.

Obviously we are going to see more of this, much more, now that the Republicans control both the Senate and the House. Newt Gingrich has flown his trial balloon with a promise to “zero out” congressional funding for public broadcasting. There are two reasons for this. First, Gingrich and the younger Republican Turks really dislike PBS for ideological reasons; they cannot imagine that it does any good to have broadcasting independent of the marketplace, and they know they can get their own messages to the public through the networks, C-SPAN, or a relatively obscure cable outfit called NET (“National Empowerment Television”).

Secondly, the fate of PBS (and of other federally subsidized cultural institutions too, most conspicuously the National Endowments for the Arts and for the Humanities) will be entirely symbolic. Rolled together, the cost to each American citizen of all congressional funding for these three comes to about $3.00 a year, a trivial sum. Even if Congress abolished all three, it will make not a jot of difference to the balance of government spending. Their defenses are weak, since every religious fundamentalist and cultural know-nothing in America has been baying for their blood for years. The de-funding of PBS, therefore, is a useful bone that a Republican Congress can toss to its own radical wing. Moreover it is a lot easier than carving into the truly intractable areas of bloat, in which a stubborn resistance of vested interests will be encountered—Social Security, for instance.

We are now seeing a drive to demonize and if possible abolish PBS as a rogue cell of liberalism, a socialist, deviant, anti-Christian, elitist bureaucracy suffused with radical agendas. There is, of course, little evidence that PBS is anything of the sort. Certainly, it has sponsored documentary series like POV which reflect the views of racial and sexual minorities. Generally they are low-budget and amateurish, and pose about as much threat to American morality as a bug does to a windshield. One particular documentary in POV, called Tongues Untied—about gay black men—provoked the ire of the right, although it didn’t strike me as being exceptionally radical and was, in any case, only run by 174 out of the 284 stations that normally transmit POV.

Recently PBS also co-produced, with Channel 4 in England, a serial adaptation of Armistead Maupin’s Tales of the City. It was a light, charming series, witty and rather sentimental, and it was popular with many viewers. But there were gay lovers in it, and the protests from the religious right were such as to cause PBS to drop its plans for a sequel, though the money was already in place. To listen to the moralists, you’d think PBS had done a thirteen-hour version of the Marquis de Sade’s 120 Days of Sodom. But you can’t respond to the rhetoric of anti-elitism by running dumb programs, because then your critics will say: Aha! There you are! Network and cable do that just as well, so who needs you? The last thing PBS needed was its absurd quiz show Think Twice, whose questions were actually easier than those on Jeopardy.

On the whole, PBS’s dependence on corporate sponsorship has made its programming so apolitical or carefully middle-of-the-road that its image as a den of government-subsidized lefties is a joke, especially if you compare its programming content to that of the BBC or to Australian, German, Spanish, or French state television. But there is no shortage of Bible-thumpers like Donald Wildmon or opportunists like David Horowitz to argue the contrary. Conservatives like George Will think that PBS should go because it represents a form of “cultural welfare spending” for the educated and well-off, who don’t need it. Cable channels, such critics argue, can do “niche” (non-mass-audience) programming better.

But one needs to be clear about the niche-programming argument. The value of PBS cultural material is partly to do with the fact that it’s embedded in a wider broadcasting matrix. It is a mean and shallow view of society which believes that Wagner’s Parsifal should only be accessible on television to upscale folk with Porsches. To assume, as Mr. Will and his ideological allies do, that only the well-off could possibly want to watch Masterpiece Theater or Nova, that they are “elitist programming,” strikes me not only as condescending and hypocritical, but flatly untrue. There are lots of people out there in America who regularly watch PBS and either cannot necessarily afford the service fees the cable channels charge or have no access to them. Among them are children, whose educational welfare the pundits of the right affect to have at heart. Children are a minority audience too, and the only interest network television has ever shown in them is commercial, not educational. PBS is the sole outlet for decent, intelligent children’s programming in America. If we care at all about what goes out on television, then the level of much network programming will make elitists of us all.

Now if cable TV regularly did ambitious, intelligent, and original programming of the kind PBS was set up to do, and often does, I would be the first to applaud. Network TV has simply given up. The last worthwhile, well-reported documentary series on American television is PBS’s Frontline. CBS, NBC, ABC, and Fox-5 have ceased to do current affairs and political documentaries with any depth. But cable shows little sign of taking up the slack—not, at least, at this stage of its development. Will likes to cite Ken Burns’s excellent programs on the Civil War as the sort of thing cable could take out of the hands of PBS. Sure, cable would love to do the Civil War now: hindsight is always twenty-twenty. But the fact is that when Burns came up with the idea of nine long hours of old photographs and interviews with historians, with music and voice-over readings from letters and diaries, no one except PBS would touch it. (Unfortunately, after The Civil War became a smash hit, PBS concluded that Burns could do no wrong, and gave him carte blanche to produce the most long-winded, pretentious television series ever devoted to sport: eighteen hours, no less, of Baseball.)

I have no doubt that a cable channel like A&E will be able to do excellent things with serious documentary, once it raises its sights above the pedestrian level of its Biography programs. Indeed it has already begun to, with a solid and interesting, if not brilliant, three-part series on the American Revolution that began airing on the History Channel, an A&E subsidiary, in January. Nevertheless it will be some time before A&E, let alone any of its competitors, can raise the money and find the staff to produce material that rivals the best of PBS. For the foreseeable future, cable is going to be a low-overhead operation, unable to spend large sums on high-value documentary or educational production. Inevitably, PBS must reckon with a broadcasting environment changed by cable. It must adapt to multimedia in order to fulfill the educational mission it has had since it began. But I doubt that those five hundred cable channels on the Infobahn are going to give us much more in the way of serious reporting on current affairs, or educational and cultural programming. Most of them will be devoted to sex talk, evangelical religion, home shopping, movies, and infinite reruns of old TV comedies. The great beneficiary of multimedia and interactive telly will be pornography, and perhaps, as Clive James morosely predicted, serial killers will get their own serial.

To prosper in this environment what PBS needs, and should get from Congress, is not a cut-off of federal money but double its current subsidy. The chance of this happening is, of course, less than zero. Therefore in order to survive, it will have to trim its unwieldy 351-affiliate structure, which contributes so little to the quality or scope of its production output. At present it receives, through its chief regulatory body, the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, some $250 million a year, about 13.5 percent of total revenue, which amounts to slightly less than one tax dollar per American per year: not an onerous investment, but one sown with conflict. Perhaps PBS could continue to work without federal funds, but certainly not on the same level or better, because, as Richard Somerset-Ward points out in his analysis attached to the Twentieth Century Fund’s recent report on public TV,2 federal money has leverage—it reassures the nervous corporation that the program it has been asked to sponsor is serious and has value. The $253 million the Corporation for Public Broadcasting got from Congress in 1993 generated more than $1.5 billion in investment from membership programs, matching grants, and business sponsorship: a handsome multiplication dollar for dollar, though only a small fraction of the operating budgets of network television.

Today’s political atmosphere ensures that small budgets will continue to be the fate of public television. Nevertheless, its necessity has not abated. We need distinctive television, intelligent entertainment, honest documentaries that expose and reveal, educational programs that don’t condescend. We need television that addresses Americans as citizens, not just as consumers; as students, not as spectators. Citizenship today is an awkward and complex thing. Those who wish to simplify it will want to simplify television too. Their idea of “balance” does not mean, as it should, the clash of opinion over a span of time; it means self-canceling programs that won’t offend anyone, especially themselves. And if they win, whether in the name of political or of patriotic correctness, we may be left with two sorts of programming on the whole spectrum of network, cable, and PBS: the stuff that no one can escape, and the stuff that is too boring or too disgusting to watch.

  1. 1

    To declare an interest of my own. I am currently working with the BBC on an eight-part series on American art, in which PBS has no financial involvement.

  2. 2

    See Quality Time?: The Report of the Twentieth Century Fund Task Force on Public Television (Twentieth Century Fund Press, 1993).

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