With the winter semester finally over, I have a bit of previously unheard of free time. And as the weather remains stubbornly, disgustingly drizzly, my “free time” has translated to boredom-induced channel surfing, while eating copious amounts of Chinese takeout.
Yesterday, while doing exactly this, I made a rather disturbing discovery. Remote in hand, I stumbled across a relic I completely forgot existed: PBS.
Most of you probably refer to your local PBS station as “the one with ‘Antiques Roadshow,’ ” and you wouldn’t be wrong. “Antiques Roadshow” plays with disconcerting frequency, usually book-ended by something to do with gardening and a re-showing of “Masterpiece Theatre,” now updated to simply “Masterpiece.”
Here’s where I made the alarming connection. PBS frequently re-runs period films and current TV shows from none other than the BBC. And wouldn’t you know it, BBC is Britain’s public broadcasting station.
Is this the same BBC airing some of the my-life-is-utterly-meaningless-until-they-return dramas, “Downton Abbey” and “Sherlock”? And what about my embarrassingly avid crush on the Doctor from “Doctor Who” — David Tennant’s rendition, obviously — or my obsession with everything ever said by Edina Monsoon on “Absolutely Fabulous”? Yep. All courtesy of the BBC.
In fact, across the pond, BBC has branched to include a number of stations, like BBC One, Two, Three and Four, along with news and music stations. I suppose, as the BBC was the first public broadcasting station ever, it’s entitled to be the best.
But poor little PBS can’t even attempt to compete. Its government funding is constantly under review, and all those phone operators eagerly awaiting your call for a donation don’t seem to be holding down the fort either. True, in the U.S. we did set up a commercial broadcasting system first, which threw everything out of whack, but still. Is that our only excuse? Pitiful.
As for the BBC, it operates under an annual television license fee, which allows the station to acquire revenue from every citizen who owns a television, and thus produce kick-ass programming. The very existence of PBS is thrown into question here in the U.S. with alarming frequency; the worry being that PBS has outlived its necessity for servicing the public good.
Why don’t we care about our public broadcasting? Maybe it’s an oversimplification, but in every way you look at it, we are losing to Britain. I’d hazard a guess that while I’m contentedly watching “Sherlock,” not a lot of British people are hunkering down with their Earl Grey, ready to catch the latest gripping hour of “American Masters.”
Yet what PBS offers, limited though it may be, can’t be swept away so easily. The station airs a large amount of educational programming for children and several news outlets, such as “Frontline.” Why do these matter, you ask? PBS, not being controlled by advertisers or commercial interests, doesn’t necessarily have to uphold said interests of commercial entities. Meaning when tuning into PBS, you can reasonably expect a higher level of impartiality than with a station operating under corporate ownership.
Not to mention the fact that one of PBS’s main goals is to offer content that wouldn’t be shown otherwise. Including programs that focus on the local community or fine arts, which have been sorely neglected on regular broadcast stations as they don’t pull big numbers, viewership-wise.
Even though we’ve established that public broadcasting is a useful, and in fact necessary, public entity, the fact remains: nobody cares about PBS. It’s something your grandparents watch while they’re playing bridge. But it doesn’t have to be that way.
The U.S. should follow the excellent example set by Britain and the BBC and develop an adequate system of funding public broadcasting. Now, don’t freak out. I’m not saying we have to develop an annual television license fee, though such a system obviously works pretty well, considering the level of quality coming out of the BBC.
All I’m suggesting, is that we, as a country, should think more about our public broadcasting. A program that was developed in the interest of the pubic good shouldn’t be an afterthought in our society. It’s time for PBS to become the channel to watch. OK, that might be stretching it, but everybody’s got to have a goal, right?