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Some Pledge Shows Are Well Worth Watching -- If You Can Find Them
March 7, 2011  | By David Bianculli

Want to see a new televised concert version of Billy Joel's 2008 farewell to Shea Stadium? You should, because it's a true TV treat. Finding it, though, is more of a trick. Like other good but hard-to-pin-down public TV offerings this month, it's a pledge special -- the TV-scheduling version of Whack-a-Mole...

On some PBS member stations, such as New York's WNET-Ch. 13, Billy Joel: Live at Shea Stadium airs tonight (in New York, at 8 ET). And that's followed, on WNET, by an encore of last week's superb Troubadours edition of American Masters, which I wrote about HERE, and TVWW contributor Tom Brinkmoeller, in his Raised on MTM column, raved about HERE.


But in the same TV market tonight, on Long Island's WLIW-Ch. 21, a 7 p.m. ET telecast of The 25th Anniversary 'Les Miserables' Concert is shown instead, followed at 11:30 p.m. ET by an encore of a lively, memory-prodding concert special from Pittsburgh, My Music: Rock, Pop & Doo-Wop. That same special, featuring a truly show-stopping turn by Ronnie Spector, also can be seen tonight (Monday, Mar. 7) on KERA in Dallas (7 pm. CT), Tuesday at 10:30 ET on Philly's WHYY, and Wednesday at 8 p.m. ET on WETA in Washington, D.C., for starters.

Meanwhile, in other markets tonight -- Philadelphia, for example -- Billy Joel is a no-show, but another show appears instead. On Philly's WHYY-Ch. 12, it's The Best of Laugh-In.


Will that special be entertaining, if you can find it in your market? You bet your sweet bippy. But finding it -- ah, there's the rub.

"Check your local listings" has never been more timely advice -- but these are well, well worth the effort to excavate them. The Troubadours edition of American Masters is part documentary, part musical overview, and 100 percent delightful.

Rock, Pop & Doo Wop serves up rare TV clips as well as newly performed golden oldies, making it a dream show for pop historians as well as tenured AM-radio lovers.

Laugh-In, for Baby Boomers from the 1960s and for younger viewers curious about that tumultuous decade, should be required viewing.

And Billy Joel: Live from Shea Stadium is nothing less than a head trip down memory lane. Joel notes, at one point, that the about-to-be-demolished Shea Stadium was built in 1964, the first year he joined a rock band.


The Beatles, famously, played Shea Stadium the following year -- and Paul McCartney shows up as a surprise guest, singing "I Saw Her Standing There" with Joel and closing with "Let It Be."

Other guests are Tony Bennett, doing a great job on "New York State of Mind," and Garth Brooks, performing Joel's "Shameless," which Brooks turned into a country hit. Other highlights from the TV concert version: With "Captain Jack," Joel somehow makes Shea seem intimate. With "Goodnight Saigon," members of the military share the stage at the end, getting a thunderous ovation.

"Italian Restaurant" is served well by its true orchestral backup -- and with "Piano Man," at one point, the crowd takes over, singing about as loudly as I've ever heard a concert audience register on a recording.

The mood is jubilant throughout. Except, that is, for one moment in "Always a Woman," when Joel salutes couples in love, and about to be married -- but can't keep himself from adding some words of sour advice. "Get a pre-nup."

Jeez, Billy... Let it be.




Justin said:

I'm 37, and I regularly watch several PBS programs: Nova, Nature, Austin City Limits, Frontline, etc. I love PBS. But, whenever they start a pledge drive, they completely dump the programming I watch and replace it with hour after hour of specially produced pandering, blatantly targeted at aging Baby Boomers with expendable income and New Age proclivities.

I know it makes sense to go where the money is when Pledge Drive seasons come around, but PBS seems to be selling its soul. I'm particularly offended when long-running real Science programming gets bumped for an evening of a self-help guru like Wayne Dyer, who never appears on PBS at any other time. Or, when a music series like Austin City Limits, which has done an amazing job focusing on the best contemporary music during the past few years gets shoved aside for yet another Doo Wop special, or a repeat of a documentary on just how great the music and young people were in the 1960s.

Comment posted on March 7, 2011 1:20 PM

Neil said:

The latest gambit seems to be playing a particular pledge-week special twice, back-to-back, on the same evening. Over just this past weekend, KQED San Francisco aired the My Music program twice on Saturday night, complete with the identical pre-canned pledge break inserts, and then did the same with the Les Miserables tribute Sunday night. (And if that's not enough, this station repeats their evening lineup during the overnight hours.)

Anyone else's local PBS affiliate doing this? (I guess it saves on program acquisition costs, but it can't possibly do much for viewership levels, can it?)

Comment posted on March 7, 2011 2:11 PM

Mac said:

My take on Troubadours is tacked on at Tom's column (yes,I could have edited better, but it just keeps me in awe of all the pros here). David, I was civil, really, just wordy and opinionated. I wanted more than what I saw so maybe that's a good thing. In any event, Amazon has the DVD at $13.99 right now,and it includes a CD with 10 well-known studio versions of many of the artists featured. While on the subject,the King/Taylor 2007 Troubadour reunion is also available, and it's $11.99 at Amazon. Comes with a CD version of the live recordings. Not great shakes (modern recording techniques actually leave some things desired as the CD is a little too compressed), but at 12 bucks it's a good deal (buying both means free freight).
But I wish,David, that you would do an anti-begathon version of this column with stuff to avoid; pointing out the Dr. Dwyer, Suze Orman kind of stuff. I'm almost expecting a two hour Proactiv infomercial to appear soon. The worst thing about pledge drive is no Charlie Rose. I get both the Philly and Lehigh Valley PBS stations and both usually drop Charlie this time of year. Why can't TV take a hint from radio that the habitual viewer/listener is usually the best source for funding. Keep Rose,Nova and the rest,even if it's just reruns or best of packages. After all,that is what PBS is after Daniel O'Donnell goes home.

[It's a good, solid idea -- but "what to avoid" is the sort of writing, for the most part, I'm trying to avoid. After a third of a century as a TV critic, writing about the good stuff is a lot more rewarding. And a LOT more challenging. But you're right: Virtually any program shown during a pledge break has a superior DVD edition. The Billy Joel special, for example, offers a DVD-CD combo with 10 extra songs on the DVD alone! -- DB]

Comment posted on March 7, 2011 7:02 PM

Sean Dougherty said:

I just watched Troubadors (finding it isn't too much trouble if you have TiVo) and holy smoke these guys are 1) great singers and 2) insufferably self-satisfied about it. It's just not interesting to see all these old rock stars explaining, so earnestly, why it was so important and earth-shattering when THEY were young. Give me a break. And get back to the singing. We certainly don't need government money to support this cringe-worthy boomer nostalgia. DeMint is right - time to pull the plug on this nonsense.

[Sean -- Obviously, we're on obviously different sides of the fence on this one, and it may be a very tall fence. But you're welcome to come visit, and voice your opinion, any time, anyway. I'm all for diversity of opinion, so long as the discourse is civil, which yours is. -- DB]

Comment posted on March 8, 2011 5:55 AM

elise said:

Off topic from your blog post... but I just had to voice my opinion on Margo Martindale.... She is one of the best (character) actresses out there today. Peerless, in my humble opinion. She's been in so much and does such pitch perfect work in everything she's been in.... If I were to go after a career change in my well advanced middle age? I would aspire to be an actress just like her. I LOVE, LOVE LOVE her!!!!!

(And flippin comcast cable has an error message ...so I'm afraid I'll be missin tonight's episode. BIG grumble. HATE, HATE, HATE comcast!)

Comment posted on March 9, 2011 1:22 PM

Mac said:

Two points concerning CPB and this wave of begathon viewing. I don't know if other stations do this, but the Lehigh Valley PBS station has entire blocks, usually on weekends during the pledge time, listed as "Member Favorites". They seem to determine, at the last minute, to decide which show to run, supposedly based on money the show brought in the past, but how another viewing of Orman would wonder if it isn't just based on what is cheap to show. So no way to plan ahead and tape (I don't know if this blocks Tivo recording) but, so they know, also time for this viewer to avoid the station. My public media dollars go to radio, which doesn't play this evil game. And my radio is WHYY, the one that David works from in Philly, not our local Lehigh Valley NPR outlet (WHYY the one I listen to most, though the valley is served by three besides two Philly college stations that pay something to NPR).
Now, to those opposed to CPB and federal funding. Do you get cable? Take a look at your lineup. Channels like: History, TLC (when you could actually learn something on TLC), Nickelodeon, Discovery, Animal Planet and others-these channels expanded on ideas that PBS championed and still do best (Sesame Street, American Experience, NOVA, etc.). Even the Food Channel, though cooking shows have been a basic crutch since TV was invented, owes more to Julia Child than any other personality. And an argument for the BBC in America comes from PBS exposure to BBC programming. PBS outshines every one of these channels, largely because of non-commercial involvement. If anything, it's time to increase funding, not consider erasing CPB.

Comment posted on March 9, 2011 2:13 PM
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