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The Future of PBS?
March 5, 2018  | By David Hinckley  | 3 comments

Call it an interesting coincidence that PBS is launching a conservative-hosted weekly talk show at the same time the network is facing a push from President Trump and conservative legislators to cut off federal funds for public broadcasting.

In Principle, hosted by Michael Gerson (top) and Amy Holmes (top), will debut April 13 at 8:30 p.m. ET, after Washington Week, with an initial order of eight episodes. It promises lively guests and a civilized conversation.

But however notable its timing, In Principle isn’t the weapon PBS hopes will win this war.

The real weapon is millions of people from the whole rainbow of red, blue, and purple states – people who may not agree on guns or border walls, but share a common liking for Sesame Street, Daniel Tiger, Downton Abbey and Ken Burns’s examinations of Vietnam, the Civil War, and baseball.

“Our viewers are our strongest argument,” PBS President and CEO Paula Kerger said in an interview last year as the network faced a similar challenge. “When these discussions have arisen in the past, viewers have always stepped up, because public broadcasting is an important part of their lives.”

In a media world with a thousand choices, PBS has performed the remarkable feat of carving out a singular niche.

PBS children’s programming, a parent of any political persuasion would likely agree, is the safest place on TV in front of which to park the kids. It’s also not selling them anything.

When the Arts and Entertainment network gave up arts and entertainment, PBS doubled down, with the American Masters series, the Metropolitan Opera and Broadway.

When the History channel cut back on history, PBS stepped up with American Experience, explorations of what made us what we are.

Then there’s Masterpiece, which isn’t just Downton Abbey. It’s Victoria and Sherlock. Another Benedict Cumberbatch film, A Child In Time, arrives on April 1, and a new adaptation of Little Women in May.

Millions of viewers would be poorer for the loss of shows like these, because almost no commercial network would touch them. That’s why public broadcasting was authorized in 1967 and why it matters in 2018.

President Trump’s budget proposes to zero out the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, which helps support PBS and National Public Radio (NPR).

He also wants to stop funding the National Endowment for the Arts, which will endear him to conservatives who have long argued that regardless of the merits of these institutions, the government should not be in the business of funding them.

The counterargument, not to get into a whole different discussion, is that a nation isn’t just the sum of its hardware. It’s also the sum of its culture. The richer the culture, the richer the nation.

Toward that end, PBS has long focused on childhood literacy and education, a campaign that ranges from encouraging the imagination to assuring little girls they too can grow up to be scientists. The network has also been in the digital forefront through its popular interactive website.

The debate over public broadcasting has been around since the 1970s. In most of those years, public broadcasters have had at least one firewall – a house of Congress or the White House – to head those proposals off.

This year that’s less certain, and while that may not be the reason for In Principle, it’s absolutely the reason PBS will be mobilizing as many bipartisan voices as it can find.

“PBS, our 350 member stations and our legions of local supporters will continue to remind leaders in Washington of the significant benefits the public receives in return for federal funding,” read Kerger’s statement read, noting that annual tab is about $1.35 per person. “Public broadcasting is focused on providing high-quality content and universal public service, which is why we enjoy strong support in every region of the country, in both rural and urban areas, and across the political spectrum.”

It’s an inspired assertion. Once again in 2018, it may be tested. 

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Gerald Nielsen
Defunding the CPB and NEA would be one more embarrassment for the United States. So much money and look what we do with it. Not quite as important as diverting USDA help to small communities, cutting health care, education, EPA, etc., but this would still hurt.
Mar 6, 2018   |  Reply
PBS may not be selling stuff,but Sesame Street,already in bed with HBO,has a new ad flaking a Chrysler. Sesame Workshop has sold everything from vitamins to canned pasta(check out the sodium in those babies!).
Meanwhile,PBS has quietly got into the on demand TV business on their own. They call it PBS Passport and it basically is an online archive that is only available to paying members. A poor person's Netflix? Well,there are lots of poor folk who can't or shouldn't ante up for membership. Broadcast still exists and there are some free things on PBS' website,but the wall is being built and we all know what happens when a wall is built-troubles on both sides.
Bill Moyer was an early architect of public media,recently retired. Now,more than ever,where is Bill's replacement?
As for public funds for art-what sane,civilized government doesn't want to fund thinking? Oh,that's right.
Mar 5, 2018   |  Reply
Mark Isenberg
PBS has a wonderful WGBH relationship for Masterpiece,Nova and other unique programs but so many dreary Pledge Marathons over the last five plus years have turned off new viewers and potential donors. Yes,Government funding will be weakened probably long term so the rest of us will have to join local stations or donate more.But,first,the local stations and PBS have to revise and shorten the two week fundraising periods. And localize the hosts.
Mar 5, 2018   |  Reply
What? Two weeks? Maybe two weeks without begging. Philly's WHYY,where the boss gets $750,000 and produces little for the broadcast pool. WGBH guy gets $600,000+. WHYY has a sub channel that is pretty much a neverending begathon,full of medical scams,ways to "eat better" and "improve your memory"( remembering to give more to WHYY?). These stations are not unique. In WHYY's defense,they do carry PBSKids on another subchannel,but it ain't available on our corrupt cable system. Closer to my home,WLVT, broadcasts Create!-a PBS spinoff,full of craft & cooking shows. Nice,but only the Happy Homemaker of the Future benefits. Know ,too,that much of the government money helps small market channels & radio stations that are just trying to keep the lights on. Conservatives have been doing this "bend to our ways or we shoot the puppy" crud for decades. Jam their telephone lines,their emails-let them know you exist! Do it for Fred Rogers,Bill Moyers or yourself.
Mar 5, 2018
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