The PBS You Have Vs. the PBS You Wish You Had

On the radioshow two weeks ago I talked with my pal and public broadcasting alumnus Bill Poorman about some of his issues with that enterprise. Our actual conversation ran over an hour, so I had to leave out some of Bill’s comments about public TV, which were more critical than radio. But his comments rang through my head again when I read this commentary in Sunday’s NY Times, Is PBS Still Necessary?.

Bill made a lot of the same criticisms to me, noting that much of what PBS used to be known for–documentaries, nature programs, etc.–is now done in larger quantities, and often as well, by cable.

My own viewing habits reflect that reality. While I listen to quite a bit of public radio–it’s my primary daily news source–I watch relatively little public TV. I do tune in occasionally for the harder hitting documentary programs like Frontline and the indie-film oriented POV. But overall there’s little that interests me, and much that seems pretty musty and geriatric.

But that’s not an argument against the need for robust public television, so much as a criticism of the public television that currently exists in the US. Television is definitely more expensive to produce than radio, but I can’t help but think that public TV could be invigorated by taking a more grassroots, DIY approach, spending less per program but taking more risks. Current is one commercial approach, though its content is all short-form and unscheduled. Public TV could take the road of providing funding and a venue for longer-form programs and series that are truly more in touch with the public and not strictly commercial.

Why can’t PBS be the television home of one of the most innovative public radio programs of the last decade, This American Life, rather than Showtime?


Of course, there are good, structural and political economic answers to that question. But again, that doesn’t mean we should give up on public TV, but I do think it needs a serious refresh.




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