Dear Impresario: Let’s recreate PBS as the citizens’ channel

Commentary by Danny Schechter

In 1995, Current asked three of public TV’s highly regarded program-makers to write “Dear Impresario” letters to the next chief programmer at PBS — a position then vacant. Danny Schechter is the executive producer of Globalvision Inc., producers of Rights & Wrongs: Human Rights Television, which the previous PBS programmer, Jennifer Lawson, had declined to distribute.
Danny Schechter

Schechter

PBS’s future rests on a “vision thing.” We all know that systems generally are resistant to change, and that managers of most of our most venerable and vulnerable enterprises tend to be risk-adverse and prudent, seeking to be safe rather than sorry. Yet as we look at the landscape of modern life, we can see the wreckage of those institutions that clung to old ways of thinking and doing in a turbulent world.

So the real question is: Can PBS afford not to change? Is the public television system capable of a fundamental rethinking and reconfiguration?

Spinning programming ideas is the easy part. Even financing strategies are craftable. But none of it matters if leadership within the system won’t lead, forging a consensus around a new vision for public television in an era when so much of commercial television has gone into the toilet. There is a media vacuum — but can and will public broadcasting fill it?

Now, I know the problems. Everyone who works in public media has a list of frustrations and complaints, with shrinking resources topping every list. But it’s still worth arguing for a redirection, as a first step in considering what PBS’s new programming team might do.

For too long, public TV has been treated, and seen itself, as a world apart, content to narrowcast on the margins. We are not a side show. We should be competing against the crap in the main tent. 

I have been intrigued reading about PBS’s intent to wrap itself in the flag of democracy. After all, our human rights series Rights & Wrongs, has been covering the threats to and struggles for democracy for years. I only hope that those invoking the term are not using it simply as a political ploy to placate a resurgent right in the name of some opportunistic and mechanistic notion of balance. Public broadcasting will not survive by kow-towing to demagogic politicians who pay lip service to democratic values while slashing funds for public institutions and stifling provocative programs.

A commitment to democracy on the airwaves can’t just be an election-year gimmick either. It must and can become a daily preoccupation.

On one battleground at least, Ervin Duggan and company deserve credit for positioning PBS within the context of American television overall by demanding that commercial interests pay some of the freight for public broadcasting. That effort was gutsy and principled. Unfortunately, our pro-business Congress is not about to tax the rich to give to the poor. At least the challenge is being defined in a morally appropriate context.

For too long, public television has been treated, and seen itself, as a world apart, content to narrowcast on the margins. We are not a side show. We should be competing against the crap in the main tent.

It’s time to make public television competitive by offering more dynamic counterprogramming, to go after the networks rather than become more like them, to consciously forge a creative alternative. It is time for, if I may borrow a favorite phrase, a new “organizing principle.” So what should it be?

Let’s go back to basics: put the public back in public broadcasting. Our slogan: “by the people, for the people, of the people.” Sound familiar? Sound American? It is! It is time to try renewing the original PBS mandates calling for diversity and community service by translating them into more regular programming.

Let’s retool PBS in primetime as the citizens’ channel, committed to championing America’s interests and universal aspirations. PBS would become re-branded as an institution using TV to promote the public interest and civic participation, to help solve problems in our communities. We would be the folks who critique the other channels, who expose irresponsible media practices, who stand up for the values of real journalism by functioning as a watchdog on government agencies and the corporate sector. The many skilled and responsible investigators nationwide who have worked over the years for programs like Frontline could be provided with more resources to provide ongoing reporting, perhaps in more digestible shorter-form series, to expose abuses as well as examine new models for innovative reform and change.

PBS stations would constantly solicit input and ideas from viewers. The stations would also become more interactive with the audience through phone, fax and new online services and the Internet.

PBS would in this way become America’s kitchen table, a lively and exciting vehicle for debate and dialogue, encouraging participation, not passivity. PBS stations would become pro-active institutions, actively promoting voter registration and citizen involvement through programming and organized outreach.

Moving in this direction would reinvent a whole new PBS identity, concept and feel. It would require phasing out all current programs and starting all over with a programming service that does what public television has always done best, news and public affairs, and adding a strong connection to popular culture. This is not a time to tinker, but to take a bold new approach and to invigorate our public service.

I am proposing a new mix of national and local content within a mostly live free-form format, featuring diverse hosts, intelligent and personable “PB-J’s.” They would function as hosts, dropping in pre-produced program modules of varying lengths featuring the full spectrum of ideas and interests, entertainment and inspiration. This means news, talk and entertainment, live specials as well as analytical features built around a lower-cost radio-on-TV style.

On the news side, we could take advantage of the growing dissatisfaction with the diminishing quality of TV news by playing to our collective strength, our reputation for excellence. Why not team up with NPR (which is also hurting) to create a new People’s News Network (PNN), linking solid in-house TV journalists, the big PBS names like Moyers, Lehrer and Charlayne Hunter-Gault, et al., with the next wave of talented independents and video journalists nationwide who can report news from the bottom up, along with video diaries through which Americans tell their own stories.

While sharpening its focus, PBS would continue to stand for contextualization, analytical depth, cultural richness and ideological diversity. It would stand out as different and distinctive.

There would also be plenty of time to air thought-provoking documentaries of varying lengths on a broad range of subjects and from all points of view. (The series P.O.V. should become a year-round signature, not a limited and labeled series slated for summertime airing, when homes-using-television levels are at their lowest.) There is a wealth of independent programming to reflect opinions ranging wider than from A to B. In this process, the Independent Television Service (ITVS) could be unleashed and funded to play a more significant role in original programming of all genres.

This bold initiative would become as different from what PBS is doing today as it is from what the commercial networks clone nightly. Its approach would be driven by soul, spirit and attitude — not advocacy for any narrow agenda. We need more perspectives and more controversy, not less. We have to become multidimensional — not one-dimensional. Let’s open it up, becoming the channel for change! Everyone is talking about “new media,” as if technologies and conduits matter more than content. They don’t.

PBS can become the “platform” for new media that matter. Let’s say goodbye to bland.

All the stations would be asked to carry a new 24-hour national programming service with plenty of local windows and pre-emption opportunities. Local stations could contribute personnel, programming, reports and features to this new national mix. Why send someone to Chicago when there already are many someones there?

This approach, which can only be hinted at in this short article, would turn PBS into broadcasting leader, not just through a interconnection of hardware but by actually networking with each other, tapping the talented people who are out there hungering for a chance to contribute, to show how democracy can be enriched through democratic media. There is plenty of room in this broad concept for strong educational segments children’s shows, cultural events, interviews and the like. Programming blocs can be crafted for audience segments, and to target specific unserved audiences, but overall it would aim at having a broad appeal. PBS stations can make this happen without sacrificing quality, or abandoning educational programming and community-based shows. Let’s say goodbye to boring!

I know that this all may sound a bit utopian, but by going for it, we might get closer to a TV system that is as exciting to work for as it is to watch. What’s wrong with serving a mission, with reinventing the wheel? Consider the demographic trends — and the political climate. That question again: Can we afford not to change? Let’s transcend a Beltway mentality.

PBS can open up American television to a changing world. We could do more program exchanges with our colleagues overseas, provide more international coverage. With the networks retreating from the world, we can re-engage the challenges of the communicating in the global village.

We can create a new model. There are ones to look at: Channel Four in England and City TV in Canada come to mind, but closer to home, look at what CNN, C-SPAN, CNBC, Discovery or even MTV, are doing right — at far lower cost? One recipe: borrow a few ideas if they work, from each, add new technology, democratic values and substantive content, and then stir it up!

The result need not be a potpourri or a mindless stew but can be shaped into a well planned and tastefully crafted programming flow, a schedule that will capture a mass audience’s fancy. Fine tuning can follow once we put the vision back in television.

We have to give America something compelling to watch, something new to talk about.

We can pay for all of this. The American people will support it. Whatever the financing modalities, a new and more dynamic PBS on this model will draw more audience and then more donors, and more underwriters. It will cut costs and build a viewership at the same time.

What can we offer that they don’t? Do you really have to ask?

Build the new PBS and they will come.

RELATED COMMENTARIES

KCTA [Twin Cities Public Television] program executive Catherine Allan urges the future PBS programmer to retire some PBS genres and invest heavily in a new primetime strand of programs.

Oregon Public Broadcasting program exec John Lindsay says PBS should put money into high-impact programs but cut fat from production budgets.

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