Readers write

Are ‘Is PBS Still Necessary’ articles still necessary?

Comments from readers about Charles McGrath's New York Times commentary published Feb. 17 (described at right).

The bottom line is that PBS isn't in it for the money. All the other channels which try to provide the niche aspects of PBS's larger charge, has one objective: to make money. That means that their standard isn't specifically an impartial and educational one. Their objective is to separate people from their money. PARAGRAPH INDENT That isn't in and of itself horrible. We live in a capitalist society, and that's how business works. But PBS isn't "business." It's an entity created quite specifically to do what business can't: provide information that its viewers should know, that those viewers might well not get anywhere else, and to do so for free. PARAGRAPH INDENT As the circle of companies which own all of America's electronic media continues to get smaller and smaller, the importance of PBS becomes larger and larger. Those owners' interests are to make money, not to tell viewers information they should know. Further, they have an incentive not to tell viewers information which makes the owners' business ownings look bad. In other words, they all have a built-in reason to not tell you everything you should know. PARAGRAPH INDENT For these and a dozen other reasons, PBS is necessary.

Jack Morgan
San Antonio, Texas
Monday, Feb. 25, 2008, 9:13 a.m.

I would not watch more that 10% of what I watch now on Time Warner Cable were it not for PBS. I especially want Jim Lehrer for all my serious news coverage. I can't stand the "personality" news screamers and immediately shut them out. Also commercials break up everything into
sound bites. God help us if PBS ever dies. I also watch BBC and German public TV and these three are of ten the only news of Africa or Asia or the Eastern block including Russia.

Monday, Feb. 25, 12:52 a.m.

I thought Charles McGrath had a few good points, but he missed a critical one. No one "develops" programs for PBS the way they do other networks because frankly, PBS is not a network. It's a consortium of like-minded stations with the common bond that they receive money through PBS and CPB. There is no "pot of gold" to go out and produce a pilot for the next Nova or purchase Planet Earth. And even if there was, there would be no guarantee that any PBS station would run it because, well, it's not a network. But he's right that many stations rely on tired Britcoms and endlessly looped repeats of The War or Frontline and that few stations produce regular local news and public affairs, or anything for that matter. As for the money, I had hoped he would conclude that PBS could and should live without government subsidy.

Emily Rooney
WGBH, Boston
Wednesday, Feb. 20, 1:48 p.m.

YES!!!  I listen to and watch PBS.  It has a flavor of music and news that I cannot fined in commerical radio and TV.

Jerry from Michigan
Tuesday, Feb. 19, 8:17 p.m.

Mr. McGrath has is opinions about public television programming.  And he is entitled to them.  But his credibility is called into question because he thinks Kenneth Y. Tomlinson was "Chairman of PBS."  It takes very little fact checking to learn who Mr. Tomlinson really was, how he was a pawn of Karl Rove and whoever else was in charge at the White House, and how he ran his horse racing business out of his government office.

And in the New York Times!  I thought the editors of the Grey Lady knew better.

Phillip Byrd
Brandenburg Productions Inc.
Tuesday, Feb. 19, 4:03 p.m.

I have found underwriting much more intrusive recently. The fund drives, three times a year 10 years ago, are now almost monthly, and oh so tiresome. While some of the local programs are good, they are very expensive to make. New York has nine public stations, each one with several million-dollar budgets. Seems they might join forces and save us some bucks. TCM really offers noncommercial TV. Maybe PBS should call them and find out the secret (Mr. Turner?).

Eileen Bougill
Plattsburgh, NY
Tuesday, Feb. 19, 4:02 p.m.

Web page updated Feb. 25, 2008
Copyright 2008 by Current Publishing Committee

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Questions about the McGrath commentary

Updated Feb. 25, 2008
By Steve Behrens

More than 6,500 NewsHour viewers respond to Times' question 'Is PBS Still Necessary?'

The e-mails poured in after NewsHour anchor Jim Lehrer invited comments Feb. 18 about the previous day's New York Times commentary "Is PBS Still Necessary?" by Charles McGrath, former editor of the Times Book Review. Most appeared to defend PBS.

PBS ombudsman Michael Getler, who usually comments on public TV's own journalism, reviewed McGrath's essay, finding it "sort of a flip treatment," without original reporting, for a subject so important to so many viewers.

What do you think? Why does this question arise with such regularity? Send your comments to Current:

The Times received more than 800 responses Feb. 18 (here's the Times editors' selection of the more interesting ones) and published three in its following Sunday issue, Feb. 24 (1, 2, 3). Its ombudsman has been busy chastising the editors for running the McCain-lobbyist story.

McGrath's article tweaks PBS for not importing the BBC's David Attenborough "stunning" series Planet Earth (which was carried here by Discovery Channel, "which could presumably better afford it"), faults public TV for airing too muck "dreck" (he sneers at Britcoms and America's Ballroom Challenge and generally follows (without examination) the familiar line about cable TV having everything. 

After heaping disdain for public TV throughout his article, McGrath offers a surprising suggestion: "the best solution to public television's woes is the one that will probably will never happen: more money, not less," but he drops the notion within half of a paragraph. 

He calls public radio a "greater success" (it's "not trolling after ratings") and he concludes: "At its best, public television adds a little grace note to our lives, but public radio fills a void."

Is this about time spent listening, at least in part? For various reasons, busy listeners (possibly including McGrath) tend to give more time to public radio in a week than to public TV.

Professionals in the field will know the writer has some details wrong, but: Why does this kernel of thought expressed in McGrath's title keep being repeated? As a couple of readers commented, articles very much like this one seem to appear regularly. They started in journals where the public sector or Bill Moyers or both are not esteemed. But they appear in daily papers as well. McGrath's commentary was the day's top article in the Times' Sunday art section, which generally gives a generous share of its TV feature space to PBS shows.

Does McGrath have some good points? If so, what then? Or is he all wet?