The Prisoner


PBS: Behind the Screen, by Laurence Jarvik, Rocklin, Calif.: Prima, 336 pages, $25.00

When the debate over continued federal funding of public broadcasting was at its height a year or so ago, some public TV stations started offering an unusual "premium" during their seemingly incessant funding drives. Along with the inevitable logo-embossed umbrellas and tote bags, these stations offered to send you, in exchange for your pledge of financial support, a tin cup. The cup was of course intended to evoke the image of a street beggar, which is what high-minded PBS would have you think it had been reduced to by appalling congressional Babbittry.

But that tin cup just as easily–and more accurately–evoked quite a different image: that of the restive prisoners featured in a whole series of 1930s Warner Brothers prison movies, the jailbirds who signaled their common displeasure at Big House injustice by rattling their tin cups against their bars and trying to drive their guards crazy.

The street beggar pretense is wearing pretty thin anyway. For one thing, PBS stations have more money than they let on in their public posturing, one of the central arguments offered by Laurence Jarvik in his critical history, PBS: Behind the Screen. Jarvik, a longtime PBS critic in the pages of the journal Comint, published by the conservative Center for the Study of Popular Culture, believes that PBS is so flush it could, by selling shares or making other adjustments, probably forego subsidies entirely.

PBS, writes Jarvik, "has grown into a multi-billion dollar worldwide multi-media empire….In addition to their on-air activities, public broadcasters publish magazines and newsletters, classroom study guides and textbooks, and provide computer programs, online services, and sites on the World Wide Web. They host conferences; license toys, games and clothing; stage live shows; run mail-order catalogs and retail stores; and distribute videocassettes and compact discs. From these activities, a large industry has grown that parallels commercial broadcasting."

And that's not all. PBS is making all sorts of lucrative business deals for itself, as well it should. Jarvik cites a $75 million dollar arrangement with Reader's Digest to produce shows, a distribution deal with Turner Broadcasting, and the announcement of a Children's Television Workshop cable channel. That's why the jailbird image seems so natural a connection to that brandished tin cup: PBS really seems to have become a prisoner of its own cultural pretensions. Despite its continuing claims of providing generalized media uplift for us all, what PBS has generated is a viewer culture of its own; that's what all successful media do over time, and there's nothing necessarily wrong with it. In PBS's case it has precious little to do with general uplift, and much more to do with the middlebrow aspirations of the 2 percent of the public that tunes in, but never mind that for now.

Because PBS is in part federally funded, it has been mired for 30 years in a debate with conservative critics like Jarvik over whether its programming is sufficiently "balanced," whether every point of view held by taxpayers has gotten a fair shake. This is a perfectly legitimate argument, because for all the good–or merely defensible–programs PBS has broadcast, it has a long history of airing shows that it has hung like "Kick Me" signs from its own corporate rear. Jarvik has had a good time at PBS's expense here and elsewhere in his work, and why shouldn't he? There's no reason why people's taxes should have been extorted to underwrite such things as a Shirley MacLaine documentary love note to Maoist China, or the tendentious moralisms of Bill Moyers (who as a contract producer has supposedly been goosing PBS for all the golden eggs he can collect), or incomprehensible celebrity pilgrimages, such as those that have sent Goldie Hawn to India and Richard Dreyfuss to the Galapagos.

If PBS would just drop the fiction that it is doing everybody a metaphysical favor simply by existing, it could get out of this argument and go about the business of being whatever it wants to be in peace. Only 14 percent of its budget comes from the federal government in the first place, notes Jarvik, and its recent claims of looming catastrophe have reportedly resulted in an increase in viewer pledges. Given the endowments it has accumulated, the willing corporate underwriting it enjoys (PBS is a real dance floor for the nation's cultural and managerial elites), the philanthropic support it receives, and a better cut of the profits from toys, books, and other spin-offs from its shows, it could probably make a transition to self-supporting nonprofit status without a great deal of radical change, although it would certainly want to do something about its nightmarish organizational bureaucracy. ("A series of meetings interrupted by an occasional program," is how one PBS veteran has described the network.)

Why doesn't it? Well, there's nothing like being on the federal dole and maintaining considerable prestige at the same time, a Great Performance if there ever was one. But there's another possibility: that this endless argument is by now actually embedded in PBS's identity; that PBS minus public-funding controversy would be just more middlebrow TV programming; that the federal underwriting translates into a "mission" that endows PBS with broadcast grace, and that the sniping that is part of the package is the necessary penance of media sainthood.

PBS is beating its tin cup on a cell whose door it has itself closed. Number Six in The Prisoner, a signature PBS show from Britain (that actually first appeared here on a commercial network) spent his episodes wondering who his jailers were; PBS's own twist on the narrative is to leave observers wondering why the broadcaster chooses to remain imprisoned in its subsidized status at all. Jarvik is one of these. The profit motive, he argues, is not inimical to quality, "the marketplace can create strong incentives" for PBS to produce better shows than it is now doing. Anyway, PBS is running out of time and alternatives.

Although this is the only independent critical history of PBS ever to appear–a measure of just what a sacred cow that institution has been–much of Jarvik's argument is a familiar story. There have been a number of book-length institutional studies very hard on aspects of PBS's operation, and Jarvik is able to quote from criticism by the Brookings Institution and the Twentieth Century Fund to buttress his contentions that the constraints on PBS often translate into bland programming and that the network is a managerial mess.

As it happens, your reviewer once interviewed the author of one such study (neither of those cited), a very hard-hitting look at the network that concluded that public broadcasting had failed to live up to its visionary mandate and needed to be completely rethought. When asked if he found any of its programs worthwhile on their own terms, the study's author hesitantly admitted that he had never actually seen a PBS show (and asked that his confession be off the record). With critics like that (and decades of compliant Democratic Congresses), PBS's continued successful mendicancy is not much of a surprise.

But if PBS has resisted reform in the face of years of criticism, the technological–and therefore cultural–context in which the network operates has been changing a great deal. Van Gordon Sauter, the former CBS News president who did a spell with Sacramento's PBS station, writes in his succinct introduction to Jarvik's book that "[u]nless it can be changed, PBS will be totally marginalized over the next decade or so by the emerging technologies, and the new upscale networks" like the Discovery Channels, the A&Es, and the Bravos. Sauter (who admires the kids' shows) thinks that will be too bad, because a real nonprofit public TV service unconstrained by bureaucratic taste, and freed from its role as a "middlebrow entitlement," would be an asset to the country and especially to local communities, which currently go largely unserved. (C-Span, though not the programming equivalent of PBS, is a real nonprofit public TV service.) Many PBS stations, writes Sauter, "exist primarily as PBS retransmission facilities, housed in money-raising factories," and he welcomes their likely extinction.

In fact, Jarvik has been smart enough to festoon his case with citations from unhappy members of the PBS "family." Among the most notable of these is a 1988 quote from documentarian Frederick Wiseman, who testified before Congress that "[p]ublic television is a mess. The fact that it is a mess is not a secret. Everybody knows. What is strange is that nothing is done about it." What makes that assessment notable is that Wiseman's films about schools, courts, and welfare have grown to such length that nobody except PBS is likely to show them. That even he is willing to criticize PBS so severely is a sign of the network's problems.

Jarvik's examination of those problems is not so much an institutional history of PBS as it is a journalistic report, heavy with interviews, on the development of signature PBS shows and types of shows, with chapters devoted to, among others, Sesame Street, Masterpiece Theatre, Bill Moyers's various offerings, Firing Line, The NewsHour with Jim Lehrer, the family of home fix-it shows and cooking programs, and the nature documentaries. A chapter is devoted to Monty Python's Flying Circus, which seems to be Jarvik's own favorite (although he points out that it was never a part of PBS's core schedule).

The most effective work Jarvik offers is his examination of PBS's top-down educational and cultural philosophy (in, for example, Sesame Street), and the growth of corporate involvement in building a schedule (especially the case of the Mobil Corporation's role). The least effective reflects his conservative concern with evenhandedness, especially when addressing such programs as Frontline, a longtime target of conservative ire. Even if one concedes for the sake of argument that conservative complaints about government-funded "propagandizing" of viewers have public policy legitimacy, Jarvik himself is arguing for the privatization of the system, which would make the fairness question moot. Besides, the imposition of a Fairness Doctrine on PBS was always a prescription for blandness and a likely excuse for establishing a direct censorship mechanism, and in the end would have served no one. Better just to pull the plug; better yet to privatize.

Jarvik's conservatism has littered his argument with a number of questionable judgments. PBS programs about televangelists like Jim Bakker were not "anti-Christian," as Jarvik asserts; they were anti-con men. There was nothing wrong with a PBS show that painted Father Charles Coughlin as a fascist; that's a restrained characterization. Suggesting that The Life and Times of Rosie the Riveter, a film about the role of women in wartime industry, was a work of feminist revisionism is unfair; the film portrays something that happened.

A whole chapter of Jarvik's book is devoted to one program, Liberators, and that is disproportionate. The story the 1992 film told of concentration camps being liberated by black American soldiers was revealed to be false; the program was, deservedly, a severe embarrassment to PBS. But documentaries and news stories that are fraudulent are hardly peculiar to public TV. There's only so much legitimate mileage to be gained from such cases without falling into mere bashing.

Still, readers who are neither reflexive defenders of PBS as a fount of culture, nor reflexive critics of it as a left-wing propaganda machine, will find useful material in Jarvik's history, not least because public TV as it has developed is a riveting example of unintended mass media consequences arising from state intervention in cultural exchange.

Established as a medium of social and educational uplift, public TV is by now a redoubt of self-professed enlightenment. It is rare to hear its pitchmen speak of either education or uplift anymore; they speak of bringing their viewers more of the shows they like.

That's far from the elitist philosophy that shaped PBS's establishment. "Excellence," as defined by those of education and taste, was preached by Harvard educator John Gardner as a social good in his influential 1961 book of that title, and applied by such philanthropies as the Ford Foundation; PBS was intended as an antidote of such excellence to lowbrow commercialism. Yet PBS's schedule today is heavy with middlebrow entertainment and self-help shows, from the "spiritual" pronouncements of Deepak Chopra and Yanni, to the music of John Tesh, to often-repeated programs about personal investment strategies and even dog training.

Intended as a showcase of television at its best, PBS has developed a schedule of programs surprisingly redolent of what the commercial networks were offering in an earlier stage of their development. People remember that commercial networks once showcased impressive original drama, but they also used to present opera singers and cinéma vérité documentaries. PBS still presents full-length opera (so does Bravo), but the direction in which it is leading its viewers' appreciation of opera singers–to Dodger Stadium, where The Three Tenors can belt out Broadway show tunes–has disturbed genuine elitists. Bel canto on PBS is increasingly like the old Voice of Firestone on an unimagined scale.

Indeed, though PBS was supposed to raise the general level of culture to which the mass audience was exposed, the very existence of a public broadcasting network tending to a particular slice of the demographic pie was a likely factor in the networks' abandonment of the cultural gatekeeper role they inherited from network radio. The result was that the commercial network schedules were stripped of their slightly more upscale shows and became cheesier than ever.

While PBS was set up to create television that was unfettered by commercial interest or restraint, an impressive amount of its air time is now given over to programs that corporations are willing to be associated with, and to support. Better their money than ours, of course, but the promotion of corporate patronage as an essential aspect of elite American culture is an ironic fulfillment of the original pretentious vision underlying PBS.

There's nothing inherently wrong with seeking corporate funding (REASON does so); there's nothing wrong with giving an established viewership programs it likes. But it smacks suspiciously of a marketplace. There's really only one thing missing to set the network free and let PBS be PBS.

Jailer! The key!

Charles Paul Freund (cpf@his.com) is a REASON senior editor.