FOR the eighth straight year the Bush administration has ritually proposed taking a hefty whack out of the federal subsidy for public broadcasting. The cuts would in effect slice in half the money that public television and public radio get from the government. If we follow the usual script, this means it’s time for upset listeners and viewers to rally to the cause, as they have in the past, and browbeat Congress into restoring the budget.
Every year, though, it gets a little harder to muster the necessary outrage, and now and then a heretical thought presents itself: What if the glory days of public television — the days of “Monty Python,” “Upstairs Downstairs,” “The French Chef” — are past recapturing? Lately the audience for public TV has been shrinking even faster than the audience for the commercial networks. The average PBS show on prime time now scores about a 1.4 Nielsen rating, or roughly what the wrestling show “Friday Night Smackdown” gets.
On the other side of the ledger the audience for public radio has been growing: there are more than 30 million listeners now, compared to just 2 million in 1980. “Morning Edition” and “All Things Considered,” NPR’s morning and evening news programs, are the second and fourth most listened to shows in the country. Go figure. Who would have guessed 40 years ago, when public broadcasting came into being, that the antique medium, the one supposedly on its way out, would prove to be the greater success and the one more technically nimble. You can even download NPR broadcasts onto your iPod.
Radio benefits of course from being a smaller target, and from attracting fewer political enemies. In public television especially it used to be axiomatic that attacks on the budget were retaliation for perceived liberal bias. Newt Gingrich was quite upfront about punishing PBS when he began his budgetary onslaught back in 1995. By now, though, that war ought to be over. These days the Corporation for Public Broadcasting is run by Republicans, and a few years ago, Kenneth Y. Tomlinson, who was then chairman of PBS, wasn’t the least bit shy about trying to arm-wrestle stations into running a program whose host was Paul Gigot, editor of The Wall Street Journal editorial page. Unless you count occasional outbursts of hand-wringing earnestness on the part of Bill Moyers or David Brancaccio on “Now,” it’s hard now to see anything resembling liberal excess on PBS, if there ever was such a thing.
Scanning the PBS lineup, in fact, it’s hard to detect much of a bias toward anything at all, except possibly mustiness. Except for “Antiques Roadshow,” all the prime-time stalwarts — “The NewsHour,” “Nova,” “Nature,” “Masterpiece” — are into their third or fourth decade, and they look it. Every now and then a one-off like “The War,” Ken Burns and Lynn Novick’s World War II documentary, the most-watched PBS series in 10 years, comes along and makes a huge splash. The broadcast of the first episode was watched by some 7.3 million people, or about as many as tune in to the “NBC Nightly News.” But such projects are few and far between, and they’re so overwhelming and time-consuming that for many people they mostly serve as lengthy advertisements for the boxed DVD set, which you can view at your own convenience and your own pace.
More typical prime-time fare — if you watch WNET, Channel 13, in New York, anyway — is the weekly rerun of “Keeping Up Appearances,” a BBC sitcom about class snobbery that was old 10 years ago. With her permed hair, dowdy clothes and fluty accent, the main character, Hyacinth, is practically a parody of a certain strain in public broadcasting: the one that puts on airs and wants to pretend to singularity.
Forty years ago it really was different. There were only three networks, and none of them were known for challenging or high-minded programming. Indeed, public broadcasting came into being out of collective despair over what had become of the airwaves. Cable has changed all that. There are not only countless more channels to chose from now, but many offer the kind of stuff that in the past you could see only on public TV, and in at least some instances they do it better.
The stunning (and stunningly expensive) BBC documentary “Planet Earth,” for example, which in the old days would have been a natural for PBS, was instead broadcast on the Discovery Channel, which could presumably better afford it. The Showtime series “The Tudors” is just the kind of thing — only better produced and with more nudity — that used to make “Masterpiece Theater” (now simply “Masterpiece”), once the flagship of PBS, so unmissable. Now it’s so strapped for cash that it has pretty much settled into an all-Jane Austen format.
If you’re the sort of traditional PBS viewer who likes extended news broadcasts, say, or cooking shows, old movies and shows about animals gnawing each other on the veld, cable now offers channels devoted just to your interest. Cable is a little like the Internet in that respect: it siphons off the die-hards. Public television, meanwhile, more and more resembles everything else on TV. Since corporate sponsors were allowed to extend their “credit” announcements to 30 seconds, commercials in all but name have been a regular feature on public television, and that’s not to mention pledge programs, the fund-raising equivalent of water-boarding.
In a needy bid for viewers, public television imitates just as much as it’s imitated, putting on pop knockoffs like “America’s Ballroom Challenge.” Even though a number of surveys suggest that a large segment of the viewing population still wants the best of what public television has to offer, there isn’t as much of that as there used to be, and when it is on, it often gets lost amid all the dreck.
Considering how much it costs to create new topnotch programming, the best solution to public television’s woes is the one that will probably never happen: more money, not less. Here too public radio has an edge, because giving listeners what they want doesn’t cost nearly as much. NPR has benefited, moreover, from a huge bequest from the estate of Joan Kroc, widow of the longtime McDonald’s chairman, and you could argue that it has spent its money more wisely than PBS, spiffing up existing shows rather than trying to come up with new ones. Listeners complained mightily when Bob Edwards was booted as host of “Morning Edition” in 2004, a month before his 57th birthday, but the change invigorated the show and ratings are up. (Jim Lehrer, 73, has been with “NewsHour” since 1975, so long that some of his early viewers are now in assisted living.)
But by far the greatest advantage of public radio is that, by not trolling after ratings, it has managed to stay distinctive: it does what nothing else on radio does and sticks to its core: news and public affairs and the oddball weekly show like “Car Talk” and “A Prairie Home Companion.” At the same time, public radio thrives, in a way that public TV does not, from internal competition: in addition to NPR, the old standby, there is the newer, hipper PRI (Public Radio International), importer of the invaluable BBC World Service news program and distributor of innovative shows like “Studio 360 With Kurt Andersen” and “This American Life,” which NPR did not fight for.
Where would we be without this stuff, gathered so conveniently at the low end of the FM dial? How would we fill those otherwise empty hours when we’re held hostage in our cars? At its best public television adds a little grace note to our lives, but public radio fills a void.