PBS, R.I.P.

It is a sad but inescapable fact that anyone who gives money to public television these days is, well, a sucker. I wince at saying that, because I remain a staunch believer in the idea of public television. We very much need a non-commercial oasis of thoughtful news and public affairs programming. We need a network that welcomes idiosyncratic and diverse viewpoints; that showcases challenging artistic fare; that does not pander to corporate donors; and that is courageous enough to defend this vision.

But it is increasingly hard to champion a network that has lost its way and has no discernible plans to regain public trust. Donors to PBS are contributing money to a memory, not to a living, vibrant defender of public-service television. They are propping up a beleaguered network that acts as if it can placate its free-market adversaries in Congress, corporate critics and religious right zealots by dismantling its birthright piece by piece – and hope no one will notice. (Sounds remarkably like the Democratic Party.)

What tipped me over the edge was the report this week that PBS and two of its leading producers of children’s programming are joining forces with Comcast to start a new 24-hour-a-day digital cable channel for preschoolers. The new channel will feature many of the signature PBS children’s shows – Sesame Street, Barney, Bob the Builder – but with one significant difference: the shows will be cluttered with commercials.

Rats fleeing a sinking ship? At the very least, the Comcast deal represents yet another attempt – this time by PBS insiders! – to privatize and monetize the goodwill that the network and its shows have accrued over the years. What’s particularly galling is how the architects of this sell-out cast it as an inevitable decision that smart, progressive-minded folks should happily embrace.

Joan Ganz Cooney, a cofounder of Children’s Television Workshop (now Sesame Workshop), the producer of Sesame Street, told The New York Times: “I don’t like pitching products to young children and I never have. But to some degree that is nostalgia for a time that is past. The whole society, the whole business is so commercialized, even public television. This is another way of getting PBS’s excellent programming to children.” In other words, we had to destroy Bird Bird to save him.

Note how Cooney invokes PBS’s prior acts of commercial degradation (longer IDs of corporate sponsors, dubious merchandising tie-ins, etc.) as a justification for total surrender. She might as well have said, “We’ve sold ourselves piecemeal for so long, what’s the problem with just going all the way? The equity returns are better.”

And let’s get this straight about keeping the interests of children uppermost. Commercial television cares about advertisers, not children. If it cared about children, it wouldn’t allow advertising of fast food, soda and candy on children’s programming. PBS and Sesame Workshop do not seem to know or care that the alarming rise of childhood obesity and type 2 diabetes is related to TV advertising for junk food. (The new channel say that ads will be aimed at adults, but by now we’ve learned a few things about slippery slopes in commercial TV, haven’t we?)

In the guise of tough-minded realism, Gary Knell, president of Sesame Workshop, offers up this rationalization for going commercial:

While rushing to disown its own proud past as “nostalgic,” public television turns around and makes disingenuous pleas for support from “viewers like you,” laying it on thick about how public-spirited it is. Hell, public television doesn’t give a damn about viewers like you and me or it wouldn’t be abandoning its historic mission with such enthusiasm and then act as if nothing had been lost. A PBS worth supporting would have the gumption to stand on its hind legs and wage a full-throated defense of non-commercial TV and public-service values. There are allies ready to march, but PBS doesn’t have a vision to offer or the courage to lead.

What to do? Commercial Alert has launched a campaign to object to this latest enclosure of the broadcasting commons. It might be a good time to let PBS executive vice president Wayne Godwin know how you feel about this new PBS initiative.

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