Public Television: America’s Unexpected Wasteland

by Michael Blim

“…When television is bad, nothing is worse. I invite each of you to sit down in front of your television set when your station goes on the air and stay there, for a day, without a book, without a magazine, without a newspaper, without a profit and loss sheet or a rating book to distract you. Keep your eyes glued to that set until the station signs off. I can assure you that what you will observe is a vast wasteland.

You will see a procession of game shows, formula comedies about totally unbelievable families, blood and thunder, mayhem, violence, sadism, murder, western bad men, western good men, private eyes, gangsters, more violence, and cartoons. And endlessly commercials — many screaming, cajoling, and offending. And most of all, boredom. True, you'll see a few things you will enjoy. But they will be very, very few. And if you think I exaggerate, I only ask you to try it.”

–Newton Minow, Former Chairman of the Federal Communications Commission, May 9, 1961

Pbs Kennedy Administration nostalgia is all the rage. For the next three years, we can count back by fifty years to our heart’s content, regardless of how banal or bloody the event, to a time when something happened then that could be used as a moral lesson now in the seemingly endless winter of our discontent.

I am using the Kennedy rhetorical ploy here with less reverence and more irony than currently in play. After all, how can one prattle on about the moral lesson of Vietnam without acknowledging that nothing was learned, and instead that Vietnam marked the moment in the postwar world when America took empire seriously on the road? Or that Kennedy’s sixties marked the high point of generalized American prosperity — not its beginning, but its last great act before the end?

Still Newton Minow’s Kennedy Administration condemnation of America’s television programming still possesses the ring of truth, even if by now we are so inured to the medium’s fearsome banality. Though a lifetime corporate lawyer and well-connected politico, as FCC Chair in 1961, Minow had something else important to say, and that he actually said it then shows us how far the profession of law has declined over the past 50 years:

“…the people own the air. And they own it as much in prime evening time as they do at six o'clock Sunday morning. For every hour that the people give you — you owe them something. And I intend to see that your debt is paid with service.”

Fancy that: “the people own the air.” Doubtless Rupert Murdoch believes, in addition to thinking that it is okay for Fox News to be a political party, that he owns the cognitive and auditory spaces in our brains. Reformers like Minnow not only insisted on regulating private broadcasters but also sponsored the growth of National Education Television and its transformation into the Public Broadcasting Service (1970).

Private broadcasters were never quite forced to promise us a rose garden, and their 50-year race to the bottom perhaps predictably has produced no roses. But I think the reformers of 50 years ago would be surprised to see what an onion in their imagined public petunia patch public broadcasting has become.

My irritation with public broadcasting has been building for years. But to be sure that my instincts were not just curmudgeonly musings of a middle aged man who can remember the hopes and promises of half a century ago, I did a spot check of last week and this week’s programming on KQED (San Francisco), WTTW (Chicago), and WGBH (Boston). Verdict: public broadcasting programming is as insipid and ingratiating as private television, but it is done with more nouveau bourgeois flair and less violence.

There are exceptions, but if you are reading this column, you already know what they are: Frontline, Independent Lens, POV, and Nova (sometimes). Both Tavis Smiley and Charlie Rose get on my nerves, but they are doing work that others appreciate, and that’s good enough for me. British imports from costume dramas and detective shows to dopey sitcoms (can anyone really watch the four hours programmed on weekend nights of dippy, claustrophobic, or status-anxious or drunk rural and suburban English people cavort without wishing for at least a little good old American violence that would put them in an unfunny tizzy?) seem to help many Americans fantasize that their kids are not potentially attending a Columbine high school. Or perhaps public stations just run the British stuff to keep the lights on – their version of infomercials.

News programs on public tv run from poor to abysmal. It is the land of talking heads, typically Washington talking heads recruited from our bankrupt but rich political class, their lobbyist employers, and academic ideologists on political payrolls. Jim Lehrer hasn’t broken a story or had an idea in decades. New voices have infiltrated his “snooze news,” but the PBS Newshour remains profoundly artisanal in operation – a few relative youngsters are occasionally sent out to cover a story (apparently acquiring expertise on the fly) while stringers are employed in US cities and film imported from ITN – and provincial. Even the younger anchors find themselves talking to talking heads, flak-prepared government potentates and other tribal chieftans with propaganda to put across. The problem is doubtless financial – talking heads are cheap – but it is also a failure of imagination of what “public news” should be.

The news and public information shows are as dull and pandering as they are on private networks. Washington Week is still Washington clubby, and atrocities like The McLaughlin Group are run to keep the right wing happy, a hopeless task anyway. The American Experience does take on interesting subjects, even tough ones such as the lynching of Emmett Till, the Triangle Shirt Fire, MyLai and the like, but even these, however, subtly pass through a kind of flatulent, genius-of-America dross of self-congratulation. Even profound indictments of the American way of life are ultimately triumphs because public tv brings them up, the ultimate absolution in our Oprahland. American Masters are often emblems of the ideology of American exceptionalism rather than explorations of interesting, remarkable life journeys.

With music and “well being “ programs, I have saved the worst for last. Here is where the properly “nouveau bourgeois” reflection and crass PBS efforts to ingratiate itself with its paying customers combine to produce a nauseating stream of reactionary feel-good programs.

Whole evenings pass on public tv with back-to-back performances by musicians whose time might be better spent counting their remaining teeth than bar lines. That goes for the audience too. Of what cultural significance other than the production of a kind of weepy or half-stoned nostalgia can performances by Peter, Paul, and Mary, the Moody Blues, John Denver, Gary U.S. Bonds, Jeff Beck, and Jimi Hendrix, or an evening of “rock, pop, and doo wop” provide? If you don’t already have their CDs, go to those flakey all-night regular channels and buy them for $19.99 plus shipping and handling.

Then there is “the legacy of Yanni” and the music of Andre Rieu. Is there an Italian piazza left that Andre hasn’t played? A coliseum that Yanni hasn’t included in his legacy? And what’s with their hair anyway, boys?

There are the ethnic plays. It is my misfortune to have been born in Chicago and living in Boston. Life without Aria Fallon and the Celtic Thunder on public tv is as unimaginable as it is impossible. Consider that if the Italians hadn’t wasted their cultural capital on presenting themselves as the fat and happy, mandolin strumming, “O sole mio” crowd, what PBS could have done for Verdi. Or at least for Ennio Morricone.

Finally, there is the “nouveau bourgeois” piece de resistance: the peace and tranquility, protect me from cancer and my money for retirement quota of public tv programs. All manner of confidence men (and women), quacks, and hustlers of one sort or another get prime time, especially during pledge time. If Deepak Chopra didn’t work for you, there is now BrendA (the “BrendA” is copyrighted) Brown offering you the “gifts of imperfection: living with courage, compassion, and connection.” Money? No problem. Still mourning Louis Rukeyser? Missed Jonathan Pond? Can’t get Jane Bryant Quinn on your local affiliate? Have no fear, Suze Orman is here, and her “Money Class” is currently on the three affiliates I checked. There’s Consuelo Mack with “Wealth Track” too.

George Costanza’s father no longer cry out for “Serenity Now!” There is Dr. Neal Barnard to counsel you on a vegan diet, and Dr. David Servan-Schreiber who “beat” brain cancer and in “Anti-Cancer” will tell you how you can beat cancer too, presumably without a stick as that would likely cause grave damage to the cranium or other spoiled body parts. Imagine that I took psychiatrist Daniel Amen’s “The Amen Solution: Thinner, Smarter, Happier” for a gospel hour. Well, in another sense, it is: the gospel of self-absorption and self-aggrandizement, and the theft of “the people’s air” to satisfy the grandiose, but otherwise banal needs of America’s declining upper middle classes.

Oh, and did I forget Rick Steves? So many white, middle class vacations, so little time.

This past week, the WGBH president has been appearing nightly to ask viewers to lobby on public tv’s behalf for their annual appropriation. Sure, no problem. What’s another outdated missile silo amongst so many, I suppose? And surely less dangerous too. Unless you think insipid and reactionary use of the “people’s air” does real damage, which I think it does.