Panem et circenses

We have a crappy public sphere in the US, as any fule kno. Public schools, public libraries, public parks, public broadcasting – they all have to struggle and beg to get minimal funding. They’re public, you see, and that’s socialism, and that’s the devil.

Norman Lear in the New York Times points out that PBS is starving its documentary shows in favor of soapy entertainment like Downton Fucking Abbey.

At issue are PBS’s two flagship independent documentary series: “POV,” founded in 1988, and ITVS’s “Independent Lens,” started in 2003. Both take on huge topics of public urgency. “Food Inc.” (2010), from “POV,” exposed harms in the food industry. “Me Facing Life: Cyntoia’s Story” (2011) cast a spotlight on harsh prison sentences for minors, while another “Independent Lens” film, “The Invisible War” (2012), led to changes in the military’s handling of sexual assault.

In October 2011, PBS moved the two series from Tuesday to Thursday evenings. Ratings plunged, by as much as 40 percent.

There was an outcry, and PBS blushed and put the series back where they could thrive.

Inexplicably, the two series are under assault again. In December, PBS’s flagship station, WNET (Channel 13) in New York, proposed bumping the series from Monday and shifting them to the same time slot on its much smaller sibling station, WLIW (Channel 21). The two programs would be broadcast on WNET as reruns — nearly a week later, at 11 p.m. on Sundays. WNET wants to devote Monday night to arts programming, a driver of financial support for member stations; its decision could prompt PBS to shift the two series away from the prime-time schedule across much of the country. Amid a new outcry, PBS and WNET have put off a decision until May.

This is crap. Downton F Abbey is commercial; it’s a pretentious soap opera that appeals to everyone’s fantasy of living in a huge house with a large butler. The Public Broadcasting Service shouldn’t be treating that as its showpiece.

Moving the films out of prime time means fewer reviews, and less publicity. It also threatens funding: When filmmakers apply for grants from foundations or philanthropies, the promise of a robust distribution platform is crucial. The proposal also sends the signal that nonfiction films on challenging subjects are less important to PBS and WNET than costume dramas.

“Independent Lens” and “POV” take on critical social issues overlooked by commercial outlets. They leverage the power of television to expand freedom of expression for people whose voices are not easily heard in American media. Freedom of expression is hollow if you can’t be seen or heard.

Yeah but they’re not Luxury Porn, so the hell with them, right?

At town-hall-style meetings inSan Francisco, New York andChicago, filmmakers and their supporters have called on PBS and WNET to go back to their roots: serving diverse audiences and expanding the national dialogue on critical social issues. The controversy has also been debated at the Sundance Film Festival and South by Southwest.

In a world of expanding mobile platforms, high-speed streaming, infinite cable channels, iTunes, Netflix and YouTube, broadcast television still counts. It’s still one wireless technology available to nearly every American.

PBS, for almost a half-century, has been one place on the spectrum in which decisions were based on something far more fundamental and timeless than ratings and earnings: the public interest. Its member stations and programs get substantial government funding. Diversity, community and accountability are cornerstones of its founding charter. PBS should keep those principles in mind and keep independent documentary films where they belong: in prime time.

But as long as everyone’s more interested in where Lady Evangelina left her underpants, PBS probably won’t.


  1. RJW says

    Taxpayer-funded public broadcasters such as the Australian ABC and SBS aren’t safe either, conservative governments usually reduce their budgets when they’re in office. The agenda is obvious, fewer documentaries and more ‘entertainment’.
    I agree in regard to ‘Downton Abbey’, it’s a Disneyfied, sugar-coated fantasy on the oppressive English class system,

  2. Claire Simpson says

    Actually it’s worse than that. Downton Abbey was written as a “conciousness-raising” drama about the issue of archaic British succession laws, vis a vis the upper classes. The creator, Julian Fellowes, is married to Emma Kitchener, great grandniece of Earl Kitchener. Because the title could only fall to a male heir, when the Earl died, the title became extinct. The Queen issued some proclamation later – no doubt in part due to the tremendous attention Downton Abbey got but it only applies to Lady Fellowes. Parliament would have to change the law for anyone else.

    Dreadful, insufferable people, quite frankly. Yes, the laws were sexist and stupid, but most of us don’t get to write drippy soap operas about the discrimination we face and have it shown on national television and syndicated worldwide.

  3. carlie says

    everyone’s more interested in where Lady Evangelina left her underpants,

    But Evangelina’s a nun on Call The Midwife! I should hope she knows where her underpants are.

    Call the Midwife being, of course, another British commercial import that PBS is spending its time showing, as well as The Great British Bake-Off. I don’t know when PBS turned into an outlet of the BBC, but I don’t understand how they’re not at least embarrassed that they’re not making their own programming any more.

  4. moarscienceplz says

    Like it or not, PBS goes where the pledges go. If you want to see more POV, tell them that when you pledge. In fact, it might make sense to split your annual pledge into quarterly pledges and tell them four times a year that you want more documentaries. Get your friends to do the same. You are never going to get rid of DA- type programming because that’s where the big bucks are, but you can help steer the socially conscious part of the budget to where it can do the most good. Also, remind your 3 congresspeople regularly that you want more funding for PBS. That is actually a majority position, but the congesscritters sometimes forget that.

  5. says

    carlie – well I’m a lot more forgiving of Call the Midwife, because it’s Poplar not Highclere Castle, and because it’s all pro-Attlee & stuff, & because it’s 95% women.

  6. johnthedrunkard says

    PBS has been skidding for decades. The self-help infomercials of Buscaglia and Bradshaw are in a straight line with free publicity for Chopra and Gary Null.

    The network that used to broadcast John Coltrane, and the complete Beethoven sonatas, gave way to ‘Riverdance’ John Tesh, and an endless succession of Euro-trash pop spectaculars.

    This is the ‘high brow’ entertainment our donations buy.

  7. says

    Hey, we love Call the Midwife (working through it on Netflix, that being our only video source at the moment), even if I’m tempted to call it All Creatures Great And Small (only with humans in East London instead of animals in Yorkshire) ;-). One we recently saw dealt with a woman who finds herself pregnant with her umpteenth child, which she desperately Does Not Want, and has a botched abortion which almost kills her. As usual, the nuns are completely non-appalled by the things religious people are (stereotypically) supposed to be appalled by, and just matter-of-factly, non-judgementally, get on with their job of saving lives and helping people. At the end the older-Jenny voice-over says how great it is that, a few years later, women stopped having to worry nearly as much about unwanted pregnancies.

    And Sister Evangeline is totally bad-ass. In fact, all the sisters are, in their respective ways. I have no idea how true-to-life the show is, but there is a history of nuns being way better people than the religious institutions they nominally represent.

  8. Claire Simpson says

    @RJW Good article – spells out a lot of what made me uncomfortable about the show. I’m all for a bit of artistic licence, it’s entertainment after all, but You Rang, M’Lord was a more realistic portrayal of life in service and that was a comedy series not a serious drama.

  9. David Sucher says

    Thank you, RJW, for the link.
    I hope everyone has a chance to read the article.

    I watched the first season of DA and it is engaging indeed — until one realizes that it is a tissue of lies. Had the writers admitted in a front-screen that yes, there might have ben a _few_ families in Britain of that era — decent, aware people — but that the show was essentially a fantasy, I could keep watching it.

    But its overall distortion of reality is too annoying and sad. Next thing we’ll see is a TV show about a happy plantation in Mississippi in 1850

  10. says

    Because the title could only fall to a male heir, when the Earl died, the title became extinct.

    So entrenched sexism did something good for once…

  11. Pierce R. Butler says

    … to everyone’s fantasy of living in a huge house with a large butler.

    The Addams Family did that first and better. Mervyn Peake’s Gormenghast trilogy even firster and betterer (not sure about the miniseries version, though).

    Okay, these big-house fantasies may not be everyone’s

  12. Trebuchet says

    PBS also bombards us (during pledge weeks) with the likes of Deepak Chopra and Wayne Dyer. Because quantum. Quantum, quantum, quantum.

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