Every time our government proposes "taking a hefty whack out of the federal subsidy for public broadcasting," as Charles McGrath put it in his Television column for today's New York Times, someone raises the question, "Is PBS Still Necessary?," which just happens to be the title of McGrath's column. The hypothesis that McGrath explores is that "the glory days of public television — the days of 'Monty Python,' 'Upstairs Downstairs,' 'The French Chef' — are past recapturing." Nevertheless, McGrath's arguments are about as stale as the state that he claims the Public Broadcasting System is suffering. About the only thing that changes each time the argument is hauled out is the number of warrants for the argument that cite programming on cable television channels.
I certainly do not dispute these warrants. The sad truth is that the only PBS channel I watch with any regularity is KQED World, which is only available in digital format and comes to me through my Comcast box; and the only thing I watch on it is the BBC World Service Television news feed that is provided about four times a day (except on Saturday). I even went as far as to sent a polite message to Comcast, informing them that the BBC feed was available 24/7 to any provider who wanted to pay for it; and I got the expected formal response that there was not viewer demand for this sort of thing. These days I wonder if any viewers have asked why Comcast does not provide Al Jazeera English as an option, but it should not be hard to guess the answer! Nevertheless, I am less interested in adding fuel to McGrath's fire than with exploring one aspect of those "glory days" that he never gets around to discussing.
This aspect was the use of public television to expand the reach of the performing arts, often (but not always) where "live" performance was concerned. Yes, there are still the odd offerings from the Metropolitan Opera; but these have become (if readers will forgive the intended vulgarity) the "sloppy seconds" of content originally intended for distribution as a high-definition signal to selected movie theaters. Programming like Theater in America, Dance in America, Evening at Symphony, and Previn and the Pittsburgh are now so far in the past that the current generation of viewers probably has no idea that they ever existed. (This is an interesting instance of the repetition of history in a curious way. I have a vague recollection of NBC Opera, but it was not until I was living in Singapore that I learned that there was a vault of kinescope recordings of NBC television broadcasts of concerts conducted by Arturo Toscanini. I have yet to see any of these concerts on an American television set.)
I take this as a sign of a shift in mind-set. One of the most important aspects of twentieth-century America was the movement to democratize the arts and the role that broadcasting played in that movement. Even before the rise of television, radio would bring the stage of the Metropolitan Opera into any home that had a radio every Saturday; and NBC not only hired Toscanini but gave him an orchestra for regular radio broadcasts. The basic premise behind the entire movement was that the hunger for quality performance was just as great in Las Cruces, New Mexico (a town I have visited) as it was in the line for spaces in the standing room section of the Metropolitan Opera in midtown Manhattan. Now I have never made a serious study of the ratings numbers for any of these offerings on either radio or television; but I do remember a time when the television columnists were all writing about how PBS was taking a serious bite out of numbers that used to be owned by the "big three" networks.
When cable began to emerge in a big way, many of us expected that things would get better. Now we would be able to watch Isaac Stern without any annoying pledge breaks! As we know, things did not turn out that way; but it was not as if the cable industry did not make some noble efforts. Does the A&E channel have any viewers who remember that those letters stood for "Arts" and "Entertainment," rather than bounty hunters and intervention sessions? (Do they have any viewers at all these days?) When the channel was originally launched, it was serious about those "Arts." It offered theater, concerts, opera, and dance performances and tried to pay for them with discretely-placed commercial breaks (not that different from getting an Irish coffee during an intermission). Heidi Klum probably does not remember that her channel, Bravo, was originally launched on a similar principle; and both of these channels exposed us to arts programming from Europe that we would not otherwise have been able to see. The latest effort in this direction was the short-lived Ovation channel, which did little more than relay video that had been produced elsewhere; but the quality level was still high. These days it is about as hard to find a good orchestral performance on cable as it is to find a half-hour of straight fluff-free news.
My guess is that the burden has now been taken up by the DVD business (the same business that in today's "logic of Hollywood" is about the only factor that makes the production of an independent film economically viable). This has had a major impact on how performing arts offerings are "produced" and "consumed." Several years ago EMI decided that they no longer had the budget to support studio recordings of opera performances and would shift entirely to video recordings of live performances (with soundtracks also sold separately as CDs). This may be good for bringing more attention to live performance, but it also may be the beginning of the end of studio recordings of any performing arts offering.
What is missing from this equation, though, is the community-based concept of audience. There used to be a certain excitement in listening to the Metropolitan Opera on the radio. You felt part of the same community that included not only those New York swells who could afford tickets to be there but also folks just like yourself in towns across the United States with weird names (like Las Cruces). You did not need to communicate directly with anyone in this community through anything like MySpace (or, for that matter, a long-distance telephone call); but I would be so bold as to suggest that the sense of community around a Met broadcast had more substance to it than anything that a rich-media virtual world can provide.
Furthermore, that communal sense of belonging to an audience is, itself, only a part of the equation. I would further argue that one cannot be a performer, in any genuine sense of the semantics of that word, without having an audience. (Robert Mann made a similar point in his recent master class at the San Francisco Conservatory, reminding the members of a student string quartet that what they heard was far less important than what the audience heard). Yes, there are those who now "perform for YouTube." (I found it ironic that, when I went backstage in Berkeley after Richard Goode's recital there, the security guard was watching YouTube recordings of piano performances.) However, as we know from all-too-many studio recordings, abstracting away the audience leaves a major gap in the overall experience (yes, I have been reading John Dewey lately) that encompasses both being audience and performing for audience.
So, taking all of this into account, "Is PBS Still Necessary?" Well, if it is just going to be another source of dreck (which is actually McGrath's word choice), then it is probably not satisfying any need. For all the innovations that have transformed the media business, the wasteland is vaster than it has ever been. What needs to be satisfied is a national hunger in wake of that neglect of democratizing the arts. It is painfully clear that our government is not interested in satisfying that hunger and may even see the deprivation as yet another one of their many fronts in that "war against the poor." From that point of view, we cannot expect the problem to be addressed by "public" means, particularly if those means are federally subsidized. So perhaps PBS really is no longer necessary. I only wish there were some way to keep their channel allocations protected from being absorbed into the media conglomerates who continue to make big bucks out of dumbing down the content the feed us. Unfortunately, the robber barons of the Gilded Age (without whom there would never have been a Metropolitan Opera or a Carnegie Hall) seemed to have more conscientiousness about satisfying such a public hunger than today's media emperors do.