Saturday, February 11, 2012

The Critical Pasttime of PBS Bashing...

I recently ran across a bit of (admittedly nostalgic) PBS bashing by Entertainment Weekly's wizard of criticism Ken Tucker ( There were a number of things that Tucker and other posters who responded to Tucker's brief article (see the comments below Tucker's article), said which I take exception to.

One poster bashes PBS for cutting Sherlock wishing instead that it was shown on BBC America. Well, BBC America, unlike its mummy the Beeb, has commercials. In the past, because of this, BBC America CUT Dr. Who so that it fit into its time slot. So who is to say they wouldn't cut Sherlock too? Another poster urges PBS to follow the BBC funding model? LOL. Yeah like Boehner and those Ebenezer Scrooge type Republicans who control the US House of Representatives are going to support a “tax” in the form of a license fee to fund “commie/nazi" PBS. Dream on. Perhaps the Tea Party will come to the rescue of public television. NOT. Still Another poster bemoans the blitzkrieg of Carolina themed specials on Carolina PBS affiliates during their fund drives. Why do they do that? Uh, to get money from Carolinians so they can continue to operate because more and more of the money that supports PBS comes from individuals during fund drives.

The main problem with Tucker's article on PBS, an article which criticises PBS's increasing toothlessness in the face of right wing attacks, and many of the posters who support him, of course, is this issue of funding. One of the fundamental problems that PBS has had over the years has involved the US government and its significant impact on PBS funding or rather the lack thereof. PBS, when it was founded unfortunately, was made a prisoner of the vagaries of federal funding and, as a result, increasingly became prisoner to the vagaries of Democrat and Republican politics. The defunding of a PBS Democrat LBJ set in place actually began almost as soon as PBS came into existence. Nixon and Agnew (well really their speech writers) made PBS into one of those liberal east coast establishment straw men along with those unlawful and disorderly hippies and those practitioners of that dixiecrat states rights rhetoric that they could use to demagogically manipulate those Archie Bunker types who were its target demographic and, as a result, gain a foothold in the solid Dixiecrat South. Jesse Helms, one of those good old North Carolina Dixiecrat boys turned Republican after Johnson's Civil Rights and Voting Rights acts brought a second reconstruction to the South in 1970, picked up the anti-PBS ball in the 1990s transforming it into a holy crusade against his unholy trinity of gays, lesbians, and recreational drug use when he saw, or did he only hear about it second hand, PBS's adaptation of Armistad Maupin's tales of gay, lesbian, and straight life in the drug soaked San Francisco of the 1970s, Tales of the City, to cut PBS funding.

I mention Tales of the City and Helms because what Tucker forgets in his diatribe against PBS is that PBS, in the good old days of public funding, used to do not only food programmes, documentaries, and news programmes, but also drama and even some comedy thanks to their fiction series' Wonderworks and American Playhouse. In the 1970s and 1980s PBS was slowly but surely becoming an American version of the BBC (or the CBC) until it ran up against what should be the real villains of Tucker’s moralistic piece, the US's right wing hallucinators in the US government who have cut and cut PBS's budget since the 1970s forcing them to beg for money during its periodic fundraisers. It should never be forgotten, as Tucker seems to forget, that it was PBS which did the first dramedic adaptations of Jean Shepherd's tales of Indiana (the Jean Shepherd of Christmas Story fame). It should also not be forgotten that PBS is not entirely toothless. As Tucker notes Frontline and Independent Lens continue to offer intelligent and critical takes on American and the World. But PBS's critical approach to America and the world is not only, as Tucker seems to forget, Frontline and Independent Lens. He seems to forget about anthology programmes like Wide Angle, Global Voices, and P.O.V. and he seems to forget that as of January 2012 Bill Moyers is back on PBS with his critical and insightful Moyers and Company with its hard hitting critiques of right wing hallucinations about politics and economics.

So while there is some truth in Tucker's criticisms of PBS, like Tucker I really do hate that Mystery is no longer distinct from Masterpiece, my Thursdays just aren’t the same without it, there is still great stuff on the network, despite the cuts in funding and what seems like almost neverending fundraisers on the affiliates of the network. Shows like Frontline, Nature, Nova, Wide Angle, Global Voices, and Masterpiece, are great television, great television that again and again puts the rubbish that dominates American over the air TV to shame.

That PBS continues to put on great shows like these despite the attacks of those right wingers who live in fantasy worlds, despite cuts in funding, and despite criticisms of Tucker and his readers is itself a miracle. Like Tucker I do remember when there were no fund drives on PBS thanks to sound or sounder financial solvency. Like Tucker I remember An American Family. Like Tucker I remember when local PBS stations ran Fawlty Towers, Python, Dr. Who, Blackadder, and Blake’s 7. But unlike Tucker I also remember why those days golden days are, I fear, gone forever, just like they are gone for the CBC that baby BBC to our North. I mention the CBC here because its recent history may indicate which direction PBS may have to move in order to remain financially violable in an America dominated by neo-liberal fantasists and demagogues. The CBC now offsets continuing losses of government funding thanks to neo-liberal ideologues and demagogues with advertising revenue. Perhaps this is (sadly) the solution to PBS's woes, more adverts.

Tucker and some of his readers, by the way, are not the only "journalists" to engage in what is increasingly becoming an international past time of PBS bashing. The Daily Mail and its online cousin, The Mail Online, that right wing defender of all things not "left wing" public television and defender of all intricate British things from simple minded Yanks recently accused PBS of cutting two hours from Downton Abbey and of illegally profiting from unlicensed Downton Abbey jewelry knock off sales (Chris Hastings, "Downton Downsized...By Two Hours Because American TV Executives Fear Its Intricate Plot Will Baffle U.S. Viewers, the Daily Mail, 7 January 2011, and of illegally selling Downton Abbey jewellry knockoffs (Sarah Nathan and Daisy Dumas, “PBS is Forced to Pull ‘Unauthorised’ Downton Abbey Jewellry Line After Show Producers Object”, the Mail Online, 25 January 2012 (

The first claim, that PBS cut Downton by two hours because of American ignorance is, as Jace points out in his "In Defense of Downton Abbey (Or, Don't Believe Everything You Read)"(Televisionary, 3 January 2012, false. As Jace notes first series episodes of Downton Abbey were reworked in order to fit the show into the Masterpiece time slot. The second accusation, that PBS was making money off of illegal jewellry sales, was, as the PBS ombudsman noted (Michael Getler, “The Daily Downton”, PBS Ombudsman, 24 January 2012,, false as well noting that PBS had linked to jewelry sold by a third party.

All of these false accusations made by the Mail Online about a nefarious PBS and ignorant Americans not to mention the Mail Online's offensive against the BBC's revived Upstairs Downstairs as a copy of Downton Abbey (see, for example, Paul Revoir’s “Upstairs Downton...or How the New BBC Period Drama Series Echoes Its Hit ITV Rival”, the Daily Mail, 31 January 2012 ( raise questions about the motives of the Mail. The Mail has long been known for its bashing of British public television as a bastion of left wingers. Now that PBS's profile has been raised by the success of Downton Abbey in the US apparently American public broadcasting has come into the Daily Mail's anti-"left" wing rifle sites along with the BBC.

By the way, the accuracy of the Mail's aim at the BBC is just as bad as it was for PBS. The Mail Online's claims that the revived Upstairs Downstairs is mimicking Downton Abbey has it the wrong way around. Actually Downton is in so many ways a remake of the original Upstairs Downstairs. But then factual accuracy has never the Daily Mail's strong suit. The Mail's strong suit has been for some time anti-left wing demagoguery. And perhaps that is why the xenophobic and anti-left wing Mail Online is, according to an article by Will Oremus, the most visited newspaper site on the World Wide Web (Will Oremus, "The Worlds Most Popular Online Newspaper: How the Daily Mail Took the Title from the New York Times, Slate, 3 February 2012, The moral of this story? Ideologically inspired fantasy, like sex, apparently sells.

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