PBS should have learned to zero out the think-o-meter

January 23, 1995|By MIKE LITTWIN

The mistake the folks at PBS make is to try to have a voice, occasionally even a distinctive one. They don't understand about TV.

TV is supposed to be vacuous. That, apparently, is the entire point of the medium.

If it has sex -- and it does, it does -- it'd better be white, heterosexual, bosom-heaving sex between consenting people with American accents.

Sitcoms should be dumb, unless they can be dumber. All stereotypes are welcome.

"News" magazines should be sensational if possible, usually with something on O. J., and always try to have either Diane Sawyer or Connie Chung as the host/hot news-mama.

PBS is different.

It's not perfect. It tries, though. That's what makes it different.

I know people who've worked at PBS who complain about the waste there, just like the Newtites do. And maybe it is inefficient.

But that isn't the point here. Money is not the issue. Total public money for public radio and television is $285 million, or .02 percent of the federal budget.

Take away the entire $285 million, as Newtie is threatening, and what do you have? A silly, moral victory that helps nobody. Public broadcasting would survive the cuts.

The issue here, you understand, is that the Republicans are finally in charge of Congress, and they'd look stupid if they didn't go after public TV. That's because for years, when they couldn't think of anything else to say, they've railed about public TV destroying the fabric of America. Bill Moyers did it all by himself. Actually, Bert and Ernie, those multiculturalist Muppets, helped.

Many conservatives hate public TV. They hate public radio. They talk about "elitism," but what could be less elite than free TV? Cable TV, which charges 20-some dollars a month, is more elitist. This attack against elitism is actually anti-intellectualism, or as it's known today, Gump-ism.

PBS is not afraid to be at least TV's version of intellectual. "Masterpiece Theatre" is about grown-up ideas from grown-up books. Commercial TV tends more toward Danielle Steel. Of course, for intellectuals, there is "Jeopardy!"

It's also not completely afraid to be TV's version of controversial. Certainly it's the network most likely to have a drama about lesbians that doesn't take place in a jail house.

And in "Frontline," PBS has a news magazine that actually is a news magazine. If it's sometimes uneven, it's also sometimes gutsy and bold and challenging.

I'm sure Newtie, the futurist, must love "Nova." And, recently, he's become a fan of "This Old House." Still, he's willing to lead the charge against PBS, saying he wants funding "zeroed out."

Does public TV sometimes have a liberal bias, as the conservatives charge?

Yes. But it also has William F. Buckley. And the down-the-middle MacNeil-Lehrer NewsHour.

Where PBS runs into trouble is that it has its own culture, which isn't always the Ozzie and Harriet culture much preferred by many in Congress. Sometimes, its shows even -- God forbid -- offend somebody. Personally, I'm much more offended by most of the shows on Fox.

Public funding allows PBS some sense of independence, although not all that much. That's because only 14 percent of the funding comes out of Congress. More than half comes from corporations. And, I'm just guessing here, the Mobil Corp. is not likely to sponsor a show on the dangers of oil spills, unless it were titled "Oil, the Water Fowl's Best Friend."

PBS is no more radical or counterculture than "Mister Rogers." It's a TV network, with 90 percent of its lineup completely apolitical. It has kid shows and nature shows and cooking shows. (OK, Julia Child was once a Trotskyite, but that was long ago, and now she won't even cook borscht anymore.)

There's a lot of opera and, like you, I could do with less. Of course, like you, I can turn the channel.

The problem is that one day, when you turn the channel, you might not be able to find shows like Ken Burns' "Civil War" documentary. Or the recent prime-time look at the "War on Poverty," which definitely suggested that this was, in fact, a good war.

You can disagree, of course. That's the beauty of the best of public TV. You might actually want to think while watching one of the shows.

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