Public broadcasting excels, in mediocrity

August 15, 1999|By Donald Kaul

WE MIGHT as well face facts, kids. Our society is disappearing down a cultural sewer.

The evidence is everywhere. Be it movies, television or music, coarseness, vulgarity and sophomoric sexual innuendo are the order of the day.

The New York Times, in an article on "Gross-Out Humor," listed a few recent examples of successful attempts to set new standards in bad taste: an MTV talk show host vomiting into a toilet on camera, a character in a movie thought to be hilarious sipping from a beverage made of excrement, a TV comedian stopping women on the street and asking if they'll have sex with him (for laughs, you know).

Oh yes, and then there's "South Park," an animated cartoon TV show in which little nippers get yuks by talking dirty, an R-rated "Peanuts." You could expand on that list indefinitely.

Don't get me wrong. I myself am no stranger to bad language and have been known to flirt with bad taste, so long as it has a point, but this turning over of the entire culture to pee-pee jokes seems more than a little weird to me. It's bad enough these things are popular; the real problem is that there's hardly anything better.

Sophisticated humor, wordplay, social satire, the depiction of love between mature, interesting people, has all but disappeared from our screens and when it does occasionally show up -- as in "Wag the Dog" or "Bullworth" or "Living Out Loud" -- it evaporates almost immediately to make way for the "Dumb and Dumber" genre.

It is now possible for a child to grow up in a cultural cocoon in which he or she is never challenged intellectually or required to develop taste. It's all junior high lunchroom humor.

The conservatives are pretty upset about this, naturally, and, naturally, they have an answer: Get rid of Public Television.

Yes, that's the way they're going to make things better. Columnist George Will put the case forward the other day in a piece that asked "Who Needs Public Broadcasting?"

He compared the Corporation for Public Broadcasting to the "body politic's appendix -- vestigial, purposeless and occasionally troublesome."

Why do we need to spend public money on such a thing as public broadcasting when cable television offers 500 channels, he asks.

I suppose the quick answer to that is that 500 channels of garbage is still garbage.

Paradoxically, when I was young (along with television), there were four major channels.

In a given week in the late '50s and early '60s you might be able to watch riveting original drama on "Playhouse 90" or "Studio One," a classic play done by the greatest actors of Broadway on David Susskind's "Play of the Week," world leaders of the stature of Nehru and Churchill chatting with Edward R. Murrow on "Face to Face," an hour-and-a-half Sid Caesar variety show written by the most brilliant comic minds of the day, Charles Laughton reading from a great book, Peggy Lee and Mel Torme sharing a daily before-dinner music show, Leonard Bernstein and the New York Philharmonic teaching kids what good music was about.

I won't even mention "Omnibus" or Jackie Gleason.

Garden of Eden

That was the television FCC Chairman Newton Minow called "a vast wasteland," a characterization most of us agreed with. Looking back on it now, it seems like a Garden of Eden.

If one is to criticize Public Broadcasting, it is not for being too elite but too mediocre. It has become timid in its pursuit of news and ratings-oriented in its presentation of entertainment.

Even "Masterpiece Theater," which is supposed to be a high-class loss leader, has abandoned truly distinguished projects like "I, Claudius" and "War and Peace" in favor of more the more easily digested social histories of the World War I era.

Take away the BBC and "Antiques Roadshow" and there wouldn't be any public television, at least not in the evening.

So if you want to get rid of it, you're not going to hurt my feelings much. But it would be a lot smarter to give it more money, not less, and see if it could make a difference.

We could use something better than we're getting.

Don Kaul is a columnist for the Des Moines Register.

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