With much fanfare, the high panjandrums of Maryland Public Television announced last week that on New Year's Eve they will broadcast a three-hour celebration from Baltimore to all but a handful of the country's Public Broadcasting Service stations. The program will feature the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra, Mel Torme', Misha Dichter, Wynton Marsalis and other musical eminences, and will be topped off with a fireworks extravaganza at the Inner Harbor. Baltimore's publicists and promoters of tourism must already be licking their chops.
So too must be the publicists and promoters at Maryland Public Television, which under its current president, Raymond Ho, has become something of a hot ticket in PBS circles. The New Year's Eve gala is right down Ho's alley: a program of broad appeal designed to haul in as large an audience as possible and thus to raise public television's ratings and revenues yet another notch. But at the risk of seeming to play spoilsport, this seems as good a time as any to ask whether programming such as this, however impressive its short-term performance, is really in the long-term best interests of either public television or the people who watch it.
Certainly such programming --
glitzy, feel-good, audience-grab- bing -- seems to be the order of the day in public television. As The New York Times reported shortly before the announcement of the New Year's spectacular, there is a division within public television between two camps that can loosely be called the educators and the entertainers, and the latter clearly are winning. It is becoming more and more difficult for serious, visually unexciting programs to find air time on public television; like their counterparts in the commercial networks, the people who run public television are going for ratings and are quite unembarrassed about doing whatever it takes to get them.
As a case in point, The Times noted the difficulties encountered by Bill Moyers in getting his brief spots about the Constitution on the air during this year of that document's bicentennial; so far as some of the managers of certain public television stations were concerned, Moyers' constitutional moments were, like his talking-heads programs, just too dull, so they declined to broadcast them.
Naturally this produced the usual outbursts of indignation, not least from Moyers himself; he is a person of great charm, intelligence and public spirit, but he is given to taking himself rather too seriously and to assuming that a station or network that casts a skeptical eye at him and his works is somehow morally deficient. But even if one takes Moyers' self-righteousness into account, it remains that in this instance he is on the side of the angels; the dismissive treatment his spots about the Constitution received is symptomatic of a broad and disturbing trend within public television.
The trend, quite simply, is that many of the PBS affiliates are in danger of gaining the whole world, or at least a portion thereof, and losing their souls. Inspired, apparently, by their success in reaching a small but affluent and self-regarding audience through such programs as "Brideshead Revisited" and "Upstairs, Downstairs," public television stations are going overboard to schedule programming that will please these viewers and encourage them to open their billfolds come pledge time.
That these stations should have become infatuated with improved ratings and bloated production budgets is understandable -- not even public broadcasting is immune to the competitive and acquisitive urges -- but regrettable all the same. The first reason is quite obvious: These stations are repudiating their original mission of public service and turning instead to the mindless pursuit of ratings and revenues. The second is subtler but even more lamentable: The stations are saying that nowhere on the public airwaves, not even on public television, is there room for seriousness.
This is not to say that serious programming has completely disappeared from public television, but that a fundamental seriousness of purpose is no longer to be found, except at the occasional odd station such as WGBH in Boston or WNET in New York or WETA in Washington. Elsewhere, entertainment rules the day: refined entertainment, to be sure, by comparison with the daily fare offered up by the commercial networks, but entertainment all the same. "The Wonderful World of Disney," "The Avengers," "Masterpiece Theatre," "National Geographic," "Holiday Entertaining With Martha Stewart" -- this is what you will find on Maryland Public Television this month, interspersed only rarely with a documentary or two and virtually never with serious discussion of public issues apart from the MacNeil-Lehrer evening news broadcast.
This is nothing less than an abrogation of responsibility. Public television was established as an alternative to commercial broadcasting, but now is rapidly becoming merely a pale, upper-middle-class imitation of it. Rather than undertake significant amounts of original programming, it is content to fall back on British imports, many of which long ago declined to the point of unwitting self-parody; when it does do the programming itself, too often it goes for overbudgeted facsimiles of network projects -- a particularly egregious example being "The Adams Chronicles" -- instead of making its limited funds go as far as they can in as many directions as possible.
What it comes down to is that public television has gotten a severe case of commercialism. To satisfy its own hubris and the expectations of the corporate underwriters who are becoming ever more important in its financial picture, public television has become not appreciably less crass than the commercial broadcasters at whose philistinism it once sneered. It is still better than they are, but the margin of difference has shrunk discernibly and there is no evidence that the process will be slowed, much less reversed; once people catch a whiff of the sweet smell of commercial success, only the most unusual and principled among them can resist the temptation to sell their souls for a larger dose of it.
To say this is most emphatically not to say that public television should abandon all efforts to entertain and should broadcast nothing except chalk talks, documentaries and panel discussions; there is as legitimate a place for entertainment on the public channels as there is on the commercial ones, and there is absolutely no reason why educational and public service programming must be boring and unimaginative. Rather it is to say that if public television is to fulfil its original mission -- a mission, it must be said, that has if anything increased in urgency as commercial television has abandoned all pretense of public service -- then it cannot merely be commercial broadcasting with a veneer of class. If that is what it is to become, then it will have no legitimate claim to be called public television.