April 7, 2011

THE DIFFERENCE BEING...:

Save NPR!: But please, put PBS out of its misery. (Mark Oppenheimer, April 5, 2011, Slate)

Today, it can be difficult to find what ambitious, interesting programming there is on PBS. Earlier this month, I tuned in a few times and was greeted by Antiques Roadshow, a doo-wop concert that I have seen before while channel-surfing, and—several times—the financial advice of Suze Orman. From those glimpses, it seemed that an average evening on PBS had all the intelligence of VH1 and all the youth appeal of CBS.

That may have been an unfair sampling. Last week, for example, I found a NOVA episode about the disaster in Japan; a show about the abuse of queer youth in the juvenile justice system; and a Frontline special about the influence of big money in the NCAA. But even in its best weeks, PBS lacks any sort of coherent sensibility. At a time when the most successful networks have an obvious style—the illicit, pervy edge of Showtime's Weeds and Californication; the fine-grained realism of HBO's best dramas—PBS shows are defined variously by shameless baby-boomer pandering of the self-help or nostalgia variety, by a kind of earnest love of newsy documentaries, or by old-school PBS Anglophilia.

Meanwhile, beyond its intelligent, serious news coverage, NPR—and its member stations, which are free to buy shows not produced by the NPR mothership—have become home to many spectacular radio serials: This American Life, Radiolab, Sound Opinions, All Songs Considered, and the list goes on. There is still a rump of NPR clichés—I have never been particularly moved by Car Talk or Prairie Home Companion, and I refuse to like Wait! Wait! Don't Tell Me until they invite me to be a panelist. But those shows are the starting point for NPR in 2011; they aren't the entire product. The network clearly knows that for all the love listeners show Garrison Keillor, NPR at its best is quirky and cerebral, in the style of Ira Glass and Robert Krulwich.

Why the diverging fortunes? First, to a great extent, their competitors have set the terms. In the past 30 years, cable television got extremely good, while private radio got extremely bad. Today, if you want to do creative television, chances are you would take a job at HBO, AMC, or Showtime; it is unclear why, given the greater freedom (and money) those cable stations offer, you would work for PBS. Meanwhile, the radio situation is reversed: it is unclear what kind of self-loathing idiot wants to work on programming at a Clear Channel radio station. And although SiriusXM satellite radio can be a delight—when I had my free media trial membership, I constantly listened to Little Steven's Underground Garage—its nonmusical programming can be rather insulting. I am actually afraid to listen to the weekly show Game On, which promises "the super-secret knowledge on the science of meeting and attracting women that badass, confident men only teach their sons and little bros." No, for someone serious about radio, NPR is the golden land.

Second, as serious viewers gravitated toward cable television, and to options like Netflix and Hulu, the remaining PBS audience changed—it got, for lack of a better word, lamer—requiring PBS to go downscale to meet their need. "There was a time when you used to fundraise around NOVA or Masterpiece Theater or other premium programs," says Michael Flaster, a longtime public broadcasting executive in San Diego. "And then they realized you can do better by creating large audiences around less than substantial programs. They moved into doo-wop, anti-aging, ersatz art kind of programs that are better at raising money." Flaster says that PBS programming is now devised to allow watchers to "transact" with the what they see, as they do when they give a pledge in exchange for a CD or concert tickets of the featured band.


...that radio listeners are working men.


Posted by at April 7, 2011 5:53 AM
  

blog comments powered by Disqus
« NOTHING'S MORE DISAPPOINTING THAN HIS PRESENCE: | Main | THE DEEP STRUCTURE: »