One of the largest Public Broadcasting stations, LA’s KCET, announced last Friday that it will leave PBS and go independent. As always, the dispute was over money. KCET had received a $40 million grant from British Petroleum, with the provision that the money not be used as dues to PBS. PBS in turn wanted that money, and raised dues to about 20% of KCET’s operating revenue instead of the usual 13%. [Dues are on a sliding scale of operating revenues, in this case the scale slid considerably.] Other LA area stations pledge to pick up the slack, while KCET plans to be one of the few independent public broadcasting stations in the country. PBS will not allow KCET to run programs a la carte, so viewers will have to surf around to find their favorites.
But this brings up a larger question. Should PBS exist at all, and what should it do? Certainly today PBS serves no real useful purpose at all, for the most part, but within its fairly corrupt recesses is the possibility of a cultural mission that America needs: a reconnection with the glorious culture and past of America. PBS should not be destroyed, only reformed. Given a new mission other than the current one of minor cultural irrelevancy.
PBS currently broadcasts, intermittently and poorly, various operas and symphonies, and jazz at the Lincoln Center. These are poorly publicized (few people know about them) and poorly broadcast, often with chatty, uber-gay gossipy style backstage presentations instead of a more masculine and newcomer friendly about what to listen and look for in the performance at intermission and before the start. America has some premier opera and symphony companies, often world-class, and always with considerable government support. Ovation TV, a premium cable channel, covers this, but it is expensive, as are movie theater based pay-per-view showings. In the meantime, taxpayers directly support these companies (and there is a solid argument that as part of the cultural patrimony, the various state, local, and federal governments should provide some support).
Rather than dumb down culture, PBS is the perfect means to shore it up. By broadcasting professionally (the way NBC does “Sunday Night Football”) and naturally, at far lower cost (no multiple camera angles needed or instant replay) a full season of Opera and the Symphony and Jazz and even, yes Ballet. PBS would also need to buy commercials, publicizing its coverage, and pushing it as something high class and free. A bargain performed as a public service, and fun in a high-class way, for ordinary people. Rather than Dancing with the Stars, super-star dancers. Rather than American Idol, proven and beautiful songs sung by the best singers in the world. Along with symphonic performances more moving that a John Williams sound-track. Or native music with the power and mastery of folks from Duke Ellington to Wilbur de Paris.
America has had, along with most of the West, a long slow slide into appropriating the culture and mores of the lower class as proper, “right” behavior, and part of reclaiming America’s culture can be done by making PBS a weapon in providing upper class culture. But it need not and should not stop there.
Rather than broadcasting idiot leftist propaganda like “Frontline,” PBS should not only bring government supported opera, ballet, jazz, and symphony companies to the masses (and provide a stable, easy to find broadcast of it every week), but also America’s great museums and National Parks. Few people can afford to visit the Smithsonian, the Air and Space Museum, or the Museum of Modern Art in NYC. Much less the Getty Museum in Los Angeles, or the Norton Simon in Pasadena, or other world-class museums scattered across America. Nor some of the more populist, such as the National Football League Hall of Fame in Canton Ohio, or the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in Cleveland. All supported by considerable tax payer dollars. People deserve the ability to visit, by TV, these places their dollars support. PBS is the natural and the only venue for this, and of course if PBS is broadcasting a tour of the Smithsonian, it keeps them from running “Frontline” and “poor jihadi” type of material.
Then of course are the National Parks. A good number of which are fairly inaccessible, and yet stunningly beautiful. People deserve the ability to see what they paid for, and PBS is just the venue to provide it. Naturally, allowing great masses of people to see something they can never visit personally, would create a great deal of support for the parks. As a national broadcast of opera, ballet, symphonies, and museums would do for those institutions. Something that would be immediately apparent to most of the cultural left.
Abolishing PBS will create, reflexively, a fight to the death on the issue by all the people entrenched in it, who have made a living off the taxpayer dime. So too would tilting it obviously to the right, by forcing it to broadcast say, Milton Friedman’s “Free to Choose.” But, the cultural left can be co-opted, and given a mission they’d largely agree upon. The hereditary, trustafarian folks in and around the arts and PBS, lack a mission and much respect and support from the wider public. Giving them a mission, which they’d largely agree upon in the first place, of making America’s premier cultural institutions, its symphonies, opera companies, ballet companies, museums, and national parks, a far more important and loved place in the average American’s heart, provides both a mission and a win for them. The cultural elite would have a much higher profile, for Average Americans. One that at least, stop doing harm, and would be more meaningful.
Pouring spaghetti-ohs over yourself, is not a way to mass respectability and fame, something the cultural elite oh so desperately craves. Being the host, or co-host, or even part of the production team of a Saturday Night broadcast of the Opera, known nationally and respected, is entirely different.
At heart, it’s a bribe or a bargain with the cultural left and elites. They get a pride of place, a mission, probably more money, and they are fenced in to the high culture of America, and told to promote it. Will they put a leftist spin on things? Certainly. But the music of Beethoven, or Mozart, or Aaron Copland, is so powerful that the spin would be like spitting into a hurricane. So too with Verdi, or Puccini, or the Rites of Spring, or the Spirit of St. Louis, hanging in the Air and Space Museum. Or a quiet morning in Arches National Monument, as the sun rises.
Would there be a place of Masterpiece Theater, or Mystery? Certainly. These broadcasts do little harm, and provide entertainment to many. In the case of Mystery, the source material (unraveling the crime to restore order) is in itself conservative, though many do not recognize it. As is the preservation of the West’s and America’s high culture, yes including Jazz (created by Black people, and now to their horror embraced mostly by White audiences).
From a larger perspective, Mozart, Shakespeare, Benny Goodman, Aaron Copland, Louis Armstrong, Miles Davis, Verdi, and Back deserve an effort to bring them to more people. They have enduring, time-tested meaning and messages that transcend politics to pure human emotion and uplift, that bring joy to those who have read, seen, heard, or viewed their art in performance. It is ultimately, conservative to conserve their works, which is part of the American and Western heritage, from a tiny ghetto of only a few.
Will their sheer artfulness drive out the awfulness of current popular culture? No. Gresham’s Law of bad currency driving out the good is likely to apply to culture as well. But marginal gains instead of transformational ones are not to be dismissed either. Each additional young man or woman who discovers these artists, or older people rediscovering them, means a marginal loss for the crap of popular culture epitomized by “Teen Mom.” Not to mention that it keeps the current folks in PBS out of mischief with a mission they can endorse. Who would be against Mozart or Louis Armstrong?
Therefore it is hoped that a Republican House of Representatives, will, at some time, pick up the reformation of PBS as a banner. Arguing that it is time to spend some more money on it, and make it a cultural preservation and enhancement institution. One that has actual meaning, a purpose, other than mindless leftist cultural bashing. Even a hard-left ideologue could not argue that say, broadcasting an entire Opera season with performances picked from America’s premier Opera companies, in prime time, and publicized, would be a bad thing, as opposed to endless “American Experience” shows about Mexican families that not even (or especially) Mexican families watch. Because the hard leftist would see how much more fame and respect the broadcast and his friends making the broadcast would get showing a Mozart Opera would receive, versus some show no one will care about.
Would this be easy? No. Would there be compromises? Yes. Including messy ones. At the minimum, stopping the long slide into cultural oblivion in America will not be easy, and likely the work of generations. And reforming PBS is not itself more than a first baby step. But conservatives have to start somewhere, and using the built-in snob appeal of the SWPL makeup of the cultural elite to produce a productive bargain for PBS is as good a place as any.
Newton Minnow, after all, in his “Vast Wasteland” speech noted: “When television is good, nothing — not the theater, not the magazines or newspapers — nothing is better.” He was right. PBS is currently an obscure an minor part of the vast cultural wasteland. It is time for it to be good, and be better than the theater, magazines, and newspapers.