PBS: The Best - And Room To Grow

ALL those letters! And all in response to my column of Aug. 1, commenting on a study that purported to reveal ``elitism'' on the Public Broadcasting Service because so few working-class people were represented. Many readers felt I was trashing PBS. Their comments ranged from polite demurral (``We must take friendly but definite exception'') to outrage (``language subtly calculated ... a time-worn trick of politicians and dictators'').

But wait a minute, folks - it really wasn't PBS-bashing. Actually, I'm a sucker for public TV, a proven defender of the faith who's much more used to being accused of bias in favor of PBS than against it.

I've constantly applauded the fine arts on PBS as a desperately needed alternative to commercial programming, and public TV people have come to me for statements to print in their anniversary publications - knowing all too well, I suspect, that I'd find something supportive to say. They also notice I tend to load my ``Worth Noting on TV'' column with public TV choices even when there were fairly decent candidates on the commercial networks.

To those commercial networks, I'm practically a wanted man - for pointing up their opportunism and dereliction of social duty to children, and for lots else. For the kind of sentiments, in fact, reflected by my column of July 11 - a prolonged horse laugh at the spectacle of commercial TV suddenly discovering, in a sunburst of insight, what many viewers have been claiming for decades: that Nielsen ratings are a poor basis for programming. That article prompted no indignant letters.

With such ideological credentials, I thought it was safe to air a contrarian view for a change by suggesting the study might have a point - that PBS could stand to broaden its image of society. And I'm afraid I still think that's true.

In highlighting this opposition viewpoint - dropping into its own voice at times - I refered to phrases like ``high falutin''' and ``force-fed'' to convey the flavor of the charges some people were leveling at PBS. But though I characterized those words as ``anti-intellectual'' - since I think excellence is what ``alternative'' TV should seek - they were enough to get me in hot water with some of the more vigilant PBS fans.

So let me make something plain: Not only do I adamantly oppose watering down the arts or anything else on PBS; I want PBS to be even further ahead of commercial TV than it has been for so many years. And one step would be to bring its intelligent focus to bear on the lives of working-class Americans - not in place of its current content, but in addition to it.

The study I cited found no series about blue-collar American life on PBS, no equivalent for commercial TV's ``Roseanne.'' If PBS gets one, I'm assuming, of course, it will not be a ratings-hungry caricature but a thoughtful and culturally aware production typical of the PBS approach to other segments of society.

That's precisely why the life of American workers should be represented on public TV, because they deserve something more than ``Roseanne'' and only on PBS are they likely to get it. Their chance to be seen and accepted by PBS fans shouldn't suffer through guilt by association with one offending sitcom on a commercial network. We shouldn't allow that show's image of workers to remain unchallenged.

A blue-collar presence wouldn't cheapen PBS, as some have claimed. With the right production talent and vision - the kind so often found on public TV - it would be an invigorating new ingredient, a thinking person's alternative to ``Roseanne.''

Some letter-writers were afraid that merely suggesting PBS had room to grow might damage its case for future congressional funding. But with the pro-PBS fervency reflected in those letters, that seems unlikely. What a politician would give for that kind of support! With such a constituency, it's a wonder PBS hasn't long since won its struggle for the long-term financing it's wanted for so many years.

PBS does deserve stable funding - but that's another column, and just now I'm too busy to think about it. I'm getting ready to answer a barrage of letters from offended fans of commercial TV.

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