Trouble on Sesame Street

PBS is chasing two stars but having trouble catching either. One star is its usual fare of innovative programs, like a Ken Burns series, long expected of the Public Broadcasting System. The other is mass appeal, higher ratings, and greater viewer donations.

Born after the early TV days when noncommercial television was still "the education channel," PBS was created, in part, to have a network free of market pressure and able to pursue an elusive, sometimes elitist, goal of excellence. Oh, and hopefully to find its own acceptability among viewers.

It earned its reputation in pre-cable-TV days with shows like "Masterpiece Theater," "Sesame Street," the "McNeil/Lehrer News Hour," and countless documentaries. And those were the days when Congress more generously funded public TV.

Unfortunately, with more options for viewers and less federal support, PBS has become more concerned with audience share. It still airs credits for corporate underwriters that look ever more like commercials. Yet programming without commercials remains one of its prime attractions.

During pledge drives, stations run programs that draw emotional responses and bigger contributions, but those programs are less and less like normal PBS fare. Indeed, such tactics smack of "sweeps months" (February and May) on commercial TV, when the networks boost ratings with shows that have the most mass appeal. PBS viewers might feel duped once "down market" shows aired during pledge drives are dropped for its usual "up market" programs.

PBS argues that it faces a median audience age of 50-plus, declining viewership, a tight budget, and affiliates whose programming standards are uneven. Federal, state, and local funding provide 34 percent of its $1.6 billion budget. Colleges and universities add another 7.9 percent. And the rest? From foundations, corporations, and, finally, a declining number of viewers who donate.

PBS viewership in prime-time sank to its lowest ever (1.7 million) during the fourth quarter of 2001. Much of that drop can be blamed on the rise of education-based programming on such cable channels as Discovery, the History Channel, A&E, and Nickelodeon. Arguably, PBS helped spawn such programming, which is another reason to support its drive for innovation. But better content on commercial TV means PBS has to work even harder to be innovative. The bar is simply higher.

Instead of viewing itself as a network competitor, PBS should retain its role as a breeding ground for programming that can be imitated on commercial TV, such as "Antiques Roadshow." PBS can drop those programs whose imitators find commercial success, knowing it has elevated TV standards generally. Then it's freer to create even more innovative shows.

At the same time, it can produce shows such as "The News Hour with Jim Lehrer" that may not draw big audiences but provide an important service by exploring public issues.

But PBS can stay above the commercial fray only if it continues to receive some measure of government (read: public) funding, and most important more direct support from viewers. With more media mergers, PBS stations could well be the only locally owned and controlled broadcasting entities left standing.

As long as it helps set a rising standard for commercial networks to imitate, PBS will be doing its job.

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