Public broadcaster caters to unserved auds

The latest budget-slashing attempt to bleed public television dry has renewed a misguided debate, with the New York Times asking “Is PBS Still Necessary?,” while uber producer Ken Burns insists his documentary gems would be impossible without protection from the tyranny of “the marketplace.”

Like so much in today’s polarized climate, the truth lies somewhere in between: PBS can still fulfill a vital function, but the service isn’t as indispensable as defenders argue.

So yes, PBS is necessary, but across a narrower swath — one whose service-oriented priorities should boil down to young kids, current affairs and, in media parlance, old codgers.

Such nuance mostly eluded the Times’ Charles McGrath, whose commentary exhibited a myopia common among pop culture dabblers. Accusing PBS of “mustiness,” he never mentioned children’s programming — an oversight of Big Bird-like proportions given that public TV has long been the U.S.’ leading source of classroom video.

Actually, the problem is PBS often isn’t musty enough. PBS chief exec Paula Kerger not long ago discussed its strengths and perceived weaknesses in a Ford Foundation interview, saying of public TV’s evolving demographics, “We have a very large audience under 5, and we have a very large audience that’s over 50. … But we’re somehow missing the 5 to 50 group.”

Yet that is how things should be, with one exception: serious news. PBS fulfills that mandate with “The NewsHour,” Bill Moyers’ opinionated journal and “Frontline,” the last of which distinguishes itself again with two upcoming Iraq documentaries: “Bush’s War,” a methodical two-night event recounting the conflict’s run-up and fumbled prosecution; and “Bad Voodoo’s War,” the personal micro to “Bush’s” macro, culled from a “virtual embed” with a deployed National Guard unit.

Put simply, PBS should cater to audiences regularly underserved by the “marketplace” of which Burns spoke, otherwise referred to as commercial television: children, who, despite a proliferation of niche cable nets, tend to be fed crappy toy-oriented fare; older folks, increasingly ignored by the pursuit of ad-friendly younger demos, especially in such areas as classical music and the arts; and consumers hungering for hard news, at a time when broadcast news and the cable networks consistently fail that test, succumbing to tabloid impulses.

PBS looks unnecessary only when it duplicates what’s readily available elsewhere, chasing that “5-to-50″ middle with pop music, cute animals and how-to shows. At that point public TV seems expendable, dishing out programs whose facsimile can be found on the Discovery or History Channel, Food Network or Home & Garden, Animal Planet or National Geographic, BBC America or Turner Classic Movies.

By contrast, PBS can clearly benefit children as broadcast networks abandon Saturday-morning lineups. Ditto for primetime news audiences weary of NBC baiting predators and ABC employing actors to stage hidden-camera morality plays. And while a few channels hope to wring a few bucks from older audiences, the over-55 set remains a tough sell to media buyers and thus widely neglected by ad-supported networks.

Along similar lines, PBS has missed opportunities to tap Hollywood’s talent pool, especially those sidelined by ageism — experienced hands that would surely welcome working even at public TV rates. Instead, the service has contentedly relied upon importing British costume dramas such as “Masterpiece’s” current Jane Austen adaptations, whose subject matter underscores the not-so-subtle pressure to “get younger.”

In short, amid an explosion of media options, PBS needn’t be all things to all people, but it’s a valuable complement to obvious gaps in what “the marketplace” provides. Seen that way, laudable programs such as “Nature” and “American Masters” could fall by the wayside, anticipating that cable would fill the void.

As for emphasizing serious journalism, that won’t endear PBS to the Bush administration or conservatives eager to de-fund public TV as retaliation for perceived “liberal bias,” and vigorous reporting requires not only stiff spines but considerable investment. Then again, National Public Radio has demonstrated its vitality as an information source amid a sea of banality, and PBS should aspire to do the same.

Meeting these goals with limited resources isn’t easy, but public TV can continue doing so by zeroing in on true reality, not the bastardized versions of it peddled on commercial television. Ultimately, that’s PBS’ strongest defense against those eager to squeeze it out of the TV picture.

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