Blistering attack on PBS
April 29, 2004 11:37 AM   Subscribe

"Other channels do what PBS [does], with the added bonus of doing it better." On the 50th anniversary of San Francisco's KQED, the SF Chronicle's TV critic Tim Goodman levels a blistering attack on the station and on PBS, calling it "one of the worst-run, thoroughly backward media entities in the country."
posted by twsf (26 comments total)
If you don't think there are dire warnings being discussed in the upper echelon of management about the future and sustainability of the service, well, you're probably sending your pledge check to KQED gladly, indifferent not only to the rampant bait-and-switch tactics of that very practice, but to the bevy of comparative options in the TV universe.

I was thoroughly disgusted by the blatantly commercial ratings-and-demographics-obsessed tone of Goodman's column. The first lesson of criticism is that quality and audience are entirely unrelated questions. It's sad when a critic sounds like a TV executive, advising his paymasters not to invest in a company.

PBS is wonderful and to lay into those who contribute to it is, as I said, repugnant beyond words.
posted by MiguelCardoso at 11:56 AM on April 29, 2004

Ummm, is he watching the same PBS that I am? Did he see the excellent series on DNA? Or perhaps Frontier House? Or will he not watch Colonial House? Does he not watch Charlie Rose? Or even Jim Lehrer? Or even watch Frontline? Or even the great documentary on The Weather Underground?

It just seems that the author is taking a member station [kqed] and extrapolating its' problem's to the rest of the system. I wish everyone had a WNET or a WGBH, but to say that the system is doomed? Please. Just another person who thinks privatization is the end-all be-alls of the world.
posted by plemeljr at 11:58 AM on April 29, 2004

Goodman's point is that PBS is failing because it's *not effective* at getting its high quality programming in front of as large an audience as it deserves. Working to attract younger dmographics DOES matter for any quality outlet that doesn't want its audience to die out (cf. every symphony orchestra in the country).
posted by twsf at 12:07 PM on April 29, 2004

Bravo? A&E? These haven't run old PBS-type programming for years have they? I don't think he did any research for this, or he would have mentioned Trio, which is fab. Maybe it was a little too heavy on the Pop part of Pop Culture for him (but again Bravo? A&E?).

That said, PBS has become kind of dull, or at least our local has. I miss Trying Times and Alive from Off Center. And American Playhouse. And controversial stuff like The Singing Detective. And a wider array of British comedies. And Doctor Who.

And what's with AMC? Not only do they have commercials now (fine, gotta pay the bills, no studio behind them that's driven by video sales to act as a sugar daddy like TCM and FMC), they're also editing content. Way to make the movies totally unwatchable.

Also, pants these days are too darn tight.
posted by PinkStainlessTail at 12:14 PM on April 29, 2004

But nobody is saying that mainstays like "Masterpiece Theatre" or "Nova" or "Frontline" or many of the wonderful children's series aren't top notch, high quality programs. That's not even an issue....The point is that viewers can get that level of programming elsewhere


The Discovery Channel (which I'm assuming he mentions in relation to Nova) is loaded with shows promoting pseudoscience (the supernatural, UFO conspiracies, etc ) and fake what-would-happen-if-a-hippo-fought-a-bear programs.

And there is no TV news program that comes anywhere close to The News Hour with Jim Lehrer.

Those complaints aside, there's probably a kernal of truth here, he just greatly overstated his case.
posted by malphigian at 12:33 PM on April 29, 2004

malphigian nails it, there is a kernal of truth in the centre of his giant ball o'overstatement. PBS has declined over the last decade, or at least the commercial competition has improved.
posted by Keith Talent at 12:47 PM on April 29, 2004

I think this a ploy for computer users to get cable via guilt. (It aint gonna work for this poor fella Mr. Critic Guy) PBS is excellent. JL, Charlie Rose, FRONTLINE and on and on.
posted by clavdivs at 12:57 PM on April 29, 2004

The point is that viewers can get that level of programming elsewhere without all the nonsense clutter, the incessant begging and the curious "flow" of incompatible series.

I don't watch PBS much, mainly because I don't watch TV in general much, but this sentence stood out for me. Dunno about anyone else, but PBS and its member stations do far less begging than anyone else in the broadcast universe - it's just that the begging at networks like Discovery and Bravo are on behalf of someone else (i.e. advertisements). I'll take the twice-a-year telethon-style fundraising over the fifteen-minutes-per-hour of advertising that seems to be the norm on any commercial media outlet. I'm not sure what he means by "nonsense clutter" but I'd wager that most public TV station's presentations of their shows have far less "clutter" around them than commercial broadcasters' shows. And what's with the "flow" thing? What's he want them to do - cancel shows that lose more than 25% of their lead-in audience, like NBC and CBS do? I would hope that PBS makes decisions on which shows to put out on different criteria.
posted by deadcowdan at 1:02 PM on April 29, 2004

TV in this country ain't been right since F-Troop went off the air, and that's all there is to it.
posted by jonmc at 1:07 PM on April 29, 2004

Dear god.. watch an episode of Frontline, and then try to force yourself to sit through an hour of Dateline. It's beyond belief. Dateline is incredibly dilatory -- the time that isn't spent on commercials is mostly spent on "when we come back..." describing what's to come before the commercial, followed by a rehash after the commercial. The result is that an hour of Dateline -- if you can even get through it without wanting to kick the screen in -- contains approximately as much content as three and a half minutes of Frontline; and dumbed down to the the level of someone raised on paint chips at that.

Ditto for the News Hour vs. commercial news programs -- the former achieves more depth and breadth on a topic in 30 seconds than the latter even attempts.

And on preview: compare the "incessant begging" of the thrice-yearly fund drives to the endless horror of infomercials that run daily, year round. Hell, the fundraising breaks themselves occupy less time than are consumed by commercials on the other side, and those go on all year.
posted by George_Spiggott at 1:08 PM on April 29, 2004

That Weathermen documentary was awesome.

I think Goodman is watching a different PBS than I am. That, or he's using a different dictionary than I am.
posted by bshort at 1:08 PM on April 29, 2004

Living here in San Francisco (where KQED is), I can sadly agree with much of what Goodman was saying.

Yes, he was using hyperbole, but the essence of what he's saying is really true, IMO at KQED. His tone is partly accounted for by a deep sense of disappointment about what KQED used to be, what it *could* be, and what it is.

Here we are, in the heart of one of the most active, diverse, alive cultural scenes in the world, and KQED basically just offers up show after show produced elsewhere. Here's a good writeup of the situation from the media alliance, a local non-profit, and one about a scandal a few years ago involving a special that was basically an infomercial for the sponsor.

A lot of people feel KQED - TV (not radio, which is a different - though also disappointing story) just basically raises tons of money without being responsive to the community. And it raises the money with all kinds of moronic elitist special programs about how to be rich, how to not have wrinkles, not to mention endless repeats of the dreaded Riverdance.
posted by jasper411 at 1:14 PM on April 29, 2004

Reading this guy's tirade makes me wonder if he actually watches PBS, or if he stumbled on it during a pledge drive when switching from "Americon Idol" to "Survivor" or "Joe Millionaire".
posted by Eekacat at 1:16 PM on April 29, 2004

What the hell? That rant was completely incoherent. I don't know who Tim Goodman is, but it seems like he woke up on the wrong side of the bed this morning.
posted by gwint at 1:33 PM on April 29, 2004

I don't have TV so I can't usually comment on any of these television-related discussions... but PBS is a great resource that goes beyond just television.

Today I was reading this PBS article on the history of transistors.

Last week I read this fascinating article on Apocalypiticism and the red heifer.

So, yay for PBS! Plus, I used to totally did Seseme Street!
posted by rajbot at 1:45 PM on April 29, 2004

My serious question is where, and how do they get their programming?

Over the years, PBS has been driven in so many tangents, some very, very good, but others lame and dull. It is like every time they get a new program director, he or she wants to change everything for the sake of change.

At times, they have been like a true "Science" channel, filled with unique programming from the Geographic Society, the Cousteau Society, NOVA, and brilliant series like "The Ascent of Man" and (at least the original) "Connections."

At other times, they were like an offshoot of the BBC, becoming the "British" channel on TV. They were knocking them dead with foreign programming, be it "Masterpiece Theater" or "Monty Python" or "Dr Who."

Sometimes a 'History' jag; other times a 'Homemaking & Gardening" run; sometimes a classical music channel.

At other times, local productions dominate.

And then, inexplicably, the programming could just become a dull mess, an ackempucky of whatever could be run at the lowest possible price.

There seems to be no rhyme or reason to it. And that, I think, is their problem in a nutshell.
posted by kablam at 4:30 PM on April 29, 2004

an ackempucky?
posted by deadcowdan at 4:33 PM on April 29, 2004

"I think Goodman is watching a different PBS than I am."

This guy actually ISN'T watching the PBS the rest of you are. He's watching KQED, which is San Francisco's utterly worthless public station. PBS itself is fine and dandy, but KQED doesn't just emit whatever's coming out over the PBS network -- mostly, it just airs crap, appearing to go to some effort to ensure that the most interesting of PBS programming assets won't hit the airwaves. Look at the lineup [sorry 'bout that PDF, but as Goodman is saying, KQED sucks]. A lot of good stuff simply isn't there, and the quantity of filler and crap is very high.

This is a local story, not an assault on the PBS network itself.
posted by majick at 5:21 PM on April 29, 2004

"The Ascent of Man" and (at least the original) "Connections."

Weren't these both BBC productions? I know Connections was. I caved, and bought the DVDs last year, fearing another Cosmos-like, not-as-good-as-I-remembered scenario. Boy was I wrong. The transfers aren't great, and the clothes have aged (wonderfully;) but the material itself is still amazing. Best science history program, ever!
posted by inpHilltr8r at 5:22 PM on April 29, 2004

Mmm, I don't know. The article does read like a general attack on PBS to me.

Now, I don't know much about how local PBS affiliates are run, but I assume that they get a bevy of programs to choose from from the national network, and they decide locally what to put on. If this is the case, then I think his article is misguided. It's KQED he should attack, not the Public Broadcasting System in general.

If not, he may have a point.

Of course, I am something of a shill for PBS, as the only television programs I watch more than one time a month are NOVA, Frontline, the McNeill-Leher News hour. I also think that those that point out that commercial advertisements are the equivalent to pledge-drives every ten minutes (and all through the wee hours of the evening) have it exactly right.
posted by moonbiter at 5:34 PM on April 29, 2004

Tim Goodman has a style that's not for everyone (thus the comments about his being cranky, etc. — he's always like that), but he has a point about KQED and about PBS. They have some great programming. They also have some incredibly crappy programming. I don't think this is a particularly controversial point.
posted by blucevalo at 6:04 PM on April 29, 2004

I prefer KTEH to KQED, mainly for the San Jose station's attitude, which is focused a little more on local productions, and has a delightfully cheesy "hey, let's put on a show" feel to it's fund-raising drives and auctions.
posted by JDC8 at 7:01 PM on April 29, 2004

I think that KQED started with so much promise that the past 20 years have been extremely disappointing. The Current reports that KQED used to produce 22 programs a week, local programming at a blistering rate. Indeed, for years, KQED had KQEC Channel 32, which 15 years ago was becoming so dormant that the FCC had to take it away from KQED and turn it over to another public broadcaster (which runs Deustche Welle, ARTS network, and traffic reports with a smattering of "minority" programming).

The large public television stations, KQED and KCET, are extremely disappointing in the amount of original content they produce, both for themselves and for the network. Considering that both are serving markets 2 and 5 respectively, the level of programs they deliver is especially low. Basically PBS is run out of Boston, Washington, and New York, and the West Coast's population centers have little to contribute to the network.
posted by calwatch at 1:02 AM on April 30, 2004

I have been saying this for years. He's completely right, in every way. PBS is lousy at what it claims to do best.

"If PBS doesn't do it who will?" Everyone else, more of it, and better - and with less guilt!

I don't like this silver platter they get carried around on. When you mention how awful they are people immediately go "Well I don't have cable" Usually not wanting to "expose their children to cable tv", or they "can't afford it".

I always say back "Get cable and actually see what you think you are fighting against, and by the way there is a way to program out the other crap."

We get Direct TV FOR the Discovery's, TLC, History, Food channel, et al... In fact we went Direct TV because it was cheaper and they had more of them.

We watch hours a day of these channels, I can't name for you a year I have watched more than 2 hours of PBS all totaled. Our local stations are playing LAWRENCE WELK! Gimme a break!

We bought my parents a DirectTv system when my mom was watching her local PBS station manager diss her favorite show (Eastenders) DURING a pledge break (a station she gave money to for years to carry her beloved program) and they are calling her "stupid" (exact words) for liking it and how generous he was for carrying this "show that doesn't fit in our programming, but you like it, so we do". Gee thanks!

Mom sent them a nasty note, refusing to pay them any amount of money again and that she, like many other were going satellite for BBC america who DID carry Eastenders (it's off now but will be back due to fan - mom included - revolt). She lives much happier in a world with CURRENT BBC programming and not the same 30 year old crap ("Are you being served?" wasn't funny ever!) PBS foists on her as "art" because it has a british accent.

Four of five occasional shows does not redeem a network, especially one with the history of attitude of entitlement and superiority that PBS has built for itself falsely. They aren't cutting it in a world of channels that do it way better than they ever did to begin with.
posted by Dome-O-Rama at 3:10 AM on April 30, 2004

That Weathermen documentary was awesome.

Amazing, indeed. I couldn't turn away. And I was pleased they didn't bleep any of the rough language: it felt more real.
posted by Mo Nickels at 7:11 AM on April 30, 2004

::listens quietly while writing his pledge check to WGBH::

PBS proved that there was demand for the sort of shows that the broadcast networks just plain would not produce for thirty-something years.

The various cable networks have proved that you can go far beyond what PBS does with the same sort of programming, but they've also proved that without some buffer against the demands of advertising, you wind up with a higher crap-to-quality ratio.

PBS is guilty of all manner of stunt programming and falling back on some utterly worthless shite to fill the air, just like every other network, but their quality programming is still miles and miles beyond anything you'll find anywhere else.

To the extent that individual PBS stations are programmed differently, all you can do is withhold your pledge and let your local station know why. They'll listen a lot more readily than any commercial station.
posted by briank at 7:43 AM on April 30, 2004

« Older Claim vs. Fact   |   One more bubble, please. Newer »

This thread has been archived and is closed to new comments