But please, put PBS out of its misery.
Why the diverging fortunes? First, to a great extent, their competitors have set the terms. In the past 30 years, cable television got extremely good, while private radio got extremely bad. Today, if you want to do creative television, chances are you would take a job at HBO, AMC, or Showtime; it is unclear why, given the greater freedom (and money) those cable stations offer, you would work for PBS. Meanwhile, the radio situation is reversed: it is unclear what kind of self-loathing idiot wants to work on programming at a Clear Channel radio station. And although SiriusXM satellite radio can be a delight—when I had my free media trial membership, I constantly listened to Little Steven's Underground Garage—its nonmusical programming can be rather insulting. I am actually afraid to listen to the weekly show Game On, which promises "the super-secret knowledge on the science of meeting and attracting women that badass, confident men only teach their sons and little bros." No, for someone serious about radio, NPR is the golden land.
Second, as serious viewers gravitated toward cable television, and to options like Netflix and Hulu, the remaining PBS audience changed—it got, for lack of a better word, lamer—requiring PBS to go downscale to meet their need. "There was a time when you used to fundraise around NOVA or Masterpiece Theater or other premium programs," says Michael Flaster, a longtime public broadcasting executive in San Diego. "And then they realized you can do better by creating large audiences around less than substantial programs. They moved into doo-wop, anti-aging, ersatz art kind of programs that are better at raising money." Flaster says that PBS programming is now devised to allow watchers to "transact" with the what they see, as they do when they give a pledge in exchange for a CD or concert tickets of the featured band.
NPR gives away stuff, too. But on PBS, the transactions seem cheaper, in a way that makes sophisticated watchers blanch. It does not help that on television one can see the rickety old sets, often unimproved since the 1970s or 1980s, where the pitchmen and phone answerers work; over the radio, the state of the studio cannot project despair that way. Today, on television, the bones of a PBS station always make it look like a slightly dressed-up version of public-access cable; whereas the branding of NPR—the tasteful station breaks, often featuring the signature voiceovers of Frank Tavares—makes it the class of radio, which on other talk stations is the land of advertisements for debt consolidation and shady gold investments. Meanwhile, NPR funds its product to a great extent through voluntary contributions, at a time when newspapers are terrified that few people will ever pay for content.
It need not have gone this way. In January 1994, PBS aired the BBC's brave television miniseries of Armistead Maupin's gay soap opera Tale of the City. It got some of PBS's highest ratings ever—but 10 months later the Gingrich Congress was voted in. Soon, funding threats were made. PBS was liberal! And it was gay! And it got public dollars. PBS got scared. "We got in Gingrich's cross hairs," says Flaster. "There was nudity on Tales of the City, profanity on that. We started getting pressure from Congress, and it filtered down to the board." Flaster says that several top creative executives left PBS around that time, and that the organization, worried about its survival, lost its ability to innovate, just as television was becoming an especially innovative medium.
So it is hardly surprising that in 1998, when the sequel More Tales of the City was produced, it aired on—yes—Showtime. Which is where today you can find one of Tales's great stars, Laura Linney to this day, starring on The Big C, the kind of frank, intelligent show that is the specialty of our best cable networks—and the kind of show that in some alternate universe would be available for free, to all of us, on PBS.
Mark Oppenheimer writes the Beliefs column for the New York Times. He can be found at markoppenheimer.com and followed on Twitter @markopp1.
Illustration by Mark Alan Stamaty.