P Is for Permanent

You know what would be fun, and actually helpful? If in the latest struggle over funding for public television, people said what they know to be true.

The argument, once again, is about whether PBS has a liberal bias. There are charges and countercharges, studies, specific instances cited of subtle partiality here and obvious side-taking there. But arguing over whether PBS is and has long been politically liberal is like arguing over whether the ocean is and has long been wet. Of course it is, and everyone knows it.

Not just Republicans, but Democrats. I doubt you could find a Democratic senator who, forced to announce the truth, standing at the gates of heaven and being questioned by St Peter, would not, on being asked, “By the way, is PBS liberal?” answer, “Of course.” Or, “Yes, but don’t tell Tom Delay I knew.”

Just about every Democrat on the Hill, and in the newsrooms of our country and the faculty lounges, knows that PBS in general reflects a liberal worldview. That’s why they like it. That’s why they want to keep it.

The Democratic Party naturally desires to retain or increase public funding of a television network whose overall and reflexive tendency is to persuade viewers to see the world as liberals see it. They say this is a First Amendment issue, an anticensorship issue, a Big Bird issue, and some of them mean it. But mostly they’re trying to keep a particular building on the liberal plantation up and operating.

The Republican Party naturally opposes and resents such funding. Why should they underwrite the opposition? Why should they force taxpayers to fund it? They say this is an issue of elemental justice, and many really mean it. But animating some of them, I think, is a certain spirit of destruction. If you are a conservative and have watched the past 30 years of PBS documentaries and talk shows, chances are you are angry, legitimately, and looking to apply a little punishment. Or a lot.

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Conservative argue that in a 500-channel universe the programming of PBS could easily be duplicated or find a home at a free commercial network. The power of the marketplace will ensure that PBS’s better offerings find a place to continue and flourish.

This I doubt. Actually I’m fairly certain it is not true. And I suspect most people on the Hill know it is not true.

We live in the age of Viacom and “Who Wants to Be a Celebrity,” not the age of Omnibus and “Leonard Bernstein’s Young People’s Concerts.” A lot of Democrats think that left to the marketplace, PBS will die. A lot of Republicans think so too, but don’t mind.

At its best, at its most thoughtful and intellectually honest and curious, PBS does the kind of work that no other network in America does or will do. Sumner Redstone is never going to pay for an 11-hour miniseries called “The Civil War”; he’s not going to invest money and years of effort into a reverent exhumation of the rich loam of American history. Les Moonves is not going to do “Nova.” Bob Iger is not going to OK a three-part series on relativity theory. Jeff Zucker isn’t going to schedule a calm, unhurried adult drama like “Masterpiece Theatre.” They live in a competitive environment.

Such programming would be expensive, demanding, and a ratings disaster. It would earn Les Moonves the title, “former CBS chief.” Great TV work, the kind PBS at its best produced and produces, is more likely to come out of unhurried and rather removed environments. And boy, was PBS removed. They never had to worry about the bottom line; until recently they didn’t know there was a bottom line. But some great work came from PBS’s detachment from marketplace realities. And it has even been work—such as “The Civil War”—that helped our country by teaching our children the things they must know to go on to become adults who love their country. This, in the world we live in, is no small thing. It’s huge.

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Why, then, doesn’t Congress continue to fund PBS at current levels but tell them they must stick to what they are good at, and stop being the TV funhouse of the Democratic Party? Nobody needs their investigative unit pieces on how Iran-contra was very, very wicked; nobody needs another Bill Moyers show; nobody needs a conservative counter to Bill Moyers’s show. Our children are being raised in a culture of argument. They can get left-right-pop-pop-bang anywhere, everywhere.

PBS exists to do what the commercial networks should and won’t. And just one of those things is bringing to Americans who have not and probably will not be exposed to it the great treasury of American art, from the work of Eugene O’Neill (again, ABC won’t be producing “Long Day’s Journey” anytime soon), outward to Western art (Shakespeare) and outward to world art.

And science. And history. But real history, meaning something that happened in the past as opposed to the recent present, with which PBS, alas, cannot be trusted.

Art and science and history. That’s where PBS’s programming should be. And Americans would not resent funding it.

PBS producers would rebel, claiming such programming would rock with age. What they would mean is, There’s little personal status in art, and much in controversy. You don’t get any particular respect for mounting a great play or a producing a great symphony: their excellence is already known. Respect and status come from controversy. But too bad. The point of PBS is not to employ clever producers.

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Does all this sound rarefied, a ratings loser? PBS is supposed to be rarefied. As for ratings, let’s imagine this. PBS mounts a production of “Hamlet.” No one will watch it? What if Brad Pitt takes the role? He’d be happy to do it; he gets a high-class venue in which to show he can actually act, and in return he earns the gratitude of those who care about culture or say they care, which is most Americans. He’d get points for doing it for scale, which of course he’d have to. Young people would watch. They would thus imbibe Shakespeare, still the jewel in the crown of Western culture. PBS would be thanked for doing a public service. Conservative congressmen would find themselves in the unexpected and delightful position of being called friends of the arts, and liberal congressmen would be able to say “I told you PBS is worthwhile.”

And so on. Symphonies. A study of the work of George Bellows. A productions of “Spoon River Anthology.” David McCullough on George Washington. A history of the Second Amendment—why is it in that old Constitution? Angelina Jolie as Juliet, Kathleen Turner as Lady Macbeth, Alec Baldwin as Big Daddy when you get around to Tennessee Williams. It will keep him away from politics. Sean Penn as Hickey in “The Iceman Cometh.” There are far more great actors than there is great material. Mine the classics, all of them, of the theater and arts and music and history.

It is true that if you tell PBS producers they are now doing a play series they will immediately decide to remount “Angels in America.” How about a rule: It takes at least 50 years for a currently esteemed work to prove itself a work of art, a true classic. It proves this by enduring. Do plays that have proved themselves to be enduring contributions—i.e., art. Look to the permanent, not the prevalent.

PBS should be refunded, because it does not and will not exist elsewhere if it is not. But it should be funded with rules and conditions, and it should remember its reason for being: to do what the networks cannot do or will not do, and that somebody should do.