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John Doyle: Televison

PBS is what CBC could be: marginal and obscure Add to ...

A vague air of melancholy hangs over the TV Critics Tour on the day I arrive. The networks have finished their presentations. The fun parties are over. PBS is next, and PBS is the serious part of the press tour.

You know what PBS is - the sort of public broadcaster that anti-CBC obsessives in Canada want CBC to become: a worthy provider of serious news and current-affairs programs supported by pledge drives and philanthropic organizations. A marginalized broadcaster, important as a token alternative to the frippery of commercial TV, but existing strictly on the sidelines.

The actual day I arrive is a kind of pause day. It's devoted to FX, the Fox cable channel, and to shows produced by Sony. Two hours after I get here, late afternoon, I'm at the Sony party, surrounded by tired, disgruntled critics who know that the shenanigans have stopped. At the Sony event, there are people from daytime soaps and reality shows about personal makeovers. I think. Nobody seems quite sure who the "stars" actually are. The cast of Community, the NBC sitcom produced by Sony, were supposed to come, but only Chevy Chase is here. The rest are still shooting an episode somewhere.

Me, I'm disappointed too. I was supposed to meet and interview Alison Brie from Community. She also plays Trudy Campbell on Mad Men and, having met her last year, I know she's adorable, funny and smart. But she never shows up. A gaggle of critics abandon Sony for dinner out somewhere. I go to bed. Want to be well-rested for PBS.

On the morning of the first PBS day, about half the critics, TV-beat reporters, bloggers and media-business columnists have fled. As the Talking Heads song goes: "This ain't no party, this ain't no disco, this ain't no fooling around." Instead of starlets, TV execs boasting about ratings and non-news about American Idol's non-existent new judge, there is Pakistan's Ambassador to the U.S. talking about a new documentary on the subject of Benazir Bhutto. There is a presentation about a series of docs on "God In America." And one about a series with the unwieldy title "At the Intersection of Identity, Race and Adoption." On the celebrity side, there is Hari Sreenivasan, anchor of PBS Newshour. And perhaps the biggest PBS celeb is seventysomething Yoko Ono.

Yes, this is the PBS that is a model for the kill-the-CBC types. No buzz, hardly anyone bothering to pay close attention. At the thought of that, actually, I'm starting to feel melancholy.

Oh, there is some sexy stuff on PBS. The star and producers of the terrific new BBC series Sherlock are here, as is Kenneth Branagh talking about Wallander, but those are imports from Britain, where they still have a true public broadcaster making dramas and comedies for international export. Singer Michael Feinstein is here to perform and promote his coming three-part series American Songbook, which examines and celebrates the history of American popular song through Feinstein's own journey into a passion for keeping Broadway and other popular standards alive. Feinstein has an international reputation, but here I overhear one critic look at the PBS schedule and ask another guy, "Who's Michael Feinstein?" You can bet the guy knows all about the non-candidates for the American Idol job.

PBS puts considerable emphasis on children's programming and is rightly lauded for that. It does fine news-documentaries on Frontline. But the Frontline boss is here to tell us that Frontline is finally at the point where it can do about 26 programs a year. That's half a year's worth. Besides, several times a year, it seems that Frontline is making a program with considerable help from CBC's the fifth estate. Ken Burns is here to talk about his new series, a sequel to his monumental Baseball, but there is no sports department at PBS.

Right now, PBS is actually playing a role in a chaotic and changing American media world. In its tiny hard news and business-news division, the role is, as Jon Meacham of the program Need To Know, says, "To fill the spaces created by network and cable news." It is finally making major investments in online information and programming, a move propelled by such successes as the Frontline program Bush's War, which was watched online by almost 7 million people.

For all its gravitas and importance to an aware, thoughtful audience, though, PBS is an obscurity in the U.S. TV racket. Each day during its presentations here, the evidence of its negligible status is stark - the room has a few dozen TV critics and reporters, instead of the usual two or three hundred. The missing journalists are not interested in what PBS does, and neither are the major networks bothered. PBS doesn't have William Shatner making poo jokes or sitcom starlets creating fashion hits on the red carpets of the world.

Meanwhile, as the crass, hyperventilating coverage of network TV gets bigger and louder, the PBS audience stays loyal and grows, slowly and steadily. Back in Canada, I know, the question is asked, "Why can't CBC be like PBS?" But seeing PBS sell its wares here leads me to a more relevant question - what if PBS was more like CBC? More money in funding, a bigger news division, a sports division and the ability to make dramas and comedies. Think about it. If it happened, the coverage here wouldn't be so insignificant and there maybe would be no melancholy at all.

 

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