Everywhere I go people want me to explain the fuss surrounding the status of PBS in Southern California. As you may have heard, KCET chose to cease its affiliation with PBS. As the President and CEO of Orange County based KOCE, to me, that news was a shocker! According to national polls, PBS is the most trusted media brand in America and one of our most valued national institutions.
And the PBS line up of content is unparalleled in quality and scholarship. PBS kids shows often sweep the daytime Emmy awards in their categories and research shows that children who watch PBS Kids shows are more likely to eventually attend college.
So how could it happen that a major PBS station would walk away from all that? Obviously, it bewilders me too. But today's media environment is complicated and challenging. Whatever the stated reasons at the time of their departure, KCET leaders are now citing some new rationales for their decision. In any case, we can only hope they have a solid plan for continuing their version of non-commercial television.
And that is important. I have come to the conclusion that during this era, when a few voices are questioning the need for non-commercial television, I am persuaded that we actually need more public television than ever.
It has been said that the growth of the cable industry, with entire channels based on program genres originated by PBS, has eliminated the need for public television. I don't know if those who allege this are minus critical thinking skills or are just not paying attention. In an era when the commercial media at all levels must treat its users as consumers in a marketplace, PBS treats its viewers as citizens in a democracy. To me, this is a very important distinction.
Today's sophisticated techniques for gathering television ratings data make it possible to know if the TV audience is coming or going, minute by minute. And since the entire reason for the existence of commercial television shows (and I do mean the entire reason) is to make as much money as possible and therefore deliver value to shareholders, cable networks always, inevitably must dumb down their content to attract and hold more viewers. The latest example of this is the History Channel series Ancient Aliens, a show about the influence of visitors from outer space on the history of civilization. Really! The "History" Channel is doing that! Even some of the more respectable visually stunning shows about animals and nature on Discovery and other channels still offer little depth. They cover lots of territory but they are a mile wide and an inch deep. Comparatively little scholarship is applied...just pretty pictures. But here at PBS, scholarship, matters. True experts, scientists, and historians form advisory committees to vet the content of our shows and ensure they are accurate and scientifically sound.
And our journalists' primary focus is balance and fairness for our news shows. Hence PBS' #1 public trust rating from the American public.
I consider myself the luckiest person working in media today. My station, KOCE, under its new brand PBS SoCaL, is moving forward with expanded responsibility for providing intelligent national shows, informative local shows, educational services for schools, the best of the cultural arts, and the best children's shows on the planet. And we are doing so to more people in more places with much higher ratings than before.
We also offer shows for audiences ignored by commercial media. (Some make fun of us for broadcasting Lawrence Welk each week. I'm proud to offer to an important segment of society the songs that are the soundtrack of their lives and that bring back their very best memories.)
In short, we must never let it be all about the marketplace. If we do, we will loose our only truly smart television service...the only place where politics is discussed in a civil manner with true fairness, science is revealed with respect for the intelligence of the audience, and art and culture are available and welcome.
And with all the info I've shared above, let's keep open the question posed in my last column, "Why do TV news shows exist?" I promise an answer next time. I've given you many hints in this column.