Saturday, August 19, 2006

Public Television

I’ve just been watching the wonderful program, "Broadway’s Lost Treasures," on my local Los Angeles PBS station, KCET. It’s fund-raising time, so the program was interrupted repeatedly by those pledge breaks that so many people hate. But why does it seem that the people who complain the loudest and longest about pledge breaks are the ones who never support their PBS station? I don’t often hear anyone complaining about the advertising on commercial television programs, though the program interruptions are equally as frequent, if not more so. And they are incessant; there’s not a long stretch of time when there’s no advertising at all, then a few weeks when various corporations pitch their goods for sale. Why are people so tolerant of commercials and so intolerant of pledge breaks?

I have a theory. I think we subconsciously actually believe that we need all those products that are advertised on commercial television. Even if we don’t need the exact product, we need the information about it so that we can gauge our position in society. Are we thin enough? Maybe all those low fat products will make the difference. Better make a note to try some of them. Are we cool enough? If we shop at one of those cool stores and buy their cool products, that ought to help. Most often the question is, are we rich enough? Do we have the money to buy that fancy car or go on that fabulous cruise or get some of that "stuff?" If not, we have something we can aspire to, knowing in our hearts that if we just get that car or take that trip or own that stuff, we’ll be happy.

Meanwhile, public television pleads for a few bucks to put on fabulous, varied programs about the arts, science, nature, and thoughtful documentaries and discussions that we would never have the opportunity to see elsewhere. I spent quite a few years working in the television business and still know many people who are actively a part of it, so I’m speaking from some experience when I say that the constraints of commercial television are palpable. Needless to say, I was horrified a few years back when PBS was forced to accept a tiny bit of advertising just to stay solvent.

And that brings me to another part of my theory. Americans are generous when responding to tragedies or emergencies, but we seem far less willing to support something we take for granted and don’t "need" – especially the arts, and PBS falls into that large, often vaguely defined societal category of "the arts."

If there were no public television, would we suffer in the same way we do when there’s a natural disaster or even a stock market crash? Would the country grind to a halt? No, but we all would be impoverished significantly by the loss. Exposure to what public television offers helps bring out the best of our human nature, our desire to understand our world, our search for beauty. We would suffer in less tangible ways and we might not notice the effects immediately, but the scope of the tragedy would be just as significant in the long term.

So, if your public television station is annoying you by begging for a donation, maybe this would be the time to pull out your checkbook. A thoughtful consumer would recognize that the value of this purchase far exceeds its cost. It’s a bargain, you can deduct it on your taxes – and it doesn’t take up any space in your house!

© 2006 Cynthia Friedlob

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