Americanizing PBS's Mystery!

Dateline: January 28, 2001

According to an article in the Los Angeles Times recently, WGBH and PBS are planning to completely overhaul Mystery! and eliminate imported British dramas and concentrate on American-created programs instead. This would bring an end on PBS screenings of such popular series as Touching Evil and Brother Cadfael.

Apparently this is part of an overall trend by new PBS boss Pat Mitchell. Until the cable explosion in the 1990s, PBS was virtually the only source of British television for most Americans for decades, but now with competition from A&E and BBC America, PBS wants to change its "brand" and create a more distinctive American flavor.

For the meantime the schedule is intact, with the 2001-2002 season already bought and paid for, including new episodes of Hetty Wainthropp Investigates, and the Sherlock Holmes mysteries, Murder Rooms.

Already Masterpiece Theatre has begun a mix of original American as well as traditional British imports in the long-running Sunday night institution. But Mystery!, it seems, plans to go "cold turkey" after 2002 with no more British series at all.

Is this a terrible idea? Of course! Public television, unlike the mandatory license-fee funded BBC, has virtually no budget for programming and can't hope to compete with even the lowliest American commercial cable channel for original series. Economics, to be sure, play a part. With no competition in the 70s and 80s, PBS could pay rock-bottom prices for the best in British dramas simply because there was no other market in the US for producers in Britain to sell to. But with competition from cable, satellite, and video, prices now reflect market values, and PBS has been caught in the crunch. Still, now is the worst time for it to abandon a format that has served it so well for decades. Must all viewers in the United States who thirst for quality British drama be forced to sit through commercial interruptions on some cable channel in order to see them? Has the loyal support that viewers have shown with their dollars during pledge drives count for nothing? What are they thinking?

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