|Is PBS Letting Anglophiles Down?|
Public television in the United States in the 21st Century is not going to resemble the PBS of the 20th Century. The television landscape is changing continually, and like most economic systems it's "adapt or die." PBS has decided on a course of action that will steer it away from its traditional emphasis on British imports and more towards creating home-grown original productions. So where does that leave your average American Anglophile? And should PBS just abandon its loyal viewers who have supported it all these years?
Since its formation, and for several decades afterwards, PBS could afford to pick and choose the very best of British television and pay rock-bottom prices. Television companies in England had no choice because there were no other markets in the United States willing to buy their productions (gone were the heydays of the 1960s when American networks paid top license fees to British producers for shows like The Avengers and Secret Agent). If a British show wanted access to the American market in the 1970s and most of the 1980s, it was PBS or nothing.
Public television took full advantage of this, although unlike their commercial counterparts who had money to burn, PBS had to rely on pledge drives and largess from Congress. This meant having to stretch programming dollars to their limits, and thus cheap imports from Britain filled a real need for many years. And though PBS's ratings were a mere blip on the old Nielsen ratings meter, millions of people were exposed to Upstairs Downstairs, Monty Python's Flying Circus and Are You Being Served?> who otherwise wouldn't have. (The only lone "escapee" from the PBS ghetto that comes to my mind during this era was Benny Hill, whose compilation programs from Thames TV ran successfully on commercial stations in the U.S. for years.)
Even though British producers were getting ten cents on the dollar for their productions, Americans reaped the benefit of a steady diet of what Britain had to offer, all of it presented in a gloriously commercial-free environment. Things did not change until the advent and expansion of cable TV and "narrowcast" speciality channels like A&E which popped up who were also willing to carry imported programs in the United States. Suddenly PBS had competition, but in those early days of cable these new upstarts didn't have a lot of viewers - or access to great heaps of capital - to affect the going rate for programs.
However, as cable penetration increased in the United States and the speciality stations proved to advertisers that they could deliver the kind of upscale consumers that are their prime targets, cable channels were able to flex their economic muscle and began co-producing series in association with the BBC and ITV, exchanging production money for first-run rights. Suddenly, PBS was no longer the exclusive gatekeeper for British television and found itself with competition for the very first time.
Americans in theory have more choices now, instead of just one or two PBS stations (which were - and are - run as mini-fiefdoms by whomever is their local program manager), there is a galaxy of cable channels featuring British imports including BBC America, A&E, and Bravo, while British producers finally get reasonable compensation for the American rights to their programs, as well as much-needed financing in some cases. Everyone is a winner. Or are they? PBS now says they want to get away from British programming and concentrate more on American productions. Are they just sulking because other kids want to play with their ball? Are economic forces such that they can't compete in a commercial environment? Do they feel their tradition of relying on British imports is now a relic from the past? What do they owe loyal viewers who have directly supported them for years via their hard-earned pledge dollars? Must Americans be cursed with having to sit through commercials in order to watch British productions from now on?
As I announced in January, PBS has already decided to cut British productions out of Mystery! altogether beginning with the 2002 season. And this fall's Masterpiece Theatre season has only one British production, The Cazalets, scheduled. Looking at this from a pure business model, does it make sense to alienate your traditional customer base in the hopes of attracting a new one? Economic history would suggest not, but can PBS, as a quasi-government funded entity, even fail?