PBS: postmodern media museum

by Laura Denham

from Jump Cut, no. 40, March 1996, pp. 24-28
copyright Jump Cut: A Review of Contemporary Media, 1996, 2006

"Conservative theorists tend to see mass culture as mechanical rather than organic, secular rather than sacred, commercial rather than free or unconditioned, plebeian and vulgar, rather than aristocratic and 'noble', based on self interest rather than on high ideals, or appealing to the worst instinct in people rather than the best; cheap and shoddy, rather than enduring, imitative rather than original, urban, bureaucratic and centralized rather than close to nature, communal and individualized."
— Paul Bratlinger, Bread and Circuses: Theories of Mass Culture as Social Decay

The concerns of "negative classicism" — those sentiments described here by Bratlinger unfavorably equating the popular with the profane — have not only targeted mass culture in general, but not surprisingly form the body of much debate concerning mass culture's most dominant medium: television. Not only is the medium, by nature, a "populist" one due to the accessibility afforded it by the technology of mass communications. But since broadcasting's earliest directive in selling TV sets and then other sponsors products through advertising, television also remains inextricably linked to consumerism. Both associations have traditionally led to a certain denigration of television as a cultural realm. Availability somewhat desanctifies, cheapens and inadvertently dilutes television's value as an art form, while commercialism has pejoratively coded the medium as film's mercenary cousin, much to the detriment of TV's cultural placement and reception. John Ellis, for example, suggests that "the gaze" of the cinema viewer is replaced by the "glance" of the TV viewer, a look that is both distracted and powerless.[1][open notes in new window] Yet encounters with commercialism and (perceived) cultural truancy extend beyond television itself. In consumer capitalist society, such culturally vacuous experiences arguably comprise much of that entire cultural dominant known as postmodernism.

According to the ubiquitous postmodern commentator Jean Baudrillard, consumer capitalism abstracts the meaning of "value" by establishing a law of equivalence (money), which liquidates the referential and ultimately contributes to the dissolution of identity. The blurred distinction between original and copy, cause and effect, subject and object, results in a confounded sense of the real, which, in turn, leads us to seek ethical and cultural re-grounding: to engage in what Baudrillard has called the panic-stricken production of the real and the referential.[2]

If commercial television purveys postmodern values, an escape valve for the "panic stricken" audience might well be found in the arena of public television (here in San Francisco, KQED Channel 9), which supposedly rejects consumerism by professing to exclude advertisements, while simulating a sense of meaning and tradition in its mostly nostalgic programming. Originally created in 1953 and given a mandate for expansion by the Public Broadcasting Act of 1967, public television was designed to provide a forum for education. Its conscientious, non-commercial, antithetical construction and self-appointment as an alternative, thereby implyied, in the aforementioned tradition, the mindless or low-brow nature of the rest of television broadcasting.  The 1967 Carnegie Commission on Educational Television states,

"Through the diversified uses of television, Americans will know themselves, their communities, and their world in richer ways. They will gain a fuller awareness of the wonder and the variety of the arts, the sciences, scholarship, and craftsmanship, and of the many roads along which the products of man's mind and man's hand can be encountered."[3]

Today the public television concept of "educational," of what is "high culture" and good for the mind, is extensively shaped by the means by which it is funded. In the information provided to its prospective sponsors KQED boasts the following statistics: Of KQED member households, 90% attended college, 51% hold professional, managerial or technical positions and, in comparison to non-viewers, are 60% more likely to have addressed a public meeting in the past year. However, viewers are not in this position because they watch public television, but rather they watch public television because the station deliberately caters to them. In administering a dose of "high culture" to the wealthy (who are, in comparison to non-viewers, twice as likely to own $50,000 more in stock, 60% more likely to own money market funds, and of whom 89% own investments) Channel 9 ensures support from the corporate giants who help its survival. Carefully pandering to its corporate underwriters, KQED is as pro-business as a commercial station. Moreover, the business of programming for wealthy, educated professionals epitomizes postmodern cultural patterns of revivalism and escapist nostalgia.


Public television programming compounds television's already substitutionary nature by aiming to reflect lost social realms and experiences and to adopt or simulate to a greater or lesser degree "higher" cultural forms. In a letter to the 1967 Educational Television Commission, later quoted by President Johnson in his message to Congress regarding the 67 Act, E.B. White writes,

"I think television should be the visual counterpart of the literary essay, should arouse dreams, satisfy our hunger for beauty, take us on our journeys, enable us to participate in events, present great drama and music, and explore the sea and the sky and the woods and the hills. It should be our Lyceum, our Chatuauqua, our Minsky's, and our Camelot." [Carnegie Report, p.13]

In one fell swoop he endorses the agenda by which television "counterfeits" literature, travel, live performing arts and nature, an agenda significantly evident in the prevailing scheduling patterns of San Francisco's KQED Channel 9. A glance at any recent Channel 9 schedule reveals a number of time slots, each with its own generic heading — Nature, Animals, Mystery,  American Playhouse, Masterpiece Theatre, Nightly Business Report, Great Performances — each indicative of the particular precious experience it attempts to provide.

A Sony advertisement features a TV set perched on the edge of the Grand Canyon. Its screen displays a crisp image of the surrounding landscape. When a family rushes excitedly to the great geographical wonder, they turn a blind eye to the "real" canyon and choose instead to watch its image on TV. Likewise in Family Viewing, Atom Egoyan's wry study of television watching and image culture, one member of the family, notably surrounded by the electronic screen, seeks some sanctuary in his continual viewing of wildlife programs. Both examples comment on the role of Nature shows in urban society. KQED's nature and animal slots are often positioned at primetime, and usually consist of film footage and commentary on the feeding, hunting or mating habits of a wild species, or the plant life and topography of an undeveloped landscape. Rather like an exercise bike that provides the city dweller with a second rate bike ride in the comfort of his or her living room, these televisual encounters with Mother Nature are always the reflection of a basic reality, but simultaneously may mask the absence of our accessibility and proximity to this reality in a post industrial environment. The same might be said of public television's multitudinous travel documentaries, often featuring journeys by train (the BBC's Great Railway Journey series, or Last Train Across Canada) and thus also paying wistful homage to a mode of transport considered fantastically quaint in an age of airlines and freeways.

Closer to home, programs such as This Old House, Yan Can Cook, Today's Gourmet, Julia Child and Hometime provide instruction on home improvements and cookery at the same time as creating a reassuring sense of (once) familiar domestic and family values in a possible context of nuclear family disintegration and alienation.

Beyond the "real world" public television's Great Performances provide a slice of artistic puritanism with the screening of ballet, symphony and opera. While arguably bringing classical arts to a mass audience who would otherwise be unable to experience them, televising performances contrarily further emphasizes both the elitist nature of the high arts and the "second hand" nature of television viewing. Most of the performances are pre-recorded (often years old, since as with Nature, this is a generic experience, any "great performance" will do). The excitement of "liveness" is absent. The scale of the performance diminished by the small screen, and the viewer perhaps somewhat displaced by the awareness of the actual audience, who were privileged to attend the real event. Opera, symphony and ballet, furthermore, are no more educational than, for example, video art, a form much better suited to the TV medium. Their placement on public television again speaks of reproduction in reverence of history and tradition.

The yearning for a pre-electronic age is equally evident in another PBS favorite, Masterpiece Theatre. Ironically, yet typically, this experience is not theater at all, but usually consists of the adaptation of a literary classic or dramatization of the life of a historical figure, episodically presented on television. Television viewing, normally associated with passive consumption, becomes legitimized by its procurement of a "Masterpiece," itself a loaded word connoting excellence, classicism, and history through its association with the traditionally revered arts of painting, theater and literature.

Admittedly hoards of viewers may seek to read a pedagogical novel after seeing it televised. But perversely, then, we accept the copy before encountering the original, with the television adaptation becoming Baudrillard's "map that precedes the territory" (Baudrillard, p. 2). (A more cautionary example might be made of the program Sesame Street, which, according to Neil Postman, offers no substitute for the classroom and teaches children not to love learning, but to love television.) [3] Masterpiece Theatre not only reveals the association of "education" with "literature" but the type of literature presented itself promotes a sense of history and old fashioned values.

Upstairs Downstairs, for example, which first aired in 1974, is a soap opera spanning from 1903 through 1930 exploring the relationships within a large English family. It juxtaposes the lives of the family members with those of its servants, specifically emphasizing the peculiarities of class structure, as suggested by the series title. Another random example of human grandiosity is evident in the series Poldark, whose one-time popularity with U.S. audiences is explained by Alistair Cook in his book Masterpieces:

"He is a soldier whose manly instincts are only fleetingly clouded by misgivings or second thoughts. He is decent, plucky, generous, brisk and positive. He sees in Warleggen a villain as straightforward as the Soviet Union. Whatever else he is, Poldark is not vulnerable. He is Ronald Reagan. In an unsettled and brooding time, his landslide election by a huge and grateful audience as favorite Masterpiece Theatre hero should not, after all, have been such a surprise."[4]

Elsewhere, too, Masterpiece Theatre has celebrated pre-industrial heroes and life in the old country, from the epitome of classicism, I, Claudius, through the English monarchy (The Six Wives of Henry VIII; Elizabeth R), from the anguish and moral drama of the nineteenth century continental giants, (Therese Raquin, Crime and Punishment, Anna Karenina) to the bucolic settings of rural England (The Little Farm, Love For Lydia, Middlemarch).

The Carnegie Report's promise in 1967 that Public Television "will respect the old and new alike, neither lunging at the present of worshipping the past" [Carnegie Report, p.18] has clearly been broken. Masterpiece Theatre, now something of a byword for public television — along with Mystery which is similarly grafted to English literature such as the class-ridden works of Agatha Christie — exemplifies the equation of quality with history so integral to theories of nostalgia and postmodernism. Much contemporary nostalgia takes the form of pastiche or parody whereby retrospection or repetition fondly mocks the value or integrity of the original. Public television's artistic fare, conversely, tends to museumize rather than to parody. We preserve relics, Baudrillard writes, because

"our entire linear and accumulative culture would collapse if we could not stockpile the past in plain view."

"We need a visible past, a visible continuum, a visible myth of origin to reassure us as to our ends. [Simulations, p.19]

Unlike parody, public television's arts and drama maintains a certain reverence for the original, a faith in the real referent. In Jameson's terms,

"We are left with a random collection of images to which we turn in a frantic effort to appropriate a collective past."[5]


The obsession with the past may also account for the Eurocentric nature of much PBS material and the predominance of British drama, (Masterpiece Theater even maintains the British spelling). The so-called Founding Fathers, who established many of America's cultural institutions were, after all, from Britain. And it's perhaps this "mother country" more than any other single European power that still bears the delusory legacy of tradition and cultural grounding. Accordingly, Channel 9 broadcast two hour-long documentaries on members of Britain's Royal Family — notably featuring two of the more maternal figures, Diana and The Queen — with both shows airing on the same night and following swiftly in the well-heeled footsteps of a similar program on the English monarchy's social wardrobe.

Nostalgic American Anglophiles, in fact, provide some security for Britain's international television market. To ensure success overseas, a British production need only place familiar national stereotypes in a country handsomely costumed as an orderly, hierarchized society. The formula is inveterate: The Six Wives of Henry VIII, Upstairs Downstairs, Brideshead Revisited. However bogus a conception, Britain apparently represents the past, and by association, quality.


Public television, with its concern for artistic merit, does well to purchase from British companies, whose production revenues, whether from the sale of audiences to advertisers (ITV) or from the sale of broadcast receiving licenses (BBC) were, up until the late SOs, effectively rationed by the government to only four broadcast channels, thereby permitting a high budget and high productions values. Yet, although PBS may purchase from Britain, the U.S. public television station bears little resemblance overall to any British station. Unlike the BBC, U.S. public television was created as an alternative to the commercial entertainment that preceded it, and the "quality" fare here appeared all on the same channel, causing special problems regarding scheduling, variety and flow.

The British Broadcasting Corporation's programming was initially based on Lord Reith's policy that "it is better to overestimate the mentality of the public than to underestimate it."[6] However, by 1955 commercial television was introduced, due largely to the Tory alliance with commercial forces who saw the opportunity for profitable expansion. In order to ensure audiences and advertising sales, program content on the new ITV was crafted to suit the lowest common denominator. As Roland Gillette of Associated Rediffusion, an ITV advocate, said at the time,

"The public likes girls, wrestling, bright musicals, quiz shows and real life drama... From now on, what the public wants it's going to get." [7]

In response, the BBC began to combine their upper crust programs with more entertaining TV entities, the transition of some of their most "intellectual" stuff to BBC 2, created in 1964, leaving BBC 1 with more room to compete with ITV. A recent British television schedule[8] reveals continuing diversity on the two public stations. On a randomly selected Wednesday night, for example, British news and talk shows on BBC I are followed by the U.S. sitcom Doogie Howser MD at 7:35 p.m.. Meanwhile on BBC 2, Star Trek: The Next Generation at 6:00 p.m. is followed by an MTV style youth culture show, Def II, which in turn is pursued at 8:10 p.m. with a documentary about a Polish author. Similarly, on a Saturday, BBC 2's prime time juxtaposes The Civil War with ABC's Twin Peaks, followed by the African film Yeleen. Sunday BBC 1 offers two sitcoms, the Olivier Awards at 8:15 p.m., the news at 9:35 p.m., then a quiz show and a documentary.

Contrary to Johnson's hope in 1967 that, in the U.S., too, the strength of public television should lie in its diversity, a similar cross section of Channel 9's schedule reveals frequent repetition and monotony.[9] Of the 175 slots listed in San Francisco Focus magazine, approximately one third are repeated during the week on Channel 9 or another local PBS affiliate. Re-runs of ancient Masterpiece Theater series — The Six Wives of Henry VIII (1972), I, Claudius (1977), Upstairs Downstairs (1974-77), Elizabeth R (1972) — were broadcast in February and March of 1991 masquerading as M.T.'s 20th anniversary celebration (and suggesting nostalgia within the PBS arena itself!). One Monday night characteristically reveals between the prime time hours of 7:30 and 10:30 p.m. no less than four nature shows — World of Animals, Miracle Planet, Nature, and Rainforest — back to back. For our wonderful corporate subscribers, a single Friday in September 1995 offers consecutive broadcasts of McNeill-Lehrer Newshour, Nightly Business Report, Wall Street Week and Washington Week In Review. An entire night may be equally relentlessly devoted to music, with Great Performances from 8:00-10:30 p.m., followed by Andy Williams until midnight. And to persistently describe individual programs, bought through cultural shopping from other sources, with generic headings (Nature, Mystery, etc.) further prohibits even the semblance of diversity.

The Carnegie Report, in a section ironically entitled "flexibility of Scheduling," expounds this (now misguided) artistic and intellectual directive:

"Television is, among other things, a narrative medium which functions within and against a flow of time. Here, as in the poem, the play, the symphony, man seeks to give humanly significant form to the irrepressible flow of time…public television should free the creative artist and technician to explore the full uses of the medium, allowing them to give priority to aesthetic motive, to the moral and intellectual quest." (Carnegie Report, p. 971)

While commercial stations fragment their flow, effectively perpetuating in their viewers something of a magazine mentality, public television apparently laments the death of the mythical, pre-TV, long attention span. Its scheduling patterns deny the attractively abstract nature of the TV medium in an attempt to disguise it as a more "classical" artistic form.


Despite its often archival, conservative nature, credit should be given to public television's slight, but nonetheless existent, innovative edge. Ground was broken 1988 when Congress passed a law creating a new independent production service to expand the creative boundaries of PBS, allocating it $6 million a year for the next three years. Apparently, though, local stations can turn down newly produced work on their own criteria. While KQED has exhibited local film and video makers in their excellent Living Room Festival and P.O.V. series, including works of a politically controversial nature, the station's obstinate "safety first" political policy can deliberate create broadcasting obstacles.

When KQED considered airing Deadly Deception,  local video maker Debra Chasnoff's Oscar-winning expose of General Electric's nuclear weapons involvement, they stubbornly argued that the program did not meet their standards with regard to its partial funding by non-profit anti-nuclear group INFACT (a sponsor deemed by KQED to he self-interested and propagandist). Although Chasnoff rejected the suggestion that the show be preceded by a preface announcing the stations opinion that the program was "inappropriate," when KQED finally aired Deadly Deception, the station followed the example of fellow PBS affiliate WNET in allowing GE to follow the program with a corporate disclaimer, thereby giving the final word to the corporation and not to the artist.

To its credit KQED started 1994 by showcasing an adaptation of Armistead Maupin's San Francisco based, and relatively risqué Tales of the City — but it's worth noting that the series was a picturesque British production, half of which was shot on a sound stage in L.A.. At the start of the 1990s, locally produced programs totaled about 75 hours, about 90 minutes a week, down from 250 hours a decade ago.[10] A more stimulating, accessible alternative to commercial television's values might be found on any local no-holds-barred community access channel.

Return once more to the public television schedule, and the station's dry, archaic tone reveals itself: A Sunday morning children's show features morally reassuring fairy tales under the significant title Long Ago and Far Away. And even the series called Nova (New) is on this particular occasion a documentary about dinosaurs. Despite incessant cries for change from an infamously progressive artistic and political community, KQED has been slow to respond. While continually promising to newly prioritize its programming, changes in scheduling patterns have been so slight and infrequent as to be virtually indiscernible. In catering to the stock-owning sector and privileging the old and familiar, public television remains something of an elitist cultural museum, and as such its programs remain both as conservative and as escapist as the popular television culture it attempts to counterbalance.


1. John Ellis, Visible Fictions: Cinema, Television and Video (Boston: Routleledge & Kegan Paul, 1982), pp. 91-108.

2. See Jean Baudrillard, Simulations (New York: Semiotexte, 1983) and In the Shadow of the Silent Majorities... Or the End of the Social and Other Essays (New York: Semiotexte, 1983).

3. Public Television: A Program For Action. The Report and Recommendations of the Carnegie Commission On Educational Television (New York: Harper & Row, 1967), p. 13.

3. Neil Postman, Amusing Ourselves To Death: Public Discourse In The Age Of Show Business (New York: Viking Penguin, 1985) p. 143.

4. Alistair Cook, Masterpieces, p. 53.

5. Fredric Jameson, "Postmodernism, or The Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism," New Left Review 146 (July-August 1984), pp. 64, 65.

6. Reith's "Broadcast Over Britain" quoted in Stephen Lambert, Channel Four (London: BR, 1982), p. 6.

7. Quoted in Andrew Quickie, Tomorrow's Television (Herts: Lion, 1976), p. 43.

8. Time Out (No. 1076, April 3-10), pp. 138-146

9. SF Focus (Vol. 38, No. 3, 3/91), pp. 22-23, and San Francisco Examiner: TV Guider (March 3 and April 14, 1991)

10. San Francisco Examiner 7/23/90, p. Dl.