Man, Ken Tucker of Entertainment Weekly absolutely lit into PBS in a column he posted late tonight.
Tucker contends that PBS' programming successes are little more than examples of "happy accident" that have generated a "misplaced pride" in the pubcaster, prexy Paula Kerger and "Masterpiece" exec producer Rebecca Eaton. An excerpt:
“We have a hit!” Eaton proclaimed during the "Downton Abbey" panel, and pronounced the promo clip shown — which shows the characters in the midst of World War I, some fighting on the front lines, others fighting over who has to clean which ponce’s bedroom — as being “more precious than gold.” Again, happy for Eaton, but why should she be surprised that her series can produce a hit? It should be spawning more of them, rather than waste time alienating viewers with its sad “re-branding” as Masterpiece Classic, Masterpiece Mystery, Masterpiece Contemporary, and, doubtless soon enough, Masterpiece Masterpiece.
I have to admit, I was taken aback. I've read Tucker for years and years – not every single piece he's written, but enough to have a good flavor for him. So I can't say for sure, but I'd be surprised if he's unleashed anything more seething than this piece. Perhaps I've been living under a rock, but I'm not sure I'm buying all of his arguments.
For one thing, the level of snide sarcasm seem out of place: There's a perfectly good argument for the re-branding of "Masterpiece" in different categories, and while perhaps it seems patronizing to Tucker and whoever shares his opinion, it seems much more harmless – I'd even argue useful – than alienating. Really, in this day and age of TV, we need to get angry about that?
In terms of more substantive issues, Tucker assails "Masterpiece" essentially for cribbing its best from the BBC, but doesn't the end justify the means to some extent? Should "Masterpiece" stop acquiring British masterpieces because that's the easy way out, even when no one else in the U.S. was interested in them? It's easy to say that "Masterpiece" should be producing more good programming, but in a year that featured weeks and weeks of superior programming such as "Downton," "Upstairs Downstairs" and "Sherlock," it's an odd time to find the anthology under such attack.
Regarding "Downton" in particular, Tucker asserts that Eaton and Kerger didn't know what they had and marketed it accordingly, and that it's mostly fortuitous that viewers discovered it. There's no doubt that awareness of PBS programming could be better, but there seems to be no acknowledgment that there's any limitation to the network's marketing budget, or that putting more emphasis marketing on one program would take away from another.
Tucker goes on to criticize PBS itself for its programming choices, writing that "instead of coming up with a mixture of new, clever series and re-broadcasts from its storehouse of great old shows, PBS is hyping staid middlebrow fare such as an Andrea Bocelli concert as the high point of its 'Fall Arts Festival.'" Tucker seems guilty of selective evidence here – in terms of the Arts Fall Festival alone, I've seen little indication that PBS thinks Bocelli is the highpoint, or that the diversity and level of offerings can so easily be summed up as "staid middlebrow fare," or that no other worthwhile series surround it.
Tucker criticizes other PBS programs of recent vintage, not without justification, but makes the broader case that the "chopped-up, watered-down" special "The Best of Laugh-In" is representative of the network - even though throughout his column, he's conceding that this documentary or that news program is first-rate or, rather dismissively, the massive number of hours PBS devotes to children's programming "remains pretty good." In the end, all he sees is timid superficiality bordering on irrelevance.
We know at least one reason why all this is. PBS doesn’t want to go back to the days in which it stirred things up, to the days when Bill Moyers and Marlon Riggs’ "Tongues Untied" and "An American Family" provoked audiences, and attracted the censure of politicians grandstanding to take away PBS’ small amount of government funding. Except for "Frontline" and the occasional Independent Lens and a few of the "American Masters" each season, PBS has ceded responsibility for aggressive programming dealing with current events or arts coverage with a forceful point of view (for the latter, I point you to Robert Hughes’ "The Shock of the New").
What should PBS do? I can think of a half-dozen things. But it doesn’t make any difference. As Kerger and PBS made clear over the past couple of days, it is committed to “nostalgia” (the hideous code-word for honoring the past by smothering it with gooey sentimentality).
I don't have a dog in this fight, nor do I doubt that Tucker watches much more PBS than I do and is better equipped to assess its value and direction. There's no doubt that, like any other network, PBS could not only do better, it could also be more courageous. But the fact is, in a year where half the nation's politicians were telling the American public that the network is worthless, viewership has improved 7% for PBS, and I'm having trouble believing that it's all because those viewers were too stupid to realize that PBS was pulling one over on them.
Tucker's column felt like a case of kicking the good guys for not being great – kicking them square in the you-know-what. Maybe I've just had blinders on and the heat is deserved - PBS isn't above having someone light a fire under it - but respectfully, it sure felt disproportionate to the crime.