Ruinous Success

Originally published in The High Plains Literary Review, Vol. VII, No. 2.

Looking back now, it is clear where the beginning of the end came for the Public Broadcasting Service.

Seven years ago in the spring of 1989 Bob Villa, the affable host of a mildly popular show called This Old House, was fired.  Mr. Villa was released for making money, for being successful and taking monetary advantage of it.  This action was par for the self-defeating course of public television:  As long as no one watches we must be doing something right.

Critics blasted the powers-that-be.  It was a dead horse well beaten.  Was management at the quasi-network hellbent on quashing any glimmer of prosperity?  Yes, it was.  That is if you could call the motley conglomeration of member stations and ever-changing government overlords management.

But the outcry this time seemed to fall on less-than-deaf ears.  The Villa affair served as a catalyst for the sea changes of 1990 when power was centralized and decisions made more orderly.

A PBS official was quoted saying, "I see nothing wrong with getting ratings."  A new era was begun, an era that would be the last for public broadcasting.

Initially there was promotion.  The 1990 season kicked off with "Showcase Week", a star-studded introduction to the year ahead.  Shows to be aired on PBS were advertised on the big three networks to an extent never before seen, if not entirely honestly.  The first installment of Masterpiece Theater's season was billed as a made-for-TV escapade, replete with intrigue and sex.

Next came continuity.  Previously, in the we're-failing-as-best-we-can age, individual stations chose when to run programs.  Not surprisingly, nothing ran at the same time anywhere in the country, seriously hampering promotional efforts.  No longer.  A nationwide schedule was instituted to facilitate effective advertising.

These basic and long-overdue reforms worked.  Ratings were up, people were watching and the Public Broadcasting Service had started on the slippery slope that would be its demise.

The 1991 season came and PBS officials built on the triumphs of the previous year.  More and more they used the catch phrases of commercial television:  "retooling" shows, "upscale" market share, and "star power."

There was Full-Contact McLaughlin Group, a show previously defined as "an unrehearsed program of opinions and insights" became "an unrehearsed program of fisticuffs and body slams."  Issues were debated in tag-team format.  Pat Buchanan and Mort Kondracke pummeled each other on the subject of Israeli occupation of the West Bank.  Jack Germond and Fred Barnes "wrestled" over the budget crisis.  Host cum referee John McLaughlin ostensibly controlled the free-wheeling action.  Viewership soared.

American Masters, a long-running feature showcasing the lives of influential artists and leaders, became American Shysters.  In its new incarnation noted native hucksters, scam artists and crooks were profiled.  Charles Keating, L. Ron Hubbard and Amee Semple McPherson served as subjects of the newly successful series.

No one can now forget the ratings coup of Geraldo Rivera's Frontline.

Boring, unwatchable programming still clogged the schedule, but PBS executives pledged to change that with the 1992 season.  New shows were produced to replace those that failed to capitalize on the lead-in viewership provided by the aforementioned ratings bonanzas.  Great Performances got the heave-ho, as did Live From Lincoln Center.

Replacing them were tried and true knockoffs with a twist.

America's Funniest FBI Videos did boffo box office replaying the foibles of sting operation targets.  Celebrity arrests were shown, for example John Delorean, Marion Barry and ABSCAM officials, but most of the footage featured relative unknowns.  The studio audience howled when the faces of criminals contorted in disbelief as they were read their Miranda rights.  

Lifestyles of The Powerful and Connected took viewers into the homes of elected officials, lobbyists and the well born.  Audiences watched in record numbers as cameras toured opulent abodes and back rooms.  The show was not without its hard investigative edge, as one piece turned up S&M paraphernalia in the bedroom closet of the senior senator from Utah, and another revealed the personal arsenal in the home of Handgun Control's president.

Success begat success and PBS emerged a competitive force in television.  However, even with more viewers, revenues lagged.  The coma-inducing pledge drives of local stations had failed to change with the times, and the federal budget crunch necessitated cuts in funding from that source.  But national leadership met this challenge, too, with a twofold attack.

First, guidelines were drawn up to direct local stations in producing more compelling pledge drives.  The ubiquitous phone banks of these on-air beg-a-thons were staffed by lithe women scantily clad in bikinis and muscle-bound men decked out in leather.  Viewers were encouraged to dial 900 numbers and, for a fee, talk intimately with these volunteers.  Further, instead of the standard coffee mug or tote bag lagniappe, big donors were enticed with a chance at national exposure.  One lucky winner would appear as co-anchor of MacNeil/Lehrer Newshour, by then redubbed Almost Thirty Minutes with Robin and Jim.

The second phase of revenue enhancement required more creativity.  The sticky prohibition against commercials remained in the enabling legislation for PBS.  It remains unclear today who eventually hit upon the idea of product placements within the shows themselves.  (Though there will undoubtedly be a number to claim responsibility for this and other achievements. Dozens of postmortem books are headed for bookstores, among them The House That Moyers Built and BURNS: A Docubook Of PBS.)

At first the idea of product placements in serious dramatic shows was met with skepticism from the public.  But somehow on the small screen it didn't seem so bad to have Captain Ahab chasing the whale aboard a Princess Cruise liner, and no one would have noticed that Holden Caulfield kept eating in Kentucky Fried Chicken restaurants if television critics hadn't pointed out the deal.  Contracts for placements in Masterpiece Theater alone accounted for nearly $75 million in 1995, resulting in only a few historical anachronisms.

By 1996 PBS was not only a viable entity, finishing second for the season to the Fox Network, it was profitable.  This was the breaking point for many on Capitol Hill.  Network executives had been lobbying congress for three years bemoaning the growing popularity of government-subsidized television, but lawmakers paid little heed to the once-powerful brass from NBC, CBS and ABC.  Those three, who once held a virtual stranglehold on American viewing habits, now barely commanded 20 percent of the televisions being watched in the country.

What really did in PBS was its own success.  Drunk from their own marketing genius and programming savvy, management forgot the first axiom of government work:  Nothing succeeds like failure.  That PBS was not only widely popular, but profitable and therefore no longer in need of subsidy, was anathema to most in Washington.  The government has subsidized milk production for more than sixty years and, as long as the program seems counterproductive, misguided and overly expensive, will continue to subsidize it for the next six hundred years.  But show a glint of success?  Actually work as intended?  That's the end of it.

An amendment to the omnibus budget bill of 1996, offered by Senator Edward Kennedy, called for the dismantling of the Corporation for Public Broadcasting and the sale at auction of all its member station's equipment, property and assets around the country, the proceeds to go to the Drug Enforcement Agency.  Public television won't be back anytime soon.  Politicians don't soon forget something as embarrassing as an unqualified success.

What remains to be seen is the fate of National Public Radio.  Howard Stern has been getting some very respectable Arbitron numbers as host of "The Morning Edition."