Can PBS survive the fundraising trap?

I’ve watched PBS all my life. Before the proliferation of cable programming, PBS provided an alternative to the bland programming of the original network triumvirate, airing shows that have become American institutions, like Nature, Nova, Frontline, and Masterpiece.

Ed Cunningham, the voice of the Philadelphia pledge drive. (Courtesy of WHYY)

One of the downsides of watching public television was the membership drives that we would be forced to endure, usually three times a year. Since one of PBS’s big blessings is the lack of commercials, the occasional membership drive or fundraiser was worth sitting through.

The fundraising was necessary to cover the financial gap between government, corporate, and foundation largesse and the actual cost of producing and broadcasting intelligent, diverse programming. The individual stations that make up the loose PBS network have to scramble each year to remain solvent. It’s a system that they’ve managed to make work, more or less, for over 50 years.

Tightening purse strings

However, times are tougher for PBS these days. Corporate donors are drying up; government, never a reliable source of funding here in the United States, is dealing with Republicans who resent funding anything not reeking of anti-intellectualism; and private foundations don’t have the money to throw around that they used to. Who is out there to make up the slack? Obviously, viewers and station members.

This came to my attention when I noticed over the last few years an increasing amount of fundraising on our local PBS stations. I often watch television at odd hours — three or four o’clock on weekday mornings, for example. What I find when I turn to our local PBS stations is an increasing number of hours and days and weeks devoted to running fundraising programming — that is, shows frequently interrupted by calls for donations or memberships.

I understand the practicalities of the television business. I understand that if these stations don’t make up their shortfall in some way, the quality of their offerings is likely to suffer, or they might even close down altogether. I can live with a moderate expansion of fundraising if that’s what it takes to keep Wolf Hall and Nova and BBC World News coming my way. My concern is the fundraising programming itself and how it is threatening to take over a large segment of our PBS stations’ schedules.

What’s with the infomercials?

Back in the day, when the fundraisers were strictly scheduled, the stations would usually entice viewers to their sales pitches by running particularly popular reruns, such as Doctor Who and Miss Marple. Also on the agenda, however, were various nostalgia shows like Lawrence Welk and Motown 25, and certain health and financial self-help programs, such as the ever-popular Suze Orman. The ironic thing about this programming was that yes, it was popular, but it had more in common with late-night paid programming than what PBS is known for.

And it’s only gotten worse. We’ve got Ed Slott offering to sell you programs on how to avoid paying taxes on your retirement income and lots of classic music clip shows that offer an endless array of CD anthologies to those who pledge only $120. Only last night I saw a self-help program for women who want to reverse the aging process.

This isn’t public television; this is crass commercialism worse than QVC. And it could spell the decline of the PBS we’ve all known and cherished for so many years. We’ve seen what the irresistible allure of lowest-denominator programming has done to one well-meaning network after another: A&E, Bravo, History, TLC, Discovery, networks that were originally intended to promote the arts and sciences are now awash with shows like Duck Dynasty and Real Housewives.

Somebody’s watching this stuff

Thing is, these stations wouldn’t run such programming if it didn’t help bring in the revenue they need to keep going. What’s to be done about it? I’m not sure anything can be done — we’ve seen it happen too many times.

There is one reason to hope: There is evidence that PBS is something more special to its audience than any of these lost-by-the-wayside cable channels. Somehow they have found a way to keep the core of what makes PBS special alive and flourishing for all these decades: Sesame Street, NewsHour, Charlie Rose, Wall Street Week — all these shows and more still survive, so far. Why? Because there is still a “public” for public television, even though it is becoming increasingly difficult to convince our government, business, and civic leaders of that. This public seems to want the core of PBS to last and will do what it takes to make to survive. The question is — for how long?

Yes, perhaps the growth of lowest-common-denominator fundraising programming is inevitable. Maybe PBS as we know it won't be able to survive its encroachment. But maybe, if I pick up that phone at three in the morning and make that pledge. . . .

Our readers respond

Kathryn Covier

of Fresno, CA on May 03, 2016

I was a staff person at the PBS TV station in Fresno in the late '70s. I value the programming and the concepts. However, today I must question why a local station like Fresno's "Valley Public Television" needs 25 employees. Their donations in 2015 amounted to $4.5M. Local production is virtually nil. I would like your opinion.... Is it possible that our local PBS stations are just raising money in order to keep their jobs?

Surely today's technology would make it possible for most PBS programs to be aired with the help of just a few technicians? The annual costs for this station to get programs and support from CPB appears to be around $1 million. Can a local non-producing station really justify its expenses? What do you think is going on?

Louis Mitchell

of San Francisco, CA on August 19, 2017

While losing donors is an unfortunate aspect for PBS, I nevertheless have to object to the excessive fund raising that takes place literally every other month. I'm really tired of it. And why does the San Francisco Bay area need three PBS stations? KQED, KCRB and KTEH. To have to put up with pre-emptive programming consisting of fund raising shows that are more than a decade old is, again, ridiculous.

This needs to stop. Right now, I'm trying to find out if there is any basis for an FCC complaint on this matter. PBS should shut down some stations if things are that bad instead of always begging the viewers.

Sign Up For Our Newsletter

Want previews of our latest stories about arts and culture in Philadelphia? Sign up for our newsletter.