More than Muppets

Sep 24, 2008 at 12:00 am

You think of PBS: musty antiques, kiddie shows, Tavis Smiley, an exposé on sperm whales, doo-wop groups on parade and every five years or so, a Ken Burns doc. And the pledge drives. Oh, the pledge drives. It was useful for anybody who wanted to view every nanosecond of the recent political conventions but, on the whole, PBS = Pretty Boring Sh— uh, Stuff.

Paula Kerger thinks of PBS: The best and only logical medium to serve as the "national convener" for our land. A leading-edge, multi-platform source of dynamic content. The interactive electronic village that is filling the role commercial television has abandoned for the new millennium.

That's what you call a difference of perspective. If anybody ought to be warbling the praises of public broadcasting, Paula Kerger should be lead singer: Since 2006, she has been president and CEO of PBS. Although she is a tall woman and came to town dressed in bright yellow, she doesn't appear to be simply parroting Big Bird's obsessive optimism.

In Detroit last week to address the Detroit Economic Club and represent the home office for WTVS-TV (Channel 56), at its big annual fundraiser "PBS Premiere & Awards Night," Kerger's theme song for this visit could have been the 1963 hit from Ruby & the Romantics, "Our Day Will Come." In fact, she contends, it's here. By surviving and persevering, PBS has lasted long enough that the nation's viewing mind-set finally has matched its own longstanding vision.

"We may be living in an Internet age, but television is not going away anytime soon," Kerger says. "So don't believe all the stories you hear about, 'TV is Dead.'" But she maintains that commercial networks, in their relentless quest to hang onto dwindling ratings while slashing operating budgets, have jettisoned their commitment to inform and educate as well as entertain. They have practically no foreign news bureaus. The prime-time documentary is extinct. The August conventions, for all the national zest over Barack and Sarah, barely received one hour a night of live network attention.

But here's good ol' PBS, the network (or programming service, since stations like WTVS are independent operations) your kids grew up watching and that's still ready for them today. Kerger cites a new book by pollster John Zogby, The Way We'll Be, which identifies this generation of late teens and twentysomethings, with no recollection of the Vietnam War, much less World War II, as the "First Globals."

"They see themselves as citizens of the planet, not of any nation in particular," she says. "They've come of age in the Internet era, a virtual world without borders. They're the most tolerant and inclusive generation in American history, and more devoted than any age group to finding common ground on political issues.

"They're engaged in almost continuous conversation: e-mails, text messages, cell phones, instant messaging, chat rooms. Much of it is idle chatter, but it's a form of conditioning with inevitable results. As PBS president, I'm heartened to see this new generation embrace the values and ideals public television has championed for so long."

And PBS is out to seize its moment. It is a leading provider of free broadcasts on iTunes. It has forged partnerships with Netflix, Amazon's UnBox, Vuze and BitTorrent. "We're learning there's an enormous appetite for our content online," Kerger says: The recent absorbing and condemnatory Frontline documentary Bush's War received more than 5 million screenings online. is one of the top three broadcast sites in the nation, "and for a good part of the summer," she says, "we were No. 1."

Echoing PBS's file-sharing fervor, Channel 56 is producing The Great Debates, a series of political debates between six candidates for the Michigan House of Representatives Sundays from 3 to 4:30 p.m. and, in an unprecedented act of neighborliness, is making the programs available to any broadcast outlet that wishes to air them. "I see a golden age for public television on the horizon," says Kerger, yet the past is still in play, particularly when someone asked which PBS children's character was her personal favorite.

"I do have a partiality to Big Bird because I am tall. Elmo is actually my favorite," she says. "Because he's from my home town of Baltimore. Bet you didn't know that, did you? You thought he grew up on Sesame Street. Well, he did. But he was born in Baltimore."

"Our little network": Forget Oprah's opening, Don Rickles' first-ever Emmy, that insufferable noise from the reality-show co-hosts. Sunday's 60th Emmy Awards ceremony was memorable for its coronation of cable's American Movie Classics — "our little network," as Mad Men series creator Matthew Weiner called it — after capturing Best Drama honors for Weiner's brilliant '60s ad-industry morality play and Best Dramatic Actor for Bryan Cranston in Breaking Bad. HBO spent $100 million on its John Adams miniseries and should have taken home hardware, but AMC? Maybe they should think about abandoning movies altogether.

Jim McFarlin is a media critic for Metro Times. Send comments to [email protected]