I would answer “yes” to the question, “Is PBS Still Necessary?,” posed by Charles McGrath in Sunday’s New York Times. Yet he does make some solid points: that the world of cable TV has forever changed the landscape for public TV, and that public radio actually inhabits a completely different place in our collective entertainment. Granted, as he points out, the Discovery Channel airs mega-hit Planet Earth when 10 years ago it would have been a natural fit for PBS. And, yes, Jim Lehrer is not much competition for the likes of John Stewart and Stephen Colbert. But, the idealist in me still believes there’s a viable place for PBS. If anything, for the documentary programming it helps bring into America’s homes.
What McGrath doesn’t touch on in his article, is the role PBS still plays for American documentary films and filmmakers. At SXSW, for example, we’ve produced several seasons of a program called SXSW Presents, on KLRU, the Austin PBS hub. Without KLRU, who knows if we’d ever done the show, which is a program devoted to screening past SXSW documentaries for thousands of Austin residents. KLRU is also headquarters to local behemoth, Austin City Limits, still going very strong all these years later.
Throughout the country, PBS offers sanctuary for many of the great documentaries we program and witness at film festivals around the globe. It enables a wealth of documentary films and filmmakers (besides just Ken Burns) to have a venue to showcase their latest, acclaimed work. Public television programs and organizations such as ITVS, P.O.V., American Masters and Independent Lens are some of the best ways American documentary filmmakers can get funded/produced/programmed. You take away PBS, and that cuts out a major piece of the nonfiction features produced each year. And, as theatrical distribution for independent feature films becomes more random and unpredictable, outlets such as these stand a chance of greater serving documentary releases.
Just as the mainstream film and TV industries have learned lessons from the mainstream music business, perhaps public television will soon be able to utilize digital technology in the same ways public radio has (and to its great benefit). VOD may be the future of successful public TV.