Stayin’ Alive: PBS and the Other Kind of Populism

Call it an interesting coincidence that PBS is launching a conservative-hosted weekly talk show at the same time the network is facing a push from President Trump and conservative legislators to cut off federal funds for public broadcasting.

In Principle, hosted by Michael Gerson and Amy Holmes, will debut April 13 at 8:30 p.m. ET, after Washington Week, with an initial order of eight episodes. It promises lively guests and a civilized conversation.

But however notable its timing, In Principle isn’t the weapon PBS hopes will win this war.

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Daniel Tiger (second from left), star of PBS’s most popular children’s show.

The real weapon is millions of people from the whole rainbow of red, blue and purple states — people who may not agree on guns or border walls, but share a common liking for Sesame Street, Daniel Tiger, Downton Abbey and Ken Burns’s examinations of Vietnam, the Civil War and baseball.

“Our viewers are our strongest argument,” PBS President and CEO Paula Kerger said in an interview last year as the network faced a similar challenge. “When these discussions have arisen in the past, viewers have always stepped up, because public broadcasting is an important part of their lives.”

In a media world with a thousand choices, PBS has performed the remarkable feat of carving out a singular niche.

PBS children’s programming, a parent of any political persuasion would likely agree, is the safest place on TV in front of which to park the kids. It’s also not selling them anything.

While the Arts and Entertainment network gave up arts and entertainment, PBS was offering the American Masters series, the Metropolitan Opera and Broadway.

When the History channel cut back on history, PBS continued with docu-shows like American Experience, explorations of what made us what we are.

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Jenna Coleman in “Victoria.”

Then there’s Masterpiece, the drama series that isn’t just Downton Abbey. It’s Victoria and Sherlock. Another Benedict Cumberbatch film, A Child In Time, arrives on April 1, and a new adaptation of Little Women in May.

Millions of viewers would be poorer for the loss of shows like these, because almost no commercial network would touch them. That’s why public broadcasting was authorized in 1967 and why it matters in 2018.

President Trump’s budget proposes to zero out the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, which helps support PBS and National Public Radio (NPR).

He also wants to stop funding the National Endowment for the Arts, which will endear him to conservatives who have long argued that regardless of the merits of these institutions, the government should not be in the business of funding them.

The counterargument, not to get into a whole different discussion, is that a nation isn’t just the sum of its hardware. It’s also the sum of its culture. The richer the culture, the richer the nation.

Toward that end, PBS has long focused on childhood literacy and education, a campaign that ranges from encouraging the imagination to assuring little girls they too can grow up to be scientists. The network has also been in the digital forefront through its popular interactive website.

The debate over public broadcasting has been around since the 1970s. In most of those years, public broadcasters have had at least one firewall — a house of Congress or the White House — to head those proposals off.

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Soldiers on patrol in Ken Burns’s ‘Vietnam’ series.

This year that’s less certain, and while that may not be the reason for In Principle, it’s absolutely the reason PBS will be mobilizing as many bipartisan voices as it can find.

“PBS, our 350 member stations and our legions of local supporters will continue to remind leaders in Washington of the significant benefits the public receives in return for federal funding,” read Kerger’s statement read, noting that annual tab is about $1.35 per person. “Public broadcasting is focused on providing high-quality content and universal public service, which is why we enjoy strong support in every region of the country, in both rural and urban areas, and across the political spectrum.”

It’s an inspired assertion. Once again in 2018, it may be tested.

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