PBS Tries Dumbing Down Content for Pledge Drive

BOSTON.  It’s spring, which can only mean one thing for viewers of WGBH, the local public television outlet here; an interminable pledge drive designed to close the station’s budget deficit.

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“For a pledge of $100 I’ll take off this stupid hat.” 

“It drives me crazy,” says longtime PBS supporter Eleanor Wylie of Cambridge.  “They chase away more money than they attract during long stretches when viewers see nothing but phone banks staffed by volunteers, many of them scratching themselves in inappropriate places.”

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“No, we don’t have Sir Walter Raleigh in a can.”

So WGBH station manager Henry Beaton is trying a new approach this spring.  “Instead of narrow-casting at old WASPs with scads of money that they want to preserve for future generations, we’re going after the great unwashed masses who like to have fun,” he says.

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Director of Development:  “Before we accept your money, I need to know whether you inherited it or dirtied your hands working for it.”

Beaton has developed a line-up of programs he thinks will attract new viewers, and more money to the station than the tried-and-true but tired come-ons of the past; tote bags and golf umbrellas bearing the station’s logo.

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Staffers:  “Our job is to keep our viewers bored.”

First on his list is a variation on the “Girls Gone Wild” programs developed by Snoop Lion, the corn-rowed rapper formerly known as Snoop Dog whose real name is Calvin Broadus.  “Snoop isn’t your typical PBS entertainer, but he’s come up with a remarkably vibrant concept that has caused a lot of embarrassment for coeds at some of the less prestigious institutions of higher learning,” Beaton says.  The “mash” of GGW that he proposes?

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Catherine MacKinnon:  “I don’t usually go to Florida for spring break, but if it will help the cause . . .”

“Feminist Professors Gone Wild!” he says with a mischievous grin.  “We’ve got Catherine MacKinnon on a balcony at a Motel 6 in Fort Lauderdale, waving her copy of Simone de Beauvoir’s ‘The Second Sex’ above her head.  It’s quite erotic in a way,” Beaton notes as he watches a pilot on the station’s monitors.

Public television viewership has declined in recent years due to competition from cable television, the internet and professional wrestling, but Beaton thinks he can lure a younger, hipper audience back to Channel 2 to attract the sort of tasteful sponsorship announcements that pay the bills.

“When the Pew Charitable Trust asks me what kind of demographic we can deliver to them, all I need to say is two words–‘Arena Football’–and their eyes light up,” Beaton says.

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Nina Totenberg:  “Justice Ginsburg took an aggressive approach during oral argument, flashing a David Yerman necklace and showing little patience for the Solicitor General’s boring legal stuff.”

The innovative programming lineup has brought PBS a new group of critics who say it has sold out its original mission of providing highbrow entertainment that commercial networks won’t touch because of it lacks commercial appeal.  “It all started with The Eagles Unplugged,” says Marvin Kalb, Lecturer in Public Policy and Senior Fellow at the Joan Shorenstein Center on the Press, Politics and Public Policy and Say as Long as You’re Up Would You Mind Getting Me a Beer? at Harvard University.  “You don’t switch to PBS to watch burned-out rockers from the ’70’s–that’s what VH1 is for.”

“That really hurts,” says Elaine Frick, manager of WETA TV in Washington, D.C.  “We’re used to brushing off stupid red-state Congressmen who want to know where the Teletubbies keep their genitals, but not Harvard faculty.  A guy like Kalb will want a Three Tenors DVD, or maybe even a Tickle Me Elmo.”

Available in Kindle format on amazon.com as part of the collection “The Genteel Crowd: It’s So Much More Fun Being Vulgar.”

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