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Dark Endeavors

The Public Airways of Colorado

Public Television Needs to Die

This is Dark Cloud on Wednesday, March 14, 2001.

I, and no doubt many of you, have endured the Pledge Drives of our two local public television stations for the last few days. It is not hard to see the change in the last twenty years of Channel 12. It used to pride itself on being different from Channel 6, the establishment station that closely resembles in attitude KCFR, the flagship station of what is now called Colorado Public Radio. This is a giant vulture eyeing the nests of other public radio stations in the state, and willing to play the Cuckoo to attain the same ends. Channel 12 used to be real sloppy and play lots of local videos of local bands, because it couldn't afford much else, but it had energy and dreams of great things and intent. Today it can still be sloppy but it plays much the same stuff that Channel 6 does, and the edge is gone. The Pledge Drives of both stations are equally horrid television, but they are also interchangeable. Worse, they both seem to replay the same shows all the time. The doo-wop Tribute to Ancient One Hit Bands with No Original Members. The Three Potato Faced Irish Tenors Nobody Ever Knew Existed. The same nature shows. There is no credible difference.

The over-enunciating widow dragging Carl Sagan's memory around to worshipful groupies underlines the problem. Twenty years ago,Cosmos was genuinely great television; still is. There is nothing remotely to be compared to it today except for the work of Ken Burns, but that is history and not in the same spirit at all. Cosmos bluntly demanded of you to think and imagine - to acknowledge and carry your own weight in the exchange - and provided assistance but no more. If you weren't involved with it, you'd turn it off, but such was Sagan's magic - and it was magic - the nation stayed rapt. No programming on public television makes such demands today. Much of today's fare is monotonously done using tired old templates that lessen the impact and the audience. Far worse yet, cable channels provide better cutting-edge documentaries, and it is sometimes hard to argue with Garrison Keillor that the end is nigh for public television and perhaps overdue and justified. There is potential there, but nobody seems to be acting on it, or even to recognize it. This is because the young in attitude - like Sagan, stoned or not - no longer people the stage. The ages of the people on public television seen seem to start at the mid-thirty mark and ascend steeply. They think much older.

It is less serious and obvious at public radio, but cutting edge requires the young. And it is under threat from its own. Recently, Colorado Public Radio, seemingly in collaboration with the Republicans in the state government, tried to take advantage of KUNC in Ft. Collins being given the boot from the state university campus. They offered to buy it and make it into something that would not compete with their broadcast format of Classical Lite. Fortunately, for KUNC is the second best station in the state, they failed. It would have been a horrible travesty, not to mention an oxymoron, to present a statewide network of community radio. It can be geared for the state, or it can geared for a local community, it cannot be both, at least for a majority of its hours. So public radio hereabouts wins one. But it was close. Although never framed in these terms, I don't think, public television was designed to give expression to the culturally disenfranchised by regressive taxation padded by exemptions and non-profit status by the Federal Government. Thirty years ago, this would include women, children, virtually any ethnic group, and the political left. But like any corporation or entity, public television finds itself taking the easy ways, willing to accept more and more money from a smaller, older, richer percentage of a potential audience. Their Pledge Drives are ghastly, ghastly television apparently aimed at aged infants who actually respond to the instigation's they offer. The volunteers garble their set speeches, the attempts at humor make the local news teams Abbot and Costello by comparison, and they lie through their teeth and spout statistical nonsense. You sometimes think public television has become a therapy group for shut-ins. Cable does it better and without Pledge Drives.

Public Television should and could be a lot better, a lot more exciting, a lot more substantial. The problem is, the established powers therein cannot offend the aged volunteers nor can afford to offend the aging audience, which they try to closely align with symphony season ticket holders and Sierra Club members. Within ten years, without much change, public television is gone. Public radio and its audience needs to beware always, and learn from the catastrophe playing out on the tube.