Vast Wasteland

I was fortunate enough to be invited to the 50th anniversary celebration of PBS station WNIT Friday evening. There was an interesting mix of patrons and board members. I did my best Mr. Rogers impression and there were others emulating their favorite characters from shows like Downton Abbey. Elmo and Cookie Monster made appearances as well as one Miss Piggy!

Several times Newton Minow was quoted. Minow laid down his famous challenge to TV executives on May 9, 1961, in a speech to the National Association of Broadcasters, urging them to sit down and watch their station for a full day, “without a book, magazine, newspaper, profit-and-loss sheet or rating book to distract you.” “I can assure you that you will observe a vast wasteland,” he told them. “You will see a procession of game shows, formula comedies about totally unbelievable families, blood and thunder, mayhem, violence, sadism, murder, Western bad men, Western good men, private eyes, gangsters, more violence and cartoons. And, endlessly, commercials — many screaming, cajoling and offending.” – PBS News Hour

Cookie, Bozo, Garfield Goose and Frazier Thomas from Wikipedia

in those early days of television, there were only the big three with the occasional local independent stations scattered in. (I grew up able to catch WGN out of Chicago on a good day, so Bozo’s Circus with Bob Bell and Frazier Thomas was in my viewing rotation along with Garfield Goose and the Roller Derby.) Mr. Minow was no doubt chagrined that while his admonishment took root in some areas, including the creation of PBS, in other ways the vast wasteland just grew vaster…

It was interesting to hear the discussion of PBS’s future, both nationally and locally. There is no doubt that they have a lot of quality programming, but with the choices available, how do they compete? There are stations that appear to have been created to directly challenge them, such as Discovery and TLC (The Learning Channel), but they have slipped into more salacious fair, i.e. “Naked and Afraid” (XL!) and “Dr. Pimple Popper“. How does a local station like WNIT compete?

The interesting quandary is how to produce local content that might be saleable to a larger audience. For example, this weekend I watched part of a local WNIT documentary, “A Legacy Of Memories: Silver Beach Amusement Park“. It’s one that I have watched (parts) before and found it interesting. But that interest was because it’s this area’s history. Would I have watched a similar program about a similar subject in New Jersey? Maybe. Probably not though. So how does this become marketable? I know this was not as expensive to make as one of Ken Burns‘ documentaries, but there is still a significant expense. If there’s no way to recoup that from licensing to other broadcasters, can they afford to do that on a long term basis?

There were a lot of smart people in the room Friday. That bodes well for finding solutions to these quandaries. PBS doesn’t look like it did 50 years ago when WNIT started out with a single channel without 24 hour transmission. Today it has 5 channels, all with 24 hours of content. Who knows what the next 50 years will bring, but there’s no doubt they’re still stiving to make a dent in Newt’s vast wasteland.

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