TCA press tour, days three and four: Hi, we're PBS. You may have heard of us?
For people who write about TV professionally, the TCA press tour is a real boon. While, to a degree, it’s about sessions where the news could be handed out more efficiently via press release, it’s also about seeing how casts and creative teams interact with each other or about tracking down showrunners in moments when they might be more candid than usual and offer up hints on how they’re going to right past wrongs on their series or push forward through a troublesome storyline. (In particular, the interview Alan Sepinwall and a handful of other critics did with the producers of How I Met Your Mother at last summer’s press tour is a great case in point of good TV journalism arising from this event.) And for those who cover the business side of the medium more than the artistic side, the sessions with the network executives are invaluable, providing the best chance to ask just why, say, network television is so crappy right now.
But don’t get me wrong. This event is also about the networks seeing if they can buy us. Getting all of us together in a room with them is supposed to be advantageous for us, and it usually is. But it’s also a way for them to ply us with gifts or get us to consider covering shows we might not normally cover or get us to look on shows we might be skeptical about more favorably by putting the producers or stars in the room with us and reminding us that they’re human beings too. Now, we’re professionals, so this doesn’t go very far, but it’s still bizarre to walk into a session and realize that any given network has lavished what amounts to several dozens worth of dollars on each press tour attendee, in the form of gift bags or snacks or what have you. Hell, HBO bought everybody a mini-pie from Porch Pies, one of the best purveyors of pie on the Internet, but also one of the most expensive. (Now you know why the subscription rates are so expensive!)
But where these actions cause sneers when big cable networks do them, they feel downright desperate and kinda sweet when PBS gets involved. The nation’s public broadcasters spent the weekend trying to get us to remember they exist and that we once saw them as THE home of quality TV, long before scripted programming on cable was a twinkle in HBO’s eye. The tone of most PBS sessions is, “Hey, we’re the only people doing this kind of stuff on a weekly basis. NOTICE US!” And while that’s a little sad, it’s also true, more or less. The kind of arts, news, and science programming PBS offers just doesn’t pop up anywhere else. What other network would air Frontline? Or Great Performances? Or Nova?
The idea at one time was that cable would eventually replace PBS wholesale, that arts channels would broadcast the arts and history channels would broadcast history programming and so on. That would leave PBS with no natural niche, and the government, sufficiently impressed that public funding was no longer necessary, would be persuaded to cut off the federal cash and wander off on its merry way, leaving PBS to wither on the vine. But now, after nearly two decades of actually testing this theory in the wild, we know what happens to cable networks that program the arts or history programs: They eventually start programming shitty reality shows. And that leaves, well, PBS.
Yeah, PBS is somewhat reliant on ratings. Much of the network’s weekend at press tour was spent crowing about relative ratings successes in the past year. (Sherlock, in particular, scored big for the network.) But the fact that it’s supported by public funds and private donors means that the network can do less commercial things, particularly in months that aren’t pledge drive months. I don’t want to sound like some PBS shill, particularly after the network spent so much money trying to make me one this weekend, but it is bracing to be reminded of just how much the network seems to be the only one out there willing to risk being blatantly uncommercial.
Take the programs the network promoted during its weekend sessions. Sure, you have a Jeff Bridges career retrospective documentary (highlighted with a session featuring Bridges himself, a session that will be hard to top for entertainment value this press tour) and a Harry Connick, Jr., concert special, but you also have a two-part documentary about forgiveness, of all of the vague topics anyone could build a documentary around, and Independent Lens, one of the few remaining consistent places on the cable grid for independent documentaries, including the well-reviewed Marwencol, which makes its debut later in the year. The sheer breadth of programming from the network is surprising. Where most other networks fight to brand themselves as thoroughly as possible, PBS’ brand seems to simply be, “Turn us on. We won’t even be sure what the hell we’re airing.” Rufus Sewell as an Italian detective? A continuation of Upstairs Downstairs? A special about building a computer that can win at Jeopardy? A film about the freedom riders of the civil rights movement? A deeply serious documentary about whether the government’s homeland security program has grown so big that it controls the other branches of government? All coming up this winter and spring. It’s simultaneously thrilling and daunting. (And in case you were curious, I asked the CEO of PBS, Paula Kerger, if the network would be working again with the team that produced the terrific Circus. She said the network has had discussions with that team about doing other projects, but there's nothing definite yet.)
Furthermore, the network’s offerings at press tour weren’t just an eclectic mix of programs. They also featured a collection of fascinating people on the panels. Bridges was just the start. Connick discussed the minutiae of jazz. The engineers of the Jeopardy-beating computer tried to calm our fears that their work would lead to the rise of Skynet. Some biologists let us know why it was totally cool for them to get within a few feet of grizzly bears and tried to help a TCA member figure out how to deal with the bear that makes trouble in her backyard. A few Laugh-In cast members gave us insights into the background of that groundbreaking, influential show (and let Jo Anne Worley sing parody songs loudly). Chef Jose Andres talked about how everyone, even restaurant critics deserves to be treated with respect, and decried government farm subsidies that support the same giant food corporations. And on a weekend rocked by national tragedy, having big, smart minds like these around was even more reassuring. Talking with now-elderly freedom riders or experts on forgiveness or talk show host Tavis Smiley about the frayed discourse and violent rhetoric in the current cultural dialogue was much more helpful than if we’d been forced to talk about the same with the cast of Off The Map.
Yet many TCA press tour attendees don’t bother attending these sessions, instead choosing to work over the weekend. I get the impulse. Unlike many of the other sessions, there are no immediate new hooks to hang stories about the PBS sessions on, which leaves the day-to-day filers who make up the bulk of tour attendees struggling for something to write about. Even I, someone who has much freer rein to write about whatever the hell I want, struggled for a tack to take with the weekend, which was much closer to something like the TED conference, where vital, intriguing personalities hold forth on a number of topics dear to their hearts, than a press event. And yet, at the base of all of this is another simple, sad question: Who the hell still watches PBS? Outside of the network’s children’s programming, when was the last time PBS felt like it was at the forefront of the medium? For all of the good stuff the network does, for all of the uncommercial risks it takes, it’s still a network that’s airing stuff nobody else will. And that’s usually because, well, the audience for this kind of programming is limited. It’s too bad, but at least at press tour, the network gets a chance to remind us it still exists and is doing something necessary.