Viewers Like You

Matthew Bullen on US public television affiliates

First published February 2001

Pledge: Used as a noun.  Spoken with a kind of prairie evensong reverence (“time for pledge”) that brings to mind cute prairie moms pressing a coin into their child’s plam for the collection plate.

Pledge is how US public television affiliates get the lion’s share of their money. Viewers send donations. A lot of the other cash comes from government grants to the Public Broadcasting Service (PBS) and from corporate underwriters of programming. PBS has some other sources of revenue – royalties and sales of educational products, for example. Americans, according to the most recent Roper poll, rank public radio and television as the second and third best values for their federal tax dollars, after national defence.

This is how pledge works: Instead of airing commercials (we’ll ignore the 10 second corporate messages that preface programmes which the company has helped pay to screen), each affiliate devotes a few percent of its annual air time to the terrific business of pledge. A popular show is screened – perhaps Inspector Morse or an Andre Rieu classical concert – and before, during and afterwards is interspersed with appeals for donations. These appeal segments may put a 100-minute Morse into a 130-minute slot. Yes, the affiliates do tend to be tactful about where in an episode of Morse they go to the appeal. On a typical pledge night the screen fades, a station ident appears cradled by some bars of cocktail jazz, and then the station’s pledge anchors address us. We are invited to become members of the station by sending some money.

Invited a bit apologetically, sometimes. KCTS, Seattle’s PBS affiliate, is at pains to point out that less than 2% of its air time is devoted to fund-raising, compared to 25% advertising airtime on commercial television. George Ray, an avuncular pledge fixture at the station for decades, his tie in a chunky knot, programme notes in hand, hunches from time to time like someone arriving late at the theatre. He thinks he is intruding.

And there is the wonder of it. Of course pledge is in one sense an intrusion – Ray and his like across the US are the easiest of targets for a drawled “Hush up, get on with it” from the nation’s recliners. But for my money ($50, tax-deductible, mailed last Fall) the affiliate pledge nights are superlative elements of US broadcasting: necessarily bold but oddly quaint, admittedly mercenary yet as cottage-hospital as regular telly here gets. For a start, what guarantees the sincerity of local pledge is the plain truth of its arguments: public television palpably is what we watch most because it shows good stuff; and there is a near-absolute link between my cheque and my viewing. That second connection is vital, because it – oddly enough – is what prompts the sense of public television being a service. If I believe that they get most of their money from viewers such as me, then I can appreciate very readily what might happen if enough of us fail to donate: poorer programming or closed stations. Unlike my patterns of thought about British telly – the very signal of which feels more guaranteed and permanent – I reckon myself responsible for KCTS’s quality, perhaps survival. So it is valuable to me. As for the argument about the quality of its programming, I think it revealing that at home we very often find ourselves selecting Channel 9 (KCTS) amongst the hundred or more digital cable channels to which we have access.

PBS affiliates sharpen their fiscal pointed by encouraging viewers to phone with their pledge during the specific programming that that viewer enjoys. So the message is more than just to support the station, but to support what one likes on it. And, crucially, I essentially believe KCTS when it tells me that it can be fruitful to draw the channels’ attention to any shows I’d like to see that it does not currently air. Of course there is a level at which I’m not really confident that a single or even repeated request for a particular series will get it shown, but that my intuition is to believe in the democracy of public television at all is – again – rather telling of its accuracy in calling itself a service.

This is also true of the many two-to-10 minute fillers, often produced by the local affiliate. Because much American telly starts on the hour or half-hour, and because PBS and its affiliates show many odd-timed programmes (eg. 50-minute British drama series), there is a lot of room for fillers. These, like KCTS Currents (about local artistes) and Golden Apple Awards (the region’s favourite school teachers), focus on the affiliate’s region. I may smile affectionately from time to time at the roll-necked Seattle chic of, say, KCTS Currents‘ editorial style – a recent edition featured a coffee-shop menu chalkboard artist – but I do believe that if I did something as unusual (obscure?) as excellently chalking murals on a café’s price list then I might well have a chunk of well-watched television air time devoted to me. I can, so to speak, see it happening.

Besides, the Seattle chic is tempered by a dogged Northwest genuineness. Viewer and filler-maker and artist are aware that the fillers’ subjects tend to be grafting independent workers in a slickly digital and stock-driven city. They are folks you know from the queue at the local natural-foods co-op. So, once more, KCTS feels like something of a community instrument. This is mitigated by the more strand-aware (not, mercifully, brand-aware) aspects of PBS sentiment. There is an oddly irritating esteem for its big national shows, such as science strand Nova. But at least the esteem is sincere and arguably justifiable: whatever a British viewer might think of the commissioning ethos behind British drama, it is quite reasonable for George Ray to tout its production standards to his audience. Here is another endearing element of public television affiliates. KCTS is what might be called a free-standing affiliate, in that its raison d’être is purely as a television station. Charmingly, though, a number of PBS affiliates are run by local technical colleges and the like. Even these have their own paid staff – scheduling directors, for example – but again there is a nice sense that this is television produced among the public rather than merely for it. It is a bit like the difference between the feel of a local film group, which may screen a lot of the big boys’ work as well as its own, and that of an all-out movie theatre.

Is there much variation in programming between one affiliate and another? After all, there is some degree of control over which PBS feeds (Nova, Masterpiece Theatre, etc.) they show and when they show them. I haven’t sampled enough affiliates to answer this well, but there are certainly similarities. Much of daytime seems to be devoted to children’s favourites, such as Sesame Street, Between the Lions and Wishbone. There are regional magazines. British detective imports are very popular. And there is something of the feeling of peeking in at the Borrowers‘ cotton-reel furniture when one sees a ITV midweek 9pm drama such as Bramwell airing in PBS’s Masterpiece Theatre slot. That last bit sounded snide. It isn’t, because finding a show, that one has perhaps lazily consigned to a particular category, put into another, pricks one to evaluate that programme more precisely: even if the new slotting is only nominal. Besides which, I like seeing what I normally think of as somewhat disparate series shown in a single category: it conveys a simple matinee excitement with a mental image of schedulers having combed their beaches for a loose collection of treats.

Viewers Like You. As in, “This program was made possible, in part, by funding from (cue caption, on which is written) Viewers Like You”. During these grateful pre-programme announcements, Viewers Like Me often find ourselves rubbing shoulders with a small handful of philanthropic foundations and, as I suggested, corporations. And Viewers Like Us are usually treated to incentives to pledge our support. Some of these, such as KCTS’s own series of specially commissioned “Mystery!”-strand coffee mugs, may well become collectibles.

I like public television. Certainly it does not have much of the “to-camera, our-noticeboard” feel of grassroots community television. KCTS, for example, especially since the advent of its pioneering role in PBS’s government-decreed digital directions, looks upscale and crisp. It seems often to rely on heavily heralded big guns like Ken Burns’ new film Jazz, and Riverdance, and Alan-Alda-fronted science hours. But, for a kind of programming punching in the ring of the commercial networks and working to establish itself among other types of broadcast technology, public television emphasises my role in its presence well enough. If that seems a conceited criterion, more power to me. To viewers like me.