Tim Goodman's TCA Journal No. 3: A Love Letter to PBS

The public broadcaster, boosted by the success of 'Downton Abbey,' deserves kudos for its impressively diverse bounty of programming riches.
Nick Briggs

There's a lot of love that should be dealt toward PBS and, on its second day before cable and digital and the broadcast networks roll into TCA, this is that love.

But first, that awkward phase: There was a time at PBS, before it latched onto Downtown Abbey — and getting Downton Abbey was not unlike the kind of great fortune HBO felt when it discovered The Sopranos — when the public broadcaster was in a rut with its message and its perception of the TV universe at large. It still had a variety of excellent shows, but not yet having Downton Abbey and living in world where critics (and viewers) were well aware that lots of cable channels had great children's programming or excellent unscripted cultural programs and hordes of fine costume dramas somehow made PBS a little pissy. It's true. So every TCA, as it fought Republican pressure to defund it and other annoying things (like, say, trying to find funding in the early 2000s for what then was still called Masterpiece Theatre, its crown jewel), there was this attitude that nobody else out there had anything worthwhile and only PBS was a safe harbor for quality.

It was not a good message. Because it wasn't true. I'm not sure PBS really believed that  if it did, its pride was getting in the way or it wasn't really paying attention  but those were grumpy days. A better approach would have kept the drumbeat on its own quality without telling people paid to know better that everything outside the system was inferior.

But then it got Downton Abbey and there was a noticeable draining, for all those years, of whatever bitterness had been in its tea. Everybody at PBS really liked having one of the most popular and acclaimed shows on television. It was a good win for public broadcasting system that was also well deserved.

Before and after that, PBS always had great programming. But there was something very validating about Downton being in the zeitgeist. Now in the beginning of the post-Downton era PBS has continued its upbeat disposition, smartly refusing to pick up its tired rant about everybody else. What PBS is doing at this moment is exactly what it should be doing: waving its hand over the bountiful riches it has and saying, in a sense, "Ain't this great?"

Why yes, it is.

Most impressively, PBS has smartly started touting its vast array of cultural programs  not just its scripted dramas and BBC partnerships  in a pivot that will truly separate the system from what others offer. Because with BBC America and Sundance and countless other outlets producing top-notch drama, the real wealth of gold that makes PBS stand out is its commitment to the arts (and yes, it has excellent science and news shows, I know). But this newer drumbeat notice for its arts programming is smart branding.

For the last four or five years at least I've been saying something consistently about PBS and its presentations at the TCAs and, good people that those involved with PBS are, they have never considered it a backhanded compliment. In short, the sentiment I've espoused is that every time PBS shows up in winter or summer for these press tours, its two days of sessions look, on paper, decidedly unsexy compared to everybody else (outside of Sherlock and a smattering of others), but once you get into the sessions they are — and I can't be enthusiastic enough about this  astonishingly informative and compelling.

It never fails. You look at the schedule and think, "Hmmm, that Nova or American Experience or this documentary could maybe be interesting…" but the doubts roil. Then you show up and every panel seems to be endlessly fascinating.

This happened again on Thursday with Soundbreaking: Stories From the Cutting Edge of Recorded Music, which is one of the things I'm most excited about, then again with the scary Command and Control non-fiction series about nuclear errors. And it will no doubt happen on Friday with Nova, Great Performances, Independent Lens and others. It's almost as if the more dry the description the better the panel and series (which, to stretch this parched metaphor out a bit, probably hit its zenith a while back with Ken Burns' The Dust Bowl documentary, which I initially thought when looking at the schedule, "I love Ken but ... really?" and then after it started I felt like leaping out of my chair five times in exuberance and The Dust Bowl ended up being one of PBS's most-watched documentaries).

This happens all the time. Twice a year at TCAs, two days each tour, the schedule comes out and everything looks topically "eat your vegetables," falling short of what Netflix or HBO or FX will trot through here. Then, without fail, the hook gets set. The sessions are unfailingly intriguing. You'd think I'd get used to it. Maybe this year I did. Hence this Journal.

There is an endless bounty of riches on PBS. And to be honest, sometimes this amazing but unsexy stuff does indeed lose out when it comes time to review them. I'll be the first to admit that  and other critics across the country and many other outlets would admit the same. We're all swayed by what has all the buzz. I tend to focus mainly on scripted series (and you may have heard there's an excess amount of great ones in both the drama and comedy genres), even while finding so much of PBS's unscripted fare the most riveting. I'm not alone in that bias, and critics have through the years kind of put their heads down and kicked the dirt and wished out loud they did more PBS reviews while making vague threats to do just that.

I hope they – and I – come through. PBS deserves exposure. It deserves more viewers. Even if it gets another Downton Abbey, which it probably will (and oh by the way, Sherlock, Sherlock, Sherlock), it already has so much going for it right now that should be applauded and certainly needs to be discovered. 

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