Monthly Archives: April 2012

Time to Pull the Plug on Public Television

Once upon a time, public television served a real purpose.  Back in the days when television consisted entirely of three commercial networks, and then three networks plus a few UHF stations that make today’s cable offerings look like Stratford-upon-Avon, it seemed reasonable to invest modest public money in a fourth network.  This fourth network, a public television network, could broadcast the kind of in-depth news, educational, and cultural programs that many people believed deserved airing but that no one thought could attract commercial sponsors.

When The Curmudgeon was a schoolboy, public television was referred to as educational television.  He vaguely recalls in fourth grade watching a woman named Bess Barg present science lessons on Channel 12 in Philadelphia, and another program, on geography, hosted by a man with a mustache who looked a lot like his Uncle Lazar from Pittsburgh.  When The Curmudgeon got older he watched his younger sister enjoy Sesame Street and Electric Company.  He thought they were silly, but then, they weren’t intended for him.  He was vaguely aware of other programs on public television, but none that interested him.

As The Curmudgeon grew older he became better acquainted with public television – but only marginally so.  He enjoyed The Six Wives of Henry VIII and Elizabeth R and a few others, but for the most part he paid little attention to the network.  He later became a fan of some British sitcoms – no, not Benny Hill, but Good Neighbors, To the Manor Born, Solo, Executive Stress, and the best sitcom ever made, the combination of Yes, Minister and its spin-off, Yes, Prime Minister – and a few limited roundtable series produced by Fred Friendly.  As far as he could tell, genuine educational programming was mostly gone and public television became pretty much big business, albeit one with a non-profit veneer that had long ceased fooling anyone.

Television as a whole has changed even more than public broadcasting over the past two decades.  Instead of three networks and a few cheap UHF stations we now have scores of cable channels, some of them general in their programming (TBS, TNT, USA, A&E, and others of that type) and some specialized (ESPN, CNN, Fox News, QVC, the Golf Channel, the Food Network, and many others).

So that raises an interesting question:  Do we still need public television?  With television viewing now so fragmented that today’s most successful network programs have fewer viewers than programs that were routinely canceled after just a few weeks back in the 1970s, is it still reasonable to maintain that the only way the kind of programs shown on public television can ever be broadcast is to subsidize them with public money?

The Curmudgeon thinks not.  Surely there are corporations that would love to sponsor Nova, Wall Street Week, and Masterpiece Theater.  And wouldn’t programs like Frontline, American Masters, Antiques Roadshow, Nature, and others be among the biggest draws for some cable networks – and very attractive for advertisers?  Meanwhile, aren’t programs very similar to The Tavis Smiley Show, PBS Newshour, Wall Street Week, and This Old House already shown on commercial stations?

The argument that public television makes it possible to watch television without commercials doesn’t really hold water anymore.  People routinely purchase DVDs of commercial television programs and watch them commercial-free.  Many also have something called TIVO – The Curmudgeon is aware of the concept but has neither invested in it himself nor ever seen it in action – that enables them to elude advertising with a minimum of effort.  As for the argument that commercials are somehow evil and that young children should be spared them, The Curmudgeon would note first, that most public television is not for children anymore and second, that unless children are watching only public television and nothing else, commercial-free broadcasting only protects our young’uns from something they routinely encounter everywhere else.

For that matter, is commercial-free television even really commercial-free?  Not at all.  At the beginning and end of each program broadcast on public television is a series of announcements to the effect of “This broadcast has been made possible with the help of [fill in the name of the company]” – a pitch that once took just a few seconds but now amounts to a twenty- to thirty-second description of that company’s products; individual programs may have several of these announcements.  The Curmudgeon, who works at home, once watched America’s Test Kitchen daily during his lunch hour and noticed that the program ended at 12:53 pm every day, whereupon it was followed by seven minutes of sponsor “announcements” (that is, commercials) before the next program began.

Commercial-free?  Really?

Meanwhile, public television does little to enhance its value and distinguish itself from commercial television.  In the Philadelphia market, for example, the major public television station has no local news, very little public affairs broadcasting (other than video presentations of local radio programs, which is not exactly “public affairs broadcasting”), and produces very little original programming; the New Jersey market is much better, with a nightly state news program and an excellent weekly roundtable on state politics and government – but still, nothing that the local commercial stations don’t do at least as well.

The Curmudgeon believes a strong argument can be made that the idea of public television – of government underwriting television that commercial sponsors would never support – was an excellent idea in its day.  But that day has come and gone:  public television now does nothing special, nothing other networks and cable channels do not do, and nothing that would be unable to find paying sponsors on a commercial network.

So perhaps the time has come to end government subsidization of public television and revoke the non-profit status of public television channels.  If public television has real value, the best of it will find new homes on commercial outlets and continue to thrive.  And – like the rest of television broadcasting – programming that does not find an audience can die a peaceful death.

Gone Fishing

Even curmudgeons need a break now and then.  On Sunday morning The Curmudgeon boarded a plane and will spend a few days in the sun and fun at St. Pete Beach, Florida, trying not to get too much sun on his bald head and hoping not to be mistaken for an undergrad there on spring break.

If you know The Curmudgeon’s identity, please don’t take advantage of his known absence to clean out his house.  He doesn’t have that much good stuff anyway.

The Curmudgeon will return to this site on Monday, April 16 – or as his readers in Israel know it, 24 Nissan 5772 (and no, that has nothing to do with Japanese cars.  The Jewish calendar used the word “Nissan” thousands of years before the Japanese developed their interest in engineering.  Of course, that doesn’t explain why the American fourth of July will held on a date known in Israel as Mitsubishi 9).

Is Local Ownership of Newspapers Really Such a Hot Idea?

Once upon a time, newspapers were highly partisan enterprises.  If you look back in history you’ll find that they often wore their political allegiance on their sleeve – okay, on their masthead – with names like the Jacksonville Republican, the Muncie Post-Democrat, the Denver Republican, the Johnstown Tribune-Democrat, and many, many more.  Back in the days when newspapers were almost entirely local and extremely inexpensive to produce, cities and towns would have numerous papers and many would be official (or unofficial) organs of local political parties or mouthpieces for their owners.

For the most part, that’s changed now.  Many newspapers still have pretty strong political perspectives, but those perspectives – despite the paranoia of both the left and the right – are pretty much relegated to the editorial and op-ed pages.  Newspapers also are businesses, and like most businesses, they’ll do almost anything to make a buck.  Money is green, and that’s neither liberal nor conservative, Democratic nor Republican.

All this comes to mind because the two daily newspapers in Philadelphia have been sold for the fourth time in the past six years, and for the second of those four times, sold to a group of local business people.  Many people are acting as if this a great triumph, something to be heralded, as if local ownership is inherently, unquestionably a great thing.

That’s not necessarily so.  Once upon a time, both the Philadelphia Inquirer and the Philadelphia Daily News were owned by Walter Annenberg, who wielded his newspapers like a cudgel to advance his own business interests.  Legend has it that during the 1966-67 National Basketball Association season in which the hometown Philadelphia 76ers won the championship, Annenberg refused to allow his newspapers to assign reporters to cover the team’s road games because he felt the team wasn’t buying enough advertising in his papers; instead, his papers used wire service accounts of road games.  In 1966, Annenberg reputedly didn’t like the Democrat running for governor of Pennsylvania,  so his papers didn’t report on that candidate’s campaign.

While he was just a boy at the time, The Curmudgeon distinctly remembers another Annenberg-inspired feature in the Philadelphia Inquirer:  every day, the front page showed program listings for local television and radio stations that Annenberg owned.  (Think this couldn’t happen in this day and age?  Think again.  In Philadelphia today, a local radio station now includes in its sports reports information about teams whose games will be broadcast later in the day on radio stations that are owned by the same company.  Sportscasters note the game time and the broadcasting station’s name and location on the radio dial (radio dial?  The Curmudgeon is really dating himself here).  This information is provided as part of the sports report, not as an advertisement.)

The challenge with local ownership is that local rich men have local business interests and you have to wonder how the newspapers they now own will respond when those businesses themselves are news.  One of the new owners, for example, owns an insurance brokerage company that relies heavily on public contracts.  What happens when one of those contracts looks suspicious (as recently happened and was reported in the Inquirer)?  That same owner also heads a major area hospital that just launched a medical school.  What happens if a patient dies of neglect in that hospital’s emergency room?  If the (non-profit) hospital spends an unusual amount of money on lobbying or lavish conferences?  If a review of quality of care shows that patients with certain medical conditions are more likely to die at that hospital?  What happens if it appears that the medical school has admitted a student whose primary qualification appears to be that his father runs a company with whom the hospital leader/newspaper owner does business – or with whom he hopes to do business?  Are readers supposed to believe that the newspapers’ editors will unleash their best reporters to pursue such stories and tell them to be as aggressive as they would be on any other assignment?  Think there will be editorials expressing outrage?

That same new owner, in fact, also happens to be one of the most powerful Democrats in New Jersey (the Inquirer is the only major newspaper that covers several New Jersey counties that are part of the greater Philadelphia area).  What happens when the newspaper editorial board is outraged over how it perceives he is directing his puppets to act or vote in the county seat or the state capital?  Do editorial writers vent their spleen on him, as they would on any other politician, or do they go home, look at their seventeen-year-old daughter filling out college applications, and reluctantly swallow their outrage and say nothing?  What happens if the editorial board wants to endorse a candidate whom the party boss/newspaper owner opposes?  What happens if the editorial board wants to endorse a candidate running against the party boss/newspaper owner’s brother, who is an elected member of the state legislature?

And what of the six million people of the greater Philadelphia area who rely on these newspapers for information about how they are being governed?  How can they trust that the vested interests of the newspapers’ owners aren’t coloring, either directly or indirectly, the information that’s being reported on a daily basis?  How do they know that important stories aren’t going unreported – not because the owners are insisting that they not be reported but because editors and reporters, who after all are only human, exercise the very human behavior of not seeking to bite the hand that feeds them?

Local ownership of newspapers sounds like a good idea in theory, and in many places it surely works well and has for many years.  When there are only two local papers, however, and both are owned by the same people and there’s no competition, this can’t possibly be good for readers.  The new local owners of the Philadelphia Inquirer and Philadelphia Daily News say they purchased the papers more as a civic venture than as a business or a means of influencing local policy and opinion, but will their actions reflect their words?  Or when push comes to shove, will they insist that the reporting and views expressed by the newspapers they own support their own interests above all others?

Color The Curmudgeon skeptical.

Mini-Rumination: Too Dumb for Public Office?

The Philadelphia Inquirer reports that a member of Philadelphia’s city council is paying a consultant $29,000 a year to tweet for him.  When asked why he needs someone to tweet for him, nit-twit councilman James Kenney explained, “I, at 53 years old, do not have that facility.”

The initial reaction has been outrage that an elected official is paying this consultant with public money.  The consensus seems to be that such services would more appropriately be paid from the councilman’s campaign funds.

But aren’t critics overlooking a broader issue?  Shouldn’t someone who apparently isn’t smart enough to learn how to tweet be considered too stupid to hold elected office?

Mini Rumination: Bethenny Never After

The Curmudgeon has discovered that one of the best ways to get his creaky, aging body through the day is to begin that day with some stretching, so before work every morning he spends about fifteen minutes on his living room floor, mildly stretching what pass for muscles.

Stretching is pretty boring, so he turns on the television.  The pickings are pretty slim at that time of day, especially since The Curmudgeon has no use for the morning talking heads of Today, Good Morning America, or whatever CBS is calling its morning program that no one watches.  Sometimes there’s Saved by the Bell (plot hint:  Zack has a scheme) or Law and Order, but for fifteen minutes, usually something on E Entertainment or Bravo will do; The Curmudgeon is particularly fond of watching Tabatha try to teach basic business practices to the kind of people you know not only didn’t take school seriously but also made fun of those of us who did.

One day last week, though, it was Bethenny Ever After, the centerpiece of which is Bethenny Frankel, a graduate of The Real Housewives of New York.  The Curmudgeon is not a regular viewer of these silly programs – he views most of what he sees from the prone position, while stretching – but he is familiar with Ms. Frankel and let us just say that in his opinion, her behavior too often falls short of even qualifying as “human.”

In this particular episode, Bethenny and her husband Jason – a seemingly nice guy who deserves much, much better – are apparently on their shrink’s boat for a combination pleasure trip/extended marriage counseling session.  As a boat’s captain, the shrink seems to be a little out of his element.  Bethenny’s husband is seasick and alternately heaving over the side of the boat and trying to ride out his nausea in bed.

Discussing the challenges she’s facing in her marriage, Bethenny tells Gilligan, er, her shrink – and The Curmudgeon is paraphrasing here – “I feel like when I’m with Jason, I’m trying to be something I’m not.”

Anyone who has seen more than few minutes of The Real Housewives of New York or any of Bethenny’s own series immediately knows the answer to this problem.  What’s Bethenny trying to be in her relationship that’s she’s not in real life?

Isn’t it obvious?

She’s trying to be nice.

Marco Rubio and the Makings of an Old-Fashioned Vice President

It was John Nance Garner, vice president during Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s first two terms as president, who famously told us that the vice presidency “is not worth a bucket of warm spit.”

Garner wasn’t the first vice president to suggest that the office wasn’t nearly as grand as its title.  In fact, the very first vice president, John Adams, described the position as “the most insignificant office that ever the invention of man contrived or his imagination conceived.”  Thomas Marshall, the twenty-eighth vice president (under Woodrow Wilson), once said that “Once there were two brothers.  One went away to sea; the other was elected vice president.  And nothing was heard of either of them again.”  (Marshall and Wilson didn’t get along – so much so that Wilson moved Marshall’s office out of the White House.)

For the most part, vice presidents have been window-dressing:  people selected to help presidential candidates get elected.  Of late, there have been a few interruptions in this trend:  it can reasonably be argued that Walter Mondale, Al Gore, Dick Cheney, and Joe Biden were selected to help their running mates govern.

The possibility of window-dressing vice presidents always remains – and for exhibit A, The Curmudgeon gives you one Sarah Palin – and appears to be raising its head once again.  Many people, including The Curmudgeon (see this past post), have spoken and written of the vice presidential potential of Florida Republican senator Marco Rubio:  young, good-looking, articulate, Hispanic, from a key electoral state, and in the good graces of the Darjeeling gang.  Like most people whose names are thrown about as potential vice presidential candidates, Rubio has denied interest in the position.

But last week, in a move about as uncourageous and craven as a politician can make, Rubio endorsed Mitt Romney.

Think about the timing.  Florida’s primary was on January 31.  At the time the race wasn’t as cut and dried as it is now and Rubio made no endorsement; no need to risk offending someone who might eventually be in a position to nominate him for vice president; no need for him to, you know, show a little political courage.  Now that Romney is on the verge of gaining enough delegates to seal the nomination, NOW Marco Rubio steps forward and endorses him.  And he even suggests that, contrary to his previous assertions, he wouldn’t reject the number two spot on the Republican ticket if it were offered to him.  He doesn’t want it, he said, but he wouldn’t reject it.

In other words:  “Please, pick me, Mitt.  PLEASE PLEASE PLEASE PICK ME, MITT.”

Way to go, Marco.  Real guts, real integrity.  You might help return us to the days of the vice presidential cipher.

Mini-Rumination: The Real Madness of “March Madness”

Please note: first impressions notwithstanding, this piece is not about sports.

Tonight, the University of Kansas will play against the University of Kentucky for the NCAA basketball championship. It’s been a long road for both teams. Let’s take a look at just one of those roads: that of the University of Kansas.

Kansas didn’t play in the tournament’s first round and then won its second round game on Friday, March 16 in Omaha – a city that is 200 miles from the Kansas campus in Lawrence, Kansas. Think the players on the team were in class the day before the big game? The day of the big game?

Kansas won its third round game on Sunday, March 18, also in Omaha – again, 200 miles from the Kansas campus. Think the players hustled back to their campus in time to make their 9:00 classes the following Monday morning?

Kansas won its fourth round game on Friday, March 23 in St. Louis, which is nearly 300 miles from the Kansas campus. Think the players on the team were in class the day before the big game? The day of the big game?

Kansas won its fifth round game on Sunday, March 25, also in St. Louis – again, nearly 300 miles from the Kansas campus. Think the players on the team hustled back to school to make their 9:00 classes the following morning?

Kansas won its six round game yesterday and will play for the national championship tonight, April 2, in New Orleans, which is 875 miles from the Kansas campus.

Think the players on the team will be in class today? Win or lose, think they’ll be in class tomorrow?

Now: think this is right? Think this is good? Think this is what college is for?

Class dismissed.