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Requesting change in PBS programming

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This week marks the last new edition of the pop-culture magazine show Edge for the 1991-92 TV season and, perhaps, forever. After eight monthly programs, PBS has pulled its funding for the show, with the network’s programming chief, Jennifer Lawson, citing the series’ ”limited appeal to a general audience.” I suppose I should be joining the many TV critics who’ve condemned PBS’ abandonment of Edge — after all, if, as Lawson has said, she has a ”mandate to deliver the largest audience possible,” she’ll have to start running Studs instead of The MacNeil/Lehrer NewsHour.

But in fact, I always found Edge a little annoying. Robert Krulwich has done some unusually lively economics reporting for CBS This Morning, and thus his transformation into Edge‘s smug-guy-in-a-boxy-suit host was dismaying. So were many of Edge‘s story choices: Reports that made fun of the Reagan Library in Simi Valley, Calif., and the junk-sports show American Gladiators, for example, were complacent and easy, not edgy.

Far from being, in Lawson’s words, ”too inside,” Edge was frequently behind the curve, pumping up pop phenomena that had already received lots of mass-media hot air. The only truly on-the-edge segment all season was critic James Wolcott’s ”review” of the Norman Mailer novel Harlot’s Ghost on Edge‘s debut edition in October, in which Wolcott went well beyond the book at hand to grapple with his own career-long obsession with Mailer’s life and work. So deliriously self-indulgent as to be a critique of self-indulgence, Wolcott’s piece was the sort of what-the-hell-was-that? offering that Edge needed more of.

That an essentially tame, glitzy show like Edge should be considered too far-out by PBS bigwigs points to a bigger dilemma for public broadcasting in the ’90s: PBS is undergoing a severe identity crisis. During the ’91-’92 season just ended, its ratings declined 12 percent from the previous year, and the network no longer seems sure of whom it’s supposed to serve — culture, commerce, or bored Unsolved Mysteries viewers. Part of the problem is that many of PBS’ longest-running and most beloved series — Masterpiece Theatre, Mystery!, Great Performances, Nova — have, over the past year or so, begun to look tired, exhausted, well past their prime times. The occasional burst of excellence on one of these shows — Mystery!‘s cool thriller Prime Suspect, for example — serves only to remind us how warmed-over the programming is the rest of the time, with mediocre Masterpiece soap operas like Parnell and the Englishwoman and what seems like the 587th Hercule Poirot Mystery!

The other problem is more significant because it rests upon a misinterpretation of one of PBS’ greatest recent triumphs: Ken Burns’ The Civil War (1990), which was both the best and the worst thing to happen to PBS in a long time. By itself, The Civil War was an extraordinary artistic achievement, a great event in television history. But its success in the ratings convinced many PBS executives that rather than being Burns’ unique creation, War heralded nothing less than the wave of the future: Historical miniseries! Event programming!

But the results? A litany of recent losers: The season’s most tiresome, overhyped PBS miniseries, Columbus and the Age of Discovery; The Machine That Changed the World, a dry five-parter about the history of computers that only a hacker could love; The Creative Spirit, a kind of Sesame Street for liberal-arts majors, only boring; Madness, a five-part snoozer about mental illness in which sonorous chatterbox host-writer Jonathan Miller proves once again, over and over, that he’s smarter than you and me, and who cares? Plus, this week brings the premiere of Millennium, a 10-episode series that, says a PBS press release, ”visits tribal cultures around the globe to discover what the ‘modern’ world can learn from the ideas and values of traditional peoples.” Millennium‘s first installment, ”Shock of the Other,” is a documentary about a visit that this episode’s writer and narrator, anthropologist David Maybury-Lewis, made to Brazil’s Xavante tribe. Maybury- Lewis seems intelligent, skeptical, and discriminating, but the other hours I’ve dipped into, as well as the guiding idea behind Millennium, lead to a drearily predictable overall tone: Civilization is bad; primitive societies are good.

The Wall Street Journal recently suggested that the only true evidence of what viewers want from public television is ”on the air during pledge weeks,” when the network solicits phone-in donations by airing tried-and-true crowd pleasers. But if PBS programmed itself this way, its schedule would be filled with little more than salutes to the big-band era and endless reruns of family counselor John Bradshaw’s messianic prattle about ”healing the inner child” in each and every one of us.

Instead, PBS needs to heal the inner adult in all of us — to provide fare that doesn’t coddle or condescend. Instead of marginalizing adventurous subjects by tucking them away in series with names like Edge and P.O.V. (the four-year-old summer series of documentaries with a ”point of view”), why not push all PBS programming to the edge? Why not invest it with a thousand points of view? Rather than trying to reproduce the format of The Civil War with different subjects, or hewing to programming with a pledge-driven political correctness, let’s see some new stuff that gets viewers excited, angry, and inspired. Shake things up, PBS.

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