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Standing up for public television

Posted: Monday, March 10, 2008

I t is that time of year again, when attacks on PBS remind those of us who labor in its besieged vineyards how much we must be prepared to defend our unique but vulnerable institution. With wearying frequency, we are forced to justify our existence to grandstanding politicians who believe that public television must be de-funded (despite the relatively little federal funding - $1 per person per year - it requires) because it operates outside of their vaunted "marketplace," and then to those misguided cultural critics who mistake our mission and demand of us something we are not.

If enacted, President Bush's budget proposal to Congress would reduce public broadcasting's funding for 2009 and 2010 by 56 percent. Adding insult to injury, The New York Times took its own swipe a few weeks back, arguing in a Sunday arts piece that PBS has grown tired and frayed and obsolete in a television universe that now includes hundreds and hundreds of choices.

It is important to remember, literally, what we stand for.

PBS is not the Public Broadcasting System. It is the Public Broadcasting Service; we are obligated to serve the public in a number of decidedly unsexy ways. From the early morning, when preschoolers have a broad array of commercial-free shows, to the news-making conversations of Charlie Rose as we end our day, our underfunded enterprise produces the best children's, science, nature, public affairs, arts and history programs on television.

"NewsHour" each evening reaches more than twice the readership of The New York Times. "Frontline" is perhaps the best series on television, period. PBS recently broadcast the groundbreaking New York Philharmonic performance from North Korea. Every day, PBS serves, and belies those feeble arguments that still question our necessity.

In a TV environment of fast-paced shows, PBS may not always appear the sleekest. But for those of us who have submitted our professional lives to public service in broadcasting, it feels more like the fable of the tortoise and the hare. What we lack in speed, we make up for in persistence - and an insistence on doing things well and doing things that last.

That may not impress those critics who breathlessly decode in the latest "reality" show some manifestation of the zeitgeist. But that's OK. Across the country, in towns small and large, PBS is an important institution in people's lives, bringing tens of millions of families each week not just another channel of distraction but programs that engage them.

That's what we try to do, and although we certainly aren't perfect, we strive every day to fulfill that complicated and vital mission. And no commercial network is animated by a mandate of service like that of PBS. That's why so many of us, despite these slings and arrows, continue to work in public broadcasting.

Critics say PBS is unnecessary in this multichannel universe; that there's no need for government investment in television; that we must let the marketplace dictate our culture. They are certain that only the marketplace determines what is valuable or worth doing.

Nothing could be further from the truth. Many blessings have flowed to America from that marketplace, but I am certain that none of the films I have made in the last nearly 30 years could have been produced anywhere but at PBS. It is also important to note that the marketplace won't come to your house at 3 a.m. when it is on fire, nor is the marketplace flying over Afghanistan at this moment.

I don't mean to suggest that PBS has anything to do with the actual defense of our country, but it does help make our country worth defending.

• Ken Burns is a documentary filmmaker whose projects include "The War," "The Civil War," "Jazz" and "Baseball."



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