Thursday, June 16, 2005

Noonan on PBS

Peggy Noonan
Why, then, doesn't Congress continue to fund PBS at current levels but tell them they must stick to what they are good at, and stop being the TV funhouse of the Democratic Party? Nobody needs their investigative unit pieces on how Iran-contra was very, very wicked; nobody needs another Bill Moyers show; nobody needs a conservative counter to Bill Moyers's show. Our children are being raised in a culture of argument. They can get left-right-pop-pop-bang anywhere, everywhere.

PBS exists to do what the commercial networks should and won't. And just one of those things is bringing to Americans who have not and probably will not be exposed to it the great treasury of American art, from the work of Eugene O'Neill (again, ABC won't be producing 'Long Day's Journey' anytime soon), outward to Western art (Shakespeare) and outward to world art.

And science. And history. But real history, meaning something that happened in the past as opposed to the recent present, with which PBS, alas, cannot be trusted.

Art and science and history. That's where PBS's programming should be. And Americans would not resent funding it.

PBS producers would rebel, claiming such programming would rock with age. What they would mean is, There's little personal status in art, and much in controversy. You don't get any particular respect for mounting a great play or a producing a great symphony: their excellence is already known. Respect and status come from controversy. But too bad. The point of PBS is not to employ clever producers.

Does all this sound rarefied, a ratings loser? PBS is supposed to be rarefied. As for ratings, let's imagine this. PBS mounts a production of 'Hamlet.' No one will watch it? What if Brad Pitt takes the role? He'd be happy to do it; he gets a high-class venue in which to show he can actually act, and in return he earns the gratitude of those who care about culture or say they care, which is most Americans. He'd get points for doing it for scale, which of course he'd have to. Young people would watch. They would thus imbibe Shakespeare, still the jewel in the crown of Western culture. PBS would be thanked for doing a public service. Conservative congressmen would find themselves in the unexpected and delightful position of being called friends of the arts, and liberal congressmen would be able to say 'I told you PBS is worthwhile.'

And so on. Symphonies. A study of the work of George Bellows. A productions of 'Spoon River Anthology.' David McCullough on George Washington. A history of the Second Amendment--why is it in that old Constitution? Angelina Jolie as Juliet, Kathleen Turner as Lady Macbeth, Alec Baldwin as Big Daddy when you get around to Tennessee Williams. It will keep him away from politics. Sean Penn as Hickey in 'The Iceman Cometh.' There are far more great actors than there is great material. Mine the classics, all of them, of the theater and arts and music and history.

It is true that if you tell PBS producers they are now doing a play series they will immediately decide to remount 'Angels in America.' How about a rule: It takes at least 50 years for a currently esteemed work to prove itself a work of art, a true classic. It proves this by enduring. Do plays that have proved themselves to be enduring contributions--i.e., art. Look to the permanent, not the prevalent.

PBS should be refunded, because it does not and will not exist elsewhere if it is not. But it should be funded with rules and conditions, and it should remember its reason for being: to do what the networks cannot do or will not do, and that somebody should do.
Go here for a bit of commentary that is, shall we say, more strident in tone.

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