The greatest hits of PBS, which was formed 50 years ago to serve what were then known as educational television stations, could broadly be described as instructive. “Sesame Street” and Julia Child and Ken Burns, no argument. “Downton Abbey” and “Antiques Roadshow,” well, they’re primers on the management of inherited wealth, perhaps a topic of some importance to the service’s viewership.
I jest, a little. As a more-than-full-time TV watcher I have a tremendous fondness and respect for the Public Broadcasting Service — and for the public-TV ecosystem that surrounds it — that aren’t based on grumpy butlers or colorful puppets. They’re based on something PBS and its member stations do more thoroughly than anyone else in TV: educate us to be better citizens.
Given PBS’s nature, that education is not a coordinated, eye-in-the-sky effort. The service doesn’t make TV programs, and the news, public-affairs and cultural shows at its heart are produced by different members of its amicable but competitive family.
“American Experience” (history), “Nova” (science) and “Frontline” (investigative journalism, occasionally in collaboration with The New York Times) come from WGBH in Boston. The no-nonsense daily newscast “NewsHour” comes from WETA in Washington during the week and from WNET in New York on weekends; WNET also produces the interview show “Amanpour & Company” with CNN. Los Angeles’s KCET provides the environmental magazine “Earth Focus.”
Other parts of the mosaic are filled in by noncommercial TV-making and -distributing organizations that are allied with PBS and largely invisible to the public. The documentary showcases “POV” and “America ReFramed” are produced for PBS by the New York-based American Documentary. The most recent of Bill Moyers’s invaluable series of shows — in 2014, it was mainstream American TV at its most insurrectionary — was distributed to PBS stations by American Public Television, PBS’s smaller cousin, whose current offerings include the African-diaspora documentary series “AfroPop.”
That was a bit of a laundry list, but there’s a point to it. Decentralized by definition, focused on its glossier shows for fund-raising purposes and, perhaps, wary of political turbulence, PBS doesn’t package or promote its journalistic and documentary content (outside of Burns’s marathons) as strongly as it could. But the viewer who partakes of the breadth of PBS’s public-affairs offerings will be much better informed about the realities of contemporary American life than the more numerous citizens who depend on cable news.
In the last month or so, that viewer could have watched an evenhanded comparison of the political histories of Joe Biden and Donald Trump, as well as an examination of efforts at police reform in Newark, on “Frontline.” The “Voces” series offered a documentary on mobilizing Latino voters; “POV” carried “The Infiltrators,” about a pair of Dream Act immigrants who got themselves arrested in order to see inside a detention center.
From “American Experience,” there was a four-hour history of women’s voting rights. In the near future: Ric Burns and Gretchen Sorin’s “Driving While Black,” on the role of the car and the road in African-American life, and a “Nova” segment on the possibilities of geoengineering climate change called “Can We Cool the Planet?”
A couple of observations. First, those of us who write about TV could do a lot more to bring attention to worthwhile and, for the most part, engaging shows like these. It would be as simple, and as difficult, as stepping aside more often from the self-perpetuating buzz pursuit that pulls so many eyeballs to Netflix and HBO. Mea culpa.
Second, it is striking how often and openly PBS programs pursue investigations or present information that is not likely to please the overseers of the service’s (relatively small) federal subsidy, particularly during the past four years of the Trump administration.
“Frontline,” in particular, has been tough on the powers that be and their supporters in recent reports like “United States of Conspiracy,” “The Virus: What Went Wrong?” and “Growing Up Poor,” whose working title was “Growing Up Poor in Trump’s America.” (PBS science and nature programs were also early accepters of the science of climate change.) Explorations of injustice and inequality may be presented in neutral terms — probably more a result of institutional culture than of political calculation — but they are no less damning for that.
PBS and its noncommercial colleagues are not the only places on TV to find tough-minded, honest accounts of the fractious American situation, and political content, in particular, has exploded in recent years and even months. Showtime, with “The Circus” and “Desus & Mero,” stands out, along with Vice, which on TV can look like PBS’s poorly behaved teenage sibling. But these efforts still tend to be scattershot and, often, stronger on emotion or drama than on authority.
Commercial TV often funnels its public-affairs impulses into comedy and late night, and the strongest program in the field, HBO’s “Last Week Tonight With John Oliver,” sits at the intersection of the two. “Last Week” is a jewel, one of the most essential shows — along with “Frontline” — on American TV. But in the commercial world, it’s an extreme outlier. (It has less than a quarter of the audience of that far inferior provider of late-night satire, “Saturday Night Live.”)
The current presidential election has stirred even the old broadcast networks, and they have generated some decent politically minded efforts in recent weeks, though again in the soft shell of comedy. ABC’s “black-ish” produced a pair of election episodes that had sharp things to say about Black disenfranchisement. Fox, of all networks, offered “Let’s Be Real,” a Robert Smigel puppet show that savaged both Biden and Trump. (Both shows are available on Hulu.)
Telling uncomfortable truths may be in vogue now, but PBS has been doing it, quietly and consistently, for decades. “Frontline” premiered in 1983; Moyers was a progressive voice on PBS in a series of programs dating back to 1971. “American Experience” has been fleshing out the historical record since 1988 and has been a primary venue for the documentarian Stanley Nelson’s rich, continuing history of Black life in America (including “The Murder of Emmett Till” and “Freedom Riders”).
The record isn’t perfect — everyone will have examples; my most recent one would be the notably uncritical “Created Equal: Clarence Thomas in His Own Words” from this summer — but the record is peerless; no one else in American TV comes close.
In a step toward promoting that heritage, the service this month inaugurated an Amazon Prime Video channel called PBS Documentaries that collects a lot of the programming I’ve mentioned here. This being America, though, you’ll need to pay a small monthly subscription fee (plus the Prime Video fee) for the convenience of watching all that noncommercial, previously free content. It’s a fairly small price to pay for an education.