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Viewers Voice Thoughts on PBS Relevance Debate

February 22, 2008 at 6:50 PM EDT
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Jeffrey Brown provides an update on a discussion over the relevancy of PBS, which was sparked by a Feb. 17 New York Times article entitled "Is PBS Still Necessary?" To date, the Online NewsHour has posted some 6,000 viewer comments on the role of PBS and the NewsHour in the media landscape.

JIM LEHRER: And finally tonight, an end-of-the-week look at the PBS relevance debate. Jeffrey Brown has our Media Unit update.

JEFFREY BROWN: “Is PBS Still Necessary?” That was the provocative title of an article that appeared in the Arts and Leisure section of last Sunday’s New York Times.

As author Charles McGrath wrote, “These days there are many high- minded options for viewers like you.” When the article then appeared on the Times’ Web site asking for reader comment, viewers like you began to respond with some 836 letters before the Times’ reader forum closed.

At the end of the NewsHour on Tuesday, we told our audience about the article and the ongoing online debate and directed anyone who wanted to comment to our Web site.

JIM LEHRER: There you’ll find a link to the New York Times article and a place to say what you think.

JEFFREY BROWN: Well, you have responded. As of tonight, close to 6,000 comments have been posted on our forum. And NewsHour staffers have read every one of them, as well as those sent to the Times.

On the Times Web site, almost 90 percent of those who wrote said, yes, PBS is still necessary, while the others faulted particular programs or the system as a whole.

Of the letters to the NewsHour — and, of course, many of those come from regular viewers — the support for PBS was overwhelming, at better than 97 percent.

Many drew a comparison to commercial alternatives. For example, Phyllis from Virginia Beach, Virginia, wrote, “Even on expanded cable I don’t find any programs as topical and penetrating as Frontline, Now, Bill Moyers’ Journal, nor as entertaining as Masterpiece Theater, or Mystery, or thought-provoking as American Experience.”

Elizabeth, age 37, wrote, “The NewsHour is the only nightly news broadcast that reserves time for conversation, in-depth coverage, and meaningful commentary on significant issues. As a member of the Sesame Street generation, I know the value of public television, and I’m glad it was there for me before I could afford to support it.”

We also received many positive comments from abroad, from Canada, Europe, Australia, Tanzania and Abu Dhabi, places where the NewsHour can be seen on television or the Internet.

And, yes, we received letters from those who feel that PBS has outlived its usefulness, often citing a growing commercialization and lack of hard-edged or creative programming.

For example, Carl wrote, “I sadly agree with a lot of the New York Times’ article, particularly the mention of mustiness. The drive to that elusive quality, the intrusion of commercials, has robbed noncommercial television of its verve, its willingness to laugh at itself, its understanding of its role in our society.”

Meanwhile, the debate has spread to other Web sites, including, a site where visitors shares stories and content from all over the Internet, including from major news organizations. More than 1,000 people posted comments to that site.

For her part, PBS President and CEO Paula Kerger has written a letter to the editor of the Times, stating, in part, “For the grand sum of one dollar per taxpayer per year, plus voluntary contributions from people who find great value in public television, PBS delivers news, information and entertainment to about two million viewers each evening, an audience that is double or triple that of most cable networks.”