The Ombudsman's Mailbag
By Michael Getler
February 6, 2006
Welcome to the Ombudsman's mailbag, an occasional collection and sampling of emails from viewers and online readers responding to previous columns and other issues. This is the third mailbag since my first column appeared on Dec. 2, 2005. The previous two appeared on Dec. 21, 2005, and Jan. 13, 2006. You can read those earlier messages from viewers, and all the columns (seven, so far), by hitting the archive link in the upper right corner of this page.
First, a slight detour to apologize for a typographical mistake in the initial posting of my last column, on Jan. 30. The first segment of that column dealt with a film titled "The Privileged Planet." When the column first appeared on the site, the film was mistakenly referred to in the first one or two references as "The Privileged Plant." It was caught and corrected, but not soon enough for the initial posting.
A portion of my column on Jan. 23 dealt with the executive decision in December at PBS headquarters to cancel a service known as PBS YOU, a round-the-clock educational channel shown on DirectTV, Dish Network and some PBS digital cable channel stations. I said at the time that many viewers had complained to me about this. Well, that hasn't stopped. The curtailing of PBS YOU continues, by far, to be the biggest single issue dominating the messages of complaint that have come my way in recent weeks as the service was ending and after it actually shut down.
I asked PBS executives for a fuller explanation of just why this action was taken and the network's Chief Financial Officer, Barbara Landes, supplied one. Her explanation follows the letters from viewers on this subject.
Following the commentaries about PBS YOU are some of the viewer commentaries sent to me in response to other columns and other matters.
The Beat(ing) Goes On Over PBS YOU
We just read with interest the column on "Politics, Religion, PBS YOU and NOW." Thanks for publishing this. The column spoke to our wishes and thoughts on the current programs on PBS. We are in rural America and heartily miss PBS YOU as an alternative choice for WVIA. We cannot receive WSKG TV. We rely on PBS for its insightful programming and suffer withdrawal during the "fundraisers" when normal programming is suspended or greatly impaired. We very much miss Charlie Rose. His program is on much too late for our viewing on WVIA. We, too, wish NOW would be expanded to one hour, never miss Nightly News, Frontline and Washington Week. Hoping you will keep these and do what you can to bring more of this type of programming to WVIA. As you know, there is nothing as wonderful as the PBS stations on TV.
Debrah & Thomas Bataille, Equinunk, PA
I am disappointed that PBS YOU was deemed no longer feasible. However, I suspect the actual reason has little to do with finance. I believe it has everything to do with a medical condition called progressively deteriorating backbone.
When will someone make a stand? "Have you left no sense of decency, sir?"
John Wolfe, Orlando, FL
I very much appreciate the time you took to address the issues in your column on "Politics, Religion, PBS YOU and NOW."
We live in very rural Maine and will sorely miss PBS YOU, which replays some PBS programming that is displaced by local stuff. NOW is a rare breath of fresh air in both content and quality and along with the News Hour, should be regarded as an essential resource for American citizens.
If we are to fulfill our duties as an informed electorate, it is through information sources such as News Hour and NOW. It is frightening to realize that they are perhaps the ONLY resources up to the task in broadcast media today.
Seabury & Sharon Lyon, Bethel, ME
Both my wife and I are long-standing devotees of Charlie Rose. It appears that he is a persona non grata in the PBS community. Our local station, WITF, in Harrisburg, used to exile Charlie to the 11:30 p.m. slot and it was a thrill to find him at a more reasonable time on Dish Network. I hate to say this but if PBS can't see the value of PBS YOU, I don't see the point of supporting local stations.
Gerard Denoncourt, Stewartstown, PA
We are very saddened to hear that PBS YOU is being discontinued. We have Direct TV broadband service with hundreds of channels, but there is no channel to compare to PBS YOU in excellence of content. For example, the History Channel is a farce. Aside from a few overblown and sensationalized specials, it seems to carry WII war footage every time we turn it on. PBS YOU, on the other hand, has "American Experience," with great writers and historians showing how this country has become what we are today; our local PBS station does not carry it. Charlie Rose has the most important interviews on TV. Charlie Rose is shown many more times on PBS YOU than on local channels, and at more convenient times, such as in the evening, when we are at home to watch it.
We have turned to PBS YOU first, each time we turned on the TV. We're going to miss it tremendously.
Winston & Mary Walker, Tucson, AZ
I just returned from out of town and turned on the TV to enjoy PBS YOU and what a disappointment! It seems a bad dream that an educational channel was dumped and money is being spent to produce programs that don't reach as broad an audience or those of us in rural areas. I am rethinking how much to give to PBS since the programs seem to be taking a downhill slide. There evidently was very little request for input from the audience and practically no advance warning of this "budgetary" decision. How will long distance learning and other educational programs reach us?
Linda Millspaugh, Twain Harte, CA
First. Bill Moyers. Now PBS YOU. Do we have to wait till the next election!!!! Hopefully that won't be too late. I really think that is the case though. GOD help us all.
Bill Foble, Great Cacapon, WV
WE HAVE RECENTLY LEARNED PBS WILL NOT BE AVAILABLE AFTER JANUARY 30, 2006. WHAT'S HAPPENING? IS IT JUST OUR AREA? OUR LOCAL CABLE COMPANY IS A JOKE!!! MY FAMILY WAS RAISED ON PBS . . . FROM SESAME STREET TO CHARLIE ROSE!!! HELP US!!!!
Hillary Ann Davis, Lufkin, TX
I would like to add my voice to express my sadness about the loss of PBS YOU. Even though I do receive — and contribute to — local PBS stations, the ability to catch a Charlie Rose or NOW program at a time convenient to me is a real value. I don't see why the "need to refresh the content" or whatever line you quoted in your column is an issue — I liked the fact that it was the usual PBS content that was made available at different times.
Alan Donaldson, Free Union, VA
Our family members have been contributing members to Public Broadcasting for as long as there has been a public broadcasting. Over the past several years we have seen changes in PBS that have been alarming. We have seen a unique, probing, fair and independent medium become irrelevant. While we contribute financially through automatic bank account withdrawals, we have contributed additionally during fund drives on TV and FM. All of this is about to come to a screeching halt . . .
PBS YOU was one of the last important contributions PBS was making to what is truly important in the world today. Running Charlie Rose on Satellite over and over again gave people who would probably not have watched him so many opportunities to watch, that eventually, he would have the opportunity to seduce and ultimately educate and enlighten like no one else in the media. People are watching people interviewed with Charlie that they would never have even heard of let alone learned so much from. In Oregon he will now be relegated to once a day at midnight. What a tragedy . . .
Robert & Donna Delikat, Oregon
PBS YOU is closed and so has an educational service to the rest of the country been closed. Most importantly, the loss of the Charlie Rose Program throughout most of the Midwest but especially in Oklahoma is sad leaving us truly in the backwater. Thank goodness for the News Hour . . . but that too is shown so early that many people can't get home in time to see it. Why do they broadcast it so early?
Ed Beach, Enid, OK
How could you drop PBS YOU? No Julia, no Routerman, no CHARLIE ROSE!!!!!!
Very stupid move.
Richard Culver, Aurora, IL
I would like to echo the sentiments of viewers like myself who looked forward to the Router Workshop every evening at 6 p.m. on PBS YOU channel 9402 on Dish Network. I realize that this was only one of many programs sponsored by PBS, but I really miss it. Can anything be done to make these woodworking episodes available on other PBS affiliates nightly? Waiting for one show on NY PBS channel 17 on Saturdays is like going cold turkey after years of use (viewing). Thank you for having someone to send comments . . .
Norman Channing, Surprise, NY
My family and I were so sad to learn that PBS YOU was being cancelled. We have satellite, and with all the channels that we have, PBS YOU was one of our favorites. We enjoyed "The Creative Life," Cooking with Julia Child," Charlie Rose, etc. This was the only channel that provided these programs and I am sad to say that we will greatly miss PBS YOU. My child has watched PBS his entire life. He learned his ABC's with Big Bird and Ernie. He will be nine in February. PBS has been and always will be a great part of our lives. I can't begin to tell you all of the programs that we enjoy.
Treva Orange, Tracy City, TN
I appreciate your discussion about PBS and particularly the demise of PBS YOU. Charlie Rose is scheduled in our area at mid-night, long after I have retired for the night. I suppose I could record it but I enjoyed being able to tune in during the day on PBS YOU. And I enjoyed other offerings on that station. In respect to religious programming, I find the programs, for example "The Question of God" broadens and deepens my understanding.
Don Morrison, Vancouver, WA
I came looking for a place to send my comments to the PBS brass about the conversion of PBS YOU to PBS CREATE. I have already sent a note to our local PBS station (TPT, KTCA, KTCS) about my complaint but have not heard anything. YOU was much more eclectic than CREATE. The focus of CREATE is extremely narrow.
I happen to be a fan of "America's Test Kitchen" (I have recommended it to many friends) and occasionally some others. I am also a fan of "Hometime" and "This Old House" but there is a limit of how many cooking and home improvement shows I am willing to watch. I expect that the shows will start to repeat more frequently with them running around the clock. My viewing of TPT-4 has definitely gone down a lot since the change from YOU to CREATE. Just a lot less interesting to watch.
Bill Fuhrmann, Minneapolis, MN
The discontinuation of the PBS YOU channel is, in my opinion, a mistake. In our household we tune into this channel every day. The "Charlie Rose" program, which provides some of the best and most timely cultural and political insights in the media, is always available on this channel. It is normally available on the local PBS channel at an inconvenient early morning hour and sometimes not at all. The other programming on PBS YOU is almost always interesting. This cancellation will be a loss for many.
Here's the PBS Explanation
"As you are probably aware," PBS CFO Barbara Landes says, "PBS operates on a very thin margin. Our operating budget for this fiscal year (revenues less expenses) is essentially break-even. Each year when we prepare our budget, there are many more activities and services that we would like to provide members than we can afford to do. We try to be clear about determining priorities and using resources wisely to deliver the services that are most valued.
"In the case of PBS YOU," she said, "here is some background that will explain the context in which the decision was made to terminate the service.
"PBS YOU was launched in 1999 and made available to PBS member stations for their local use. Eventually 68 stations licensed it and each paid very nominal fees. In December 2001, PBS secured underwriting and program services from two different companies that, for a time, fully funded the operational expenses. That lasted until mid-2003 when they experienced financial setbacks and ended their financial support. As a result PBS funded losses of hundreds of thousands of dollars in each of the last three fiscal years.
"The deficit was projected to grow larger in FY2006 because the PBS Adult Learning Service, which supplied about half of the PBS YOU programming, ended operations in September and there was going to be a cost to supply replacement programming. Recognizing that the deficits were growing larger, PBS management surveyed all the member stations, alerting the stations to the financial status of PBS YOU, and asking the stations to respond to a proposal in which tiered station license fees, greater than the nominal fees previously charged, would be levied in order to continue the service. Eighty-four stations responded, of which 16 supported the tiered fee and the others were against.
"Through the annual Member Services Survey, in which member stations respond in terms of satisfaction and importance on a variety of service offerings, PBS YOU ranked very low in importance. As a result, the Board supported management's recommendation to allocate these resources for digital initiatives, including funding for the development of the PBS Kids Go! service, which management anticipates will be used by more stations and will be more highly valued when launched in the Fall of 2006."
I am in complete sympathy with this sarcastic quip of James Oestreich (NY Times, 28 January 2006): "The concert was broadcast around the world on radio. It was also televised in most of the civilized world, which evidently no longer includes the United States. It was not picked up by Channel 13, PBS or — to the knowledge of its director, Brian Large — any other American outlet: a slight made all the more remarkable by the expected presence of two noted American singers, Ms. Fleming and Mr. Hampson."
PBS is holding up its end with news, investigation, and political/social conversation, but without the balance and vitality (not escape!) which the performing arts offer, the world's burden is just overwhelming and lethal to the human spirit. This country is starved for REAL Beauty . . . not the voyeuristic parody of beauty offered by commercial networks. Please give us the "reality television" that edifies.
Paul Kilmer, St. Louis, MO
Director of Artistic Administration
Opera Theatre of Saint Louis
Friday, Jan. 27, was the 250th anniversary of Mozart's birth. Not a word/sound of this anywhere on PBS. As the NY Times noted the next day, the concert from Salzburg in Mozart's honor "was televised in most of the civilized world, which evidently no longer includes the United States. It was not picked up by Channel 13, PBS or any other American outlet." We waited for some mention of the day on The NewsHour; all we got was a replay of Oprah disowning James Frey. PBS' pop-culture captivity is complete.
Wolfgang who? Most of the cultivated world is celebrating Mozart's 250th birthday, all except PBS which continues to fling those hoary Britcoms and propaganda about the Royal family (who cares? we're independent and a republic, remember?). While NPR outlets observed, the TV stations utterly ignored it. Disgraceful. A comment from the NY Times: The concert was broadcast around the world on radio. It was also televised in most of the civilized world, which evidently no longer includes the United States. It was not picked up by Channel 13, PBS or — to the knowledge of its director, Brian Large — any other American outlet: a slight made all the more remarkable by the expected presence of two noted American singers, Ms. Fleming and Mr. Hampson.
People throughout the so-called civilized world were able to enjoy the live broadcast from Salzburg, celebrating Mozart's 250th birthday.
Not the U.S. PBS didn't pick up the signal. We even had two singers headlining the event. Why didn't PBS pick up this broadcast? Forget all the money that you're wasting on "pod casts." Give us something that the card-carrying people-with-money can enjoy.
Forget those kids. They DON'T watch PBS. We do. Shame on PBS.
I was very disappointed that there wasn't a single program on my station to celebrate Mozart's 250th birthday. I was dismayed when the NewsHour elected to give airtime to Oprah rather than this musical genius! I expected better from the only station I can count on to provide coverage on significant cultural events. This does not include the latest scandal about fabricated memoirs (does anyone actually expect a completely honest memoir anyway? They shouldn't have been so surprised); it does include the birthday and music of an artist whose work has survived for hundreds of years. Perhaps PBS will do better when the 275th comes around .
More on Religion
I am glad that some are complaining about religious content. If you look at the history of Calvinism, you find that these people have been obnoxious from the beginning . . .
I believe in freedom of religion, but I also believe in freedom FROM religion. I think it is now time for a backlash so that the rest of us can enjoy our freedom as well.
That is one of the things I appreciate about PBS. I hope you will continue to raise the banner of intellectual freedom. The only negative I see in your programming is the movement away from classical music toward pop music, but I suppose that is a sign of the times. There are too many individuals who consider themselves well educated, but who reject good music. Such a shame!!!! I still like the science and history programming very much, and will remain a viewer as long as you present informative programs.
Ken Groeppe, Waltham, MA
I enjoyed your commentary. I always watch PBS because I'm one of the few people in America who chose not to pay for cable or satellite TV.
I find it interesting that in some people's eyes, any mention of Christianity in a program is too much. But programs that report on other religious faiths receive little comment, especially since those who may be offended by watching Buddhist or Moslem practices on public television have long since learned to keep their mouths shut and their opinions to themselves. So my question is — if Christians are expected to tolerate the actions, thoughts and speech of others who practice different faiths, why can't others be tolerant of us? (I know this has nothing to do with the subject at hand, but it is a pet peeve of mine.)
Cindy P, Amarillo, TX
I am relatively new to viewing PBS You. I just read the homepage and am really perplexed by the comments regarding the "Walking the Bible" segment. I found it fascinating. It was really my first continual program I have viewed and loved it.
Denise Power, Springdale, AR
Re: religion and PBS. Those who are complaining about the religious "bent" of some recent programming are missing the picture. "Country Boys" and "The Appalachians," as you pointed out, contain Christian viewpoints and focus because the subjects have Christian viewpoints and focus. As for "Walking the Bible," how is that any different than the documentaries that detail the beliefs of ancient Egyptians? I, who am not Christian, see the program as a cultural and historical glimpse into one of the major religions that has shaped this world. If a similar program tracing the life of Buddha was aired, would it get similar complaints?
However. the so-called "work" of Dr. Wayne Dyer and "The Power of Intention" drivel that I see wasting valuable airtime during fund-raising weeks is nothing but pseudo-religion disguised as an inspirational speaker. The religious overtone of that "program" reminds me of a Sunday morning televangelist show. "Salvation! Just follow me and send money for my DVD, book, etc." This does not belong on PBS in any shape or form. Direct religious messages — proletyzing — be it Christian, Muslim, Hindu, pseudo-religious bunk or whatever, should not be aired on government-funded Public Television.
Rick Cornejo, Hellertown, PA
The current miniseries "Walking the Bible" is not only strange and logically inconsistent, it is bad archaeology. Shame on PBS for defrauding the public into thinking this represents something like archaeology. It is nothing more than a cheap plug for religion.
I used to be a supporter of PBS but I see it continually degraded by shows plugging religion. There are many outlets of material of that sort such as churches or religion stations. How long will it be before PBS routinely turns the names of commentators like myself in to the government so they can peek into our private lives and our bedrooms in the name of this or that cause? I just don't trust PBS any longer!
Las Cruces, NM
I find it interesting that people would complain about the "Christian" content of "Walking the Bible" by Bruce Feiler when Feiler is in fact Jewish. His book Abraham traces the roots of the 3 Abrahamic traditions.
Given the profound influence the Abrahamic traditions have had on western civilization, I would say the folks who complain don't know their history very well nor do they fully research the people who produce the programming they are complaining about.
Dorie L. Griggs M.Div., Roswell, GA
Faith And The City Forum: Interfaith Dialogue on Public Issues Atlanta, GA
I'm writing in response to your thoughts on the "Walking the Bible" series. I found it very irritating to be preached at by a patriarchal voice some where from a mountain . . . I can see a big push by the NEO CONS to infiltrate their religious views now on PBS!!! I feel this is not the place for such views or propaganda! Thank you for your time and review of the "peoples" voices!
Too Much Coverage?
Bob Woodruff was injured while reporting in Iraq. He was working for ABC and was there voluntarily and being paid in excess of a million $/yr. With the coverage PBS radio and TV have been giving his injury you would think he was the president or someone of that stature. Not only PBS but all of the news media have been involved in this reporting. Subjective reporting I feel is what is being given the public in this particular case. There have been more than 15,000 injuries to the fighting men and women of this nation, many of these troops whose families have had to go on food stamps to support their families while they were fighting for the nation, and I have seen no coverage for any of them compared to the coverage given Mr. Woodruff. In my opinion, I feel the different media is jumping on Mr. Woodruff's bones just to toot how public minded they are in their cause of reporting. That Mr. Woodruff was injured is a terrible shame and I feel for his family and children however, he was one of more than 15,000 Americans and I want to know what your thoughts are on the shameless publicity given by the media to one of their own for self gratuity.
PBS is my news media of choice. I have NEVER contacted a news station before. Watching tonight's news (Jan. 30) I was disappointed by the coverage given to the 2 news journalists. Come on!!! What happens every day in Iraq?? Why give credit to those 2 fellows. Just because they are part of your "family." What about the great family? The ordinary soldiers should be given MUCH more coverage and credit. Also frustrated and disappointed that he was not easier to send this email. Please review your site.
J Schmitt, Telluride, CO
In regard to your comments on (Tavis) Smiley, in these highly charged political days of ours what you do or don't do is grounds for attack. For myself, no way would I miss such an opportunity. If you want to go down there by yourself — go ahead, but to think I, or anybody else, should do the same to uphold somebody else's idea of politically correct is . . . well, we have some words for that.
Tom Felt, Tucson, AZ
Wouldn't it have been appropriate for Tavis Smiley to disavow himself from Bellefonte's comments after the utterances/publications of same?! This is an after-the-fact action but nonetheless necessary if Smiley is to reclaim his tacit nonpolitical position within PBS programming. And I say this as a non-supporter of Bush and his policies.
Francis Paolone, Hoover, AL
Hitting a Nerve
Bonnie Erbe is the host of the PBS/Maryland Public Television program "To The Contrary," a news analysis series featuring all women panelists. The program is now in its 14th season, and airs on more than 250 PBS stations in the U.S. and Canada. On Jan. 23, Erbe wrote an online column about coming upon a Canada Goose that had been wounded by a hunter. It was a very personal and, I found, powerful account of an event that will be hard to erase from her memory. But it didn't go down well with some readers who thought its conclusions went too far. Here are some of the emails I received.
I am a huge fan of public TV, and even worked for Idaho Public TV many years ago.
However, I will not give financial support to Public TV as long as you have the kind of one-sided anti-hunting pabulum on your web site that is currently on display by Ms. Erbe on the "To The Contrary" section.
Unless Ms. Erbe is a vegetarian, her spiteful dismissal of hunting is hypocritical. And even if she is a vegetarian, she could at least be more kind in her characterization of hunters. Just because others disagree with her does not make them the mindless cretins she makes them out to be.
Ms. Erbe says, "There's little sport in the destruction of wildlife with high-tech weaponry." How does she know? In fact, her entire piece is reflective of one who knows nothing of hunting and the modern sportsman. Has she ever tried to shoot a target moving at 70 mph with a shotgun that is only lethal to 40 yards?
I am not condoning trespassing or hunting within domiciled areas. On the contrary, the person doing this is not a "sportsman" and should not be characterized as such.
However, the blanket characterization of hunters as insensitive beasts is ridiculous. How does Ms. Erbe feel about the recommendations by trained biologists that hunters be able to harvest MORE (not less) snow geese? Science says that these birds are eating themselves out of house and home, if you will. They are, in fact, destroying their habitat not only for themselves, but for other species as well. Scientists warn that if we don't harvest more of the beautiful birds, nature will run its course, meaning that millions could waste away and starve. Is that what Ms. Erbe would prefer?
So the goose was trying not to cry, eh? What is this, a Walt Disney cartoon? Ever hear of anthropomorphism?
And the weeping willow was weeping for the goose? Good heavens, this woman is living in fantasyland.
I, for one, am insulted by this column, and will urge my fellow sportsmen to boycott public broadcasting, including Idaho Public TV.
Theodore Eisele, Boise, ID
Although I respect Bonnie's opinion the methods she has used to base her "findings" are short sighted and ignorant. For many millions of Americans hunting is a way of life, it is our heritage, our passion and our means of becoming united with the natural world. It is easy for many city-dwellers to disregard the true meaning that hunting has for its millions of participants. It is also a frightening fact of life that the United States is becoming increasingly urbanized and increasingly separated from the very foundations of our historical and natural roots. I hear often in the media how cruel and bloodthirsty hunters are. Yet I find it amusing that very few of these "journalists" have ever truly tried to understand hunting from another point of view. The animals I kill and consume are not endangered, they are not on the brink of extinction, rather many of the wildlife populations in this country are healthier than they have ever been since Europeans set foot on this continent. The health of wildlife populations is not the result of "accidents" or "dumb luck." Rather wildlife populations are thriving today due much in part to the conservation efforts put forth by hunters.
I have become increasingly aware that PBS does not see fit to present both sides of the argument when it comes to hunting. This concerns me greatly, both as a viewer and supporter.
Ben Montgomery, Madison, WI