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The Ombudsman Column

Catholicism: A Religion, but NOT a 'PBS' Series

It was a dark and stormy Friday here at PBS headquarters, and I was thinking about maybe going home early. But at midday, messages started pouring into the ombudsman's mailbox.

"Dear Brother Getler," wrote Linda Rosa from Colorado, "Damnation, who would have imagined it, but PBS stations are doing some mighty fine and powerful missionary work right now. Where was I when the news hit that PBS stations were turning to the tithing business? I would dearly love to see your face when you learn that a whole 44 PBS stations across the nation are airing the program called 'Catholicism,' a 10-part series funded and produced by Catholics."

A viewer from Montana wrote: "I was disappointed to see PBS air the series 'Catholicism' under the guise of education. This series seems to be one of total evangelism for the catholic faith. Father Barron is known as an outspoken evangelical. It is too bad that individual donor funds and federal funding is used to promote this religion (or any religion)."

Kate Hebert from Wisconsin says: "I do not know if the series will air in my area however I am extremely concerned, based on what I have seen about the series Catholicism, that it is a pulpit to preach from rather than an educational and informative show. Please note that I am a Catholic and it is not the content of the show I object to but rather the manner in which the content is presented. I greatly appreciate that PBS is a station I can go to and not be preached at about politics or beliefs but rather be informed about facts and opinions."

William Walker from Pennsylvania invoked a 1792 letter from George Washington to Edw. Newenham that read: "Religious controversies are always more productive of more acrimony & irreconcilable hatreds than those which spring from any other cause."

There are a lot more letters, but you get the picture. Actually, you don't, and who can blame you?

I'll Explain So PBS Doesn't Have To

Sometimes press or TV reviewers use the above phrase to explain themselves; they watch all kinds of stuff and then write about it, so you don't have to watch, unless you want to. That's what I feel about this issue. This column is not about the pros and cons of the series on Catholicism, which is appearing on television in various places from October through December. I haven't seen it and don't have an opinion about it.

Rather it is about the many times I have written about the fact that some programs that appear on PBS member stations have nothing to do with PBS. All these stations are independent and can broadcast whatever they choose. What bugs me about this is not that I have to write so often about complications arising from confusion about what is, or is not, a PBS program, but that I seem to care about this more than PBS does.

I find it misleading to allow viewers not to be certain about who is responsible for what they are watching, and worth a greater effort on the part of PBS and its station managers to find a way to make it clearer.

A Familiar Story

If you've followed this column over the years you will know that the 10-part program about Catholicism is a familiar tale, with one big exception: This series has already produced scores of articles and blogs that link this to PBS in the headlines, and therefore in the mind of the public. A few examples: Catholic News Agency, Catholic Culture, National Catholic Register, and the National Review.

Some help in explaining the provenance of this series was provided by Nancy Ross, director of Media and Production for World on Fire Catholic Ministries. She posted a comment on the Catholic News Agency site linked to above which read: "Hi All. Some quick updates: The 'Catholicism' series is not funded, produced, or created by PBS. WTTW-11 in Chicago (a PBS affiliate) is the presenting station. Fr. Robert Barron is the creator, writer, and host of the series—a production of Word On Fire Catholic Ministries in partnership with Picture Show Films. To date, about 80 public television stations are planning to air four of the ten episodes, most during prime time."

That's helpful but it was probably seen by very few people.

I spoke with Dan Soles, senior vice-president at WTTW in Chicago, a major member station of PBS. He confirmed that PBS had nothing to do with this series and said that the film was distributed by Executive Program Services (EPS), one of a handful of other suppliers around the country that provide film to public broadcasting stations generally—including ones not associated with PBS—and that I have written about before. PBS is the major supplier to public broadcasting but others, such as EPS, American Public Television, and the National Educational Telecommunications Association, distribute many films. A PBS affiliate, such as WTTW, can provide, though EPS, a link to the public broadcasting satellite that enables other member stations to receive it.

Soles said about 100 PBS member stations out of 350 or so will probably use part or all of the series. "We make it very clear," he added, "that it is not proper or appropriate to use the PBS" designation in connection with this series and that WTTW also "made clear it is [the term] public television that should be used" in any description. It gets harder to control, he said, when the descriptions get into the hands of news organizations.


Another possibly interesting aspect, depending upon how the series is viewed, is that in June, 2009, the PBS Board of Directors approved, as a requirement for station membership a rule that would ban any "new or additional sectarian broadcasting" on channels "branded as PBS or that feature PBS content." Sectarian content means advocacy of a particular religion or religious point of view, and the ruling grew out of a long-running controversy involving about five of the PBS member stations.