Blogging about popular television on PBS.org is, admittedly, a dicey business. When compared to most Americans, PBS viewers are a discriminating bunch. Shows like “Nova,” “Frontline” and “Need to Know” are, for many, TV shows for non-TV watchers. The vast majority of cable households that watch PBS don’t watch Bravo, Discovery, A&E or CNN during primetime. PBS is a peculiar place where highbrow content is transmitted through the most infamously lowbrow of media — the idiot box. Public broadcasting is, for many of its viewers, the lone nutritive morsel in a buffet of junk food. HBO’s tagline would perhaps be better applied to public broadcasting: It’s not TV, it’s PBS.
PBS is a Snooki-free zone, a place where we eschew the swish transition, the jump-cut, the appearance of frivolity. Even our roadshows are about antiques! It’s indeed a rare oasis, where serious people can detach themselves from the hyperactive shitstorm of barking punditry and lowest-common denominator commercialism which inhabits the other 1,217 channels on their dial. That’s why I’m a fan of what PBS is, and it’s probably why you are too. Unfortunately, it’s also why I’m getting nervous.
Creating a blog here about mainstream TV may prove to be a treacherous experiment, and I’m bracing for an assault from outraged viewers (frequently self-identified as “donors” when sufficiently miffed). Let’s face it: Popular culture critiques have a nasty tendency to lapse into a swirling toxic cycle of nonsense breeding nonsense, at the end of which we’re left scratching our heads, trying to remind ourselves why we ever cared about the Kardashians in the first place.
I’m sympathetic to that view, but I think television is more than that too. Of course, TV is a mirror of who we are, but it also reflects our nation’s wishes and needs. It reflects who we want to be, and what we’re afraid to become. We need to take it seriously, because it’s the one piece of furniture we have that talks back to us. Lamentable or not, television’s ubiquity may make it the single most influential mode of human expression in the modern era. While we can (and should) take issues with its content and agenda, it’s undeniable that our televisions are educating us.
Although I’m more than a little tempted to darken the pixels on your monitor with a defense of the television medium (and by extension, this blog), I won’t. I won’t cite Steven Johnson’s “Everything Bad Is Good For You,” as required reading for the appreciation of this space. I also won’t spend any time trying to convince you that “lowbrow” and “highbrow” are meaningless signifiers, or shaming you with charges of fogeyism or sticklerishness. Most of all, I won’t insult you with arguments about the merits of “guilty pleasures.” From here on out, I’ll say only that I love television and my columns will never ever ever be even slightly defensive.
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