It says a lot about the Public Broadcasting Service that at the top of its programming page, the shows the network touts include Antiques Roadshow, Masterpiece, and PBS NewsHour. There's nothing wrong with liking non-partisan news, wondering if you could make a little money off things you've got sitting around, or giving the kids a half-hour in front of Arthur (though I draw the line at Barney and Friends, and mourn the late, great Ghostwriter). But speaking bluntly, PBS has become a network to distract the very young and entertain older folks. It's time to revitalize American public broadcasting.
And because there's a convincing case that PBS no longer needs to act as a counterweight to three dominant privately-held networks, why shouldn't that makeover be fun? Instead of grinding out high-minded educational fare, PBS should hold on to its excellent children's programming, keep doing news work, and devote the rest of its programming to intelligent fictional series, much like BBC One does.
Making smart, captivating shows with shorter runs than the standard 22-episode network order would be great for PBS for several reasons. First, it would give the network relevance and cachet among smart young audiences who are far too old for playtime, but not yet ready to settle down and fill a house with antiques. Much as National Public Radio shook up its brand by aggressively covering and streaming music from indie bands, and Public Radio International drew in young, discerning audiences with This American Life, even just a few smart shows could lure a new generation of viewers towards PBS.
Second, the audience for British-style fictional programming already exists on PBS. Doctor Who, Red Dwarf, and Monty Python's Flying Circus have all aired on the network. Those audiences could be enticed into watching original shows with similarly creative worldviews and executions (and lower production budgets) if PBS created them. In a world where millions of people ironically tune in to SyFy Saturday Night creature features, there's a definite market for smart. PBS should step in, and step up their game.
Premium cable companies have raised standards for television programming by making intelligent, challenging short-season shows--but those channels require viewers to pay for them. PBS could put additional pressure on the basic cable networks by making sure that even folks who can't spring for cable have the option of consistently excellent fictional programming. That would be a real public service.