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Sherman Yellen Headshot

Is PBS the New Walmart of the Arts?

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I suppose the death of the great actress Julie Harris started me thinking again about the genius of American actors and given the American plays in which she excelled -- in the genius of American playwrights when offered the opportunity to shine. That is why I was repelled (strong word) by the mediocrity of Silk -- another tedious, pretentious, formulaic British legal drama on PBS last night, which followed a rerun of some murky-jerky PI show set in Scotland or Ireland or in the land of inaudible accents a week before. No charming Rumpole of the Old Bailey this piece of imitation Silk although it is introduced by the ever charming Brit, Alan Cumming. Despite the rare Downton Abbey that for many justifies the outsourcing of American public television entertainment, PBS is fast becoming for American actors and writers what Walmart is to American manufacturers -- the purveyor of cheap foreign goods which shuts out local products. Oh yes, I know about the PBS broadcasts of opera, dance, and other cultural highlights but as far as American drama and comedy goes, PBS leaves that to cable -- which many viewers cannot afford.

I write this from a personal perspective. My career began quite awhile ago with the opportunity provided by commercial TV's Studio One to young American dramatists, and my first Emmy Award came from my writing on the PBS The Adams Chronicles, encouraged by a brilliant producer Virginia Kassel, and a public television that believed in its mission to advance American arts and artists. Besides writers such as Tad Mosel, that show employed a multitude of superb American actors. So now when I see Neal Shapiro of PBS and their other pitchmen making their appeals for contributions I remember the old motto "charity begins at home" although charity is hardly the right word. The whole idea that this is American Public Television has been lost in fits of Anglophilia.

Anything that deals with the American arts on PBS is retrospective -- some program on the good old days of Milton Berle or Johnny Carson. I suppose it is far cheaper to import from England -- and there is profit in selling the DVD's of the PBS English hits, but it is a disgrace that PBS is an indiscriminate buyer of potted British drama and comedy rather than the supporter of our own young and old dramatic and musical theater artists. Trust me, I am no nativist, but I believe that American Public Television should have a mission to develop and give employment to some of our great American artists -- and that should be a promise in its pledge drive.