Democracy & Government

PBS: Put Democracy on Trial in Prime Time

Why? Just ask Downton Abbey's Lady Grantham (Maggie Smith)

PBS: Put Democracy on Trial in Prime Time

Bill Moyers and Michael Winship placed a full-page ad in The New York Times on November 8 encouraging PBS to rebroadcast the House impeachment hearings in the evening during prime time hours on regular broadcast PBS stations.

PBS responded with a plan to air the hearings during prime time — but on digital subchannel PBSWorld — a station difficult to find and unavailable to many viewers.

In 1973, the Watergate hearings forever changed the country and solidified the critical place of PBS in American life. More than four decades later, why, ask Moyers and Winship, should the 215 million Americans who watch who watch PBS via traditional television now be left out of the crucial process of American democracy at work?

Bill Moyers and Michael Winship have taken their case to the heads of the nation’s more than 350 PBS stations.



Dear Colleagues of the Public Television Community:
Remember this line? “All that’s needed for evil to triumph is that good men do nothing.”
That was said by a character on one of public television’s most recent and biggest successes, Downton Abbey.
You know that the British import captivated PBS audiences for six seasons and inspired the current hit movie. Stations repeated every episode many times, drawing big ratings and significant member dollars for this story of upper class elites and their working class servants.
It was fiction, of course, a fairy tale set in the stateliest of English mansions — the upstairs-downstairs class system in full nostalgic array. 

Now imagine that you could present a real-life story instead, one happening today, and in its own way just as compelling — an unfolding drama that bears repeating and being available to every one of your viewers — just as you did with Downton Abbey:
American democracy on trial.
Over the last few days, you may have heard or read that the two of us have implored PBS stations to replay the House impeachment inquiry hearings at night, in prime time, on their main broadcast channels.  
We did so remembering the inspiring precedent set in 1973 when public television rebroadcast the Senate Watergate Committee hearings, performing its duty while winning critical praise, ratings and donations. To make our case, the two of us took out an ad in last Friday’s New York Times and circulated an accompanying essay
This is because we strongly believe that millions of working Americans who won’t be able to watch the proceedings during the day deserve the chance to do so when they get home. They should not have to go searching through the wild west of the media universe today to find the hearings. They should know with certainty that their usual, reliable public station, always there for them, will suspend its regular programming so that every citizen will have equal and ample opportunity to judge if the hearings are fair and civil and the evidence supporting the guilt or innocence of the President of the United States is credible. 
Unfortunately, so far, PBS isn’t budging. Its spokesperson says that while the live hearings will be carried when they happen during the day –along with commercial networks like CBS doing the same – PBS will make a repeat of the hearings available at night only on its subdigital channel, WORLD.  

In all candor, this is not good enough – most people don’t know where to find it on the dial – if, in fact, it’s available in their communities or on their televisions. Here in Manhattan where we live it’s up there in the stratosphere on Channel 1278. In fact, when Moyers appeared on CNN’s Reliable Sources program this weekend, anchor Brian Stelter, the experienced and influential media analyst, said that he had never even heard of WORLD.
Let’s not be timid and behave minimally at a time of maximum threats to our political order. This is not a dress rehearsal our democracy faces. It’s the real thing. President Grover Cleveland once warned, “The Ship of Democracy, which has weathered all storms, may sink through the mutiny of those on board.”  Yes, and one of the first to be thrown over the side would be PBS. Nixon and his crew tried it once before, remember, until the Watergate hearings stopped them.    
So, good friends in public television, you are being tested. If you choose not to take Grover Cleveland’s word for it, listen to the wise Lady Grantham of Downton Abbey: “You are being tested,” she says to her daughter. “And you know what they say…being tested only makes you stronger.”
Friends, are we up to the test? Please repeat the hearings in prime time on your main public television channel. 

Your allies,
Bill Moyers and Michael Winship



Contact your local public station or PBS directly.