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4 reasons why TV viewers should defend PBS

By Ellen Gray

Philadelphia Daily News

Published: Monday, March 7 2011 5:45 p.m. MST

Big Bird, Elmo, Rosita and Chris appear on "Sesame Street."

Richard Termine, PBS

I've had a love-hate relationship with public broadcasting my whole life.

Sure, Big Bird and Grover helped raise my kids.

But so did Homer and Marge Simpson. (Only time will tell how that turns out.)

I admire NPR but can't listen to it when I'm driving long distances because the voices put me to sleep.

Fifteen years ago, when the BBC version of "Pride and Prejudice" with Colin Firth created a sensation on A&E, I wondered if cable might not eventually fill the niche occupied by "educational TV."

I still watched PBS from time to time — on and off the clock — but I could see why some people who had the History Channel might no longer see the point of "The American Experience."

Or — dare I say it? — Ken Burns.

That was then. This is now.

There are people watching "Dog the Bounty Hunter" or "Storage Wars" on A&E today who wouldn't be able to pick Jane Austen out of a lineup (which is pretty much the only way she'd be seen there today, since she's way too dead for "Intervention").

The drive for younger viewers has also up-ended the History Channel, where "Pawn Stars" and "Larry the Cable Guy" now rule. As Larry himself might say, "Only in America."

Beyond cable mission creep, here are are a few of the other reasons I'll happily defend PBS' tiny portion of my federal tax bill until they pry the remote out of my cold, dead hands:

Kenneth Branagh. Look, we all have needs, and one of mine is to be able to see Branagh on my TV every so often.

PBS' "Masterpiece," which has reclaimed its position as one of the most consistently dependable sources of excellent drama on television, met that need with six episodes of "Wallander," Branagh's take on Swedish mystery writer Henning Mankell's melancholy detective.

If a commercial network were to hire Branagh, he'd probably have to sound American.

It wouldn't be the same.

No toy commercials. We never meant to make our older son a control subject, but he did spend his first five years in a home without cable.

When his brother came along a few years later, it was to a world that included both PBS and Nickelodeon.

Both boys watched "Sesame Street" and both played (and slept) with Grover and Big Bird, but the older one, who'd spent impressionable years without access to a steady stream of helpful suggestions from toy manufacturers, somehow came to believe that a Christmas "list" was limited to one item per year.

We didn't argue.

His brother? Still adding to his list as the TV was being shut off on Christmas Eve.

It's one network that actually seems happy about the Internet.

Should I ever decide to cut the cord on my cable, PBS would still be there.

Not just the way all broadcasters would, through a high-def set with an antenna or a digital adapter, but online.

And while other broadcasters also offer episodes for streaming — and ABC has a pretty decent app for the iPad, if not the iPhone — it's still their content they're trying to sell you. Which means not only are there commercials, but they're commercials you can't zap, every commercial broadcaster's dream. They'd still prefer you to watch on TV, where the ads cost more.

Having taken a chunk of its budget from taxpayers, PBS, funnily enough, thinks that the content belongs partly to you (though, yes, it will happily sell you DVDs) and that you might as well watch it where you want.

Streaming online at PBS.org or through its free apps for iPhone and iPad are most of the network's recent prime-time shows, along with a selection of "Julia Child" episodes in a form she likely never anticipated.

PBS won't think of me as dead until I am. Maybe not even then. (See "Julia Child.")

If you're one of the people who fled the History Channel for the Military Channel, it may be that you're, ahem, of a certain age, one fewer and fewer programmers are interested in.

For most, the dead zone begins at 50 (though you may still count to CBS till you hit 55).

If you're watching the CW or MTV, expect to become invisible by 35.

Like HBO and Showtime and other cable services that depend on subscribers, not advertisers, PBS can afford to consider the tastes of "viewers like you," not just your kids.

But in the case of PBS, that doesn't mean a larger cable bill: We're getting what we've already helped pay for.

Distributed by McClatchy-Tribune Information Services.

Today on TV

College basketball: Sun Belt Tournament finals (5 p.m., ESPN2); Horizon League Tournament finals (7 p.m., ESPN); Summit League Tournament finals (7 p.m., ESPN2)

NCIS (7 p.m., Ch. 2): The team must protect Ziva's father when his attendance at a convention leads to surprises.

No Ordinary Family (7 p.m., Ch. 4): Jim's secret is put at risk when the police station is taken hostage.

Glee (7 p.m., Ch. 13): Substitute Holly Holliday returns, and Emma and Dr. Carl address some issues in their personal life.

NCIS: Los Angeles (8 p.m., Ch. 2): The team tracks a mysterious hit squad after a special agent is taken out.

V (8 p.m., Ch. 4): The Fifth Column tries to figure out Anna's plans for the Blue Energy reactor; Diana tells Lisa that the time to fulfill her destiny is upon her.

The Biggest Loser (8 p.m., Ch. 5): Each team is allowed to have only two players work with a trainer; the teams face off in a challenge where they must cross a mud pit without touching the mud; several contestants open up to their trainers.

Raising Hope (8 p.m., Ch. 13): Cousin Mike visits with his new wife and three brother-husbands; Burt tries to fix his brother's relationship with Mike.

Traffic Light (8:30 p.m., Ch. 13): An elderly woman is excessively appreciative when Adam returns her puppy; Mike confronts a noisy neighbor; Ethan's girlfriend wants to meet his next-door neighbor.

The Good Wife (9 p.m., Ch. 2): An Army reservist is accused of murdering his wife.

Detroit 1-8-7 (9 p.m., Ch. 4): As the detectives embark on emotional shifts in their lives, a young graffiti artist is murdered; Fitch receives shocking news from his ex-wife.

Parenthood (9 p.m., Ch. 5): Adam comes to Max's defense.

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