Why PBS’s Condescending New Ad Campaign Works Against Its Mission—And Its Great Programming

PBS has been getting a lot of attention for a snarky new 50th anniversary fundraising campaign based from WNET, its New York affiliate, around parody billboards for reality television ads that basically make the argument that it’s horrible and disgusting that a lot of Americans watch stupid reality television programming, and so why don’t you give us all the money instead?

It strikes me that there are two problems with this approach. In order to fulfill its two missions, PBS has to do two things: raise money to put programming on the airwaves, and attract people to watch that programming to demonstrate that their efforts are useful and worthwhile. This campaign is entirely aimed at the first goal, potentially at the expense of the latter. The campaign is perfectly aimed at stoking the contempt of the kind of people who despise reality television, and who perhaps don’t watch much TV, even and including PBS, at all. But if you do watch reality television, either in a way that’s serious or half-amused, these PBS ads tell you that you should be ashamed of your viewing habits, while giving you precisely zero information about what kinds of alternatives they have to offer you, and why they’re great. Watching Storage Wars does not legally preclude someone from liking Sherlock.

In terms of establishing its independent brand, PBS should absolutely adore the state of television right now. The reality glut may be irritating to donors who would like to see American tastes turn towards something more high-minded. But the fact that not everyone is going into the business of prestige family soaps and British imports actually makes it vastly easier for PBS to distinguish itself, find large audiences for programming like Downton Abbey, and prove to private donors, foundations, and the U.S. government that it’s meeting needs that no other channel has bothered to try to fulfill, along with providing access to things like high-quality children’s programming in areas where it might not otherwise be financially viable. If I were PBS president and CEO Paula Kerger, in fact, I would be slipping unmarked bills in plain envelopes under the table to Animal Planet to keep producing things like Mermaids: The New Evidence, trust that people who are disgusted by such things will arrive at a state of high dudgeon all by their own selves, and then use my advertising budget to put a lot of .GIFs of the Dowager Countess being awesome or clips of Ken Burns being eloquent on video advertising slots all over the place. PBS’s core product is frequently fantastic, and it would do both the organization and viewers a lot of good to advertise it that way, rather than treating it like spinach that should be supported out of the goodness of our hearts because the rest of America is so darn stupid.