Tuesday, June 13, 2017

Merciless

The idea of a public television network canceling a scripted series when public television isn't supposed to rely on ratings and fickle advertisers may seem foreign to, well, foreigners, but in fact PBS in the United States canceled its first scripted drama in years after only two seasons.
When the Civil War hospital drama "Mercy Street" premiered on PBS in January 2016,  it looked like a sure-fire winner.  It brought the vivid reality of the war to life, its depiction of life in a hotel in Alexandria, Virginia converted into a Union Army hospital spared no detail, the storylines dealt with slavery honestly, and the writing and acting were stellar.  As good as Mary Elizabeth Winstead was as a nurse, Josh Radnor (both actors are shown above in their roles) was the really big surprise.  Radnor played Ted Mosby on the CBS sitcom "How I Met Your Mother" for nine years, and it sounded implausible to cast such a contemporary actor in an historical drama, but he pulled off his role as a Union Army doctor brilliantly and understatedly.  Add a solid supporting cast including old pros such as Donna Murphy, Gary Cole and the black actor L. Scott Caldwell (Caldwell is a woman, for those who've never heard the name), and, well, how could a show like "Mercy Street" go wrong?
It didn't, but it was cancelled anyway, and that's what's so dismaying.  PBS explained that the cancellation was due in part to the "complicated nature of aligning production timelines" with scheduling,  but it also admitted to another, possibly (gee, ya think?) more serious issue: funding.
PBS gets some funding from the public in the form of donations, gets some funding from wealthy donors, and gets some more funding from the government.  "Mercy Street" got axed soon after Donald Trump and his evil budget henchman Mick Mulvaney decided to ask Congress to zero out federal funding for public broadcasting - TV and radio - because they, as Mulvaney put it, just can't ask a poor woman in Detroit to give her hard-earned money to public broadcasting.
Public broadcasting in the United States has long been a joke. Its programming is mostly made up of documentaries (which saves money in salaries for actors, writers and directors), and its original arts and entertainment programming is comprised mostly of concerts (including pop concerts from performers who haven't had hits in years).  PBS's scripted programming is imported from Britain, and some of that is still airing years after the programs ceased production.  I can count numerous BBC sitcoms and dramas, not all of which have made it to America, but I can count all of PBS's own scripted entertainment shows that ever were on one hand with fingers to spare.  The unpredictable funding for public broadcasting in the U.S. is the main reason for this, even as there is a dedicated tax for public broadcasting in other countries or, in the case of Britain, an annual license fee of £145.50 (US$185.51) for every British household.  I don't support such an idea for this country - just dedicate some of the tax money I already pay to public broadcasting.  Many of us - including poor women in Detroit - would likely prefer that more of our tax money go to a dedicated fund for public television and radio instead of, say, the military.  But that would eliminate the need for wealthy donors to foot the bill for public broadcasting, and then how would these rich folks ensure that certain programming doesn't get aired?  For all I know, a wealthy donor objected to "Mercy Street" because he thought it had an anti-Southern bias. 
Public broadcasting in the U.S. isn't uniform like in other countries, either; it's a patchwork of local television and radio stations ostensibly under the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, and some stations - this is particularly true of radio stations with music formats - have only a nominal connection to the national services at best.  Good grief, the national television and radio outlets each have different names - the Public Broadcasting Service is the television outlet and National Public Radio (NPR) is the radio outlet.  That's how diffuse it is. In Britain there is one British Broadcasting Corporation, with several TV stations, ten national radio stations, six regional radio stations and forty local radio stations - predicable, reliable, and solid.  American public broadcasting is none of those things, as evidenced by its need to accept corporate sponsorship from companies like Farmers Insurance - and even play Farmers Insurance ads starring J.K. Simmons - for some extra dough.
It would be nice to see J.K. Simmons play a different role on public television - in a domestic scripted series - and it would have been nice for "Mercy Street" to survive and prove that such programming can prosper, but again, such programming on PBS is one more nice thing we can't have in this country.  If we want non-commercial, original scripted programming produced here in the U.S. of A., we go to Netflix, or premium cable, which not everyone can afford.  But then, even the BBC isn't as pure as it used to be.   Their program planners are looking at ratings now.
And if it is true that people in the Old Confederacy have a distrust for government or any public institution, I guess the cancellation of "Mercy Street" means that the South really did win the Civil War. :-O

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