November 7

Pledge Week


Lyndon Johnson signed the Public Broadcasting Act on November 7, 1967.  Ever since, it seems like the government has threatened to revoke the funding.

Although you never cared to spend sunny days on a puppet-populated street, or have dipthongs shouted at you by titular members of a power company, you always loved the evening programs on PBS television stations — adaptations of classic novels, or exported comedies and mysteries.  The fare on the publicly supported channels was always a little different, often a little smarter, than the offerings on mainstream US channels.

To help supplement their funding, PBS stations added an annual “Pledge Week” drive, which was essentially a week-long fundraising telethon.

“Send us your pledge,” the hosts used to say, “to ensure continued quality programming.”

Pledge Week interrupted regular programming with special broadcasts — a reunion concert for a folk trio, an inspirational speech from a self-proclaimed fitness guru, a nine-part historical documentary — intended to encourage contributions.  For a fifty dollar pledge, they’d send a VHS tape, later a DVD, of the program you just watched…which seemed kind of redundant.

The incentive seemed even more redundant when, in response to dwindling government funding, Pledge Week increased from annual to semi-annual…then quarterly.  The same programs came around again and again, the folk trio singing about a plane or a dragon, the fitness guru touting positive thinking, and the documentary series that cycled through the same film clips and talking heads you saw a few months earlier.  At intermission when the hosts mentioned “free gifts” at specific pledge levels, you couldn’t imagine anybody would need these programs on disc.

It was so disappointing to tune in expecting the latest Masterpiece, and to encounter more Beg-a-thon blather.   During those weeks, you used to joke with your sister-in-law that “Channel 22 is on strike again.”   You’d complain about the ever-frequent disruptions to your TV schedule as if it was the end of the world.

Then the apocalypse actually hit.  Locally, Channel 22 was the only station anybody could tune in.

With the downfall of national government, they needed viewer support more than ever.

The guru’s advice about positive thinking rang hollow.  The 9-part documentary was a fantasy about a long-gone era.  But those were the only shows on offer. “Send us your pledge,” the hosts said, “and we’ll resume regular programming.”

Now, it’s always Pledge Week.