PBS’s Masterpiece – throwing us crumbs

The brouhaha that’s been happening over the altered Downton Abbey that PBS will show (altered from the UK version) is just one more frustration that I’ve come to expect from – as many others have – when the former Masterpiece Theatre airs costume dramas.

In virtually every adaptation of any novel that they cut material. In this one, they have cut a little, apparently, and added a little. PBS acts like the additions are a good thing. Of course. They want to sell the idea of altering for purposes of scheduling (one of their claims) and clarity (another claim).

The handling of this once-great program has for several years been, in my opinion, atrocious. There are smaller problems:

1- The ridiculous and inelegant re-do and abridgement of the classic opening.

2- Combining two fine shows – Masterpiece Theatre and Mystery – into one.

3- Changing the title to “Masterpiece,” which just seemed done for appearances – if it was meant to improve appearances, it failed as there was nothing to improve – and ostentatious

4- Shortening the intros.

That whole re-haul of MT was an example of fixing something that wasn’t broken.

But these are the big problems:

1- Many of MT’s programs include at the credits a reference to having been produced, in part, by WGBH Boston. And yet, when Bostonians and other Americans – who have been beseached to donate money to make and buy these programs – finally get the product, they get a modified version of it.

Do you think people would be willing to give so much money so often if the poor individuals who beg for it during pledge breaks said something like this: Your money makes it possible for us to bring you an altered version of films shown in the United Kingdom?

Of course not. That doesn’t sell. But that’s what Americans get. Apparently, Canadian, too, which really seems unfair.

If this isn’t bait-and-switch, it’s nearly there. Because many times we don’t get even additional scenes. We get a butchered show. Look at Northanger Abbey from a couple of years ago. Delightful clips were cut out. I have to think the director can’t be terribly happy. After all, he/she is going for a work of art, no? You don’t strip off the bottom piece of the Mona Lisa just because it’s only her dress, do you? Da Vinci wanted it there or he wouldn’t have painted it.

Obviously, MT does not think of its offerings as art. It’s only merchandise to be altered into a salable and profitable form.

2- Rebecca Eaton, the producer of MT, is said to have stated that Americans need shows at a “different speed” than the British, that the changes were made to to clarify the storyline involving an entailed estate.

Viewers who have watched other PBS shows know what an entailment is, and if they don’t, they can learn since it will supposedly be explained by the host before the program begins.

This idea that all MT viewers suffer from some kind of attention deficit is worrisome. The idea that viewers might be so slow on the uptake that they cannot apply newly acquired knowledge to a television show (DA is not based on a book) is insulting. And we should be insulted.

But the PBS apologists out there are quick to defend MT and pounce on The Daily Mail for its exaggerated article about the DA cuts. Why? The fact remains that the version is MODIFIED. It is not the original. And, for this, and for the reasons it has been changed consumers who give money to PBS -and every other viewer, too – have multiple reasons to be annoyed.

The fact is that much less is being cut than The Daily Mail stated, and scenes are being added. So what? Give us the original film. Can’t I just see for myself if I can understand or do I need a pedantic overseer to simplify it for me?

If it’s true that Americans would have a hard time with the pace and the story, do PBS or its sycophantic defenders actually believe that simplifying the program is going to edify our people? We still read novels in their original form. When they are simplified or shortened, they are labelled as abridged. So, anyone who wants to tackle Bronte or Austen can challenge themselves.

How sad if they finish a shortened edition and say to themselves Yes! I always wanted to read Jane Eyre and now I have! – which is a fine and worthy goal – without realizing that it is, indeed, shortened because the cover failed to mention that little fact! There’s a pathos in that. And if any of us care at all about combatting the stupidity- vulgarity-fest that network televion often is, we should care about this analogy. Because it’s what we are doing to our supposedly good programming.

No doubt, DA will be superior the often pathetic offerings of network and cable TV; I am not saying that cutting a few minutes changes the quality much or at all. But if we accept less now, we will accept less in the future when or if PBS decides to cut more in the future, or to change programs more dramatically.

And the principle is this: PBS should deliver what it claims to. That is because it’s the right thing to do, and it’s also because many who look forward to its shows have helped make those shows happen.

So, PBS, will you be placing an ‘abridged’ notice under the title of Downton Abbey? Or, at the very least, a note that it has been modified from its original form?

No, it’s true that the viewers are not getting crumbs. We still can enjoy a good show. But that’s not it. If you buy a wool sweater imported from and woven in Ireland, you generally expect the same product that you’d buy on vacation there.

PBS doesn’t give us that sweater. We have to fly there to get it ourselves.

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