Thursday, June 19, 2008

Put Up or Shut Up

SEVERAL years back, I had to go to a hospital for a procedure called an MRI.

If you're not familiar with it, MRI stands for magnetic resonance imaging, a process that uses a powerful magnetic field, radio waves and a computer to produce detailed pictures of organs, soft tissues, bone and virtually all other internal body structures.

It's space-age stuff.

That's the good news. The bad news is that it requires you to be entombed for a lengthy period of time in a tube that provides scant inches of clearance. And while you're immobilized, the device in full operational mode sounds like someone is pounding on it with a sledge hammer.

This is no place for claustrophobes.

To ease the anxiety, technicians offer a set of earphones tuned to your favorite music style. I chose classical music for its soothing qualities.

Unknown to me and the technician, the classical station was conducting a pledge break about the time I was being squeezed into the tube. So I had to lie there like a canned sardine for an hour listening to a Greek chorus of pitchmen begging for money. Over and over and over.

I was reduced to babbling incoherence when they finally pulled me out.

I thought about this the other evening when I tuned into KCET, the local PBS television station, to check out a special featuring Frank Sinatra captured in his prime.

Advertised at two hours, it consisted of one hour of Frank interspersed with an hour of
pledge breaks.

Old Blue Eyes would have been Seeing Red.

Look, I'm a longtime fan and financial supporter of public television. While it's not what it used to be, it is still a refreshing change from commercial television, with its steady diet of mind-numbing reality shows and stupor inducing sitcoms.

I know money for public television is tight. Back in the 1990s, Newt Gingrich threatened to end government subsidies to public television which led to major funding cutbacks. Not to be outdone, the Bush administration has taken several runs at funding cuts as well.

But there's got to be a better way to raise money than these tin-cup begathons. The Sinatra concert at one point was interrupted after two songs by a radio "personality" and his wife, who carried on a stream of incoherent blather for 20 minutes.

Four songs after the pledge break, the happy couple are back, carrying on like carnival barkers for another 10 or 15 minutes.

It didn't make me take out my checkbook. It made me take out my remote.

I'm not alone. "The Simpsons" TV show once had an episode where Homer pledged $10,000 to end the pledge break just to get his favorite show resumed. Moments later, the PBS "Pledge Enforcement Van" arrives to collect the money causing Homer to flee.

Exaggerated. But not by much.

Sinatra is not the only victim of performance interruptus. It seems that nearly every prime-time show on KCET recently has been chopped up by pledge breaks.

Over the years, a parade of Grade B (or worse) celebrities have been brought in to hawk the benefits of membership. They work cheap. And it shows.

So what to do? One exasperated blogger suggested that they have the pledge break at the top of the show, then warn viewers that show won't be aired unless the fundraising goal is met. At least it would create some dramatic tension.

Why not a Jerry Lewis-style telethon? How about shorter, commercial-length pledge breaks? Why not just sell more commercial time?

As for me, I came up with my own solution. Tape or TiVo it, then watch it, fast-forwarding through the pledge breaks.

That's easier on the eyes and ears. But not on the conscience. You'll sleep better if you send your local PBS station a hefty check once a year.

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