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March 23, 2013
Steve Wiegand: Here's a free brain test: Would you watch this dreck?

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(March 23 -- By Steve Wiegand, Special to The Bee)

As a presidential candidate, Mitt Romney was pretty much a weenie.

However much our political ideology differs, though, I must admit that Romney did raise at least one important issue last year that has been largely ignored ever since the election. I'm talking about Big Bird.

As you doubtless recall, during the Oct. 3 presidential debate in Denver, Romney opined that while he loved Big Bird and the Public Broadcasting Service, he didn't like the idea of the federal government shelling out taxpayers' money to support either the aforementioned Sesame Street character or PBS. (This, by the way, amounts to about $1.35 per American per year.)

I believe Romney was correct to raise this issue. Where he went wrong was to suggest that federal support of public broadcasting should be eliminated.

Instead, it is painfully clear that aid to the nation's 350-plus PBS-member stations should be at least doubled, if not increased even more than that. And soon. Before the next pledge drive.

I make this assertion after having watched parts of the "shows" our local PBS station aired during its recent effort to raise money.

Now, I realize these people face a difficult task. They are attempting to elicit contributions for a product of which their customers can avail themselves whether they pay anything for it or not. As my mother used to tell my sister and her friends, "No one will buy the cow if they can get the milk for free." (She may have been talking about something else.)

Given the difficulty of the task, therefore, you would think that during pledge drives the PBS folks would tantalize their audiences with the very best of the stations' wares: shows like "Nova," and "Nature," and "Antiques Roadshow," and "Masterpiece Theater."

This is particularly true in light of the system's mission statement that I found on the website of the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, which funnels federal money to public TV and radio. "The mission," it said, "is to advance a well-educated, well- informed society capable of self- governing the world's greatest democracy."

Except during pledge drives. Instead of "American Experience" or "Globe Trekker," the viewers' senses were assaulted by an array of shows that ranged from the mildly-interesting-for-about-10-minutes to the are-you-freaking-kidding-me?

There was a show where the British guy who plays an American doctor on the TV show "House" goes to New Orleans, visits a record store, plays the piano and sings the blues. There was a documentary about what Elvis Presley was doing in 1956. There was a "tent revival," featuring either 30 four-minute gospel songs or one two-hour song, I'm not sure which. There was a concert featuring one-hit-wonder groups from the 1960s, such as Tommy Timber and the Treetops, singing "I Pine for Twiggy, Who Made a Sap of Me."

And this was the good stuff. The real dreck was a series of what amounted to infomercials, with titles such as - and I am not making these up - "Unleash the Power of the Female Brain," "Wishes Fulfilled" and "Healthy Hormones: Brain Fitness." Most of these shows were hosted by balding middle-aged guys who had some kind of medical degree and were pitching systems to make you an amazing person.

One guy was named Dr. Amen. Seriously. His advice included "make sure not to get hungry," "get at least seven hours of sleep" and "balance worry with wellness." He also suggested eating more kale and saffron. For a $250 contribution to PBS, you could get a year's subscription to a series of tests, the results of which would be analyzed to tell you what's wrong with your brain. Such as spending $250 for a series of brain tests.

Another guy was the author of self-help books, one of which, he said a bit immodestly, was "a life-changing book for a lot of people." For a $275 contribution to PBS, you could get a copy of the book, and also a DVD of the guy giving lectures at places where miracles had happened. Such as someone paying $275 for this stuff.

While all this was going on, PBS was earnestly scrolling entreaties across the bottom of the screen, such as "explore new worlds and new ideas," and "support quality programming."

It almost worked. I was going to make a pledge, with the stipulation that they switch to test patterns until the pledge drive was over. But then I thought about Mitt, and what my mom said about the cow's milk.

And I switched channels to "The Simpsons."

Steve Wiegand is a Sacramento writer who watches too much free TV.

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