The Way We Live Now: The Channel 12 Fund Drive That Never Ends

Earth to Channel 12: You didn’t build that.

In the world of public media, fund drives are a necessary evil — an interruption into your regularly scheduled programming that serves to remind you that the NPRs and the WHYYs of the world don’t play by the same rules as the other guys, but also, most importantly, a quick, hopeful grab for cash. The best stations out there have a style to their begs: They get in there, remind you of all the reasons why you love and need them, and then get the hell out, and it’s on with the show.

For various reasons, though, WHYY TV12 hasn’t been able to do that. Since at least mid-November, the station has quagmired itself into a beg that increasingly resembles more of a Samuel Beckett play than the warm-and-fuzzy telethons of yore. It’s still going on, and the fact that it is has started to double back and only serve as a reminder to us that, so often, so much of what’s on Channel 12 just isn’t worth supporting to begin with. Why? We’ll get to that in a moment.

We first noticed the beg-in-progress back in mid-November when we snapped the screen shot above of Ed Cunningham. It wasn’t warm and fuzzy then, either. Cunningham’s pitch — and it’s not just his, and it wasn’t just on that night — was to pin all of Channel 12’s hopes and dreams and possible doom on two things: The fiscal cliff, and Downton Abbey, the third season premiere of which airs this Sunday.

The fiscal cliff bit wasn’t exactly a red herring, but it wasn’t entirely kosher, either. Had Washington not managed to push a deal through in the last 48 hours, though, funding for PBS would have been frankly the least of America’s worries. But as Cunningham droned on about how proud WHYY was to be bringing you Downton Abbey this year — playing up PBS’s involvement of the series produced in the UK and rebroadcast here — a similarly familiar drone broke free in our own heads: Where in the hell is Channel 12’s original programming? Because, as any fan of the show knows, you can and will watch Downton Abbey just about anywhere.

The sad answer to that question is the same as it’s been for a long time now: Somewhere in Bill Marrazzo’s pocket. Since 1997, when Marrazzo was installed as WHYY’s president, original programming on WHYY-TV has been perfunctory when it has existed at all — all during an era when producing television has become a much, much cheaper thing to do. And while, in recent years, WHYY’s radio division has admirably found some way to work under Marrazzo and produce an array of new shows and projects, WHYY-TV’s off-hours are infuriatingly packed with motivational speakers hawking their wares. And as recently as New Year’s Day, even those were subject to interruptions from The Beg That Never Ends.

Why would anyone pledge to this stuff? If WHYY-TV truly wants us to pledge, it’s high time they stopped playing victim, cut the crap about how integral they are to the smash success of Downton Abbey, and started to address what they’re going to do about Bill Marrazzo’s death grip on the station.

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