When John Lewis died last month and I wanted to find out more about the man and his life, I did all the things I usually do when I want to become media-educated on a topic in a hurry. I watched the cable TV specials, ordered books from Amazon and read online obituaries and profiles. But nowhere did I instantly find more illuminating and powerful content than PBS. And the best thing: It was free.
Not a week goes by that I don’t get emails from readers of The Sun who complain that the best programs air on costly streaming services like Netflix and premium cable channels like HBO. Most of the emails are angry, because the people writing feel the reality of two Americas based on how much money someone has. And when it comes to TV and digital content, they feel like they are suddenly living on the wrong side of the tracks, priced out of being subscribers.
They are right to feel that way. Outside of live sports, much of network TV today is junk, especially in prime time. Outside of a few rare productions like NBC’s “This Is Us,” the lineup is mainly reality and game shows, competitions and contests, and heavily formulaic procedural dramas that have not advanced the genre much beyond where it was in the 1970s.
But PBS has responded to a growing TV and digital divide in a way that realizes some of the best hopes of public television’s founders by offering viewers an archive of streamed programs that are as good or better than anything on premium cable or streamed commercial services. And as I first reported in June in a column on how TV was broadening the national conversation on race in the wake of the death of George Floyd in Minneapolis, they are in large part free.
The free streamed programming can be found on the PBS Video App and PBS.org. If you have online access, just go to PBS.org and look for “Spotlight Videos” and “Featured Shows,” and start surfing through what you can watch for free. That’s what I did on my first visit.
If you were moved by the life of Rep. John Lewis as I was, I would strongly urge you to start with an episode of one of the wisest series ever on American television, “Finding Your Roots with Henry Louis Gates Jr.” The episode I am talking about features Lewis and Sen. Cory Booker.
I wrote about my admiration for the series in January under the headline, “‘Finding Your Roots’ the perfect PBS show to counter rancor, polarization of America today,” but I didn’t include this episode. It is outstanding.
Near the end of the hour, Lewis is shown a voter registration document from Alabama in 1867. It includes the name of his great-great-grandfather, and the congressman is profoundly touched by it.
As the screen fills with an unforgettable black-and-white image from 1965 of Lewis on the ground as an Alabama State Trooper beats him because he tried to lead a march for voting rights across the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma, Alabama, we hear Lewis telling Gates, “The vote is the most powerful instrument, the most powerful nonviolent tool in a democratic society.”
And then, the camera shows Lewis close-up further reacting to the document that bears his ancestor’s name.
“But knowing that a member of my family registered and voted in Alabama 100 years before I did and before my mother and my father, my grandparents. It’s amazing,” he said.” So maybe, just maybe, it’s a part of my DNA, my bloodline or whatever you want to call it.”
Caught up in the congressman’s emotion, Gates says, “Who would have believed that your ancestor was one of the pioneering people who voted in the state of Alabama among the former slaves?”
The camera returns to a close-up of Lewis as he reaches for a tissue and tears start to roll down his usually stoic face.
“It’s just incredible,” he says in a hoarse voice. “It’s just too much.”
A few moments later, here comes the wisdom as he and Gates talk about ancestors.
“We all come from someplace,” Lewis says. “We have some connections, some assistance. It’s important to know it. Sometimes you feel like you’re on this little piece of real estate on the this little planet alone. But you’re not. There’s a connection.”
Booker, who clearly reveres and considers himself a disciple of Lewis, offers his own bit of wisdom on the influence of Lewis today: “When you see people like him, you know he not only cleared a path for me, he paved it, put white lines on it and some lights so I could see my way.”
Don’t just watch this segment, bookmark it. And in coming months if it seems like too much bother to obtain and fill out an absentee or mail-in ballot or go to the polls on Nov. 3, watch it again. If the blood that was shed on the Edmund Pettus Bridge and the exemplary life of John Lewis cannot make you cherish and want to exercise your right to vote, nothing will.
The biographical “John Lewis — Get in the Way,” offers the same kind of history lesson and inspiration as it follows Lewis’ journey from a small farm in Alabama, to the halls of Congress. It is available to view at PBS.org until Aug. 17.
The range of programming available from some of the finest storytellers in television and film is remarkable.
If you missed Frontline’s “COVID’s Hidden Toll” from Daffodil Altan and Andrés Cediel last month, you can find it on the PBS app and website as well. As I wrote in a preview, this compelling documentary reminded me of Edward R. Murrow’s landmark “Harvest of Shame” report for CBS on the same topic of farmworkers in 1960. It shares the same kind of sharply focused, deeply embedded sense of truth and social conscience as it chronicles the workers in the fields and meat processing plants of California, many of whom are undocumented immigrants, struggling to make a living and stay free of COVID-19.
If you want to understand what Baltimore is up against in trying to reform its police department, check out Frontline’s “Policing the Police,” from 2016 with New Yorker writer Jelani Cobb as correspondent reporting on efforts to reform police in Newark.
As I wrote in my preview when that report debuted, “Everyone in the piece talks about ‘changing the culture.’ But such change is hard — and this report gives a superb sense of what hard really means when it comes to such change.”
Not into documentaries steeped in social conscience or want to watch another genre? You can also see episodes of “Endeavour,” the “Masterpiece” prequel to “Inspector Morse,” my favorite British detective drama of all time.
Here’s where the service gets a little more complicated. To get full access to the most popular PBS series and Ken Burns’ films, for example, you have to “pay” in the form of becoming a PBS Passport member.
Here’s how that was explained to me in an emailed statement from PBS: “Local stations set their own qualifications for eligibility for the Passport membership benefit, with most stations requiring donations of at least $60 a year, or $5 sustainer/ongoing monthly gifts. For the most accurate information, viewers are encouraged to contact local stations.”
Readers who are familiar with my work know I have been plenty hard on PBS over the years. Beyond “Sesame Street,” Burns, “Frontline,” “Independent Lens,” “Austin City Limits” and “Masterpiece,” there were periods of time where I had mostly disdain for what public television was offering. I still have disdain for local PBS outlets that boast at pledge time of the great journalism they do when they have only a handful of full-time journalists on staff and they never do anything that would upset the powers that be in state and city government.
But the archive of great nonfiction and dramatic programming offered as free content at PBS.org and the PBS Video App at a time when far too many Americans are finding themselves unable to afford access to high-end cable and streamed content matters. This is a moment that makes me hope PBS might finally fully embrace its original mission of public service for all Americans.
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David Zurawik is The Sun’s media critic. Email: email@example.com; Twitter: @davidzurawik.