McAdams On: PBS, KCET, Retrans and All That Jazz

I came across a great episode of “Austin City Limits” last night on the local PBS affiliate quite by accident. It was quite by accident because I cannot for the life of me figure out the PBS schedule. I haven’t been able to since John Lawson cut that “landmark” multicast carriage deal for Association of Public Television Station members. Afterward, PBS stations across the country started cranking out multiple program streams. That was cool.

Uncool was that they couldn’t carry the same thing at the same time. There were 356 PBS affiliates for 210 TV markets. Robert Sachs was chief of the cable lobby at the time. No way he was going to tell Brian Roberts that Comcast would have to carry two or three simultaneous telecasts of “Antiques Roadshow,” no matter how much Kevin Bacon loved it.

All PBS member stations carry some form of main PBS programming feed, often interspersed with locally produced shows. Most carry one or more of the digital subchannels produced by WNET-TV in New York--World, Kids, Create and/or V-me, which I dearly wish were subtitled. The larger affiliates also have local subchannels often intermixed with PBS programming.

So “Austin City Limits” is on KCET Orange Saturday and Sunday at 7:30 p.m., and Tuesdays and Thursdays at 8 p.m., and on KCET Desert Cities all of those days at 8 p.m., and on KLCS’s main feed Saturdays at 11 p.m. and Sundays at 3 p.m. and possibly sometime on KOCE, but I can’t find it.

And how is it that I cannot figure out when to watch “Austin City Limits” with 10 time slots a week? Find the latest episode, I bid you. Which ones have I missed? Why must I, as a viewer like you and Kevin Bacon, have to conduct full minutes of Internet research to find the debut episodes of “Austin City Limits?” Isn’t TV a passive medium, for heaven’s sake? It’s supposed to dumb me down, not make me do research online, which will further erode my memory. It’s critical thinking skills I’m trying to destroy. The degradation of my memory is already sufficient, thank you very much.

Lawson’s multicast must-carry deal was a coup de maître at the time. Unless you were the commercial broadcast industry angling for a multicast must-carry law from regulators. Then, well, it was a pain in that which follows always. The Federal Communications Commission declined to require digital multicast must-carry two months after John’s deal was announced.

Now cut to five years later. Instead of multicast must-carry, broadcasters have retransmission consent by which they’re getting paid for carriage on cable and satellite systems. Who knew, right? If they’d have won multicast must-carry, would they be pressing so hard on retrans and ’splaining market forces to Sen. John Kerry (D-Mass.)? Things might look a little different on that front, but urgent needs evolve quickly in the fog factory that is Washington, D.C.

Meanwhile, KCET is fixing to drop PBS altogether because the affiliation got too expensive. So now we’ll have Heull Howser and David Foster all the time. Maybe “David Foster & Friends With Guest Star Huell Howser.” David and Huell are Cali types who may not ring a bell with everyone. Both are preferable to “America’s Got Talent,” but neither are Rosanne Cash performing songs from her dad’s 100 essentials list on “Austin City Limits.”

The one thing that the broadcast TV industry does seem to have down pat is circumventing Murphy’s Law before it’s allowed to take its course.