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Are PBS Stations Burying "A Brief History of Disbelief?"

May 5, 2007

During last night's episode of Bill Moyer's Journal, host Bill Moyers interviewed Jonathan Miller, creator of a three-part series titled "A Brief History of Disbelief" to be aired on PBS stations beginning this week. Or perhaps "some PBS stations" would be a better description.

As it turns out, many PBS affiliates are apparently choosing not to run Miller's predictably controversial look at the roots and philosophy of atheism. And a quick check of the calendar shows that Oregon Public Broadcasting (OPB) has buried Miller's series from 2:00 AM to 5:00 AM on Monday, June 25.

That "A Brief History of Disbelief" might be controversial is unsurprising. Right-wing groups, such as the Concerned Women of America, are already ramping up opposition to Miller's program, which originally aired on the BBC in 2005. Peter Sprigg of the Family Research Council deemed the work of the actor-director-author Miller to be "an evangelistic piece for atheism."

You would think that PBS would prefer to let its viewers decide such questions for themselves. After all, just last week PBS offered a two-part, four-hour look into "The Mormons," a timely examination given that faith's rapid growth and its inclusion of Senator Majority Leader Harry Reid and GOP White House hopeful Mitt Romney among its ranks. PBS has also repeatedly featured its acclaimed series "From Jesus to Christ."

But these are tumultuous times at PBS and in American culture writ large. The Corporation for Public Broadcasting is still reeling from the blatant conservative agenda of its disgraced former head Kenneth Tomlinson. And in recent months, a flurry of books extolling the logic and virtues of atheism from Richard Dawkins, Sam Harris and now Christopher Hitchens, are causing an uproar in conservative circles.

Did OPB and other PBS affiliates in New York, Boston and San Francisco bury or ban "A Brief of Disbelief?" Perhaps the show just isn't very good or that PBS anticipated poor ratings. Unfortunately, those explanations are, well, unbelievable.

NOTE: The series' web site includes a disclaimer that "A Brief History of Disbelief is not being aired exclusively by PBS, and it is not being carried on a national feed." The site does encourage readers to contact their local PBS affiliates.
UPDATE I, May 6: Over at BlueOregon, OPB CEO Steven M. Bass comments and provides an update on the broadcast schedule for A Brief History of Disbelief. He writes, "When I learned of the scheduling of the 'History of Disbelief' program late last week, I asked our programmers to find a more prominent place in the schedule for it either before or after the initial run in late June. My guess is that the program will be of interest to many Oregonians, even those who may very much disagree with its premise. So stay tuned for further news on a more convenient time for the program."
UPDATE II, May 7: The OPB Member Center responds with provide more background regarding ABHOD's independent distribution and subsequent local review process:

"A Brief History of Disbelief is currently scheduled to air on OPB Television June 25 from 2am-5am. The series will also be broadcast in a more prominent position in July. This program was offered to OPB from an independent distributor, not from PBS. OPB was not provided with a copy of the program to preview prior to the time our June schedule was set. Lacking any specific information on the quality and treatment of the program, we opted to place the program in an overnight time slot so that those who desire early access to the program have the option to record it and watch it."

UPDATE III, May 8: Reader responses from PBS affiliates and feedback from the film's U.S. distributors suggest that procedural issues, rather than policy decisions, may be limiting the initial broadcast of A Brief History of Disbelief.
Both Portland-based OPB (above) and San Francisco's KQED noted that ABHOD was not centrally distributed or reviewed by PBS and claimed this impacted their near-term scheduling decisions. OPB apparently plans to show the series during a more convenient time (that is, more convenient than 2:00 AM) in July. As BlueOregon reader Antaresrichard reports, KQED and San Francisco Bay Area PBS affiliates have yet to set their schedules beyond June:

"The British producers of the program were not going to pay the additional costs to distribute it in the US until KQED called last year to express interest in the show. We have recorded the program for future use, but we don't have any airdates for it on KQED, KTEH or KCAH between now and the end of June, which is as far as our schedules have been planned."

In the interim, the show's U.S. distributors will continue to monitor whether are avoiding the program or whether "it's just a procedural thing."

21 comments on “Are PBS Stations Burying "A Brief History of Disbelief?"”

  1. I'm an atheist and I remember when PBS did their job. And I'm not talking about them leading a "liberal" agenda, but simply implementing the "fairness doctrine", if you will. Actually, I'm not even surprised that PBS is now loathe to run the BBC's "A Brief History of Disbelief". PBS has no more concern about keeping the First Amendment alive and functioning than does any other media entity. My disgust and hatred is in full bloom: F**k you all!

  2. I am quite surprised that PBS stations are apparently choosing to not air Jonathan Miller's series: "A Brief History of Disbelief". I am unable to find it listed on the web site of my local PBS station, NETV Nebraska. I suppose trhat means that it will not be shown in my area. Could you please advise me whether it will be shown in Nebraska. Their web site is poorly designed and hard to use. I hope that PBS is not giving into religious and political pressure by not running this series. Please respond. Thank you.

  3. Wow! 2-5 am? How lucky they are. At least they could record it to watch later. Here, in Mass. where you'd think this kind of programming would be more acceptable, I can't find a single PBS station showing it. Believe me, I'll be on the phone tomorrow, especially as I've given generously to them over the years.

  4. I just wrote a letter to my local PBS station. I hope you all do the same. Urge them to continue their programming as planned, to show this documentary.

  5. Dean Booth: Having the entire series aired (so that everyone can see it) is the goal!
    And it doesn't hurt our cause to deal out a defeat to the RaptureRight. They have no understanding of the concept of "boundaries"; until they finally understand, our democracy is in peril.
    Don't be an egoist--work to have ABHoD shown during prime time in every market.

  6. Years ago Bill Moyers and PBS aired a series of interviews with Joseph Campbell. It dealt with mythology and how religions are mythologies that attempt to explain our existence. The series helped me to question blind faith, particularly my blind faith. It resolved questions that I had that religion was not able to answer.
    Now the few PBS stations that are broadcasting A Brief History of Disbelief are only paying lip service to the spirit of PBS by airing it in the middle of the night. The rest have censored what their viewers can watch by not showing it at all. They are intimidated by a segment of their audience that may create a public relations problem for them.
    I believe that the PBS audience can make up its own mind about this program. I believe that it is a program that will have a big audience. I believe that my taxes and my contributions support public television and that WYES New Orleans owes me the same respect that it shows to other more conservative viewers.

  7. I live in a New York City suburb and I have been a member of the city's PBS station all of my adult life. I am amazed and dismayed that the Miller series is not scheduled for broadcast on Thirteen. If one of the oldest and largest PBS outlets in one of the most diverse cities on the planet won't show this series, what other kinds of narrow-mindedness or censorship can we expect?

  8. I am also distressed to hear that Thirteen will not be broadcasting this series.
    However, I'm not 100% surprised. New York City is not the atheist paradise you might think. I work for the city, and many of my co-workers have festooned their cubicles with prayers, entreaties and hosannahs to Jesus and God. It's quite unnerving at times to read the flights of fancy declaring me to be part of God's plan and this whole world to be a Satanic illusion. As an atheist, I more or less have to keep my mouth shut if I want to have a good working relationship with my co-workers.
    We freethinkers need to unite. I'm sick of hiding the fact that I don't believe in ancient fairy tales and comforting nonsense.

  9. I would love to see this program,and wonder if it's offered as a podcast. I can't help but wonder why this censorhip is deemed necessary. What is so scary about other points of view? So let's see keep religion strong and growing, pay no attention to that science over there, and oh yes, history needs to be limited, or "reviewed" for correctness. But every word in the Bible is absolute truth...except for the first part, we don't need to pay attention to some of that... All together now, repeat after me, "I believe". (But don't think.)

  10. Yet Rush Limbaugh can stay on the air nationally every day, issuing forth his personal viewpoints, and Michael Savage can call those that don't agree with his personal view points Nazi's over national airwaves.
    I live in AL and there is no alternative to News Talk featuring the above media voices, not even NPR which has a full and diverse schedule in Florida, but plays very little more than classical music filler here.
    What is freedom to make a choice, if one is only given that choice that others in power deem acceptable. When did "choice" become the property of those in power, as of late those who feel this country shouldn't be free, but should be programed to best suit the needs of a single religious or political point of view.
    The majority opinions are successfully shouting down all sorts of minority opinions and more freedom is lost each time they win.

  11. I just called my local PBS station and enquired as to why I can't find the program listed in my up-coming schedule.
    The station says that it's "not a PBS show" - that it's being offerred to PBS stations by a commercial company. He said that IF they do carry it, it won't be 'til June or July.
    Duluth's a very liberal city with a very engaged citizenry. (I believe the largest persentage of registered voters.....93% ?.....votes. And it's our PBS station. So I'm inclined to cut them some slack. Then again.....who knows?!

  12. This IS the United States Of America; NOT Iran or Afghanistan; right?? I'm completely flummoxed here. How can the majority; the christian taliban! call all the shots in deciding only their viewpoint be aired? This is outrageous. I'd like to echo the person who commented with this:
    "What is freedom to make a choice, if one is only given that choice that others in power deem acceptable. When did "choice" become the property of those in power, as of late those who feel this country shouldn't be free, but should be programed to best suit the needs of a single religious or political point of view." Thank You!

  13. I called the U.S. producers of ABHOD and they were just as perplexed as I was, plus there was nothing they could do as they had already "sold" it to PBS. I suggegest we all call and e-mail and write not only our local PBS stations, but also PBS Corporate!!! And if anyone can find the Corporate phone number, please post it!!!!
    And as a fellow nontheist & New Yorker, I agree with the majority, that this country is looking more like a Fascist State every day! And I'm really pissed off.
    Oh, and if any of you know how to start rants against PBS that would show up on an internet search, (i.e. Someone's looking for sites about PBS on Google) Can that be done, I wonder?

  14. Oops!!! I'ld like to take back some of what I said. Right after I posted the above I phoned WNET, one of NYC's PBS stations, and ready for an argument asked what was going on with ABHOD?
    She looked at her computer and said it would be airing in July and gave me the dates. Boy was I surprised!!!
    Although, I believe that PBS Corporate bought most of the U.S. rights for ABHOD in good faith for distribution amongst all the PBS affiliates, I think that they had a moral obligation to make sure these affiliates aired the documentary!!!
    Still, keep those e-mails and phone calls to your local PBS stations going until you get satisfaction. If there's anything I can do from NYC, please e-mail me.

  15. hi good thank you And as a fellow nontheist & New Yorker, I agree with the majority, that this country is looking more like a Fascist State every day! And I'm really pissed off.

  16. been looking for this article for long time ago and finally found here... thanks for sharing this post... appreciate!


Jon Perr
Jon Perr is a technology marketing consultant and product strategist who writes about American politics and public policy.

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