When is a donation not a donation? / by Erin Wade

The final season of Downton Abbey is on the air. We don't have any sort of broadcast TV in the home, so we look to see these things via streaming services, including PBS through the Apple TV - very much the way we watched the last season of the same series.

This year we are a little late to the game, and the first two episodes have already gone past, and episode 3 is the most current at the time that I put these words down. Like any right minded soul, we want to watch the first two episodes before watching the third - we aren't animals.

This is not as easy as one might expect.

It turns out that episode one is only available through a WTTW Passport membership (WTTW is our local PBS station, inasmuch as Chicago - an hour and a half away - is local). This is a multiple step process that finds, after one works one's way through it, that WTTW would like a bit of cash from me if I'm to watch the earlier episodes.

How much? $5/month, or $60/year. But this isn't a fee, mind you. It's a donation.

A mandatory minimum donation. One which I must pay to watch earlier episodes of this season through through the PBS app.

Now, to be clear, I don't mind paying to watch a show I enjoy. I've done it many times before, and will likely do it many times again. Still, while one might argue that it's simple semantics, I struggle with the idea of a required donation. It seems, somehow, disingenuous. You have a good show, one that people want to watch. One that people will pay to see. Why not be up front and just fucking charge for it?

This bothered me enough that I decided to look around. The current season - season 6, the last season - isn't on Amazon Prime, but it is on iTunes. For $14.99.

So - for three months worth of donation to PBS I can watch this show - the only show I'm currently interested in watching on PBS - as many times as I want, for as long as I want. This seems a reasonable exchange to me; and certainly more straightforward and up front than a mandatory "donation".

To be clear, I have nothing against public media, and have been a long-term consumer of National Pubic Radio in particular. Many years, though admittedly not all, I have been a contributor. I think there is considerable value in having a service like public radio and television. But when you've moved beyond that and you are marketing a product based upon its desirability, let's be up front and simply charge for it. It seems likely to me that everyone involved will feel better for it as a result.