Whither PBS?

PBS funding continues to be a topic of conversation. A few thoughts from someone who came of age under the Public Broadcasting System.

Like a lot of folks, I watched parts of the presidential debate last week. I say parts because most of my viewing came during commercial breaks of "Restaurant: Impossible", a show I can't get enough of. I love the concept of someone with skills and expertise being given the opportunity to come in and fix something that is systematically broken.

You know, the inverse of the presidential debate.

Anyway, because I was busy during the opening moments of the debate, I missed Mr. Romney's line about PBS, Big Bird and death squadding Jim Lehrer. As a member of Generation X, I can't say I was surprised when people starting smack talking Romney.

I grew up on PBS. I was reared in part by Big Bird, Oscar, Bert and Ernie, and - back when the Street had some real grit to it - Alistair Cookie. I also happened to love Reading Rainbow, The Electric Company, and Bob Ross. The random documentaries about foreign countries weren't really my cup of tea, and I think I forcibly removed any awareness of the news programming from my adolescent brain, but on the whole, PBS was a significant shaper of my childhood.

Apparently a lot of people feel the same way. I know my Facebook feed has been filled with "Save the Street!" postings, and I've had a good chuckle over the explosion of Big Bird Twitter accounts. I even enjoyed seeing Bird on Weekend Update with Seth Meyers, despite that disturbing fact that Big Bird seemed less of a puppet than Meyers.

I read with great interest LeVar Burton's piece on CNN about the value of PBS as well as a piece in Forbes about why PBS would be just fine without any funding. And Kennesaw Taylor's take on the kerfuffle is well worth reading.

On the whole, like a lot of PBS stuff, it's been informative and entertaining.

It's got me thinking, though, about the value of a public sphere, a place where ideas and inventions are held for the general populace to consider. In a world where many ideas are privatized and maximized for profit, is there any real benefit to a publicly accessible trove of material?

Or to put it another way, should we have to pay for everything?

Granted, PBS runs in part off of public funds, so technically we're still paying for it, despite the fact that it comes into our televisions without subscription. But as Burton points out in his CNN piece, part of the benefit of PBS is the free-flow of educational ideas into homes where education might not otherwise get priority. It might seem counter-intuitive that a child who is not in school might benefit from watching TV, but studies have shown that educational programs of the sort shown on PBS contribute to academic progress in kids that consume them.

As several of my friends have pointed out, and as the Forbes piece affirms, PBS could survive purely on foundational grants, private donations, and licensing of products, especially since government funds only account for 16% of the total PBS budget anyway. So it's not like PBS has to go away without funding.

The question is more this: should the government make investments into the education of our children when private funding is readily available?

Is the government responsible for providing a public service in this area?

Education is always a hot button issue during any election season, and even though it came in the context of a debate on the economy, it's come to the front again this year. While there is always someone to contend otherwise, many people see a decline in the US education system, and there seems to be no easy way out.

Personally, I would rather see all elected officials relieved of their pay and health care benefits before seeing PBS get a funding cut, but realistically, that ain't going to happen. Strangely enough, sacrifices for the public good always seem to be someone else's problem.

If foundational money and private donations and other revenue streams could be secured, and we could get a guarantee that the programs and services offered by PBS wouldn't be infected with marketing detritus, then I wouldn't have a problem cutting the funds and letting our public square be truly public.

But part of me is very afraid that, left to private methods of funding, PBS would fall victim to the same forces of commerce that drive every other television channel out there, and would lose its educational distinctiveness.

Whither PBS?

I don't know.

What say you?

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Greg Williams October 10, 2012 at 06:03 PM
Sesame Street isn't the main recipient of public funds, so it would be fine. However, there are PBS stations in small market and rural parts of the country that have half or more of their budgets that depend on public funds. If the government funding ended, so would those stations and the chance for people living there to have access to PBS. Here's another perspective using another TV channel that started public and went private. The Learning Channel was founded in 1972 by the Department of Health, Education, and Welfare and NASA as an informative/instructional network focused on providing real education through the medium of TV and used NASA satellites for distribution. It was privatized in 1980. Now one of the most popular shows on the channel is "Here Comes Honey Boo Boo." I rest my case.
Patricia Sabin October 14, 2012 at 03:22 PM
I feel strongly about what PBS represents in our country - television programming expressing a wide range of topics and points of view without fear of sponsor influence. Never mind Big Bird (I grew up before Sesame Street), what about the excellent independent documentaries and regular series like "Downton Abbey?" Most of the news we see on television networks is all about entertainment and ratings, and PBS offers additional information and points of view. If you've known people who have lived in communist countries, you know how important this is to our democracy.
Bob Peppel October 16, 2012 at 08:27 PM
Whatever happened to classical music? That used to be a staple of public radio, and when taking long trips in the car, one could always find good music to listen to. Now it seems to be mostly talk shows. While I always enjoyed "Car Talk", I am not sure that I obtained cultural enrichment from it. Greg, I have never seen Honey Boo Boo, but I am willing to bet that its at least as culturally enlightening as say, Wait Wait Don't Tell Me.
Greg Williams October 16, 2012 at 10:11 PM
I don't see how Honey Boo Boo and Wait Wait can even compare. Wait Wait has interesting interviews and entertaining quizzes on current events. I've never seen Honey Boo Boo, either, but I gather from comments on it that you can leave your brain behind when watching it.


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