Big Bird doesn’t need our help
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When I asked Concord Monitor Editor Felice Belman last week about writing a column on PBS funding, I never imagined that President Obama would make it the central theme of his re-election strategy.
The president has invoked the threat to Big Bird in every stump speech. As Jon Stewart remarked on The Daily Show, Obama’s comparison of Wall Street to Sesame Street would have been a clever comeback during the first debate, but seemed pretty lame coming a day later when one of his speechwriters loaded it into a teleprompter.
I’ve been a critic of Latte Welfare for several years. When I ran for Congress in 2008, I called for ending federal subsidies for public broadcasting during a debate on Channel 11, which I’ll admit, in hindsight, seems a bit tacky. I testified last year before the state Senate Finance Committee that ending the state subsidy for New Hampshire Public Television was the easiest $5 million in savings that budget writers were going to find.
The Public Broadcasting Act of 1967 created the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, which is seeking $445 million next year, $297 million to PBS, $99.5 million to public radio stations, $26.7 million for “System Support” programs designed to benefit all member stations, and $22.2 million for administrative expenses. This adds up to about 15 percent of the operating budget for public broadcasting stations.
Sesame Street debuted in 1969, and was a groundbreaking achievement in children’s education programming. In The Tipping Point, Malcolm Gladwell chronicles how the Children’s Television Network studied how young children learned and adapted its programming to be more “sticky.” Sesame Street writers also included jokes and cultural references aimed at adults, to keep parents entertained as they watched with their kids.
I debuted in 1972, and grew up on Sesame Street and in Mr. Roger’s Neighborhood. I’m also a big fan of Mad Men and the Battlestar Galactica reboot, but I’m happy they don’t getting taxpayer subsidies. The global success of Sesame Street shows that such funding is no longer necessary.
We could argue over whether the federal government has a legitimate reason to start a TV network in 1967. But in today’s incredibly competitive entertainment marketplace, such an argument is downright silly.
There are dozens of cable networks devoted to programming that used to be unique to PBS. This Old House spawned HGTV. Julia Child paved the way for Food Network. Downton Abbey and Masterpiece Theatre would be more at home on BBC America. Discovery Channel, National Geographic, and a huge block of kids’ channels compete for viewers without getting 15 percent of their funding from taxpayers.
And anyone who thinks the political coverage of PBS is superior to the talking heads on cable news has never watched an entire episode of the McLaughlin Group.
We can also dispense with the notion that PBS is needed as a refuge from the horrors of commercial television. The underwriting announcements given to PBS sponsors are indistinguishable from commercials. As I write this, PBS.org in running web ads for United Healthcare and Beaches Resorts. I lost track of how much I’ve spent over the years buying Ken Burns DVDs as Fathers Day presents.
There are some great deals right now at ShopPBS.org. You can get the American Brew DVD for $9.99, or William and Kate: Planning a Royal Wedding for only $7.99. I’ve got my eye on a Johnny Cash Blu-Ray for $24.98. Thank goodness we don’t have to count on commercial television to pay attention to beer, country music and the Royal Family.
Sesame Street has largely weaned itself off the public dole and receives very little
federal funding. It rakes in millions in licensing deals from 140 countries and countless toys, books, and games. Big Bird is going to be just fine.
The half-billion dollars we spend on public broadcasting isn’t much compared to a trillion-dollar annual deficit and a $16 trillion debt. But it is the easiest spending cut anyone is Washington is going to find.
If are elected leaders can’t bring themselves to stop subsidizing upper-middle-class television, how can we trust them to make tough decisions?
This debate over funding PBS is actually quite informative. Anyone who insists we still need it obviously doesn’t really care about fixing the deficit, and needn’t be taken seriously.
Grant Bosse is vice president for media for the Josiah Bartlett Center for Public Policy, a free-market think tank based in Concord.
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