Private thoughts on Public Television

I’ll admit it; I spend entirely too much time watching television. But in my defense, the virtual explosion of both technology and selection has created a source of entertainment that is simply unmatched in today’s world. I’m hooked. Cable TV is my personal drug of choice. The first sign that I might have a problem came with the realization that one of my favorite shows is little more than a stationary camera broadcasting Hi-Def bliss from some isolated corner of the world. The show Sunrise Earth can easily be considered as the flag-bearer of a cable system that I think can honestly deliver something for everyone at any given time.


But last night, as I found myself bouncing back and forth between Mythbusters on the Discovery Channel and motorcycle racing on the Speed network, I asked myself, “whatever happened to PBS?” Now that my local cable “pusher” has me hooked on the package with hundreds of channels, I can watch just about anything I imagine. But as I put the remote through it’s usual surfing duties, I don’t recall stopping on a Public Broadcasting Station recently.


When I was growing up, PBS represented 25 percent of the entire viewing selection along with the only other options; ABC, NBC, and CBS (if you used the extra coat hanger on the aerial). While it might not have offered the most popular shows, often times it was the sole-remaining option, such as when the networks all carried the news. Other times PBS seemed like the outsider, the lone-dissenting voice that chose to inform rather than entertain. I have to admit, while I still made time for my favorite network shows, as I grew older, more and more I found myself seeking out the programs offered by PBS. I became a big fan of television that educated -- such as This Old House and Nova. It seems that, without even noticing, the seeds that had been planted with Sesame Street had grown into a full-fledged, honest interest in learning.


Upon signing into legislation the Public Broadcasting act of 1967, President Lyndon Johnson made the following remarks: “Our nation wants more than just material wealth; our nation wants more than a ‘chicken in every pot.' We in America have an appetite for excellence too. While we work every day to produce new goods and to create new wealth, we want most of all to enrich man’s spirit.”


When the government established the funding for Public Broadcasting, it did so because it realized the need to provide some vegetables to our meat-and-potatoes TV dinner. But that was then and this is now. 'Then' was a flash-frozen brick of tin foil, with the only choice between the Salisbury steak of Happy Days and the fried chicken of Mary Tyler Moore. Now we’re living in a veritable all-you-can-eat buffet where even the green beans are crisp, fresh, in HD and apparently in high demand.


The point is this; I’m not sure when it happened, and quite frankly, I’m not even sure how. But I think the goals behind public broadcasting have been not only met but well-integrated into the viewing structure. And further, I question why; when so many “for profit” stations seem to be able to successfully make money with such programming while we as the taxpaying public need to continue to pay even a small portion of the bills. Can you honestly say that a show such as How It’s Made is less informative because the ads are in the middle instead of at the end?


According to their own website, the Corporation for Public Broadcasting will receive a federal appropriation totaling 400 million for the 2007 fiscal year. Surprisingly, this only represents a small portion of their overall budget, with as much as another 650 million coming from various private individual and corporate donations. Which begs the question; isn’t there other more pressing matters that the people of the United States could do with a billion dollars a year?

Every year, non-profit organizations fight tooth and nail to somehow scrounge both public and private dollars to maintain their individual services. Far be it from me to suggest how you distribute your generosity, but at the very least, I believe it’s time to look into where your money gets the best bang for the buck.


With a multitude of other provider options for educational programming, I don’t believe that in the absence of PBS, popular shows like Sesame Street or This Old House would fail to find multiple funding suitors. In fact, it’s not hard to imagine that for some shows, a rather lucrative bidding war could ensue. The only real casualty would be having the shows remain commercial free. However, given the increasing number of promotional, scheduling and sponsorship announcements, the actual differences between public and private television are quickly becoming negligible.


Further, if there is a continued fear that corporate and profit-driven television won’t continue to deliver programming that fits the initial rationale for PBS, why can’t the situation be corrected with legislation instead of the money pit of yet another federally-funded program? The solution sounds simple enough to me; add a few educational shows or lose your FCC license.

I realize that this line of thinking might lead to the loss of jobs at the non-profit stations. However, as President Johnson pointed out, the nature of the American spirit is in the continued drive for excellence, not the superfluous continuation of idealistic tradition, no matter what the level of nostalgia.

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Volume 3, Issue 18, Posted 4:47 PM, 08.22.2007