by Jay Ambrose
Scripps Howard News Service
February 18, 2005
The issue of funding has become more intense of late because of the bunny flap and the concerns of some about leftist programming, but also because ratings are drooping and corporate support is lagging, it's reported. Next year, said Pat Mitchell, PBS president, she will vacate her job, causing still more consternation among those who value PBS.
I myself value PBS. Yes, Bill Moyers went off the deep end in his absurd ranting about the rabid right taking over American journalism in a show before retirement, but he also did superb work on PBS over the years. At various times in the past, I have been a fan of "Masterpiece Theatre." In my view, there is no better national news show on TV than "The Lehrer News Hour." A valuable part of my political education was William F. Buckley's highly civilized and sophisticated "Firing Line" debates on PBS.
Given all of that and much, much more, the controversy about Buster going to Vermont to find out about sugar-maple farming and meeting with a couple of lesbian moms seems small potatoes. Producing such a show was an example of political correctness gone stupidly awry, to be sure - what exactly are children supposed to know about lesbianism in the first place, and shouldn't instruction about such things come from parents, not know-it-all guardians in the cartoon biz? Still, the reaction was sufficient to cause second thoughts about distribution, and I rather doubt that Buster is going to get himself in comparable mischief soon.
The case against federal funding, it seems to me, starts elsewhere - for instance, with the recognition that the old rationale no longer holds up. The argument used to be that because commercial TV depended for success on high ratings, you would ipso facto exclude much programming with limited appeal but great merit if you did not have publicly subsidized TV. Yet in the age of cable, when viewers can tune in the History Channel, The Learning Channel, Discovery and other networks serving relatively small audience niches of all kinds with quality material, the argument collapses.
A second point is that PBS is itself commercial. When an announcer tells you that Goody Good Corporation is providing funding for tonight's ballet or whatever, you are hearing an advertisement for Goody Good. PBS stations also get money from fund drives, of course - and that's fine. No objection here. But why should PBS receive taxpayer dollars that others in television do not get? Is that fair? Might not PBS compete more effectively and thus stay alive - while still offering exceptional shows - if it was not relying on the government and therefore under certain commercial restraints? (In the interest of full disclosure, I should note that I have a financial interest in my former employer, Scripps Howard, which owns cable networks.)
My last point is that what the government funds or helps fund, the government will to some extent control or try to control. Judging by news reports, PBS is getting more conservative views on PBS possibly because of pressure from Republicans in Congress. I like having conservative views on PBS and I don't blame members of Congress for worrying that federal dollars are being spent for one political point of view over the other; they would be negligent if they did not keep an eye on the use made of taxpayer dollars. But I don't want Congress having that kind of influence over political programming. The solution is simple: no federal financing, not even funds for an endowment when the PBS broadcast spectrum is sold down the road.
I would not insist all funding should be cut off this year. Phase it out gradually. Give PBS a chance to survive, and just maybe it will. But on top of other issues, there is no constitutional authority for this type of spending, and it ought eventually to stop.
He can be reached at SpeaktoJay(at)aol.com.