Back in the early 2000’s, Kia was one of the main sponsors of CBS’s Saturday morning-line-up. My 2 year old used to turn to me every Saturday and ask, “Daddy, can we get a Kia Sedona?”
There are several arguments for the existence and federal funding of PBS:
1) PBS Kids provides commercial free, educational programming for kids to watch. Supposedly, this saves them from the “dangers” of non-educational, purely fun shows (as if adults don’t watch non-educational, purely fun shows!) and from being influenced by advertisers. It also supposedly helps low-income children learn and develop a love of learning.
2) PBS provides cultural programming that supposedly won’t do well in a commercial, ratings-based environment.
3) Local PBS stations, which get the majority of federal funding, provide an important source of local programming.
They tell us that PBS is a “commercial free” network, yet for quite some time PBS shows, including PBS Kids shows, have had what used to be considered “advertising”: corporate sponsors. For years, _Masterpiece Theater_ was called _Mobil Masterpiece Theater_, for example. Watch _Sesame Street_, and you’ll see how _Sesame Street_ is sponsored by “Beaches” resorts. Even McDonald’s is a “sponsor” of PBS Kids shows. So when it comes to advertising, PBS Kids is actually behind the “Kids” networks on cable: Disney Jr., Nick Jr. and Boomerang all have policies against product advertising, though they *do* advertise the programs on their sister networks.
Now, back in the 1990s, when Republicans raised the issue of defunding PBS, they argued that Cable showed that commercial television could do what PBS does. At the time, A&E still stood for “Arts & Entertainment” and “TLC” stood for “The Learning Channel.” A&E, Discovery and TLC had fine arts programming and documentaries. TLC and Discovery had truly educational children’s programs during the day.
These days, however, some of that has been negated. While many Disney & Nick shows are comparable to a lot of the kids’ shows on PBS, there are still more overtly educational shows on PBS, while even the Discovery Kids network is now The Hub: co-owned by Hasbro, it’s an enjoyable network but competing with Nickelodeon, Cartoon Network and other sister networks in the Disney family.
One thing I do not understand about PBS is why, after 40+ years, they need *new* shows. The only reason is “kids are different,” which is a big lie. Kids are always the same. The problem with *both* PBS and the cable “kids'” channels is that they’re just as much about indoctrination as education. Conservatives rightly complain that PBS indoctrinates kids to liberal ideology, but so do Disney & Nick, a network whose primary purpose is to facilitate kids to watch MTV.
Sesame Street has been on for 40+ years, and other than the fact that Carroll Spinney is on track to beat Helen Wagner as the longest actor on a TV show in history, there’s no real reason that the previous 40+ years of programming aren’t more than enough to educate toddlers for generations. Sesame Street has aired over 4240 episodes: enough to air it back-to-back, 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, for almost half a year–or once a day every day for 11 years–without repeating an episode. Then there are all the decades of _Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood_ (though the amount of programs he produced per year dwindled as he got older) and [ugh] _Barney & Friends_. _Cyberchase_, _Wild Kratts_ and the sadly cancelled _Fetch! With Ruff Ruffman_ are superbly educational but so are the original _Electric Company_, _321 Contact_, _Reading Rainbow_ and _Mathnet_. Yes, some of these programs may represent obsolete technology or scientific understanding, but there are still plenty available. How much money could be saved if they stop developing needless new shows and just show “classic” PBS shows? It’s not like ratings are going to drop! After all, isn’t the argument for PBS that they don’t need ratings?
Speaking of older shows, Discovery and PBS co-sponsor a fantastic website called “United Streaming” that provides old kids’ series from PBS and Discovery as well as non-broadcast educational videos. It’s *wonderful*. I don’t know how much it costs, but I imagine that a worthy compromise would be to cut the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, support United Streaming, and maybe give a tax break for high speed internet for families with young children.
Apparently, from a cursory Google search, the operating budget of PBS is in the mid-$400 millions, with about 20%, max, of that coming from federal money. However, the federal money accounts for 40% of the budgets of local PBS stations. We’re told that this would provide a desperate hit to local stations, but perhaps if localism is the issue, then maybe local stations could get local funding to promote local programming?
While PBS occasionally promotes “fine arts” programs, a great deal of its prime-time content really just rehashes BBC programming–which BBC America exists to show. The argument that high culture programming is available on cable (these days only on channels like Ovation that are available only in top tier plans in most markets and satellite plans) doesn’t really make sense coming from Republicans who complain about lower class Americans having cable to begin with. Nevertheless, just as Thomas Sowell once called PBS “welfare for the affluent,” just as with Discovery Streaming, there are a variety of avenues for people to obtain this kind of programming: online streaming and DVD among them. Indeed, when PBS asks for a $200 donation so you can get a concert DVD that costs $20 or less at the mall, it doesn’t make sense to pay tax money to support PBS, does it?
All of that said, this discussion must be handled delicately. Polls show the majority of Americans oppose cutting PBS funding, even though it seems like an obvious way to save some of the federal budget.
When Republicans oppose something like PBS, flat out, it comes off as reinforcing the worse stereotypes of political conservatives. While what Mitt Romney said in the debate was actually a nuanced argument, House Republicans and many pundits, not to mention online commentators, often come off as anti-intellectual, a matter I’m going to discuss in another post.