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The puzzle of PBS funding in modern politics

I’ve been hearing this blather for the last 30ish years. Public Broadcasting System funding is a tightrope walk. The Corporation for Public Broadcasting allocates funding to stations across the country using a formula that means not every station gets the same funding. Each station has to raise the balance through membership support, and what major donors, corporate or foundation support they can get. (Most of the latter has dried up.) 

People complain about pledge drives. They complain about the programming during pledge drives (Viewer Favorites are just that until you’ve seen them 80 times,) and they complain about the minute amount of tax dollars that go into funding PBS. 

Yet, they LOVE the programs. Sesame Street, Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood, Arthur, the cooking shows, the Britcoms and Nature programming, Nova, American Experience, Ken Burns’ documentaries, regional history programs, Masterpiece… 

The partnership that PBS has had for decades, with the BBC, is a fruitful one. Programs like Doctor Who, Sherlock, Poirot, Miss Marple, Upstairs Downstairs, Downton Abbey, I, Claudius, Red Dwarf, et al, might never have been seen on this side of the Atlantic without PBS. These are shows that aren’t quite what the networks are interested in. Not to mention, the majority of them were meant to be aired without advertising breaks because that’s how the BBC airs them. It’s frustrating to see the disconnect, in the value of PBS versus the commitment to funding it. 

When I was very small, my mom would watch PBS children’s programming with me. It was both educational and a bonding experience. I had the extreme pleasure of growing up watching Mr. Rogers and knowing that he really did live (close to) my neighborhood. As a native of Pittsburgh, I can tell you what a vibrant PBS station can do. WQED was the first community-sponsored PBS station, and the fifth in the country. I grew up watching Jacques Cousteau, I developed a love of conservation watching Nature, my mom made me watch Nova and Cosmos, and I developed a love of the magic of science. Ballet, opera, musical theatre, plays, and Morgan Freeman as EZ Reader on Electric Company: I grew up with worlds residing on the dial of my television. Worlds my mom could not otherwise afford to give me, much as she wanted to. There are those who would say that cable television has all PBS can offer and more. Allow me to remind you that TLC, which used to be The Learning Channel, and A&E (formerly arts and entertainment) now air such gems as Honey Boo Boo and Hoarders. PBS remains a bastion of education, culture, entertainment and it does it all for an infinitesimally small fraction of our tax dollars. 

Yet politicians, particularly on the right, seem committed to dismantling it. I have always wondered why. Why take away something that offers so much return on so little an investment? 

Is it elitism? That the arts and sciences are somehow the purview of the upper class alone? The arts cannot survive without an audience, and PBS creates that audience generation after generation. If the idea of a teenager in jeans at the opera disturbs you, perhaps you should wonder what’ll happen to the art form when they don’t show up. 

Is it capitalist theory? We have a free market therefore if it’s so valuable perhaps the market should do all the work? It does 6/7ths of the work. Given the subsidies (in BILLIONS) that oil companies get, I’m feeling some hypocrisy here. 

Is it that it’s sometimes controversial? Art can be that. Art is supposed to be that. It always has been. The value of art cannot be determined by merely whether it doesn’t offend, or upset. Art is valuable because it provokes thought, not because it may be beautiful. 

It’s easy to point to PBS as, “Elitist,” for whatever that means. It’s not, it is as egalitarian as you can possibly be. It is free to the public and offers both classic and contemporary entertainment while also providing a broad range of informative programming about current events and the world we live in. 

It does not assume that anyone is incapable of understanding it, or uninterested in it. Unlike TLC and A&E which have become so divorced from the programming they were conceived to provide, PBS maintains a standard precisely because it is not subject to the advertising chase in order to put programming on the air. 

From Austin City Limits, to Julia Child, to Clifford the Big Red Dog: PBS is value for money and then some. 

So why on earth do politicians keep distracting the public with the same tired old threats to end funding to it? 

Exactly how out of touch are they? 

As for me, well: Doctor Who, Sherlock, Case Histories, Nova, Nature… 

I don’t think I’m ever going to give up PBS. And I’m pretty sure I could spare more than the $1.30 it’s costing me right now. In fact, I’m pretty sure you could up that to $365 a year, and it’d still be value for money. 

Maybe then, the networks would feel like they have some real competition. 

Wouldn’t that be interesting, in a free market? 

And you can have my Big Bird radio when you pry it from my cold, dead hands. I’ve had it since I was 6. 

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