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Home > Blog > My Dollars at Waste
Out of Our Minds
Monday, February 21, 2005 9:41 AM
My Dollars at Waste
Kevin Salwen on Culture

There has been much flap over the past few weeks about PBS and the Corporation for Public Broadcasting. First, the network ran into a buzzsaw of criticism over using a lesbian couple on a cartoon, 'Buster.' Then the very talented president, Pat Mitchell, announced her resignation. The two incidents are not related, but both triggered the usual to-and-fro of conservative whining about PBS's leftist leanings and liberal defense of the programming.

Both sides miss the point: PBS has outlived its original usefulness and probably should cease to exist. At the very least, it should change its structure to stop taking tax dollars to fund its operations. Shocking? Yes, but hear me out. Back when PBS was created, in the mid-1960s, commercial television consisted of the three major networks and a handful of local channels in each city. What was on was what some of the most powerful people in the country decided was on -- little choice, little variety.

Fast forward to today: My basic cable package has 68 channels. For an extra few bucks a month, I can get 50 more. The range is extraordinary -- from historical documentaries to music to children's programming to long-form news to interview shows. Oh wait, isn't that what PBS shows?

I know the arguments: PBS airs programs that are unencumbered by ads for sugar cereals and mind-warping toys. (With my PBS tax rebate, I could add TiVO to my TV and block those commercials myself -- if I cared enough. My kids seem to avoid sugar cereals even seeing those ads.) PBS shows programs with depth and perspective. (So do CNN, MSNBC, Discovery, Fox, History Channel, Sundance, etc etc. etc.) PBS doesn't care if a show is commercially viable. (Nonsense, but even if that were true, neither do other networks, often.)

Keep the donation format -- if people want to volunteer their dollars, they can (I give money to NPR, btw). Keep the ads, er, 'sponsors.' Now, stop putting federal dollars into the program, rebate my taxes and let's see what PBS does. Go out of business? If that's market economics, so be it.


8 comments

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martin - 2/23/2005 10:25:22 AM
Kevin -

A reminder. When the History Channel began broadcasting they landed in the middle of an editorial crisis when they handed editorial review of a number of their documentarys to their corporate sponsors IBM and GE. Those sponsors were in the process of removing the less attractive elements of their corporate pasts (PCBs and the Hudson, the Hollerith punch card machines, etc) from the 'documentaries' being aired. Had they been successful, history would have not only been written by the victor but also by the highest bidder.

Not to assign informational 'purity' to PBS, but you cannot lump a programming effort that costs the tax payer pennies per year with a system that costs those same individuals who can afford cable (on average) $500/year.
Perry - 2/22/2005 6:56:17 PM
Kevin,
I'm not sure what the best solution is for the PBS problem. And I don't disagree with much of your argument. But while you're considering all of the choice that your local cable package brings you, consider this -- since 1983, the number of corporations controlling most of America's daily newspapers, magazines, radio and television stations, book publishers, and movie companies has dwindled from fifty to five. (see The New Media Monopoly by Ben H. Bagdikian, dean emeritus, Graduate School of Journalism, U. of California at Berkeley). As the co-founder of an independent magazine, I'm sure you can appreciate the implications...
Perry - 2/22/2005 6:55:49 PM
Kevin,
I'm not sure what the best solution is for the PBS problem. And I don't disagree with much of your argument. But while you're considering all of the choice that your local cable package brings you, consider this -- since 1983, the number of corporations controlling most of America's daily newspapers, magazines, radio and television stations, book publishers, and movie companies has dwindled from fifty to five. (see The New Media Monopoly by Ben H. Bagdikian, dean emeritus, Graduate School of Journalism, U. of California at Berkeley). As the co-founder of an independent magazine, I'm sure you can appreciate the implications...
Doc - 2/22/2005 1:09:17 PM
Hurrah! Finally, something to unify the left and right. Get rid of government handouts to fund PBS. It will live on its own strengths, and if it has to (gasp!) take in a dollar or two in advertising, so what? Maybe it could raise the bar in advertising standards the way it has attempted to raise the bar in radio and televsion programming.

But it is not the job of government to provide funding in an area that is well served (at least in quantity) by the provate sector. And just so you know I'm not just a PBS basher (I'm actually a financial supporter) I hold these views for things like airline bailouts and other government waste. If you need the governemnt to keep your head above water, you probably don't deserve to exist.
Lori - 2/21/2005 6:55:04 PM
I think this is more of a 'Have's vs. Have nots' argument.

While many people can and do afford cable television... not everyone can. So, poor people shouldn't be cultured, right????

Wrong!!! Keep PBS Alive!
IndieRant - 2/21/2005 2:10:50 PM
I so strongly disagree that PBS has outlived its usefulness or purpose. In fact, it is more critical than ever to have it.

Yes, cable packages give you lots of channels (gee, can I give back the home shopping channels, the endless rerun channels, the foreign language channels -- valuable, but not watched by me -- and the clutter of garbage that is most of what I find in my 92 channel package.

Despite claims that other media sources provide similar depth, breadth, or quality to PBS, I seldom see them measure up.

The government wastes lots of money, but PBS isn't one of them.
jose - 2/21/2005 12:29:34 PM
PBS regularily shows a number of things that you seem to have forgotten, including opera and musical performances, theater, and the like. cultural gaps that aren't met by anything on the most common 68 channels on cable. PBS's role in this is important, and i for one would be sad to see it go. we simply can't let culture get washed away in sugary snacks for kids, action toy tie ins and movies of little redemably value.

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