Mitt Romney’s recent admission of his admiration for Big Bird, though he admits that he wants to cut Federal funding to PBS. Only seconds after this statement, many of us new that this moment in the debate would become a remembered statement from the political campaign. Whether “I like Big Bird” still is chuckled about months from now is irrelevant. Romney brought up a completely legitimate point on an ignored topic.
The Public Broadcasting Service (PBS) began just as Britain’s BBC did, in a state of government-funding. PBS was created in 1970, and, throughout its history, has broadcasted many excellent programs—including Masterpiece Theatre, Nova, Rick Steve’s Europe, and many others. While it is often reminded that PBS does receive substantial funding from donations, it is still a fact that they receive money from the Federal government, about twelve percent (equating to roughly $445 million).
Now, with a deficiet that transcends adjectives like crushing or suffocating, the Federal portion of PBS’s funding appears rather small. And, in many senses, this funding is small, compared to all the other expenditures of the Federal government. But, why shouldn’t the Federal dollars given to PBS be rigorously examined? Even if it is a small matter, these dollars are government dollars, and thus either the money of taxpayers or funds they are expected to help pay back (i.e. loans). All should be concerned about this, and any posture otherwise is fiscally foolish.
Does PBS merit 445 million dollars, contibured involuntarily, every year? I do not think so. Some will ask what my opinion has to do with it, but, after pondering it, one will find that the individual opinion is central to this issue. The rest of the funding for PBS—the other, roughly, eighty-eight percent—comes from individual donors and foundations. There are many people who love PBS and want to support it voluntarily, and I have no problem with this. But why should the American people be robbed to support PBS? The point is eternally brought up that PBS provides essential programs that aren’t available anywhere else, and that they ensure that everyone has access to these programs (i.e. those who do not have cable or satellite television).
It is true that PBS does have many excellent programs. I actually enjoy many of them. There is nowhere else on television where I may find shows like Masterpiece Theatre or many of PBS’s documentaries. Ken Burns stands as one of the great documentary-makers all of time—bringing us so close to many points in history. While watching PBS documentaries, I have felt deep admiration for the beauty of the universe and sympathy for those who experienced the horrors of World War II. In addition to this, Rick Steves continues to trek across Europe, with the occasional ventures into other continents, and offering unparalleled advice on travel. Still, these do not justify public funds.
The quality of programming is not the only justification used by supporters of PBS, but the availability of programs is also used. Again, this is somewhat true, in the sense of television. There are no other networks that broadcast the range of British shows that PBS does—from Monty Python’s Flying Circus and Mr. Bean to Keeping Up Appearances and Black Books. Other purpottedly unavailable programs include children’s shows, news, and cultural programs (i.e. music, opera, and other arts). The first two are easily contested, but the cultural programming is, generally, not available on other networks. That being said, availability does not mean automatic justification. The inherent value of these programs is subjective and not universal.
This aspect of availability might have been a quasi-legimate point perhaps a decade ago—though it still would not justify public funds—but this is quickly disapearing. The internet is providing a new means of getting the programs not available on television channels. Even though many of these are paid services, the payment is minute. Throughout this examination I have been very careful to use the word “television” when necessary, as the rise of programs from the internet may ultimately replace the television. The merits of this are not for discussion here, but it shows something vastly important that applies equally to all broadcasters—whether PBS or some other channel. The desires of the consumer lead the markets. Many, including myself, are almost wholly dissatisfied with the current state of television: shows are bland, boring, and badly written; pseudo-science and conspiracy theories have taken over much of the programming that was previously concerned with history and science; and shows that are “good” are rarely broadcasted, if at all. In my dissatisfaction, I have turned to the internet and the results have been excellent. Nearly all of the shows I look for I am able to find, though I have not completely abandoned conventional television.
All of this hearkens back to very subjective and individual themes—taste, opinion, and choice. In the polarized arena of programs, the internet options stand at the far end of choice, with “normal” television at the opposite end. PBS broadcasts and re-broadcasts (in the case of BBC programs) many good programs, but they are the far end of this imaginary spectrum, further away from choice than any of the other networks. Choice is the human action that drives and influences markets. Every television view particpates in this action by his own viewing habits and choices. As a result of this, the networks change—some programs are continued, while others are ended. PBS is protected from changes, and guarded not only by the government but by legions of fans. To point of being repitive, I emphasise that PBS often has excellent content, but they should not receive public funds. PBS must stand as every other network does. If their programming is the quality as they say, then there should be enough supporters to either donate or ensure to advertisers that the audience size will be sufficient.
Romney’s comment will likely become a lampooned and preserved statement from the 2012 campaign, but it brings up a fundamental point. We all like Big Bird, but not all of us want to prop up PBS.