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Friday, March 18, 2011

The Firing of Beethoven and Big Bird

In the near future, children may not learn their numbers from a tall, gangly creature covered in yellow feathers on their television screens. Similarly, such obscure beautiful melodies as Beethoven’s Fur Elise or Dave Brubeck’s Take Five will cease to be heard over the nation’s airwaves. Why? It’s certainly not through a sudden change in popular tastes, but rather because a large deficit is being used as a good excuse to score big points with an extremely narrow-minded political ideology.

The Republican-led House is set to do something they’ve been hoping to do for years: get rid of the Public Broadcasting Corporation. This has been a fantasy for them since the Clinton Administration, championed at that time by none other than Newt Gingrich. Now, it seems their wish is closer to becoming reality under the guise of cutting federal spending.

Since its inception by the Public Broadcasting Act of 1967, the Corporation for Public Broadcasting (and its affiliated networks Public Broadcasting Service and National Public Radio) has been required by law to follow a “strict adherence to objectivity and balance in all programs or series of programs of a controversial nature”. Unfortunately, this pursuit of balanced programming has been perceived by many lawmakers and pundits as leaning too far to the left. Conservatives see little reason for the government to fund what they believe to be liberal-biased and superfluous programming.

The argument against Public Broadcasting in the 1990s pointed to cable television's rising prominence offering a number of networks (e.g., The Learning Channel, Arts and Entertainment, etc.) that duplicated PBS’s programming. It was a considerable challenge for public broadcasting advocates to counter this argument, but nonetheless they were triumphant. PBS survived the controversy then, and in some respects public broadcasting has remained true to its mission. In the meantime, the cable channels that were touted as its replacement have been seduced by the insatiable demand for sensationalistic "reality" television shows.

Today, conservatives argue that PBS and NPR will survive without public funding. Perhaps they might survive, but not in their current form or without a shift in focus. In actuality, the federal government funding represents only a small portion of the money used to operate public broadcasting television and radio stations throughout the country. The bulk of operating funds are donated by corporations, foundations and individual viewers.

This argument reminds me of a question asked during a broadcasting class I had at Bloomsburg University some years ago. Someone asked our instructor, Bill Kelly, (currently President and CEO of WVIA, the PBS affiliate in northeastern Pennsylvania) if public broadcasters would consider accepting advertising revenue like all other media to support their operations. Kelly replied, “In a heartbeat!”

His answer demonstrated the broadcaster’s frustration with depending on government funding and pledge drivers to keep their stations operational. Likewise, viewers also loathe the weeks of broadcast time devoted every year to “banging the tambourine”, but the dependence and pleas for dollars are a necessary evil to maintain public broadcasting's unique character.

PBS has long broadcast programming that would never see the light of day on commercial television. The reasons are many and varied, but most often this happens because there is not enough demand for the performance of a Mozart concerto or a Ken Burns documentary to make it economically feasible for broadcast on the commercial networks who insist on making a profit. Although, to be fair, if PBS had to support the lifestyle of a performer like Charlie Sheen, then they would also probably require a profit.

However, public broadcasting is a non-profit venture, and American society is all the better for it. Without public broadcasting, many of us would not be familiar with the theories of physicists Stephen Hawking or Dr. Carl Sagan; a generation of Americans would not know who Monty Python is; and God only knows how many children learned to read and count on Sesame Street. Likewise, National Public Radio provides unique forums for local and national public affairs programming; a showcase for artists performing in such wonderful, but otherwise commercially unviable, genres as classical and jazz music; and introduce listeners to other forms of entertainment, such as opera.

Yet all of these benefits are lost on conservatives who think only in terms of dollars saved, and the subjugation of ideas with which they disagree. If public television had to resort to selling actual commercial time to operate, then the schedule would become a dumping ground for programming with the widest (read: most profitable) appeal to audiences with the lowest common denominator. The PBS stations would become susceptible to the whims of the marketplace as dictated by the almighty Nielsen ratings. Public broadcasting would be forced to abandon its enriching mission to cater to viewers who may not be literate and/or appreciate the beauty of Beethoven’s work. That would be a pity, but apparently it is an outcome which many conservatives see as a worthy goal.

Let’s hope public broadcasting wins this latest assault on their honor.

(Thank you for reading. Please remember education — even through the media — is an investment, not a luxury.)


Anonymous Janey said...

Beautifully expressed! BRAVO!

March 18, 2011 at 7:22 PM  

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