Thursday, June 16, 2005

Save Cookie Monster, not Garrison Keilor

I'm sure most of us have heard that Congressional Republicans are trying to cut back on, and ultimately eliminate, funding for the Corporation for Public Broadcasting once again (if not, read here).

Liberals typically defend CPB, which provides a significant chunk of the funding for NPR and PBS stations (which they then use in large part to buy programming from PBS and NPR; it's all a little complicated). But I'm not one of them.

I don't believe we should defund public broadcasting entirely. But I think we need to narrow the scope. The one type of broadcasting that is truly so necessary that it deserves to receive our hard earned tax dollars that we are compelled by law to provide is children's educational programming. The private market is particularly ineffective at providing quality educational programming for kids. And even when it does give kids shows that are perhaps marginally good for them, it's chock full of ads for toys and unhealthy foods and other crap. I think we as a society do have a very compelling interest in providing children, particularly young kids under 5, with TV shows like "Sesame Street" and "Arthur" and "Barney" that are educational and free of the influence of corporate marketing.

But honestly, do "Charlie Rose" and "Morning Edition" and "A Prairie Home Companion" need public funding? Yes, NPR and PBS provide some of the highest quality programming out there in terms of documentary, in-depth news and talk, etc. In the case of PBS, cable networks like Discovery and History and National Geographic are doing much -- though certainly not all -- of the same kind of documentaries. And as for the news on NPR and PBS, these seem to have sizable audiences that, if my impressions are correct, are typically well educated and affluent. NPR claims 26 million weekly listeners and "Morning Edition" is the top morning news program in the country.

Also, let's be frank. Although I think its news reporting is pretty well balanced, NPR definitely leans to the left in its general sensibilities, particularly when it comes to local programming (in my experience, at least). I honestly don't watch enough PBS news to say if it also leans that way -- I just check out a documentary on PBS every now and then -- but my guess is it does.

Those of us who like these shows should have to either pay for them through station donations or suffer through a little bit of marketing. I don't believe that these shows are so beneficial to society that people who don't watch or listen should be compelled to pay for them. It's essentially a tax on people who don't like high quality broadcasts to subsidize those who do.

This is even more true in the case of the "entertainment" that NPR and PBS carry. Does the general public need to subsidize BBC re-runs on PBS, especially now that we have BBC America? And for God's sake, why should any public money go toward the wretched Garrison Keillor? I listen to NPR at least a few times a week and I find just the commercials for "A Prairie Home Companion" and its pretentious simplicity galling. Certain people like it, and that's fine. But there's no frikkin' way that show is a great boon to American culture and deserves a penny of my hard earned money that the government takes.


I don't know if this really makes sense politically, but I think Democrats might be well served if they offered to compromise with Republicans by cutting CBP funding, but preserving a healthy core for educational, commercial free children's shows. Let the people who like "This American Life" and "Frontline" and "A Prarie Home Companion" either pay for it or deal with the reality of commercials in a capitalist society. As adults, we're able to seek out the programming we want and if we want to be educated, so be it, and if we don't, that's our choice. We're also able to comprehend what ads are and how they're different from programming.

Little children, however, aren't very good at differentiating them, nor can they make responsible choices about whether to be educated. So I say separate out all the other public broadcasting and let Republicans defend eliminating the last refuge in American popular culture where kids can learn to read and write and function in society while not being assaulted by marketing designed to make them obese and bug their parents to buy them shit.

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