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I helped organize and moderate a series of panels about public television last weekend in Los Angeles for the American Cinema Foundation, with sponsorship by the Corporation for Public Broadcasting. The CPB, which funds public television and radio programming, is otherwise known (at least here on the Left Coast) as Those Evil Republicans Who Are Trying To Move Big Bird to the Right. Yet the tone was mostly quite civil, with hardly any questions from the audience about, say, the money we spend on Iraq (or don’t spend on prescription drugs for the elderly) compared to money spent on public TV.

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This always seems ridiculous to me anyway, like those supposedly clever slogans that suggest how great it would be if public schools had all the money they need and the military had to hold bake sales to buy a bomber. What is fair is to compare PBS to NPR. I like public TV, and sometimes even watch it. But rarely with the same enthusiasm I had 20 or 30 years ago, when PBS was the only place on TV you could see commercial-free old movies, or educational children’s programming, or highbrow documentaries, or entertaining British costume dramas.

Now there’s really nothing on PBS that you can’t imagine on any number of cable networks, such as Bravo or A&E or Discovery or the National Geographic Channel. If public radio disappeared, though, that would be a true loss, because there really is nothing else like it. I enjoy hearing right-wing AM talk-radio hosts yell their heads off as much as anyone, but I also like being able to switch to NPR when those guys get on my nerves, and vice versa. PBS, however, is at this point basically an upscale, government-funded, highbrow version of the mindset behind pretty much every major television network except for Fox News.

You don’t have to be a declared enemy of the liberal establishment to have noticed this. Los Angeles Times columnist Joel Stein, not exactly a right-wing firebrand, wrote this summer about PBS that

there is no other station so obviously aimed at rich, well-educated white people. Should our government be responsible for providing Edith Piaf documentaries, 98-hour histories of jazz and baseball, Broadway shows, discussions between Charlie Rose and Yo-Yo Ma and rich people figuring out how much their antiques are worth?…Sure there must be some poor people who don’t have basic cable and really enjoy Sesame Street and Nova. But for $400 million [the annual government subsidy] we could have Big Bird fly to their houses every morning and teach their kids how to count in Spanish.

Now it’s true that not every American household gets even basic cable. But most do, and National Review’s Rob Long, who moderated one of the panels, said that when you factor in those who get it (illegally) for free, the figure rises to over 80 percent. In any case, one of the problems the poor have is that that they watch too much TV, even if it’s PBS, not that they don’t watch enough.

One of the saddest sights I’ve ever seen was an older black lady with two small children, probably grandchildren, enter the beautiful and well-stocked children’s section of the Los Angeles Public Library’s main branch downtown. She ignored the vast selection of books and promptly led the kids over to a video monitor, where they spent the entire afternoon watching Barney.

Rob was rather disappointed, by the way, that no one on his panel was quite willing to recommend pulling the plug on PBS. Luca Bentivoglio, director of the CPB-supported Latino Public Broadcasting in L.A., intensely dislikes Antiques Roadshow but is otherwise naturally a big public-television fan. Hoover Institution fellow (and Corner contributor) Peter Robinson, who hosts the public-TV talk-show Uncommon Knowledge, said he “would feel more at ease if PBS were provided by the marketplace” but added that nevertheless, public TV offers valuable and unique programming.

On my panels, screenwriter/director Lionel Chetwynd said that PBS generally reflects a “leftwing European perspective”–that is, anti-Israel–except for six weeks each year during fundraising, and then it’s “Jews are great.” Former Universal Television chief Frank Price, now an independent producer, said that “I like much of the cultural programming, but on the other hand I look at it as a government funded addition to the newspaper, and I don’t want either political party involved with transmitting entertainment or culture.”

Ted Steinberg, who co-wrote and produced (with Lionel Chetwynd) the anti-Michael Moore documentary Celsius 41:11, said that “I was going to spew about PBS,” but then the public-TV station in New Orleans bought his documentary about Hurricane Katrina: “So it’s just like anything else–if someone buys something from you they’re nice and if they don’t they’re a jerk. Now I’m back in the good graces of the system.”

Later on, veteran documentary filmmaker Mel Stuart, who most recently directed and produced The Hobart Shakespeareans for PBS, complained about commercial networks run by “25-year-old punks who’ve never made a film in their life. At least for me, when I go in [to PBS], they leave me alone. PBS seems to like old people, and believe me, it’s another wonderful thing about it.”

PBS does indeed like old people, but I wonder if that’s always such an excellent thing. I decided to correct this a bit on my own when my daughter was small and we watched so much Sesame Street that I felt I really should donate something. But I also felt that as a single mother, I was far poorer than their average elderly viewer; yet they offered a senior citizen’s discount but not an impoverished single mother one. So I checked off that I was a senior citizen and sent in my donation (getting the free program guide) under that cheaper rate. I got cruise-ship brochures in the mail for years.
“I’m horrified that Mel Stuart basically wants PBS to continue so he can sell his work,” Kate Coe, a producer who’s worked for public and commercial TV, e-mailed me about the PBS panels. “Why not just have the Feds write him a check? Why do all these geezers think they’re entitled to a life-time career at public expense? I can’t believe how many of these guys (and they’re all guys) think PBS should continue because they can sell shows.”

Reason magazine’s media critic Matt Welch, who was on the same panel with Mel Stuart, said that “from a libertarian perspective, we live in a future of plenty when it comes to audio-visual outlets. I don’t want my tax money to pay Bill Moyers’s salary.” Hollywood Reporter TV columnist Ray Richmond, a fellow panelist, confessed that he falls asleep during Masterpiece Theatre but added that PBS at least offers a dignified alternative to Discovery Networks shows, which market programs like Canine Conspiracy (are humans manipulated by dogs?) and Born Without a Face as if they were headlines on the supermarket tabloid Weekly World News.

Still, if the lurid factor draws an audience, is that so terrible? I rarely have good things to say about Lifetime TV, because its attitude about women is generally so smarmy and patronizing. But the network’s gripping new two-part miniseries about sex slaves, Human Trafficking (which premieres Oct. 24 and 25), may do more to educate the public about this real and terrible problem than any number of worthy PBS documentaries. And unlike public TV, the Lifetime show didn’t cost us a single tax dollar.

Catherine Seipp is a writer in California who publishes the weblog Cathy’s World. She is an NRO contributor.



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