Politics & Policy

Get Rid of PBS


I used to produce television shows for PBS. Literally, some of my best friends still do. I watch it and I like it. But PBS should go.

It’s not because PBS is awash in liberal orthodoxy. It is. It’s not because I don’t want kids to see Sesame Street. I do, I guess. It’s not because Tinky Winky is gayer than raspberries in the snow. “He” is.

PBS must go because there’s no point to it any more. There is simply nothing that PBS does that couldn’t be done by someone else — except for those things it shouldn’t be doing in the first place. The original premise of PBS was to give everyone in America access to television. It might have done that once. But today in the age of cable and the Internet, it is a simply another dinosaur protected by elite special interests, nostalgia, and inertia.

Their motto “If PBS Doesn’t Do It, Who Will?” is like a joke waiting for a punch line. It’s the equivalent of asking “If the Department of Sanitation Doesn’t Collect Your Garbage, Who Will?”

PBS was born out of the Great Society as an Al Gore-like effort to give poor people more “access” to a revolutionary new medium (sound familiar?). Back then, poor people were too far away from antennas to get TV news and entertainment. So, the governments (state and local governments got big slices of the pork) said, “If the Private Sector Won’t Do it, We Will.”

Things have changed. Access for poor people is simply not a big issue any more. They don’t call satellite dishes the “West Virginia state tree” for nothing. One can see these massive, five-hundred-channel-receiving behemoths on the front lawns of shanty prefab houses throughout rural America.

Defenders point to all sorts of wonderful, and not so wonderful programs on PBS and say, “Do you really want to do without X, Y, and Z.” X,Y, and Z are most often Mister Roger’s Neighborhood, Sesame Street, and Barney (That’s what they slammed Newt with). But PBS has learned the game well. So, it can also say to conservative critics, do you really want to lose Firing Line, Think Tank, or News Desk? They can ask effete critics, do you really want to lose The Three Tenors, Great Performances, or The Civil War. And of course they could say to the Left, do your really want to lose Frontline, and all of the documentaries you make. Of course, they don’t have to say this to the Left because the Left loves the concept of PBS already — even if it has problems from time to time with its efforts to co-opt conservatives.

The simple fact is that everything that is popular on PBS can be replicated by the market and everything that is unpopular it probably shouldn’t be doing anyway. Sesame Street? They make hundreds of millions of dollars from the licensing of toys, books, and videos — sales driven largely by government-funded infomercials. Ditto Barney. Ditto Teletubbies. Nature documentaries? Good God, I stay up like a stoned teenager whose parents are out of town watching nature docs on the Discovery Channel, The Learning Channel, and TBS’s National Geographic marathons. Cooking and how-to shows? Quick! Turn on PBS right now — my bet is you’ll see some well-fed, foreign-born cook explaining to a studio audience how to air-dry your leeks. Cooking shows — the fare on HGTV and the Food Network are exhibit A — make a fortune. Besides, are the rural poor really in need of Jewish Cooking in America? History and biographical documentaries? A&E, Discovery, Biography, Bravo. Financial coverage? Ugh, this is getting tedious now: CNBC, CNNfn, etc.

So what’s left? A bunch of political and news shows, some of which are really excellent and some of which stink. Well, one can have a long discussion about this or a short one. The short one simply states the principle that the U.S. government should not be involved in political reportage — even remotely. It creates complications we don’t need. Witness the current mess at WETA and WGBH, the flagship PBS stations in Washington and Boston. It turns out that the two stations were swapping their fundraising lists with the Democratic party. Rep. Billy Tauzin (R., La.) is thinking of squashing PBS funding over the fiasco.

Now, list-swapping goes on all the time with other non-profit organizations. But one of the things that makes this blunder so embarrassing is that it reveals a secret everyone knows but feels it is impolite to mention. PBS (especially WGBH) and the Democratic party are natural allies. Go kick a conservative media-watcher in the shins and he’ll tell you how PBS is often a video press release for the DNC.

This is the inevitable consequence of a government-funded television network. One party is going to be less friendly to it than another. It doesn’t necessarily have anything to do with liberal vs. conservative. I’m sure government-funded networks in many countries are conservative — because they are the babies of right-wing regimes.

Indeed, if you were to describe how PBS is funded to a stranger from another time, it would sound rather fascist — very velvety fascism to be sure, but fascist nevertheless. Huge corporations give millions of dollars for, and at the behest of, the government for programming it sanctions. Corporations do it largely to curry favor in Washington and good will from the political class. It should be pointed out that PBS funding is — deliberately — extremely complicated. The reasons why are a long story but they amount to a defense strategy to make de-funding PBS difficult to the point of impossible.

But it doesn’t change the fact that corporations fund NewsHour for the same reasons they fund ABC’s This Week. They want to run commercials for a very specific Washington and New York audience. And, I think that is absolutely fine, laudable even. But why do you need a government network to run commercials for congressmen, bureaucrats, and pundits? Meet the Press does that just fine and it existed before PBS. PBS-niks will say that commercialism taints coverage. Sure, that happens. But that’s like one prostitute criticizing another for taking credit cards. C-SPAN provides a better service to the average voter than anything and everything on PBS combined. And it is a product of the money-grubbing cable companies.


I’d run corrections and clarifications but you seem to be too lethargic to come up with really good stuff these days. So instead we will continue the poll of our three non-PBS finalists in the best political talk show contest. As it stands now, Chris Matthews has a razor-thin lead over Fox News Sunday and a dramatic one over Drudge. But those two shows are on this weekend and Hardball is not.

Results Monday!

The Jonah Poll What is the best political show on TV: The Finals


Fox News Sunday

Hardball with Chris Matthews


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