Politics & Policy

The Immortal Pleading for Public Broadcasting

Participants in the “Million Muppet March” supporting public funding for PBS in Washington, 2012. (Reuters photo: Jonathan Ernst)
Fifty years and about 500 channels ago, the Corporation for Public Broadcasting was created to nudge America toward perfection.

As changing technologies and preferences make government-funded broadcasting increasingly preposterous, such broadcasting actually becomes useful by illustrating two dismal facts. One is the immortality of entitlements that especially benefit those among society’s articulate upper reaches who feel entitled. The other fact is how impervious government programs are to evidence incompatible with their premises.

Fifty years and about 500 channels ago, the Corporation for Public Broadcasting was created to nudge Lyndon Johnson’s Great Society — it aimed to make America great for the first time — the final inches toward perfection. Today, the CPB, which has received about $12 billion over the years, disperses the government’s 15 percent of public television’s budget and 10 percent of public radio’s. Originally, public television increased many viewers’ choices by 33 percent — from three (CBS, NBC, ABC) to four.

Twenty-five years ago, Senator Al Gore, defending another appropriation increase for the CPB, asked what he considered a dispositive question: “How many senators here have children who have watched Sesame Street and Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood? . . . This is one thing that works in this country.” So, senators, mostly affluent, should compel taxpayers, mostly much less affluent, to subsidize the senators’ children’s viewing because it “works,” as measured by means that Gore neglected to reveal.

Eighteen years ago, some public-broadcasting officials, who understood the importance of being earnest — and imaginative — testified to Congress that public television’s educational effects on the work force give the economy a $12 billion boost. Fifteen years ago, however, the then-president of public television said, “We are dangerously close in our overall prime-time numbers to falling below the relevance quotient.” Relevance? To what?

Today, Mick Mulvaney, director of the Office of Management and Budget, thinks we can risk terminating the CPB. This would reduce viewers’ approximately 500 choices to approximately 499. Listeners to public radio might have to make do with America’s 4,666 AM and 6,754 FM commercial stations, 437 satellite-radio channels, perhaps 70,000 podcasts, and other Internet and streaming services.

America, which is entertaining itself to inanition, has never experienced a scarcity of entertainment. Or a need for government-subsidized journalism that reports on the government. Before newspaper editorial writers inveigh against Mulvaney and in support of government subsidies for television and radio, they should answer this question: Should there be a CPN — a Corporation for Public Newspapers?

The CPB was created “to encourage public telecommunications services which will be responsive to the interests of people.” Of course: people’s interests, not people’s desires. The market efficiently responds to the latter. Public broadcasting began as a response to what progressives nowadays call “market failure.” This usually means the market’s failure to supply what the public has not demanded but surely would demand if it understood its real “interest.”

Compelling taxpayers to finance government-subsidized broadcasting is discordant with today’s à la carte impulse.

One reason many Americans are becoming “cord cutters,” abandoning cable and satellite television, is that they want an à la carte world. One reason ESPN has lost 12 million subscribers in six years is that it is an expensive component of cable and satellite packages and many of those paying for the packages rarely watch ESPN.

Compelling taxpayers to finance government-subsidized broadcasting is discordant with today’s à la carte impulse and raises a question: If it has a loyal constituency, those viewers and listeners, who are disproportionately financially upscale, can afford voluntary contributions to replace the government money. And advertisers would pay handsomely to address this constituency.

Often the last, and sometimes the first, recourse of constituencies whose subsidies are in jeopardy is: “It’s for the children.” Big Bird, however, is more a corporate conglomerate than an endangered species. If Sesame Street programming were put up for auction, the danger would be of getting trampled by the stampede of potential bidders.

The argument for government-subsidized broadcasting is perversely circular: If the public were enlightened, there would be no need for government subsidies. But, by definition, an enlightened public would understand the inherent merits of subsidies by which the government picks more deserving winners than the market does.

However, since government-subsidized broadcasting exists, any argument for it would be superfluous, given what governmental inertia usually accomplishes for government enterprises. Long ago — in January — there was bold Republican talk about Congress restoring “regular order”: There would be twelve appropriations bills and they would be enacted before the 2018 fiscal year begins October 1. Instead, there probably will be another “swallow this or shutter the government” omnibus bill in which almost everything survives by sparing almost everyone the torture of choices. This is, of course, a choice.


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George Will — George Will is a Pulitzer Prize–winning syndicated columnist. His email address is georgewill@washpost.com.

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