The recent spat about Buster, PBS' cartoon rabbit, visiting two lesbian parents quickly became a second spat about the Education Department's threat to stop financing Buster. But a third spat should have been about why the Education Department (a fourth spat: Is that department necessary?) is paying for any of Buster's adventures. Is there a desperate shortage of television cartoons? Is Buster to other cartoons as Beethoven is to Bon Jovi?
Public television, its supporters say, is especially important for poor people who cannot afford cable or satellite television. But 62 percent of poor households have cable or satellite television and 78 percent have a VCR or DVD player.
Public television is akin to the body politic's appendix: It is vestigial, purposeless and occasionally troublesome. Of the two arguments for it, one is impervious to refutation and the other refutes itself.
The impervious argument is: The small size of the audiences for most of public television's programming proves how necessary public television is. The big networks gather big audiences by catering to vulgar cultural tastes, leaving the refined minority an orphan, because any demand the private market satisfies must be tacky.
The self-refuting argument is: Big Bird. Never mind that the average age of PBS viewers is 58. ``Sesame Street'' -- see how its merchandise sells, and Barney's, too -- supposedly proves that public television can find mass audiences.
But the refined minority, as it sees itself, now has ample television choices for the rare moments when it is not rereading Proust. And successes such as ``Sesame Street'' could easily find private, taxpaying broadcast entities to sell them.
President Johnson, no slouch at the ``progressive" rhetoric of platitudinous gush, said the prospect of public television should fill Americans with ``the same awe and wonderment" that caused Samuel Morse, when he successfully tested his telegraph, to exclaim, ``What hath God wrought?" But by 2002 PBS president Pat Mitchell was warning: ``We are dangerously close in our overall prime-time numbers to falling below the relevance quotient."
Public television's survival, with no remaining rationale, should fill students of government with awe, wonderment and melancholy. Would it vanish without the 15 percent of its revenues it gets from government? Let's find out.