PBS, Pay your own way

Posted: Aug 03, 2005 12:00 AM

My cable company made me a remarkable offer: They want to add a new channel to my cable subscription -- and you will pay for it. The channel will have liberal news, highbrow entertainment and a variety of educational programming.
Sounds insane, and yet the channel isn't new. It's called PBS.

 Public broadcasting is a classic example of welfare for the well-off. We PBS viewers are 44 percent more likely than other Americans to make more than $150,000 a year.

 I enjoy PBS, but it hardly seems fair that the government demands you buy it for me. If I want to see opera, I should pay for it myself. Why should you be taxed to pump "La Boheme" into my living room? It barely made sense in 1967, when most Americans only had the Big Three broadcast networks, but now there are hundreds of channels. If there's a demand for opera or BBC drama, the market will provide it.

 Not everything on PBS is for elites only, of course. The network is justly famous for programs like "Sesame Street." But popular programs are just that -- popular. That means they have other ways to get money. People already give so much money to PBS that today, it only gets 15 percent of its funds from the federal government. As David Boaz, author of "Libertarianism: A Primer," points out, businesses and nonprofits deal with 15 percent revenue losses all the time. If NPR and PBS lost all their federal money, they wouldn't disappear."

 Republicans should stop dithering about reducing the Corporation for Public Broadcasting's subsidies and eliminate them altogether. Of course, when anyone suggests cutting the PBS budget, people say, "they're trying to kill 'Sesame Street'!" But "Sesame Street" is big business and would survive in any environment. "Children's programming that has an audience does not need taxpayer subsidies," says Jacob Sullum of Reason. "Noggin, which is more 'commercial-free' than PBS stations, carries 12 hours of kids' shows (including two different versions of 'Sesame Street') every day. Parent-acceptable children's programming can also be seen on Nickelodeon, the Disney Channel and ABC Family."

   Some people, who apparently have never watched "20/20" or "60 Minutes," claim we won't have tough journalism on TV unless the public pays for it. Only PBS will do "honest" documentaries, they say, because PBS isn't dependent on corporate support. Twenty-five years ago, Ralph Nader proclaimed that consumer reporting would never appear on commercial TV. It would only thrive on public TV, he said, because commercial stations would defer to advertisers.

 Today, it's clear that Nader was totally wrong (as he is so often). PBS carries almost no consumer reporting, probably because the bureaucrats who run it are too nervous about offending anyone . By contrast, there is plenty of consumer reporting on commercial TV. I criticized my employers' most valued customers for years. For heaping abuse on the people who paid us, I was given promotions.

 Why? Because viewers want tough news -- even news hostile to big advertisers. Commercial television provides it because even if sponsors boycott, the money other sponsors are willing to spend to reach the viewers the reports attract makes up the loss. The free market serves its customers, and in the TV business, the customers are viewers.

 PBS, on the other hand, is broadcasting by bureaucracy. This is not a good thing. We should have separation of news and state. "We wouldn't want the federal government to publish a national newspaper, writes Boaz, "why should we have a government television network and a government radio network? If anything should be kept separate from government and politics, it's the news and public affairs programming that Americans watch. When government brings us the news -- with all the inevitable bias and spin -- the government is putting its thumb on the scales of democracy. It's time for that to stop."