What public broadcasting is and isn't

Posted: Jul 01, 2005 12:00 AM

The House of Representatives restored the proposed budget cuts that PBS' defenders claimed would "destroy" it. So PBS has been saved. Who can contain their excitement?

Of course, the debate over PBS was enormously silly, but let's leave up the party streamers anyway.

Now, I must disclose a bit here. I worked in the back alleys of PBS for about a half-dozen years. I produced a weekly television show and several documentaries, and I was involved on the business side of things quite a bit. I've attended annual meetings and conferences. In short, I know a little bit about public television.

And . it's liberal. It just is. To say it isn't is just plain batty. The shows we associate most with PBS are run by liberals - some of them great journalists and some of them miserable partisan hacks - and they tend to tackle questions from a liberal perspective. The people who run PBS are liberals. The decision-makers are liberals, and - contrary to funhouse logic of PBS's left-wing critics - the fact that these executives sometimes opt to put conservatives on the air doesn't change that fact. It might mean, as some leftist critics claim, that PBS execs don't have the courage of their convictions. Or it might just mean that they're trying to make the network more balanced and respond to a perceived need.

Whatever. But don't tell me the Volvos in the PBS parking lot with bumper stickers reading "God is coming . and she's pissed!" are really closet conservatives. It just won't wash. In fact, just last week I caught a biographical documentary about the late Communist stooge Henry Wallace that was so over the top in its praise, I thought it would end with him riding Pegasus through the clouds.

That said, conservatives who think the regular fare on PBS is crazy left-wing stuff overstate the case. Typical PBS programming involves breathless suburbanites dreaming that grandpa's old footlocker might actually be the Ark of the Covenant on "Antiques Roadshow." Yes, Bill Moyers is a disingenuous lefty, but Gwen Ifill and Jim Lehrer try to play it fair. And it isn't a conservative-free zone.

The liberal-conservative thing, however, is a sideshow. Public television was created to help poor people, educate young people, and to promote diversity on TV. Today, the average PBS viewer is in his late 50s. Somewhere around two-thirds of the poor have cable or satellite TV. Even more have DVD or VCR players. When PBS was created in 1967, it increased the number of television stations by 25  percent. Today PBS stations constitute a rounding error among the choices available to most consumers.

More relevant, with the obvious exception of "Sesame Street," the target audience for PBS isn't remotely the poor. It's the well-to-do. Yes, some poor folks enjoy symphonies and entire shows dedicated to shiitake mushrooms and fennel. I have no doubt that there's some lunch bucket Joe who races home after clearing roadkill all day just to catch "Washington Week in Review." But, come on, who're we kidding?

And that's the great irony of the restored PBS budget cuts. Because budget rules said the money had to come from somewhere, Congress raided social programs for the poor to give Big Bird back his $100 million.

Which brings up another bogus argument. When public broadcasting's integrity is attacked, the PBSers harrumph that government money is only a tiny fraction of their budgets. But, they say without taking a breath, if you take even one penny of it away, it will destroy us.

Or consider PBS' glorious status as "commercial free" programming. The sponsors I used to dun for cash must do a spit-take every time they hear this. PBS is not only chock-a-block with ads - they merely appear before and after, but not during, most programs - but some shows are actual commercials. The cooking shows - dozens of them - are infomercials for cookbooks and delicately placed products. Even the best documentaries (and there are some great ones) are shrewdly packaged as part of a larger marketing campaign to move all sorts of swag, from coffee table books to CDs. And if you think "Sesame Street" is pure, you haven't seen my daughter's diapers (or her cups, plates, band-aids, stuffed toys, etc.).

It should also be noted that in terms of fulfilling one of PBS' original mandates of informing the public about its own government, C-Span eats public broadcasting's lunch every day - and it's as commercial free as it gets.

Now, I know it doesn't sound like it, but I've actually mellowed on PBS. I watch it often, and I think it does a lot of great work. It's entirely possible that if we stopped funding it, it would become much worse in quality - and, almost surely, in political bias.

So here's a thought. Let's be honest about what PBS is and isn't. It ain't what they say it is, but that doesn't mean it's necessarily bad. If I am a plumber but I pretend to be a banker, I'm a faker. But that doesn't mean there's anything wrong with being a plumber. The next time we have this debate, maybe PBS's defenders could admit what it is. Then we could decide if we want it.