Turning off PBS

Posted: Oct 12, 2003 12:00 AM

Think of how much things have changed since 1968.

Then, Arnold Schwarzenegger was a newly arrived immigrant bodybuilder. Now he’s governor-elect of California.

Then, Democrat presidential candidates ran on their opposition to the war in Vietnam. Now, Democrat presidential candidates run on their opposition to the war in Iraq.

Then, music fans listened to scratchy LPs. Now, they swap digital music files.

Then, there was government-supported public broadcasting. Now, well, there’s government-supported public broadcasting.

It’s past time for that to change.

Public television stations across the country are struggling to make ends meet. Most have laid off employees. Corporate and foundation support is declining.

The solution is simple: Privatize. Sell the stations to for-profit broadcasters. This is already happening in Orange County, California, where the managers of KOCE plan to sell.
Critics lament this could leave the county without an educational TV outlet. Back in 1968, that might have been true. Then there were only three networks. Viewer choice was extremely limited. A government-supported educational network made sense, to make television less of a “vast wasteland.”

Today, though, there are more television networks then we can count. A new cable station seems to go on the air every month or so. Many of those carry educational programming. People are clearly willing to pay to have the History Channel, A & E and other networks that carry PBS-style documentaries and children’s programming.

So with or without KOCE, viewers in Orange County won’t be uneducated. But even though they won’t have their own PBS station anymore, they’ll still be paying for it. We all are. By 2005, federal taxpayers will shell out $390 million to public broadcasting, a 30 percent increase over five years ago. Many state governments will kick in even more.

This increase is needed because fewer people than ever are donating to PBS stations. Ten years ago, some 5 million viewers made donations. Today, only about 4.3 million do. A recent report by top public television executives noted the fiscal crunch is likely to continue.
“This decline is part of a long-term, slow, downward trend, not a cyclical event,” the report said. “We face a daunting financial future that will demand very difficult choices.”

PBS is actually just a victim of market economics. For-profit stations and networks can deliver better products than a government-run network. In just one example, “Bill Nye the science guy” launched his career on a public station, but his show is now seen on Noggin, a private network owned by Viacom. Noggin also carries shows like “Play with me Sesame,” an educational show featuring the characters from PBS’ Sesame Street. And its programs are presented without commercials.

That’s actually more than can be said for many PBS programs these days. Because money is so tight, the network now allows underwriters to air 30-second ads before or after a show. The previous limit was 15 seconds. Expect the limit to get longer as public TV struggles.
Eventually, PBS stations may even have as many ads as private broadcasters do now.

On Oct. 7, PBS President Pat Mitchell wrote a letter to The Washington Post defending her network. “PBS this year was awarded more Emmys for excellence in news and documentaries, children’s programming and prime time than ever before,” she wrote. “Its Web site also is the most visited dot-org in the world, with more than 11 million page views per day.” But these aren’t arguments for continuing the existence of PBS as a government-supported entity.

Any private broadcaster would jump at the chance to air the award-winning programs if they were put up for sale. Just like Bill Nye, these shows would find homes elsewhere on the cable dial. And make PBS.org into PBS.com, and watch advertisers line up for those 11 million daily hits. Just by putting banner ads across the top of the site, it could make money and be removed from taxpayer support.

The free market works. Remember the “Checkout Channel?” Neither does anyone else, because it didn’t attract enough viewers and it folded. If it can’t survive on its own, PBS should do the same thing. In a world with hundreds of private channels, it’s time for the government to get out of the broadcasting business, for good.