Big Bird Goes Cold Turkey: Public Broadcasting Can Flourish without Government Subsidies

By Jarvik, Laurence | Policy Review, Spring 1995 | Go to article overview
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Big Bird Goes Cold Turkey: Public Broadcasting Can Flourish without Government Subsidies

Jarvik, Laurence, Policy Review

When Bell Atlantic Chairman Ray Smith offered to help Congress find alternative sources of money to replace federal funding of public-television broadcasting, PBS supporters protested en masse. And when Jones Intercable--which already distributes adult-education courses through its Mind Extension University--offered to take over programming for PBS, the cries of outrage grew louder. Public broadcasting, which has always presented itself as an impoverished charity case throughout years of on-air beg-a-thons, was suddenly described by PBS president Ervin Duggan as a valuable business enterprise that should not be "sold off for scrap."

A similar contradiction surfaced when House Speaker Newt Gingrich (R-GA) first announced on National Empowerment Television (which receives no tax money) that he'd like to "zero out" federal subsidies for the Corporation for Public Broadcasting. Lobbyists attacked him for wanting to "kill" public broadcasting. This same lobby counters criticism of its reliance on tax money by pointing out that the federal share of its revenue was only 14 percent of the total.

The conflicting arguments of public-television advocates against the privatization of the industry illuminate the broad contours of the debate: Congress is now debating proposed cuts in appropriations for public broadcasting of 15 percent for 1996 and 30 percent for 1997. But the issue is about more than just $285.6 million in tax money; it is also about the role and reach of the federal government and an elitist culture determined to manipulate it for its own purposes:


Public broadcasters maintain that the federal share of their income is sacrosanct, the "seed money," and quite unlike the remaining 86 percent that comes from other sources. But, in fact, the federal matching formulas work precisely in the opposite manner. It is the non-federal money which is the "seed money" for public broadcasting, as anyone who has ever watched a pledge-week special will recognize. The federal government offers to match the amount of private funds each station succeeds in raising. This is the reason large urban stations with wealthy viewerships perversely receive more money from the Corporation for Public Broadcasting than do small, rural stations. It all prompts the question: Why are CPB advocates so certain the rest of their income could not be generated outside of federal coffers?

It was a curious thing to watch this hostility to businessmen displayed by representatives of an institution that usually, at least in public, sings honeyed praises of "public-private partnership." These same elites point to the many Fortune 500 corporations that enjoy enhanced prestige through their association with PBS: General Motors, Mobil, Exxon, GTE, New York Life, and Ford Motor Co.

Indeed, private-sector benefactors who offered to raise money for the educational broadcasting system were described by Frank Rich, a columnist for the New York Times, not as generous philanthropists, but rather as "circling vultures." The privatization that had once been described as impossible is now denounced as being all too likely.

The availability of private funding sources reveals that the fundamental issues are ideological and not financial. Proponents of federal support for public broadcasting want the government to be involved because they dislike private enterprise. They claim to fear the "trash" that a market-based broadcasting system could produce. They say they want to make television "safe for kids."

What they dislike, however, is not poor-quality programming, but the very idea of the market. If it were the former, then how can PBS justify Tales of the City, a campy soap opera; Tongues Untied, which was both crude and lewd; Frontline's Death of a Playboy Centerfold and Death of a Porn Queen, subjects more suitable to tabloid television; and Yanni: Live at the Acropolis, which some might consider of doubtful value?

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Big Bird Goes Cold Turkey: Public Broadcasting Can Flourish without Government Subsidies


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