Spring Big Bird from Its Gilded Cage

By Pressler, Larry | St Louis Post-Dispatch (MO), January 17, 1995 | Go to article overview

Spring Big Bird from Its Gilded Cage


Pressler, Larry, St Louis Post-Dispatch (MO)


Every time a reform initiative comes along to halt public broadcasting's dependence on federal subsidies, caricaturists can't resist portraying Big Bird as a lovable sitting duck threatened by some ruffian with a shotgun. That's cute, but it distorts the real picture.

Free-market reformers don't want to harm a feather on Big Bird. They want to liberate it from its $300 million gilded cage.

Federal subsidies always arrive with strings attached. For public television and radio, this means the costly yoke of bureaucratic management and the strain of partisan tug-of-war.

In 1967, the heyday of the Great Society expansion of federal power and spending, President Lyndon Johnson and the Democratic Congress created the mechanism for federal subsidies for broadcasting: the Corporation for Public Broadcasting. The Great Society architects of CPB built their program on a theory called "market failure." Because television then was dominated by the Big Three commercial networks with their middle-brow programming, theorists believed educational and cultural fare would never make it on the air without government support.

As the years went by, the "market failure" theory crumbled. Technological advances and loosened regulations encouraged the increase of broadcast TV stations to 1,688 today from 769 in 1967. Broadcast radio stations more than doubled to 11,725. What's more, the percentage of homes with televisions subscribing to cable TV has grown to 69 percent from 3 percent.

Cable television offers CNN, C-SPAN, Arts & Entertainment, Discovery, The Learning Channel, Bravo and many other channels offering programming comparable to public television, but without the government subsidy. The free market also has made a wealth of cultural programming available on VCRs and on personal computers - products that did not exist in 1967.

Most important, this is just the beginning of a new era of information plenty. As chairman of the Senate Commerce Committee in the new Republican Congress, I will work to pass as soon as possible a deregulation bill for the telecommunications industry. This reform would give Americans an explosion of new media outlets as telephone companies, electric utilities and other new players enter the media field.

In this new age of market freedom and innovation for the overall telecommunications industry, the system of "public" radio and television broadcasting will become less and less relevant unless we set it free from its dependence on government. …

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