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
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. …