Don’t Be Diverted To Sesame Street
By A.D. Freudenheim  

19 June 2005

In a marvelous example of wishing for something long enough that it eventually becomes true, a number of petitions are now circulating, decrying a bill before Congress that would halve (and then eventually eliminate) funding for the Corporation for Public Broadcasting (CPB). This reduction of Federal support by $100 million, 25% of the total $400 million budget, would affect PBS (the public television network) and National Public Radio (NPR). As the urban myth researchers at note, messages to this effect have been circulating since 1995. Along with the appointment of a Republican to the chairman’s position at CPB, and a variety of other anti-public-broadcasting maneuvers, the lefties have gotten their wish: the threat to public broadcasting in the U.S. is more real than it has been in many years. Bravo! Now the left has something to rally around![1]

If you want to read my criticisms of PBS and NPR, keep going. If you are more interested in my analysis of why you, dear reader, should think carefully before signing a petition about this issue, or before you write your Congressional representatives, click here to skip down.


Whatever public broadcasting was originally intended to be, it has not been that in a long time. It has been invaluable to the American Left, promoting tolerance, diversity, and multi-cultural understanding (generally good things, despite the loaded nature of those words), along with presenting left-wing perspectives on the news within the United States and around the world (good for those who like it, less so for those who do not). But PBS and NPR have not really been “public” in a long time; who knows what that word was intended to mean, but they certainly do not operate like “cable access” channels across the country, giving “the public” an opportunity to get on the air themselves. For all practical purposes, “public” seems to mean simply “taxpayer funded.”

Like many non-profits, and particularly those in the cultural world, PBS and NPR have become increasingly corporate and increasingly commercial over the last three decades. They have become corporate in the sense of exercising restraint over what is broadcast, to ensure that stakeholders – namely, funders – are not offended, rather than determine broadcasts based on the priorities of viewers and listeners. PBS and NPR have become commercial in the sense that they run advertisements liberally (even though they do not call them that; but a revenue-generating rose by any other name would smell as sweet), and make other accommodations necessary to maintain the support of corporations and wealthy foundations. Yet, sadly, both NPR and PBS have resisted becoming commercial in the sense of their responsiveness to the marketplace, i.e., the consumer, i.e., you and me, the audience. Nor have they become corporate in the sense of recognizing that taking great risks can yield great returns, that investing in something new and challenging now can produce bountiful rewards later on – of new funders, not to mention new audiences.

PBS is definitely the worst offender. As long as 18 years ago, when I was a Deadhead high school student, my then-local PBS affiliate (WETA) would regularly broadcast old “rock” concerts by such great (but not very contemporary) stars as Simon & Garfunkel, Peter, Paul, and Mary, and The Kingston Trio ... only during fundraising drives. Four times a year, during quarterly pledge drives, these old chestnuts would be hauled out to show how hip WETA’s programming was – and then they would disappear, along with anything else that might appeal to someone between the ages of 12 and 30, until the next moment that money was needed. Of course, that example is 18 years old, but it is illustrative of the problem, one that remained firmly in place when I moved to New York in the 1990s and found the more robust New York City PBS affiliate (WNET) guilty of the same bait-and-switch tactics.

Perhaps PBS’ problem is the high cost of television production. NPR, as a radio network, has been more successful and more responsive to the interest and needs of its audiences. Lead by local stations like WNYC in New York, WBEZ in Chicago, and KCRW in Los Angeles – and probably also because of pressure from other networks like Pacifica, American Public Radio, and Public Radio International – the nature of public radio has changed, and the diversity and range of programs on public radio stations is huge. At least, huge relative to the limited public television fare.

From “This American Life” to “The Connection” to the now-departed, star-crossed “Tavis Smiley Show,” public radio has made an effort to recognize that their audience is not composed of the two monolithic groups apparently identified and sought by PBS: toddlers and small children watching “Sesame Street” and their yuppie parents, and aging grandparents watching the “The Lehrer News Hour.” Public radio has even gotten in on the recent kick for “podcasting,” with some affiliates enabling listeners to download entire shows for off-air consumption. Is PBS offering its programs over the web? No. Whatever the technological hurdles (namely, large downloads, or high bandwith connections needed for streaming video), that idea is probably still too radical. Perhaps they are worried about an illicit market springing up in traded TV shows.[2]

It is not as though “commercial” television and radio in the United States are so wonderful. Some people like the offerings, many do not – and everyone has a choice and an opportunity either to change the station or simply turn their appliances off. Commercial TV and radio have evolved, and continue to do so, because they must: because the challenges of the marketplace force change. If they do not make money, they do not stay in business. Cable television continues to threaten the major broadcast networks, but that competition has generally improved the quality of the programs offered on the four main broadcast stations. Radio, particularly radio for contemporary music, has been moribund for years, with limited playlists and increasing domination by two large corporations. It too is changing, in the face of satellite radio and other music delivery networks that offer wider programming choices and fewer advertisements.

The profit motive is not the only difference, nor is it (necessarily) the answer to the problems of public broadcasting. Perhaps the biggest split between PBS, NPR, and their for-profit cousins is about (perceived) value, and values: PBS and NPR are both earnestly trying to be good for you, whereas the commercial networks are there largely to entertain and amuse. PBS and NPR are the brussel sprouts on your dinner plate – you are supposed to eat them, regardless of how they taste – while the rest of the radio and TV universe are like the largest dessert cart your eyes and stomach have ever seen.


Here is why you should not sign a petition about the proposed budget cuts to public broadcasting – or, at the very least, think carefully before doing so: it is a trick.

This whole situation is a Republican canard, a brilliant tactic that gets all the liberals and lefties into a lather, and focused on something that has little true significance or meaning in terms of national politics, or the health and welfare of the nation. The Republicans have repeatedly lured the left into arguing that PBS and NPR do not cost much – certainly not relative to bombs and things – and therefore we should keep it. Pretty please? It’s not that expensive, really, and it makes us so happy and self-satisified.

The gambit works like a charm, every time, distracting large swaths of the anti-GOPers into signing petitions or calling and writing their representatives, over this one, single issue. I admit: I have no hard data to show that the people who respond to the soft-hearted appeals about preventing “Sesame Street” from being killed off do not also petition their representatives over changes to Social Security (more expensive, and more necessary, both now and in the future, than public broadcasting) or the war in Iraq and the lack of a clear resolution or visible end (ditto: also more expensive, and more problematic, both now and in the future, than public broadcasting) or the future face of the Supreme Court and the rest of the Federal judiciary ... or any number of other issues that are more costly or more important (or both) than the fight over public broadcasting. I have no data except what I see, which is: more people e-mailing me petition requests and other information about the threat to PBS’ funding than about any other single issue.

I think the Republican agenda for the United States is abysmal, dangerous, destructive – and all too successful. Sadly, the Democrats and other agents of the left (and even the center-left) have chosen obstruction over vision: they would rather attempt to stop all change to all programs such as Social Security, Medicare, public education, estate taxes, etc., than come up with their own set of ideas for change. Like it or not, this lack of vision is one example of why the Republicans are, generally speaking, leading the national political conversation, while the Democrats whine about it. The situation with public broadcasting is no different: there may be value in change, spurred perhaps by cuts in funding; or it may be purely destructive. The Democrats are not willing to find out, or even contemplate modifying the system. In allocating resources to “saving” these CPB funds, they not only repeat the same mistakes by presenting no vision for the future, they also draw those resources away from other, more important, battles.

“Culture” is valuable to the survival of the nation – but culture comes from each of us, all of us, and it is not, and should not be, monolithic or centrally planned. Culture is out there, across the country, represented by the artists, musicians, and performers who struggle to produce their works, by the institutions large and small that present such art and artists to us, and by the little things that every-day people do from practicing instruments in their garage to patronizing restaurants with cuisines from around the world to going to the movies. Even for conservatives, culture is a tapestry, a quilt comprised of different squares, each unique.

But: it is a lot easier to sustain culture without government support, if necessary, than it is to pick up the cost of failed health, welfare and education programs, or a failed war overseas, or poor judicial decisions that favor businesses and profits over citizens and our fundamental rights. Nor should this be a situation of mutually-exclusive decisions; Americans should be able to fight about PBS and about other things at the same time. However, it rarely works that way in the horse-trading that is American politics. So, before you take the Republicans’ bait, and engage in the battle over funding for public broadcasting: make sure you know what your real political priorities are, and act on the true priorities first.

[1] Readers may also find the essay "A Rumble on Sesame Street" of interest, or at least entertaining; by Jesse Walker, from Reason Online, 26 May 2005.
[2] PBS and affiliates do offer audio “clips” of some shows for internet-driven listening. But even the PBS technology guru Robert X. Cringely’s show “I, Cringely” does not offer any robust internet components.
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