Mathis: Big Bird, public broadcasting provide a public good
If PBS loses its federal funding tomorrow, you won’t have to mourn for Big Bird. “Sesame Street” is a popular brand, and it will certainly find a home in the private sector if there is no more public television to host it.
The problem is this: Sometimes, the private sector ruins and taints good things.
That’s true even in the television industry. Fearful PBS supporters this week have been reminding the public of the history of TLC, the popular cable channel. It was started in 1972 as a federal service, offering educational programs about science, nature, history and current events — and then was privatized in 1980. These days, the channel is best known as the home of “Here Comes Honey Boo Boo,” a piece of programming that offers plenty of evidence that American culture is in free fall.
We’d be better off with the nature documentaries.
It’s important to note, too, that Romney’s budget ax wouldn’t just fall on PBS. Romney is taking aim at the entirety of the Corporation for Public Broadcasting. That, in turn, means NPR is in danger — as are many rural communities where NPR is the best (and often only) source of news and important information on the radio dial.
The CPB’s 2012 budget? $445 million. You could buy a single F-22 fighter for that amount of money, with some change left over for spare parts, pilot training and fuel. Slicing public broadcasting out of the budget won’t make any meaningful difference in the country’s deficits or debts — but it will make a huge difference in Americans’ ability to understand the who, what, why and where of their own country. Public broadcasting is a public good, period.
Big Bird will survive privatization. Other smart, essential broadcast programming won’t. When you enter the polling booth in November, be careful you don’t accidentally vote for Honey Boo Boo.
Joel Mathis is a writer in Philadelphia.