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The Death of Big Bird?

Columnist George Will recently pointed out that the Public Broadcasting Service, which once promised creativity and diversity in programming, is now airing reruns from HBO. Will said that PBS should be weaned from the public dollar. In fact, there is a movement growing in Congress to eliminate funding for public TV and radio. A campaign to do that years ago was derailed when supporters for PBS falsely charged that this would lead to the death of Big Bird, a beloved figure for little children. 

The New York Times has now returned to this line of attack, running an editorial titled, “Ruffling Big Bird’s Feathers.” The Times warned that “the conservatives in Congress and the White House have apparently decided that independence is OK only as long as the programming doesn’t stray from their political ideology.” The Times said that “When conservatives attacked the respected Bill Moyers, labeling him a dangerous liberal, PBS offered Tucker Carlson and Paul Gigot.” That’s a reference to PBS now running shows featuring the editorial board of the Wall Street Journal, led by Paul Gigot, and Tucker Carlson, who used to fill the conservative co-host seat on CNN’s Crossfire. The Times apparently believes it’s dangerous for PBS to air shows with conservatives.

Frankly, we’re concerned as well, but for a different reason. We view such programs as an attempt to buy off conservative opposition to public TV and radio. Plus, we are opposed on principle to conservatives taking federal money. The Wall Street Journal and its rich parent company, Dow Jones, certainly don’t need it.

However, there was a bit of honesty in the Times editorial. “Let’s be direct,” said the Times. “PBS is hardly the Mount Olympus it once was. With the cable explosion, public television is no longer the only source of what was once labeled ‘educational television,’ nor of more serious-minded documentaries, cultural and current-events programming. And as ultraconservatives and bottom liners circle, PBS appears to be too accommodating in response.”

Leaving aside that gratuitous insult at the end of the editorial, the Times seems to be catching on to the truth about public TV and radio. That is, federal subsidies are no longer needed and can no longer be justified. There are just too many channels and alternatives out there.

The PBS relationship with HBO is the latest indication that PBS doesn’t have any reason to drain federal dollars out of U.S. taxpayers. Apparently concerned that running HBO reruns would itself look bad, PBS decided to help co-produce “related panel discussions to follow each film on PBS, featuring leading experts and moderated by noted journalist Jeff Greenfield?” The panel discussions are co-produced with the Council on Foreign Relations. So if you tune into PBS to see an HBO film, you also get a bonus―some talking heads. Do they really believe this will draw in the viewers?

Recognizing that PBS is running out of gas, the Times editorial came up with a last-ditch effort to pump more money into this dinosaur. The paper wants money from the eventual sale of the broadcast spectrum to establish a “trust fund” for the system. We have an alternative―terminate the subsidies and save the taxpayers some money.