Thursday, April 6, 2017

ICYMI: My C-J Column on Cutting Federal Funds for Public Radio, TV

I actually like some of the content on PBS and would happily subscribe to watch Downton Abbey. Here's my column, reprinted with permission of the Courier-Journal.

There are a lot of things that poor people cannot afford. That’s why we need economic policies to allow people who want to work hard to escape poverty — not policies to make poverty more comfortable.

Nightmare on Elm Street is not a film one associates with public broadcasting and as best I am aware, it has never aired on that august network. Yet its villain, Freddy Krueger, is an apt mascot for the Corporation for Public Broadcasting (CPB):  Both survive despite repeated attempts to kill them.
Many Republican presidents and presidential candidates have called to end federal support of public broadcasting since President Lyndon Johnson established it fifty years ago. The Trump administration’s proposed budget would end public funding for PBS and NPR.
It’s true that PBS has broadcast some wonderful programs over the years. I grew up watching Zoom and Masterpiece Theater. More recently, I watched every episode of Downton Abbey.
The success of shows like Downton Abby, however, demonstrate why federal tax dollars need no longer subsidize PBS, and its radio equivalent, NPR. Downton Abbey’s popularity was so immense that it could have charged a subscription. Further, each episode was preceded by tony infomercials for Viking Cruises or Ralph Lauren. The airing of Downton Abbey could have been funded with additional advertising.
When PBS was established in the late 1960’s, the public was generally limited to the three major networks. PBS added a fourth choice. Because these networks were broadcast over a finite spectrum, we could not have the hundreds of channels that cable offers.


PBS was intended to provide programming that could not be found elsewhere. With so many avenues to air content today, it is inconceivable that some other network or channel would have failed to pick up a show like Downton Abbey; it would have been shown with or without PBS. Just as HBO now airs Sesame Street. Netflix likewise has tapped into the love for Downton Abbey by producing original series such as The Crown.
When Julia Child taught Americans how to make beef bourguignon on PBS, it was groundbreaking television. Now we have entire cable channels devoted to the culinary arts. PBS may have discovered Julia Child, but cable replicated the success of the French Chef with a new generation of celebrity chefs.
The free market has taken the best of PBS and not only emulated it but democratized it to serve a broader array of tastes.
Public Broadcasting was predicated on the anti-capitalist and elitist assumption that we need bureaucrats to select programming that is good for us, that will educate us and refine our sensibilities.
Technology, however, has made the public broadcasting model obsolete. Given today’s proliferation of cable channels, plus streaming from services like Netflix and Amazon, the market can provide content that formerly came from PBS.
Fifty years ago, it made sense for the government to subsidize radio and television stations for rural areas that would otherwise not have a station. Now those customers are moving online to download content. Even remote areas are finally getting high-speed internet service, which will lead to more educational and entertainment options than public broadcasting ever could provide. That’s a better use of federal tax dollars than funding the CPB.
Some will argue that poor people cannot afford cable or the internet and their children will be disadvantaged if they cannot watch PBS.  Although Sesame Street teaches pre-school skills, so do many books available for free at the library. There are a lot of things that poor people cannot afford. That’s why we need economic policies to allow people who want to work hard to escape poverty — not policies to make poverty more comfortable.
The federal government spends $445 million a year on public broadcasting. That’s 0.01 percent of the federal budget. As a portion of the federal budget, it’s a pittance. The same argument was made about earmarks: It’s not much money, so why bother eliminating them.
That’s the wrong way to think about the federal budget. The first question should be whether the budget item is so important to America that we should borrow the money from China to pay for it. The second question should be whether the budget item is an appropriate role for government — something that the private sector cannot or will not do instead of (or even better than) the government. Public broadcasting fails these tests.
But given that federal support of the CPB constitutes less than seven percent of PBS’s budget and less than one percent of NPR’s budget, these organizations should be able to survive without federal funding. Perhaps all those threats of cuts over the years have weaned the CPB from reliance on federal tax dollars.
Those who don’t mind paying a portion of their taxes to the CPB can donate to it. Hopefully, upcoming tax cuts will free up money for all of us to make donations wherever we see fit. Or buy more polo shirts and take more cruises to fund the CPB the American way: through advertising.

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