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We Need Public TV, And Public TV Needs Government Support

NEXT time you wince at that tab-TV-style coverage of the O.J. Simpson or John Salvi trials on the commercial networks - or at those trashy miniseries that vie for ratings during ``sweeps'' weeks - save a wince or two.

You'll need them for something the new Republican congressional majority has in mind: yanking federal support from the only true alternative to that kind of junky fare - public TV.

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The federal money for those well-loved shows on local public stations - from ``Mister Rogers' Neighborhood'' to ``Baseball'' to news and documentaries - is dispensed through the Corporation for Public Broadcasting (CPB), created by Congress on 1967. The new Speaker of the House, Newt Gingrich, says he'd like to ``zero out'' CPB. Why? Because, he says, taxpayers are ``subsidizing something that tells them how to think....''

Larry Pressler (R) of South Dakota, chairman of the Senate committee that will deal with CPB funding next year, is also looking askance at federal funding. Senator Pressler said that he has stopped contributing to his local station because he's upset at ``the twist on the news from the liberal left.''

Even Ken Burns's series ``Baseball'' is suspect. The senator says he found himself watching a lot of boyhood reminiscences from too liberal a reminiscer: Mario Cuomo, then-governor of New York, who received what even ``Baseball'' fans feel may have been more than his share of the spotlight.

All this is part of another assault on the role of tax dollars for the ever-embattled public-TV schedule. The attacks occur almost every time CPB funding comes up. Although President Bush signed the 1992 bill authorizing more than $1 billion for CPB through 1996, it was only because he realized he didn't have the votes to block it. Conservative legislators used the occasion to assail programming like ``Tongues Untied,'' about the gay experience, a show that led Sen. Jesse Helms to condemn PBS on the Senate floor.

Yet PBS also gets blasted - from the other side of the aisle - for not doing enough shows like that. Last August, liberal members of Congress and some producers decried PBS's failure to feed its stations ``Red, Hot & Cool: Stolen Moments,'' a musical program promoting AIDS awareness among African-Americans.

The furor over public-TV funding comes with the territory, but this time it may be a more real threat, given the tax-cutting climate of the times. Even though CPB represents only about 15 percent of the support for public TV - the rest comes from states and private sources it is crucial. Tax dollars give producers and local stations ``leverage'' in raising dollars from other sources. And public TV's reliance on corporate underwriting needs to stop. If you you have any doubts, check those quasi-commercials that pass for ``enhanced credits'' on public stations.

Yes, some of public TV's function has been picked up by cable stations. C-Span and Cable News Network air news-related shows that parallel some programs on PBS. But such material is still sporadic and represents no substitute for the steady diet of programs on public TV. The latter depends on the kind of financial commitment possible only from a CPB that retains its key component of federal support. Private sources alone are less likely to hang in there during the multiyear effort required to create breakthrough shows like ``Sesame Street.''

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Smaller public outlets, especially in rural areas, depend more heavily on CPB funds than powerhouse stations like Boston's WGBH or New York's WNET. Without CPB, these smaller operations might well fold, and the bigger ones would be badly undermined. And more than one-third of TV homes in the United States still don't get cable. Many of these are the same low-income homes that some analysts fear will be bypassed by that new information superhighway, which some conservatives point to as making federally funded public TV unnecessary.

Not just bypassed homes, but all viewers still need public TV; right now there's nothing else out there that's doing the job.

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